Cape Town is one of the world's most culturally diverse destinations, but it retains rich traces of history in the Bo-Kaap area, writes Robin Gauldie
Like all great cities, Cape Town's historic centre is really a collection of interlinked villages, each with its own character. Some of the country's wealthiest people own gracious Cape Dutch heritage homes in affluent Constantia, on the southern slopes of Table Mountain. Penguins waddle to and fro at Boulders Beach, close to the southern tip of Africa. The Victoria and Alfred Waterfront is a lively slice of rejuvenated docklands, crammed with stylish shops and open-air restaurants. But the city's most colourful neighbourhood must be the Bo-Kaap. On either side of the district's steep streets, in the shadow of Signal Hill, are two-storey houses painted in vivid colours - lime green, lemon yellow, sky blue and lipstick pink seem to be favourites. These are home to a uniquely diverse Muslim community, which has lived here for more than 300 years. Day and night, the call of the azan is heard from the minarets of the seven mosques that serve the 10,000 people from this slice of the city - just a few hundred yards from Cape Town's Central Business District. And although more and more people now speak English instead of their distinctive version of Afrikaans, you'll still be greeted by locals with the time-honoured greeting: assalaamu alaykum.
But nobody seems to know just when, and why, the householders of the Bo-Kaap began painting their homes in kaleidoscopic colours. Perhaps it's to do with South Africa's reinvention of itself as the Rainbow Nation. Certainly, after the end of apartheid, Bo-Kaapers were able to buy their own homes from the city council, so, perhaps painting them in bright colours became an expression of long-suppressed individualism and a celebration of new-found freedom?
"Maybe," says one resident. "But don't forget, when we became owners, we also had to maintain our houses on a small budget. Sometimes, people just had to use whichever paint was cheapest."
Paul Tichmann, curator of the Bo-Kaap Museum, says the colours of the houses are indeed a recent innovation that celebrates the district's Muslim identity.
"In earlier days, all the houses of Cape Town were painted white. The colours of the Bo-Kaap houses are partly linked to Ramadan and the celebration of Eid. Muslim people in the Bo-Kaap would paint their houses in preparation for the celebration of Eid, while Christian people would not," he says.
"Neighbours would often agree on what colours to use so as not to have a clash of shades."
Bo-Kaap's residents are the descendants of people brought from all over the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea in the mid-17th century, when the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company) founded Kaapstad - Cape Town - as a staging post on the way to its outposts in what is now Indonesia. Britain seized the Cape from the Dutch in 1795, and religious freedom, the abolition of the slave trade and finally, an end to slavery followed over the next four decades, allowing Malay, African, Javanese, Ceylonese and Indian Muslims to intermarry and create a distinctive Cape Malay culture. Today, the people of the Bo-Kaap prefer to be known as Cape Muslims.
"Very few of them were really from what is now Malaya," says Shireen Narkedien, who is my insider guide on this visit. "Most of them came here from east Africa, India, Sri Lanka and the Dutch East Indies." Many local women, she says, converted to Islam to marry Muslim men. "They didn't drink alcohol, so they made better husbands."
Before setting out to explore the neighbourhood, I visit the Bo-Kaap Museum, where antique, handwritten Qurans, traditional costumes, and photographs of Cape Town in the 19th and early 20th centuries are displayed in the former home of Abu Bakr Effendi, the Turkish scholar of Arabic and the Quran, who came to Cape Town in 1862 as a peacemaker between local rival factions. For me, one of the high points of the museum was its Pattern of Beauty exhibition, a remarkable selection of works of Islamic calligraphy, ceramics and textiles from Cape Town's mosques, which fluently conveys Islamic art's emphasis on harmony and balance.
Cape Muslims regard Abu Bakr as one of their community's founding fathers, but even more central to the Bo-Kaap's Islamic heritage is Imam Abdullah ibn Qadi Abd Al-Salaam. It is to the place of worship that he founded in 1797 that I head to next.
The story of the Tuan Guru (master teacher, in Cape Malay dialect) is both fascinating and moving. This proud Muslim prince and opponent of Dutch colonialism was exiled from his native island of Tidore (in the Ternate archipelago in what is now Indonesia) in 1780. For 12 years, he was held on Robben Island, which later became infamous as Nelson Mandela's place of imprisonment under the South African apartheid regime. The imam spent his prison years transcribing the Quran from memory, giving the faithful of the Bo-Kaap their first comprehensive library of Islamic texts. After his release, he founded the Auwal, South Africa's first recognised mosque, and although many more mosques now serve the people, this 216-year-old place of worship still occupies a special place in the hearts of local folk. The Tuan Guru is buried in the Bo-Kaap's Muslim cemetery, the Tana Baru, which was founded in 1840 by the Cape's imams, and is also the resting place of other founders of the community.
The Bo-Kaap's multifaceted heritage is reflected, too, in its music and dance, its festivals and its food. After sundown during Ramadan, neighbours share plates of chilli-flavoured daltjie and spicy samosas. On my tour, Shireen Narkedien introduced me to koeksisters - sticky, syrup-coated fritters that Bo-Kaap housewives cook and sell to passers-by. And at Biesmiellah (2 Upper Wale Street; 0027 21 423 0850; www.biesmiellah.co.za), I sampled authentic, fusion-kitchen treats including meltingly tender lamb in tamarind, an equally tender beef panang flavoured with the owners' secret flavouring blend, and more. Just thinking about it still makes my mouth water.
The Osmans have operated this family restaurant for two generations, and Biesmiellah is a local culinary landmark that attracts diners from all over Cape Town. Also pulling them in is the Bo Kaap Kombuis (7 August Street; 0027 21 422 5446; www.bokaapkombuis.co.za), which, as well as a smashing choice of traditionally influenced dishes, has tremendous views of the city.
The Bo-Kaap is clinging firmly to its roots, despite surging property prices that make this culturally diverse neighbourhood an attractive buy for cosmopolitan incomers.
But cross Buitengracht Street, the Bo-Kaap's district boundary, to discover a part of Cape Town that has shed its past and adopted a glitzy new identity. One of the most prominent historic monuments on the aptly named Long Street is the Palm Tree Mosque, housed in an 18th century building that was turned into a place of worship by two of Imam Abdullah ibn Qadi Abd Al-Salaam's original congregation in the 1820s. It's the second oldest mosque in Cape Town, and it is one of few remaining links with its past on Long Street. Today, the street has become one of the city's liveliest thoroughfares, crammed with cafes, restaurants, antique shops and bookstores. Its trendiest section is between Buitensingel Street and Strand Street and is lined with 19th-century buildings that are graced by wrought-iron balconies. Midway along, the Old Town House - Cape Town's first city hall -presides over the cafe society of Greenmarket Square, where dozens of stalls sell arts and crafts from all over Africa, including pottery, wood carvings and brightly patterned textiles. Nearby, the Gold of Africa Museum (www.goldofafrica.com) celebrates the precious metal that played such an important part in South Africa's history, with gorgeous displays of craftsmanship from all over the continent, along with highly desirable gifts made by the goldsmiths, whom you can watch at work.
If gold doesn't appeal, there's plenty of upscale shopping to be done in this part of town. For retail therapy in elegant surroundings, head for De Waterkant. This historic but once-dilapidated enclave of small 18th-century houses and cobbled streets in the Green Point district, has blossomed since the 1990s, and it now bears all the hallmarks of gentrification. Homes here command high prices, and the Cape Quarter, right in the middle of this village-in-the-city, offers beach and leisure wear and accessories from some of the more imaginative independent retailers and designers in South Africa. When you need to refuel, The Cape Malay Food Market (www.thecapemalayfoodmarket.co.za; open Tuesday-Saturday 9am-10pm, closed on Mondays and 12.30pm-13.30pm on Fridays) offers tasty halal snacks and meals - as well as dishes to take away and spice mixes to take home and try in your kitchen.
If you go
The flight A return flight on Emirates (www.emirates.com) from Dubai to Cape Town costs from Dh5,405 return, including taxes. The flight takes nine hours
The hotel Rouge on Rose (25 Rose Street; 0027 21 426 0298; www.rougeonrose.co.za) is Cape Town's latest boutique hotel and has double rooms in the heart of the Bo-Kaap, starting from 1,100 South African rand (Dh407)
The tour Bo Kaap Guided Tours (0027 21 422 1554; www.bokaap.co.za) last for about two hours and cost 250 South African rand (Dh93)
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