Karen van Rooyen
THERE once was an elderly woman named Ragma Davids who told the story of a Malaysian king, banished to South Africa.
The king was her forefather and this was the true story of how that event tied in with the first Malay Muslims arriving in Nelson Mandela Bay.
Years later, the task of telling this story has fallen on Ragma’s grandson, Imam Behardien Jappie – the 12th Imam to head up the Grace Street Mosque in Port Elizabeth’s CBD – and a direct descendant, through his mother, of Sultan Nabier, the Kuala Lampur-born ruler of Macassar, Java and Riyah Sitta Riyah.
“This is a story that we grew up with. I vividly remember my grandmother Ragma telling us this story,” Jappie says in the living area of his spacious Summerstrand home.
The story goes back at least seven generations and more than 350 years. In 1652, Jan van Riebeeck arrived in South Africa and the Dutch East India Company brought with them slaves, political exiles and members of the royal family from Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries. Although the date of his arrival is not known, the Sultan was among them.
Jappie recalls his grandmother telling them how, when the king and his entourage boarded ships to bring them to South Africa, they were forced to leave any personal documentation, religious literature and identification in drums next to the gangplanks.
Initially the Malays settled in Cape Town, home to the majority of Malays in South Africa – the biggest Malay community outside Malaysia. Part of this community left Cape Town to settle elsewhere and the pioneer of the Malay community in Uitenhage was Imam Jabaarudien, also known as Abdul Maalick or Jan Bardien.
Born in 1784, Bardien was the grandson of Sultan Nabier, and he arrived in Uitenhage in 1815 and built the first mosque there, Masjid-Al-Qudama, in the 1840s. Bardien was also Ragma’s grandfather.
“My grandfather used to tell me how they travelled through the night by ox-wagon on a Thursday to go to Friday prayers at the mosque,” Jappie says.
In 1855, the Grace Street Mosque (Masjied-Ul-Akbar) was built and a long line of Jappie‘s’ relatives – six of the 12 to serve at Grace Street – served as Imam, among them Jappie’s great-grandfather, grandfather, uncle and father. In 1982, he was elected the Imam of the quaint mosque and will celebrate his 30th anniversary in the position next year.
Jappie’s family lived in South End until, when he was 20, his mother received a letter informing them they had to move within three weeks. It is a part of his history Jappie would rather forget and he becomes emotional as he remembers how families were driven out of the area, tears filling his eyes as he wrings his hands.
“It was a very sad day for us. You didn’t know where you were going to. They just loaded the furniture in and took it to Gelvandale … It was very traumatic for us. We weren’t used to any other life.”
Asked whether he thinks the Sultan would have experienced what he experienced then, Jappie becomes quiet: “It was even worse for us. They knew what they were coming to. My father couldn’t take it, he had a stroke. My grandmother was also very devastated, she died not long after.
“I’ve never been to the South End Museum, I can’t do it. I don’t want to be reminded of these things … ”
While he has not been able to forgive those who forced him out of his home and community, there has been some retribution – 10 years ago Jappie, a building contractor whose grandfather helped build the Campanile, was able to move into an affluent suburb.
“I feel that at least I have achieved something in life, that Allah has given me my dignity back. I thank Allah. I didn’t ever dream I would one day be a resident in Summerstrand and be able to call my neighbour on his first name and not baas.”
Religion has always been an integral part of their lives, especially considering their forefathers were punished for practising Islam.
“I will not trade SA for any other place but it is my yearning, before I close my eyes, to go back there (to Malaysia),” Jappie said.