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By Lauren Kramer

It's an excruciatingly hot day in Cape Town and as my car climbs the incline to the Bo-Kaap I feel the mountain breeze sweep wisps of hair from my forehead. The wind is like a welcoming messenger from the proud slopes of Table Mountain, whose steep flanks look ever so majestic from the vantage point of the Malay Quarter.

I'm here to meet Shereen Habib, owner of Tana Baru Tours-and a tour guide for the past 13 years. Together with other curious visitors, I'm about to delve into the Malay history of the Cape, using the Bo-Kaap Museum, the area's oldest house still in its original form, as our starting point.

The museum's façade is a graceful mixture of Cape Dutch and English Georgian architecture, and one of the first rooms we enter puts history into perspective right away. Using old photographs that document significant moments in Cape Town's past, the accompanying text emphasizes that while the Cape's colonial heritage is celebrated, there is little to document the contribution made by the slaves, convicts and workers on whose backs the city was built.

Habib breezes into the museum. A 57-year-old grandmother and mother of five, her clear skin, graceful attire and bright eyes belie the exile, political turmoil and sadness she has witnessed. She leads us to a room whose walls are decked with poignant images of the faces, places and moments that constitute the life of the Malay Quarter.

Some of its inhabitants arrived as slaves from Indonesia between 1658 and 1807, while others were convicts, sentenced to prison in the Cape. Not all were Muslim when they arrived, but many converted to Islam, which became the religion of resistance in the city.

They got their name, Malay, from the language they shared, Malayu, a trading lingua franca that could be found from Madagascar as far as China. In the early 1800s, with the arrival of the British in Cape Town, the slaves were emancipated, though they were not permitted to own land. The arrival of Apartheid in 1948 meant the Malay community was classified as black, and the only fortune they experienced around this time was that their beloved Malay Quarter remained intact.

Life remains hard for Malays to this day. "Our Malay marriages are not recognized by the government, and I believe racism has escalated in this country in recent years," Habeeb says before ushering us out the door of the museum and onto the narrow streets of the Malay Quarter.

Less than two kilometres in length, the flamboyantly painted houses of this neighbourhood are located just above Cape Town's business district. We walk through narrow alleys, their walls decorated with graffiti and the day's laundry, shirts and sheets blowing in the light breeze.

In minutes, we're outside the Auwal Mosque on Dorp Street, the very first mosque in South Africa, which was built in 1794. Around us, bright houses abound, peppered in between by a few decked in shades of cream. The colours that disappeared during Apartheid, when Malays weren't allowed to paint in vibrant shades, are starting to return.

Most of the Bo-Kaap is paved these days, though cobblestones persist at the intersection of Church and Chiappini streets, a site often frequented by film companies who try and capture the yesteryear charm of the Quarter.

It's much easier to appreciate that charm on foot. Women lean over their balconies to converse in the late afternoon, and spicy aromas fill the air, allowing tantalizing glimpses into Malay life and culture. Some of that culture-particularly its cuisine-has gained mainstream acceptance and is a staple in the Cape these days. Dishes like bobotie, samoosas, melktert and chicken pies had their origins in the Malay community.

We sample some of these dishes at Habeeb's home, lounging on low couches and sipping tea from cups and saucers beautifully decorated with African motifs. As I return to my car, the Bo-Kaap is bathed in late afternoon sunshine and the rich taste of melktert lingers on my tongue. The melodic sound of nearby muezzins fills my ears as Muslim followers are called to prayer, and for a moment, there's magic in the air.


Tana Baru Tours offers morning and afternoon tours of approximately two hours, departing from the Bo-Kaap Museum at 71 Wale Street. Fees are R150 for adults, R100 for seniors and R50 for children 10 and under. For more information email or call (073) 237-3800.

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PHOTOS - Lauren Kramer

1. Shereen Habeeb, owner of Tana Banu Tours.
2. Shereen Habeeb delights in showing visitors through Cape Town's Malay Quarter
3. Colourful houses in the Bo-Kapp Malay Quarter once outlawed during apartheid are now beginning to return.
4. After a walking tour a traditional Malay tea is served to guests at Shereen Habeeb's home.


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