The Odyssey of Crossing Oceans

By Staff Reporter Time of article published Jun 26, 2021

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Most people in their mid-90s slow down, spend time with family, and especially grandchildren if there are any, and generally, live life at a more leisurely pace.

Not Dr Zuleikha Mayat: cultural and social activist, philanthropist, recipient of an honorary doctorate from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, author of many books, including the best-selling Indian Delights, which has been in continuous print since the first edition was published in 1961, mother of three children, grandmother, and great-grandmother.

While delighting in being with her family and visiting the Durban Botanic Gardens, Mayat continues to be active in the Women’s Cultural Group she helped found in 1954, and to serve as its esteemed Lifelong Honorary President. Last year, she shrugged off a potentially fatal episode of Covid-19 as a non-event.

Beginning with writing a column in the 1950s in Indian Views called “Fahmida’s World”, Mayat’s considerable literary output has included various adapted versions of Indian Delights, Quranic Lights, History of Muslims of Gujarat, Nanima’s Chest, and A Treasure Trove of Memories on life in the town of Potchefstroom, where she was born in 1926.

In 2009, there was the edited collection Dear Ahmedbhai, Dear Zuleikhabehn: The letters of Zuleikha Mayat and Ahmed Kathrada 1979-1989, based on 75 letters exchanged between Robben Island political prisoner Ahmed Kathrada and Mayat covering culture, politics, and religion.

Fortunate to travel to more than 50 countries with her late husband, gynaecologist, and pioneering founder of Shifa Hospital, MGH Mayat, Journeys of Binte Batuti in 2015 documented her travels and experiences with food in about 20 countries.

Now, on the eve of turning 95, comes a new book, The Odyssey of Crossing Oceans. An enthralling expansive narrative by a consummate storyteller, the book spans pioneering maritime and land odysseys over a 1500-year period from Arabia to Malabar, then to Gujarat in India, and eventually, to South Africa.

Drawing on various sources, not least on her immensely fertile imagination when facts are elusive, The Odyssey of Crossing Oceans continues a wonderful tradition of animating and honouring the unsung heroes and heroines who in myriad ways made and remade themselves and the world around them. She is wont to remind readers that “it is people who make history, historians only record their perspective of it”.

Fact and fiction, conjecture and speculation, local, regional, transnational, personal, and communal histories, and the experiences of migrants are all woven together beautifully in a compelling narrative.

The Odyssey of Crossing Oceans records the spread of Islam and trade from western Arabia, across India, and down through the Indian Ocean to southern Africa, the interaction between traders and local leaders in India who became Muslim, and Islam’s role across the Indian Ocean.

On the heels of the indentured workers who arrived in 1860 to work on the sugar plantations of the British colony of Natal came “free” or “passenger” Indians. This late 19th and early 20th-century interregional movement of capital and labour laid the basis for South Africa’s Indian population.

The migratory trade networks and transmission of people, products, and the cultural, religious, and trade practices in new settings are narrated through family histories that bring to life the stories and struggles of real people.

Those hailing from Gujarat in north-west India – known as Gujaratis – initially lived transnational lives; it was sometimes decades before South Africa became “home”. Some Indians created sizeable businesses, but most new migrants were either indentured labourers and workers or engaged in hawking and other small trades in the service of diverse clientele. All contributed to forging the economic, political, social, and cultural foundations of South African society.

Mayat notes that her 2008 History of Muslims of Gujarat enjoyed wide acclaim from young and old, and suggested to her that humans have a thirst to know their roots. Ever since, she toyed with the idea of a book on the people who originated in Arabia, moved to India, and over time, made their way to Gujarat ‒ a history experienced by those who endured, and not one penned by outsiders. Family and friends responded: “Well, get on with it.”

Tracing the experiences of different families, the book shows the determination of immigrant people intent on making a success of their lives and contributing to their new country. The brutality of apartheid forced long-settled residents to ponder whether they should fight apartheid or relocate to more dignified lives elsewhere. The majority elected to stay and fight; a few left for other countries.

Mayat believes it is vital for people to know their historical origins, the ups and downs of predecessors, and how the present was forged through sacrifices and struggles. She says that unless the roots are strongly embedded, the saplings cannot survive the trials, tribulations, and realities of life.

For her, all life is a steady movement and history is an attempt to record that movement. Much of the history of colonised people, she says, has been obliterated, maligned, and obscured. The heirs of rich heritages were force-fed Western colonialist literature and began to imbibe the distortion and trivialising of their past. Those who insist on a new de-colonial approach to history and other disciplines and call for decentering western approaches to knowledge, knowing, and writing will readily agree with her.

Truth, Mayat insists, cannot remain hidden forever. Knowledge gleaned from oral histories and recovered from other sources must resound through our minds, among families, within institutions, and around the world. Youth must treasure their rich heritage ‒ which includes a strong work ethic and caring for each other and for others.

Great wisdom in a world in which the rich and powerful rule with impunity, oblivious to the needs of others, and in which greed, corruption, bribery, and crass materialism run rampant.

  • The Odyssey of Crossing Oceans
  • Saleem Badat is research professor in humanities at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). He is the former vice-chancellor of the university currently called Rhodes. Goolam Vahed is professor of history at UKZN.

The Independent on Saturday

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