The Grandmother of Just Girls

My mom with her granddaughter, Bilqis, on her lap. Bilqis’s cousin, Omar is standing.

I never really met my grandparents from either my mom’s side or my dad’s. I lie. I met my dad’s dad. Twice. Once in Kingsley Street in Salt River when I was about eight years old. My mom had to say to me, “This is your grandfather.”

I saw this older version of my dad in his sleeveless vest and long white underpants with three kids hanging onto him. My grandfather was short. Like my dad. And I looked at those kids stretching out his vest, my cousins who I also did not know, with envy.

The second time I saw him, I may have been twelve. He was laid out on a metal table in the lounge of the same house in Salt River, covered in white linen up to his neck. My grandfather had passed away. “Kiss your grandfather,” my mom said to me, “don’t be afraid.” I kissed him on his cold forehead and that was that.

My six other siblings were more fortunate I was. They have memories of my dad’s mom who stayed with us for a time when we lived in District Six and the older siblings have wonderful stories about my mom’s mom, Moeder (real name Zubeida), that I love listening to.

Of the two role models in my life, my dad was the more child-friendly. That’s not really accurate. Rugaya, my mom, was a woman who preferred boys over girls. She adored her four sons over her three daughters. This preference became more noticeable when the grandchildren came on the scene. Of her 27 grandkids, there are only eight boys!

My mom, God bless her soul, was also not one to disguise her displeasure or dislike for something or someone. You could often see it in her entire face no matter how hard she tried to disguise it (when she did try, which was not often). So when Sadia, my spouse, gave birth to our first born, this is how she reacted to the news when I called her in my absolute excitement.

“Mom, Sadia just gave birth!” I said.

“What is it?” she asked.

I knew exactly what she meant but said, “The child’s name will be Bilqis.”

“What type of a name is that? That’s mos an Indian name. Is that for a girl or a boy?”

“It’s a girl. Silly. My firstborn is a girl.”

“Your dad will come to the hospital,” she said and put the phone down.

My dad with Bilqis.

There is this beautiful black and white I took with my dad, Ebrahim or Breima, holding Bilqis with delight in his eyes. She sensed his warmth and smiled back. Breima was great with kids. All kids. He could sing them to sleep within seconds. A true baby whisperer. A storyteller of note and incapable of giving us a hiding. Ever.

Sometime after Bilqis’s naming ceremony or ‘doekmal’ (probably from the Afrikaans ‘doopmal’) my mom and dad came to visit us in Mountain Road in Woodstock. Not one to give my mom a break with her preference for boys, I placed Bilqis on her lap and said, “I want to take a pic of Ouma with her grandchild.” She sat with Bilqis, and about manages to make a smile.

I have no doubt that my mother loved my kids but, somehow, she was not wired to relate to other females as she was towards males. This is why most of her students (mostly female) who she taught in ritual preparation of the deceased (or toekamanie-werk) remember her as stern.

But for all her hard exterior, her students loved her. When she passed, some 500 women attended her janazah (funeral), lining the streets to give her a guard of honour as she was carried to the mosque for the funeral prayers.

When Sara-Nida, my second daughter, was born, I called my mom once more.

“Mom, Sadia has given birth to a healthy baby.” Once more I held back saying the gender.

“What is it?”

“Sara. Her name will be Sara.”

“Another girl!” she said with clear disappointment in her voice, “I’m mos already known as the grandmother of just girls…”

When Ganaan, my youngest daughter, was born, I had resigned myself to the idea that my mom was not going to change. So when Sadia became pregnant with our last, we decided to have a scan done to check the sex of the child. It was a boy! I duly informed my mom.

By the time Jauzi Hashim was born, however, my mom’s health had already taken a turn for the worst. That morning when I called her with the news, we had a heartbreaking conversation.

“Mom, Sadia gave birth!”

“Sadia gave birth?”

“Yes, it’s a boy. His name will be Jauzi.”

“Sadia can’t be due yet.”

“She was due. It’s a boy. This morning. I just saw him.”

“A boy? Whose boy?”

“My boy. Sadia just gave birth.”

“Sadia gave birth? But Sadia can’t be due yet.”

And the conversation went round and round like this for fifteen whole minutes. Her mind was beginning to fail her. She could not retain information. The best news for the granny of just girls. Her youngest son just had a son, only the second of her four sons to have this ‘honour’ and Rugaya’s memory had started to fail her.

What Sadia and I did not know is that when I initially called my mom to say that the scan had revealed that Sadia was going to give birth to a boy, she had already begun to give instructions to my sister-in-law, Zuleiga, to pack a box of baby clothes and other accessories and mail that up to us in Pretoria.

My mom passed away a month later, having never set eyes on her new grandson, the last of eight. The box of baby goodies arrived a week after that.

I am remembering all this now and thinking that all of these experiences are now inside of me. I’m a granddad for the first time. My grandson, Zahi Salman, is adorable. I too find it hard to disguise my emotions. He knows this and responds by holding onto my face when I pick him up. So when I hold him, I think to myself, “Rugaya, your granddaughter has a son. You would love him too. And he would love you no matter your stern face!”


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