A story about birthdays and litanies and how traditions die out…
It was Auntie Lêga’s birthday this weekend. It was her 80th celebration. Seven kids (minus one who had passed on), 20 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren in addition to extended family and friends flooded the house of her son, Ismail, to mark this amazing milestone. A huge tent with rows of trestles had been set up in the backyard to accommodate all the guests.
Auntie Lêga (short for Saliega, or the pious one) had called me weeks earlier and then every consequent week to secure my attendance at this event. Then, for good measure, a final call a night before the actual event. I was going to attend anyway as Auntie Lêga is the only aunt that my spouse, Sadia, has living in Johannesburg.
But Lêga was not taking any chances. She had called up a friend who could write down a speech that she wanted me to read to those attending which has become my function at family occasions. It was a touching note thanking sons and daughters, their spouses and their kids for putting up with her and their efforts for making her 80th a special occasion.
And what an occasion! Prawn curry, leg of lamb, wonderfully flavoured chicken, dhal, a brinjal dish… And that’s just what I had on my plate. The dessert required a good few paragraphs all of their own.
In the back room, on the floor with blankets and bedsheets, the Gadat Jamaat started the occasion by reciting a spiritual litany that was over 300 years old. I looked around the room and realised that I was witnessing a community tradition that could actually be dying out. The only ones able to still recite along to the Gadat were those from my generation and older.
The younger ones were there, on the floor sitting cross-legged, either out of respect or one of their parents had instructed them saying, “Get yourselves into that room and don’t embarrass me!” And perhaps in response to the youngsters rolling their eyes the parent added, “I don’t care if you don’t know the Gadat, just go sit there!” So they sat there, listening to a cultural symphony, that made no sense to them at all.
There was a time when the Gadat would be a regular feature in the cultural life of a young Muslim growing up in South Africa. Well, ok, largely in the Cape and wherever there were communities who had roots in the Cape. Every Thursday evening, birthdays, funerals and memorials for the deceased would be commemorated with Ratibul Ḥaddad or, literally, The Collection of the Ironsmith which is the family name of Imam Abdullah ibn Alawi al-Ḥaddad who wrote the litany in 1661 when he was 27 years old.
When it was brought to the Cape, most likely by Tuan Guru in the late 1700s, the Gadat took on a colour all of its own. But not just a colour… also a fragrance, a sound and a taste unique to this rhythmic and melodic litany. The colour and taste came from the sweet treats (biscuits, koesisters, bollas) baked and fried by the family hosting the Gadat. This would become the contents for a little gift package (or barakat) that you would get when you leave the gathering.
More often than not, it was the women of the house who would prepare these treats. But that would not be the only taste they would contribute. They also conjured up the Gadat’s own, unique drink: The Gadat Melk. Just as the litany would wind down, participants would be given a tiny glass of this milk drink prepared with cinnamon, cardamon and sweetened with sugar.
No Gadat would be complete either without the burning of incense that would become so synonymous with the event that when incense is burnt on its own, it almost seems lonely. And so, by flooding all the senses, the women in the community had ensured that the Gadat would become a special occasion that all in the community would anticipate with longing. Everyone would participate, and the Gadat (because of its musicality and careful construction) helped in making the memorisation of prayers, of Qur’anic scripture and the Names of God that much easier.
But as time passes, traditions change. Now, at Auntie Lêga’s 80th celebration, my kids do not know how to make Gadat. They can see it on YouTube, download a PDF version of the text with translation from the internet, but the colour, the taste, the fragrance, the sound and touch of this old tradition has become like an old relative with dementia. They can hear her, but they can’t make sense of what she is saying. She might as well be speaking in tongues.
But not Auntie Lêga. On her 80th she is as alert, as funny and as spritely as ever. She’s not happy, for example, that someone promised to bring her Lindt chocolate for her birthday and then forgot! Saliega is half the height of her son, but with a warmth and generosity that is larger than life. And she has ensured that those attributes are now a central tradition in her large family. Right down to the 11 great-grandchildren.
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