My friend Philomène has been working toward yesterday’s book launch for a long time. Like many Christians, she has struggled with the Old Testament. How does one reconcile this sometimes capricious and harsh image of God with the contrasting image from the New Testament? At the same time, she noted that the Old Testament is the shared element that groups Muslims, Jews, and Christians together as the “People of the Book.” She authored The Widening of the Womb and Other Stories as her attempt to sound the voices of women and men from the Old Testament. Yesterday was her launch party for the new book.
Since I am still without a car, I opted for a morning taxi into downtown. Because Cape Town was hosting a rugby sevens tournament, the N1 road had become a parking lot. Instead of appearing at 10:30, my cab arrived at 11:15 AM. The ride into the city bowl was gorgeous as we curled around the base of Devil’s Peak. Once I had been dropped in the Parliament district, I took a walk, scouting for a later photography visit. I was delighted by the greens of the Company’s Garden. The pedestrian-friendly market areas North of Parliament were fun, as well. I also want to visit the Castle of Good Hope, now inland by several blocks due to reclaimed land. I was glad to pick up a tourist map of the downtown.
The reading event took place at 6 Spin Street, a restaurant / art gallery / events space just east of Parliament. Since Philomène was preparing backstage for the event, I sat myself at the entrance to greet people as they arrived. The staff at the restaurant explained how to operate the little debit/credit card reader to aid in book sales; since I was out front, they taught me. When the event started, journalist Linda Martindale interviewed Philomène about her experience writing the book. Several friends read sections from the book (I was very happy to read for King David), and together the group read “Where is the Sound of God’s Laughter?” At the following reception, I was kept very busy as we sold more than twenty copies of the book!
Many of the people who had participated in the reading retired to the Company’s Gardens afterward. We picnicked on one of the lawns with bottles of wine and bags of potato chips. Philomène challenged each of us to compose questions that would help us get to know someone for the first time. I was proud of my contribution: “What inspires you?” Others asked, “What does it mean to take pride in your race or your gender?” Given the nature of the event, it’s unsurprising that someone asked, “What do you think of feminists?” Matters devolved considerably when someone asked, “What do you think of Jacob Zuma?” (he’s the President of South Africa, and his actions this week have raised a lot of eyebrows).
The picnic broke up as the sun set on Lion’s Head. Other groups had already left, and a couple of men who were either mentally divergent or drunk approached our group. We didn’t chase them away, though we did ask the particularly rambunctious one to quiet down so we could hear ourselves. As we left from the lawn, I saw a member of our group tying the shoe of the rambunctious fellow. We continued out of the Gardens, and when we passed a group taking wedding photos, our group produced loud ululation, celebrating the happy couple. A group of the male wedding attendants demanded that I pose for a photo with them. It all felt very joyful.
From the Company’s Gardens, we left on an odd car ride back to the restaurant where the ceremony had taken place, to a youth hostel where a relative lived, and then to the Narona Restaurant in the Observatory neighborhood (“Obs”). Here our large group demolished six very tasty pizzas (total bill: 635 rand or about $40 US) and a couple of bottles of wine we had brought with us from the reception. The conversation over those pizzas was fascinating to me. An English activist with a resume longer than my arm claimed that South Africa’s continual citation of racism to explain why things were hard in the country was holding it back; why hold onto this hate? One of the women responded very reasonably, “Shouldn’t we be the ones to decide when it’s time to stop talking about racism since we are the ones who have suffered from it?” The fellow who had earlier tied the shoe of the rambunctious man brought around another subject: why did everyone criticize the president, when he was doing what every man should do in getting what he can for his loved ones? Perhaps we should look at the economic outcomes of his decisions rather than personalizing our criticisms.
The conversation came home to me, as well. One of my new friends asked me whether I would acknowledge that the United States had actively supported the Apartheid government. My answer was fairly muddled. I replied that the United States had supported the South African Defense Force because it was obsessed with stopping Communism in neighboring states. I said that I myself knew next to nothing about South Africa until Lethal Weapon 2 was released in the United States (white South Africans were the villainous characters; the film was banned in South Africa), and I talked about my naivety when I learned that Nelson Mandela had been released from prison. I said that most Americans would be rather surprised to hear that they should take any responsibility for Apartheid policies.
After one of my new friends gave me a lift back to the campus of Tygerberg Hospital, I collapsed into bed. I felt really happy to have connected with such an interesting group of people. Today, as I continue to wrestle with the questions they raised, I find myself grateful to have such though-provoking friends. Who knows? Maybe we’ll get back together for some holiday plans!