“I really felt so inspired. I actually want to explore your religion.” These were the moving words of one guest in a Whatsapp message to social-cohesion activist Yusuf Abramjee, encapsulating the spirit of his new book, which launched in Cape Town on Sunday. Abramjee, a well-known media personality and the driving force behind Lead SA, has brought the sacred pilgrimage into the mainstream with a beautiful coffee-table book called #Hajj2016, a visual recollection of his experiences through the holy lands.
Speaking at the launch at the Centre of the Book on Sunday, Abramjee said he initially hoped for a quiet hajj, with a few photos in between. But when he was approached to be filmed as part of a documentary on hajj, he felt compelled to take others along his own physical and spiritual journey.
“Hajj only makes the news when it’s about stampede, floods or fires. We also need good news,” he told the audience.
“When you go for Hajj, people put the fear of hajj into you. I forgot about the fears the moment I arrived at Jeddah international airport and saw how empty the terminal was. I posted a photo to Twitter to inform my followers. That’s when my good friend Ashraf Garda told me to start a hashtag,” he explained.
With more than 143 000 Twitter followers, the avid social media user created the hashtag #AbramjeeonHajj, filling up the newsfeeds with the sounds and sights of the sacred cities. Naturally, his vision for the book was to share and educate the broader public on Islam. Abramjee said he wanted to change the dominant narrative of Islam and Muslims in the mainstream media.
“Far too often we find Islamophobic statements being made and this perception that Muslims are terrorists or extremists. We are sometimes reluctant to call ourselves Muslims for fear of victimization. This book aims to dispel those myths.”
“So this book is aimed at Muslims and non-Muslims, so we learn from each other.”
But he says the book is also a means to spiritually awaken Muslims.
“My aim is to inspire Muslims to perform the hajj (if they can), but also to remind hujjaj of what the experience is like. Your heart will long to return.”
The hajj is also seen through the eyes of photo-journalist Yazeed Kamaldien who also trekked to the holy cities this year to document the pilgrimage for Independent Newspapers.
“Hajj transforms your life. The book is represents how united we can be as human beings. Hajj brings people together especially. This message is important now especially at a time when the world is so divided,” Kamaldien reflected.
“As you stand in Ihram with hundreds of thousands of Muslims you have a light bulb moment. With all this craziness of this world you can lose perspective. But when you go on hajj your spirituality is strengthened. This book will make your heart long to go back.”
Publisher Yaseen Theba said he was amazed by the quality of the photos and it was he that sparked the idea for the book.
“I told Yusuf there was no way we could not share these with the public. Yusuf had more than 1000 images so the challenge was selecting the best 400 for the book,” he said.
“Had I known I would publish a book I would borrow have borrowed a good camera from Independent media,” quipped Abramjee.
With Abramjee’s knack in mobilizing people for a project, they published the book in under three weeks.
“We broke a number of records because we had an amazing team. Alhamdullilah, we launched on October 23rd in Johannesburg. And because we got so many calls from Cape Town, we had to launch it in the Mother City,” said Theba.
The event was opened with melodic and soothing sounds of nasheed from learners at the Manenberg secondary school and Habibia primary. This was followed by a stirring recitation of the Holy Quran by Qari Nadeem Dawood.
Members of the ulema, business fraternity, civil society and celebrities attended the launch, with glowing tributes for Abramjee’s efforts.
“Good signs of the hajj are that when someone returns, he or she continues with his outreach and compassion. You have added a sense of uniqueness to the South African Muslim community,” said MJC deputy president Maulana Abdul Khaliq Allie in praising Abramjee.
“Haj is a very personal journey. The disparity of Muslims is visible even in the Beitullah (House of God). The true spirit of Hajj is to take care and reach out to each other. The pilgrimage is perhaps the most accomplished life journeys. You can only go by invitation of the Almighty Allah.”
Key note speaker Dr Iqbal Surve, the chairman of Independent Media, spoke broadly about the affordability of hajj to all Muslims. As a member of a bi-national commission with South Africa and Saudi Arabia, he said he would ensure the matter be firmly placed on the agenda of their next meeting.
“What characterizes Yusuf is that he is some one that strives to do his best for all communities especially the poor and defenceless. I always say there’s no good or bad person. There are only good and bad deeds,” he said.
Religious freedoms and cultural diversity
Special guest, businessman Neil De Beer, the president of Nedebe International Group, spoke about his fascination with Islam, saying “it is not a religion, but part of a way of life.” De Beer said Islam was underpinned by principles, in which people from every faith could learn.
“It is again to me as a person, so clear that no matter the culture, the history or religion, people that have their hearts and souls to do good, cross all borders. Thank you Yusuf Abramjee for bringing us all together,” he said, making a pledge to purchase 100 books to be donated to schools.
In a written message to the audience, Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa said the book provides insights into the lives, the desires, dreams and journeys taken by the Muslim people of South Africa and Muslims around the world.
“It is a book rich in colour and culture. It is a book that tells a real story that is full of Ubuntu and the gift of giving and sharing with others. It is a book about comradeship and friendship between different peoples. It is a book that provides insight of the journey that every Muslim who can afford, will take at least once in his or her life,” wrote the minister.
“It is a book of varied landscapes, from the Highveld of South Africa to the desert landscapes of Saudi Arabia. It is a book about a pilgrimage to sacred spaces and to sites of great heritage and spiritual value. Mostly it is a book that pays homage to the HAJJ and is peopled with faces, places, and all those who lent a helping hand to others, all who were not content only to be there for themselves but also for all others.”
The minister also reminded the audience of the history of the earliest Muslims in South Africa especially in the Cape, in the struggle against colonialism and to those who participated and gave their lives in the liberation struggle of the 20th century against oppression.
“We pay homage to all those who contributed to the rich cultural fabric and social and economic life of South Africa and who asserted themselves even when forcibly removed from their own countries to be brought here through slavery. This initiative of Yusuf Abramjee and the publisher offers fellow Muslims who may not yet have taken this journey a visual experience of what it is like for South Africans to go there as pilgrims.”
“And beyond this, the book celebrates our cultural diversity as South Africans, because such a text also reaches out to others to understand what it means to be Muslim, to be South African, to be African, all at the same time and also to be at one with the world and with one’s religious beliefs.”
The book is also a vehicle to raise funds for those we cannot afford to perform hajj, an issue Abramjee feels passionate about addressing, particularly in light of recent visa hikes for umrah. Despite a busy schedule as a social-cohesion expert and anti crime activist, Abramjee has now also spearheaded the Anti-Visa Fee Committee SA, who are engaging the Saudi ministry on the visa issue.
The book is being donated to public libraries at no costs. At the event, Abramjee presented a copy to Salie Abrahams from the Western Cape Education Department and Councillor Magedien Davids, representing Mayor Patricia De Lille and the City of Cape Town.
The book was also hand delivered to Mufti Ismail Menk, Anti-apartheid stalwart Ahmed Kathrada, Tourism minister Derek Hanekom, ANC stalwart and businessman Toyko Sexwale and former public protector Thuli Madonsela. Proceeds of the book will go to Awqaf Foundation’s haj fund and Crescent Lifestyle. VOC (Tasneem Adams)