Rayda Jacob’s The Slave Book was first published in Cape Town in 1998 by Kwela Books, an imprint of NB Publishers. I was endeared towards Ms Jacobs after watching her film adaptation of her own novel, Confessions of Gambler, a few years ago. Before beginning my reading of The Slave Book I returned to an earlier debate over the awarding of a writing scholarship to the late Andre Brink. The fruits of that scholarship are now well-known. It produced the MAN Booker-listed Philida. Today, my argument remains the same. Brink was already a prominent literary personality, some would say a legend. My argument never questions the undoubted literary craftsmanship of Professor Brink. What, I ask again, is the purpose of a scholarship? It affords a new writer with above average talent and great promise the opportunity to produce an opus free in the knowledge that he, or she, does not need to be concerned about material matters.
The awarding of a scholarship is equivalent to any good writer who has qualified to do a Masters or Doctorate in Creative Writing, say. After reading The Slave Book, I asked myself whether Ms Jacobs would be a more worthy recipient of this scholarship. Culturally, she may have been. At this stage, I do not know whether she did apply for this scholarship offered by the University of the Western Cape. But, perhaps literary excellence was always the primary motif and Brink’s Philida, also published by NB Publishers, testifies to this. But, this also takes nothing away from Rayda Jacobs and her narrative interpretation of the history of slavery in the Western Cape. The central point of The Slave Book always remains the pivotal date of December, 1834, when the promise of freedom is given to all slaves of the Cape of Good Hope.
Before the novel begins, Ms Jacobs acknowledges in some detail those who contributed towards her research. I wonder if this was necessary, but much like Brink did throughout his career, it is laudable. What intrigued me about Jacob’s narrative was her own cultural heritage and perspectives as a woman writer. Slavery, still practised today, is grim enough, but Jacobs steers away from descriptions of the harsh, physical treatment meted out to both indigenous and indentured slaves by their oppressors, particularly the Afrikaners. Instead, she focusses on the psychology of it all and how relationships, particularly between the so-called baster (mixed-race) Harman and the Mahometan (Muslim) slave girl, Somiela, are affected by the oppression of slavery and racism. Religion is not spared either, and who better than a Muslim writer – Rayda Jacobs – to tell this story.
The debate surrounding religion is focussed on the sociological consequences of marriage which does not observe the dogmatic conventions of religious traditions and customs. It is always a good argument, and many enlightened spiritualists – including the story’s protagonist, Harman – will propagate that it does not matter which religion we inherit, because we are still serving the same God. A conservative reader may frown upon the comparisons drawn between the two religions portrayed in The Slave Book, but as Ms Jacob’s research has revealed, the Muslim faith was far more amenable than the Dutch Reformed practices of the Boers. Indeed, the Afrikaners’ version of Christianity is formed through a long history of colonial arguments in favour of racial supremacy.
The Muslims of the Cape do not have this history, but what they do have is the belief that their religion is pure and should not be tainted through other influences. What many Christians of today may not know is that much of what the Qu’ran teaches and many of the pious devotional practices of Muslims have at some point or another since its foundation been appropriated from the earlier Christian and Judaic teachings handed down since Abraham.
I enjoyed the textures of colour, taste and smell which are blended into the narrative. It serves as a beautiful metaphor for those who are able to experience life beyond racial, cultural and religious boundaries, no matter how difficult it remains. Traditional dress and cooking lightens the burdens of slavery, but never erases it. The landscape is familiar to any reader from Cape Town, but is sufficiently descriptive for the foreign reader. Either way, we are never far from the hearts and minds of the characters, even the villainous Andries who is stereotypically characterised as the arch-oppressor who inevitably provokes the conflicts between master and slave. In Cape Town, we could very well describe The Slave Book as a mixed bredie of characterisation, plot and story. While Harman and Somiela must always be our hero and heroine, we must also be aware of the supporting characters’ interpretations and emotions of life in the Cape during the eighteen-thirties.
It is a great pity that I began my reading of Rayda Jacobs with The Slave Book, only learning afterwards that it is part of a trilogy. The Slave Book follows Ms Jacob’s first novel, Eyes of the Sky. The trilogy is concluded with Sachs Street. Pity? No matter. Curiosity got the better of me. I found Eyes of the Sky in my library the other day. I also found Joonie and Confessions of a Gambler – both movie and novel. My introduction to Ms Jacobs’ work began a few years ago when I saw her independent and thought-provoking film which she co-produced. She also wrote the screenplay and directed the show. And what a show it was! Even while watching it for the third time, I remained absorbed in this story about a Cape Muslim woman dealing with the crisis of losing her younger, gay son to HIV/Aids, dealing with her past and facing up to the consequences of depression. I enjoyed the visual presentations of the Muslim practices of prayer and the cleansing and burial rituals of the deceased.
Confessions of a Gambler is an engaging and enlightening encounter for the first-time viewer, or reader. It offers an honest interpretation of what it means to be a devout Muslim in the truest sense of the word. For those who are not Muslim, Ms Jacobs’ work should also address the unfortunate ignorance of this religion. It has many spiritual and physical benefits for the devotee when it is practised in accordance with the teachings of the Prophet, Peace Be Upon Him.