Khamr: A conversation with Jamil F. Khan

Terry Simelane-Mathabathe

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We had a chat with author and colunmist, Jamil F. Khan about his memoir, "Khamr; The Makings of a Waterslams"

“It is radical to say ‘I count’ in a world that constantly reminds you of your worthlessness.”

Foreword Khamr: The Makings of a Waterslams

This is the opening line of the foreword of “Khamr: The Makings of a Waterslams” by Jamil F. Khan. This powerful opening line of the foreword written by the iconic Egyptian-American social commentator, Mona Eltahawy, perfectly sums up this stimulating memoir.

“Khamr” takes us through the formative years of Jamil’s life. We are given a front row seat into the experiences that formed the Waterslams. Jamil brings us into his childhood- a world of pretense and shame- in a middle class Muslim household in Cape Town. Through his very thoughtful use of language, we are transported into his childhood home where we meet his alcoholic father, dutiful mother and rebellious sister.

We had a chat with Jamil about the making of “Khamr”, identity and memory.

Within the pages of Khamr, the reader goes with you through a journey of becoming and unbecoming. How did you feel about being so exposed and vulnerable?

I have recently had quite a few experiences, not pertaining to my book, of being exposed and vulnerable. I think it depends on the context. In this case, I had elected to be exposed with the intention of exposing the harm I have been subjected to and participated in. For me, the purpose of doing critical work is not to mount a moral high horse and point fingers at everyone, because I have in my life internalised and invested in many oppressive systems as a consequence of socialisation. The work is about demonstrating just how we are all implicated in systems of oppression and that making such a realisation should propel us all to reject those systems and work to dismantle them. I feel that being exposed and coming undone is a necessary part of the journey and must happen as many times as is necessary to keep us committed to humble engagement with self-improvement.

You speak about memory and the process of reliving. Do you think your version of memory was reliable?

Yes, my memory is pretty remarkable. Remembering is an everyday activity for me. My work generally relies on revisiting the past and the past forms a big part of how I make sense of the present I write about. There were of course bits and pieces that were difficult to retrieve, but in those cases I consulted more reliable memories. The thing about memory is that our perceptions shape them, so nothing derived from memory can always be completely factual. If I had written this book 5 years ago, I may have related very different memories of the same events.

In your virtual launch, you told of your mother’s apology. Why do you think she felt the need to say sorry?

It was a surprise, because she has always been someone who refused to apologise for her choices. I think perhaps being able to absorb my experiences and memories in the way I have related them gave her a chance to see life from my perspective without the opportunity to be defensive. I think my choice to contextualise the harm that she participated in also made her feel less attacked and under those circumstances she could take accountability.

What made you decide to immortalise your story through memoir?

I know that there are many people like me who have similar experiences, but are not in a position to record and archive it. My interest has always been in rebuilding the archive of experiences destroyed by colonialism and apartheid. The choice to ‘immortalise’ is very much a political one that hopes to challenge the ongoing erasure of marginalised voices.

Khamr: The Makings of a Waterslams | Jacana

Most of what would make up the cannon of Coloured history has been lost in the violence of Apartheid, how important is it for you to contribute to the archive of Coloured identity and culture?

I don’t believe in the singularity of Coloured identities, so I always refer to identities. I am writing into but one archival silence when it comes to the vast and multiple experiences relevant to Coloured people, but it must exist. I think most people want to be remembered when they die and I have said in the book that we deserve every chance to be remembered, not matter how insignificant our lives are deemed. If only for the fact that one day it can be said that people like me existed, I feel like an important thing would be achieved. It is to say that we existed in ways that made us so similar and vastly different at the same time, and that such abundance is possible and also acceptable.

“That night in the mosque I witnessed how invasive the violence of toxic masculinity is. It didn’t matter that the mosque was supposed to be a sacred place that existed above all the cruelty of the human condition. I realised that the mosque too is a manufacturer and enabler of toxic masculinity, because the mosque is but the product of its leaders, and Muslim men have been the gatekeepers of faulty doctrine.”

Khamr: The Makings of a Waterslams

You speak openly about the violent masculinity within the Muslim community, do you think it is possible for one to be queer and Muslim?

For me, it’s not. I am, however, aware that to participate in Islam is important for some queer people and I imagine that it comes with a level of labour non-queer Muslims don’t have to perform. The topic of religion and queerness is a difficult one for me to reconcile when so many religious organisations cling to homophobia as a bargaining tool for moral superiority. If the institution of Islam is willing to do the critical work to reform the parts of itself that has succumbed to inhumanity and authorotarianism, then maybe, but for now it seems pretty impossible. This is a separate conversation from reconciling god and queerness.

Alcoholism and drug addiction has plagued the Coloured community for generations, do you think that enough is being written about addiction in the community?

A lot has been written in very one dimensional, scientific ways. Less has been written from experiential perspectives that hold the link between history and everyday life. Nothing, to my knowledge has been written about that intersection with Islam. I don’t know whether the question should be whether enough is written or if the content truy reflects the multiplicity of the lives featured. I think it can be very easy to write about this issue if you don’t consider the way in which power has shaped the representations of us as people. For me, writing must resist reinscribing this power.

What are some of the projects you are working on that we can look forward to in the near future?

Definitely more books over time, but I am truly as clueless as you. I am open to where the work will take me.

Do you have any writer’s remorse now that the book is out?

About the content, no, but I do feel a bit weird about seeing my face lying around.

“Khamr: The Makings of a Waterslams” is now available for purchase. Follow Jamil on Twitter @JamilFarouk.