Character of Fordsburg permeates the passing years

Walking through the haphazard alleyways of near-downtown Johannesburg, the scents and sounds linger in the air, while the words of American writer Thomas Wolfe resound in my head.

“All things on Earth point home in old October,” Wolfe wrote in 1935. And when Ramadan (the Muslim fasting month) falls in October, Fordsburg, still “home” for much of the city’s Muslim community, reflects his words in bounds.

As 6pm and the time for Iftaar (breaking of the fast) draws near, Fordsburg’s streets come alive with restaurant owners vending their eastern cuisine on the pavements outside their stores, while a muezzin from a nearby mosque prepares to sound the call to prayer, signifying the end of the days fast.

A tempting array of samosas, kebabs, sweetmeats and breads line trestle tables outside shops with names like Al-Madina and Shunarga, and resident Pakistani and Bangladeshi attendants serve customers stopping by on their way home from work.

Generally known as the city’s “little India”, Fordsburg, on the western side of Johannesburg, is a residential area with an interesting mix.

Primarily Indian, the area still bears traces of the country’s segregationist apartheid past. More recently though, it has seen an influx of Eastern, Middle Eastern and North African foreigners into the area, each bringing a legacy as diverse and intriguing as they are.

Many of Fordsburg’s old inhabitants still reside here, and those who have moved away even now come back to this place where narrow urban roads trace houses with front doors opening straight on to the pavement, and where the community is a part of each others’ lives.

During Ramadan, the usually bustling streets are quieter during the day, with stores opening later and staying open longer than usual. But weekends and nights here are always festive and vibrant, regardless of the time of year.

On a Saturday nights you can find Irshaad, a Pakistani chicken tikka seller expertly rotating steel skewers over the coals of his makeshift braai stand, with the scent of coriander and ginger rising up through the smoke surrounding his centre stall.

As pavements burst with colour and tables overflow with curios, sweet meats and pirated DVDs, groups of people browse stalls that sell everything from shoes and jewellery to shisha pipes and incense sticks.

The sound of old Bollywood drifts out of a nearby CD store, diluting the thump of American hip-hop, and the road broadcasts the screech of tyres—a BMW M3 and the barely legal, designer-clad 18-year-old driving it.

On weekends the centre of Fordsburg shows off its dynamic individuality. Known by its patrons as “the square”, this inner city with an eastern twist has grown over the last 10 years, and now encompasses almost four city blocks and about 47 separate stores.

“Fordsburg was always multi-layered and very cosmopolitan,” says a stately looking Essop Bhana, an inhabitant of the area for almost 25 years. “Since the turn of the last century, this was a great commercial area,” he says, and in that sense not much has changed.

Here, coffee shops and Americanised fast food stores stand unperturbed next to restaurants selling authentic Pakistani cuisine. Egyptian shisha merchants, Indian paan vendors, and Syrian food sellers mingle comfortably with the local community, and the area’s vagabonds and car guards are as well known as its traders.

The growing foreign population has also been assimilated into the resident culture, and they are now as “Fordsburg” as the local community.

“We made Fordsburg what it is today, there was nothing like this before we came,” Shahid Muhammed, a Pakistani national says. Shahid owns Fashion Icons Imports and Exports, which he runs from a warehouse above the square.

“We feel at home here,” Shahid says.

Tasneem Limbada, an artist and co-owner of the Oriental Gallery in the Square calls Fordsburg her only source of inspiration. “There are always different cultures and new people, every shop has a unique flavour,” she says, adding a touch of white to the painting she has just started. “We have another gallery in Rosebank, but its much more interesting being here.

“Fordsburg is mad,” Tasneem adds, but in a good way. “You see at least five different nationalities the minute you step out of your door—Lebanese, Syrians, Somalis, Pakistanis, Indians ... and we all know each other ... You wont find the same thing anywhere else.”

Community has always been central to Fordsburg. Rashaad Jeewa, who runs the Oriental Gallery, says Fordsburg is still very much a residential area, and although it is becoming more commercial, everyone stills feels like they know each other. “Its business with a human side,” he says. “I would never change Fordsburg for any other place around.”

Artist and writer Braam Kruger has lived in an old warehouse above the square for a few years. “It’s my third Ramadan here,” he says.

Being a food writer, Braam is partial to Fordsburg as an “exotic food destination”, but also as a place he has come to call home. “I couldn’t get this anywhere else in the world.”

Braam, who claims to be “the only whitey living in the area”, has a loft space in a building that houses Shahid’s fashion import business on the third floor, and a no-alcohol-allowed pool hall on the first. “As different as I am, I’ve been accepted as part of the place,” he says, adding that he sometimes feels like the unofficial mayor.

Braam talks about the area’s history, remembering that it “was where the first workers’ revolt in the country took place”.

Fordsburg was initially a white area, and saw such landmark events as the 1922 Rand Revolt, where striking miners clashed with police, bombs were dropped and many people were killed. Under apartheid, segregation laws and the Group Areas Act later turned Fordsburg into an Indian only area.

Still predominantly Indian and Muslim, it is one of the only places in the city that is completely halal in terms of food, with not even alcohol being sold in the area. And Braam feels the area is still vibrant and noisy even without alcohol.

“People come here to enjoy the Indianness,” he says.

And that “Indianness” has a sense of family at its core. In Fordsburg, teenagers wearing bling talk on their cellphones and spend their weekends on the same streets as “aunties” in burkhas, and the juxtaposition is not incompatible.

“I love the animation in this place,” Braam says. “Everybody knows everybody’s business, and they want to know it,” he laughs.

Like Braam, most in Fordsburg are positive about the area, saying it is more alive and culturally diverse than ever before; but, there are still those who lament the loss of old times.

While emerging trends and foreign tastes have fused with everyday commercialism, a longing for the old world of tradition and community can still be traced to the people who come here.

“Fordsburg is dying,” Rashid Ebrahim, the owner of Divine Confectionery, an old church-turned-coffee shop/corner cafÃ

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