Oak trees as old as the City of Gold itself heralded the entrance to Oak View Mansions where for 60 years, a close-knit community lived in the heartland of Jewish communal life within walking distance from four synagogues. The community was so symbiotic and supportive that during the festival of Sukkot to commemorate the Israelites wandering through the Sinai desert, a sukkah, large enough to accommodate the residents of all 39 flats was constructed in the Oak View Mansions gardens.
When a private developer bought the building, he gave flat dwellers the option of buying their flats or renting them until they were sold. A mass exodus followed, reminiscent for some of the tragic evacuations of ancestors throughout history. Those who were beneficiaries of the Jewish charity, Chevra Kadisha, made a sorry spectacle loading their meager belongings and numerous children into cars and bakkies for a journey to another flat rented on their behalf by the Chev.
A multicultural community
Oak View Mansions morphed into a United Nations of multicultural living as I and others from assorted cultural and faith backgrounds bought flats in the building.
Although most flats were still owned by Jewish people, and they remained the most influential community in the block, the character of the block – and of the neighbourhood – changed when the massive Masjid Ul Furqaan – was built in Houghton, a few kilometres away.
Winds of change
When owners congregated at the Norwood Chabad for the AGM, those who were sensitive enough, detected an unsettling emotional undercurrent: “The winds of change,” Vishanti Pillay, sitting beside me, whispered dolefully.
The meeting jumped from introductions to matters arising to nominations and voting at such an accelerated pace that it came as a shock when the Chairperson of the Body Corporate (the Body Cobra), was voted out of office.
He slumped in his chair, his huge frame folded over, like Humpty Dumpty after the ‘great fall’. It’s a terrible thing, I thought, to see the collapse of a man who has thrown his weight around for so many years. Even though there was no love lost between us, my heart ached for him. His Lubavitch brethren fussed around him like “all the kings men” in their black hats and tails, grey beards trailing down to their navels and Tzitziyot flapping, but there was nothing to be done. The Body Cobra was a broken man. For the first time in 65 years a non-Jew had been voted into power at Oak View Mansions.
How can you mend a broken heart?
The new chairperson, Abdullah Assad (whose name means ‘Lion’), called for a recess so that he and other Muslims, could perform their ritual prayers before sunset. He disappeared upstairs into the women’s section of the Shul followed by his systematically canvased and caucused new team. They returned after a short interval with Assad leading and the others in a straight line behind him like soldiers marching into battle, all chanting: “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is the greatest).
A notice under the door the next day explained in almost poetic language that Oak View Mansions was destined for Muslim domination. The Western world had been poisoned against the Muslim world, Assad argued, and the teachings and ideas of Islam had been consistently misrepresented. Whilst no pressure would be exerted on residents, the chairperson encouraged conversion to Islam in the interests of the harmonious running of the block. Those who converted would receive certain ‘concessions’ which would be negotiated on a one-on-one basis.
A combi-load of male residents left the property the following day with Abdullah Assad driving. At first I barely recognised him. Instead of the striped designer shirt he usually wore, he was dressed in a white kurta with gold braiding around the neck, and had a taqiyah on his head. His black beard glistened in stark contrast to the white cotton fabric and just for a second, I was reminded of a reviled dictator.
As the vehicle sped through the gate, I noticed Elijah, the rabbi’s simple-minded son, and waved. He waved back enthusiastically and then abruptly dropped his hand as if reprimanded.
A change of heart
A blank, rectangular space appeared on the door frame of Fanny Joffee’s flat. Fanny’s claim to fame was her courageous pursuit of a noisy, drunken security guard in her pajamas, at 3.00 a.m. one morning. Within days there were blank spaces on other door frames where a mezuzah had been secured for decades.
Diamonds on the soles of their shoes
Meanwhile my next-door neighbour, the Diamond Polisher Adam Koan, who was Abdullah Assad’s tenant, continued his normal daily ritual as if nothing had changed: Israeli News at top blast before sunrise and an early exit, possibly to inspect his diamonds. I met him in the passage when I took my dogs out clutching a poop scoop in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other and as usual he reached out to touch his mezuzah and placed his fingers to his lips in prayer: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD (is) our God, the LORD is One.”
My dogs barked as always.
The ‘diamonds’ arrived at all hours of day and night. They ambled, sauntered, teetered, hips and buttocks swaying on imitation Manolo stilettos; hair pieces wound into peaks or French knots or shaped into bobs or flowing in dreads; mini-skirts hugging generous curves and bulging cleavages squeezed into skin-tight, synthetic leopard-skin tops.These days, whenever I could, I slipped them a card with the number of the 24-hour helpline for sex workers.
I recognised them
I had come to recognise some of the women; to get a sense of them and feel I understood them in a non-verbal sort of way.