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Thursday, 9 October 2008

The Beautiful Names by Saaleha Bhamjee

October 9, 2008

by Suzan Abrams

I first knew Saaleha Bhamjee as a fellow-blogger and aspiring author, about two years ago. Along the way, many things happened and she no longer blogs as frequently as she used to, although I fervently hope that will change.

But what made a situation doubly beautiful, was that despite having added another baby to her brood of now five children - her book is lovingly dedicated to them and after all, she calls them flowers in her garden - and from having opened Lazeeza's bakery in Johannesburg, complete with her famed "killer donuts"; this young South African writer with her strong Muslim heritage, has also published a collection of 20 childrens' poems encased in a wide book format, called The Beautiful Names.

In this respect, Bhamjee was published by Muslim Writers Publishing in Arizona, USA.

Although I began to appreciate Bhamjee's writings a long while before I read this book as once before, she often engaged in thrilling instalments of multicultural fictitious episodes which were both comical and reflective and designed to keep a faithful set of readers hooked; I began to observe her writings with a new eye only on my return from East Africa earlier this year.

Having been vowed over by the prospect of modern and contemporary African and Middle-Eastern literature, I recognised that Bhamjee wrote in the distinct style afforded mostly to intellectual Arab women writers who penned their stories in English as a second language. Think Saudi Arabia's Rajaa Alsanea for Girls of Riyadh or Palestinian Suad Amiry's The Ramallah Diaries. Today, Alsanea is a dentist in America while Amiry, a diplomat and social activist in the Palestinian Territories.

What stays especially compelling is the enthusiastic devotion by which conversational narrations are drawn upon while holding on to a literary engagement that derives its flavour from humour and intensity of description.

Arab women writing in English today parachute their fast-paced snippets and episodes to potent displays of open feeling - both suggestive of bliss and angst. These exhibited in lengthy arresting lines, needing no commas, colons or semi-colons. The use of conjunctions like and and but stay necessary weapons to turn an otherwise ordinary plot into an extraordinary one.

Bhamjee has always demonstrated the very same for her adult fiction.

In The Beautiful Names, the reader receives a slight taste of what could so easily have been perceived as an adult piece of work with her acknowledgement and profile. She is maternal towards the reader and one senses how easily she would have loved to have hung around with a cup of tea and a tale or two of her own. It is easy to picture her hand upon the reader's shoulder in some form of friendly goodwill.

That done and dusted with, the children's writings come into play although I would recommend these poems for slightly older children with a parent about. The only reason is that they are thinking poems and may involve a child pressing curious questions on the subject of life.

Bhamjee sketches out the different variations to Allah, taken from the Qu'ran and relates this to long rhyming or narrative verses story episodes and wildlife in her native South Africa. Who owns the earth, she asks, who owns the animals, planets, birds... In another verse, she reflects on the sleeping sun and the sky on a dark, lonely night. The author's voice is instantly enveloping and offers such a hushed tone that the reader may even picture a snoring dormouse come winter.

There are also humorous poems among others; of kittens playing mischeviously on a velvet carpet, wildlife scenes, the moment of a mum cradling a new infant, prayers for any child to keep handy say on a fearful night or when worried about growing old or facing a catastrophe; and mini chronicles that double up as philosophical meanderings or careful studies on humanity.

Bhamjee walks a fine line with these heartwarming spiritual fare that where some lines may even appear awkward with forced rhyming, they still remain deeply probing and inspirational. She manages to avoid being preachy or telling... preferring instead to paint her words through picturesque elements that would appear comforting or sunny to any child. This writing quality defines her mastery.

No doubt, these poems suggest a deep Muslim connotation but their inspiration and engaging words would hold the attention of any atheist, keen on any aspect that hints of goodness and an abundant love of the universe as a whole. For any interested observer of world affairs, the poems also depict the Islamic religion to be wearing its gentler, kinder face. And I would add fatherly to that.

The pictures in The Beautiful Names were illustrated by the Irish artist Shirley Gavin. Vivid startling scenes focussed on African wildlife and Africa as a whole. Each thoughtful picture to a poem conveyed a sharp clear mood of hope and light that added on a shaft of brightness to the darker verses.

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