The personal is political
Faith in being humane – faith in freedom

 by Roshila Nair


A version of this talk, presented at the book launch of Seeing Perfection: meditations for living in peace and the drums beat all night in Cape Town in 20131,describes Shabbir Banoobhai’s writing style as a language of lightness and paradox, the opposite of heaviness. It examines the appeal of such language for the reader in terms of the personal,the spiritual or metaphysical and the political. It views Banoobhai’s mystical focus as deeply engaged with socio-political critique to counter dominant narratives of power by taking a critical position towards the real both morally and stylistically. Roshila Nair edited both the above volumes of Banoobhai’s work. She works as a professional editor and publishing consultant in Cape Town. She is also a social activist.

Good afternoon. It is a pleasure to be here at the launch of Shabbir Banoobhai’s new books and I’d like to thank him for asking me to speak today and to thank you all for taking the time to attend. I normally resist speaking invitations, but agreed when Shabbir asked me, having been involved in editing both collections and having somethings to say about them, not least that I enjoyed greatly working with him in the process.

We live in times that merit consideration here. Who among us is not aware of the many crises of a political, social and economic nature as well personal hurts that daily impact with enormous distress ourselves and those we love? Quite often, responses for alleviation are shaped by equally oppressive means,by some in the name of faith even. This suffering keeps us trapped in cycles of pain and violence, so much so that we can barely think clearly,let alone keep faith in ourselves or others.Such a situation can and does have a paralysing effect on the human being, making difficult the countering of unjust power, and personal growth. In fact, society in the twenty first century increasingly faces stultification of self-growth and social development, with the creative spirit that encourages confidence and enjoyment among human beings suffering too.


Although dealing with deep existential issues,
Banoobhai’s writing remains accessible, engaging and witty.


So what might we say then about a rather slim collection of spiritual reflections that announces itself boldly in such times as these, as “meditations for living in peace”? That the work is the act of an escape artist inviting us to escape the world? That the work sets us up to be fools on a fool’s errand? Or that we are presented with the self-indulgences of a writer whom we should allow to indulge us but with no expectation for real solutions to the heavy issues we face daily? Indeed it is so –indeed it is not so. This is the paradoxical effect of Shabbir Banoobhai’s writings, which I will speak about today – the paradox of language and effect in his works, which I characterise at the outset as Sufi poetry and thought.

My first feedback to Shabbir when I began editing Seeing Perfection: meditations for living in peace2, was that his writing, although dealing with deep existential issues remains nonetheless accessible, engaging and witty. I had the notion that this had to do with his precise choice of a light approach to language precisely to deal effectively with issues of existentialism and spirituality. Preparing this talk, I began to really appreciate the import of this language style for the production of literature and reading.


The writer of today must respond in some or other crucial way to the various effects of socio-political and economic power, as part of the task of the writer, is to interpret for readers the world and the meanings humans try to make in it


In contemplating the moral and literary values that inform his task as a writer of literature, as well as the technical intricacies involved in the craft of writing, I felt compelled to look at Shabbir’s method of critiquing dominant power structures in society. I also looked at the incisive intervening role that language can perform in subverting such power narratives by presenting alternative notions of power and freedom.These aspects are what appeal to me most in Shabbir’s work, which I have over the years enjoyed reading and can now better understand in terms of language and location within the Sufi literary tradition.

The writer of today must respond in some or other crucial way to the various effects of socio-political and economic power, as part of the task of the writer is to interpret for readers the world and the meanings humans try to make in it. In the past, Banoobhai very notably responded to the ills of apartheid in his writing. Needless to say, the important task of the writer to counter stultification of the human vision almost two decades after the end of apartheid is still pertinent. Today, we are faced with the severe effects of neo-liberalism, the global war on terror and growing religious intolerance, to name just a few crises. Yet, in speaking about these and other such issues with lightness – and bear in mind that Shabbir himself does not name them as I do but rather focuses on the impact on the human spirit –he does not reduce the writing to frivolity or ineffectualness.

This is a paradoxical element of politics and craft I had glimpsed in Shabbir’s writing. His works present us with a language of lightness to encourage in us the making of successful attempts to overcome heavy issues. At the same time,it is shot through with the key metaphor of light, the opposite of or complement to darkness, a metaphor with strong spiritual association. His is a language of paradox that succeeds in balancing the political, the spiritual and the personal. The darkness evoked is not only the crises we experience daily, but also the immaturity within the self. This is the aspect of mind and being that is closed off to the human spirit or divine soul, against which the spiritual seeker strives in religious terms and the secular individual in moral terms. This closed-ness, Shabbir constantly points out in his themes, is noticeable in pessimistic, harsh, judgmental, conceited, anger driven, self-pitying and paralysing responses to situations we face. To the Sufi mind at work here, such trapped or “unfreed” responses hinder our contemplation of faith, our attainment of spiritual consciousness and our personal growth as human beings. The spiritual aspect of the human being, or aspect of the human spirit for those who view self-growth in such secular terms,is a key thread in his writing. By shifting our perspective on heaviness and darkness, Shabbir invite us to become lighter in being through language – his and our own.

Such lightness of language does not dilute the existential or profoundly mystical meanings the writer is focused on, nor does it diminish his equal focus on the material and the everyday, which are for Shabbir not separate but merged aspects of being. By focusing on the ordinary as well as the external, his works address the possibility and ways of countering self-paralysis,the threat of stultification into cold beings, lacking feeling for ourselves or others and incapable of growing to our full potential, a condition arrived at through both the perpetrating and experiencing of pain and violence.


Life is Shabbir’s abode


The quality of lightness, life-givingness, in Shabbir’s work is recognisably the writer’s stance vis a vis power, the status quo. Life is Shabbir’s abode and thus does he invite us to throw off the inertia of the world, to off load the invitation of the power of domination for self-paralysis. His focus is giving the reader an important means of creating individual and collective freedoms. This freedom resides in one’s own sense of being, in one’s approach to being. Hence darkness and heaviness in the Sufi paradoxical lexicon become, rather than hindrances, opportunities for transcendence of the spirit for the shedding of ignorance.


To turn inward to grow is not to withdraw from reality
but rather to hold steady to and cultivate
the very means of freedom in our selves.


Perhaps, to the traders in heaviness and darkness, ringing up their death tolls and profits, revving their war machines and roaring at us with their false rhetoric of power – like the strutting emperor we know from childhood, whose ugly nakedness we have not yet managed to escape but about which we must still speak the truth–perhaps to them this is a fool’s errand on which literature takes us. But the lightness the poet invites us to adopt when contemplating our being, our actions and thoughts in our daily lives is the very power of the fool trumping the obscenity of emperors. To turn inward to grow is not to withdraw from reality but to hold steady to and cultivate the very means of freedom in our selves. We thus become indulgent of our self or self indulgent since those holding formal power fail to take us seriously in the first place. In so cultivating our spirits, we pursue an ethics of peace in our lives. We involve ourselves centrally in setting a personal standard for ourselves and the world in the new relationships we now see possible and within our reach.

In being thus peaceful towards ourselves and others, in understanding that love does not preclude justice or justice love, or that justice does not preclude peace or peace justice, we do indeed perform the escape artist’s act of freeing ourselves to think in our own clear and authentic terms about ourselves and the reality we live in. We begin creating the substantive solutions for peace through ourselves. We step clear of the ready traps around us that entice us to abandon ourselves, to empty our imaginations and hearts,to deaden our visions and to drown ourselves in the noise of chaos and destruction, to which we would not be hard put to give ideological names and agendas. We keep alive our capacity to apprehend clearly the worth within ourselves and others. We keep alive our potential to expect and seek meaning in our lives. We keep alive our ability to enable positive meaning in the lives of others. The perfection and freedom of spirit we seek is not abstract or out of reach – it can emanate in our partnerships, families, neighbourhoods, communities and societies. A whole world of peace becomes possible. In not succumbing to the paralysis of the self and society,generated by the bully and the tyrant – as well as the negligent or weak of character who hurt us in personal ways – we answer for ourselves and assert our visions for the wholesome world we desire and not the divisions foisted on us by the traders of inferiority and destruction. We hold crucially to our right,our responsibility and our capacity to make our own choices about life and our own lives, to make personal choices too for our intimate happiness.


the choices for enhancing lightness
in creative language is aimed at both
literary and psychological effects


Shabbir’s spiritual and existential observations are not confined to one particular religion or any religion at all, even while unfolding from within his Islamic faith. For here is another paradox–Shabbir’s writing, in the best Sufi tradition, opens its arms to all people, religious or not. The desire for freedom, for lightness and light embraces the human spirit in its entirety. It is by definition an inclusive spirit of love and compassion for all, which some know via religious faith and others via faith in being ethical, humane.In other words, he insists on focusing constantly on whether and how we allow or stanch life via the perceptions we gather from almost every single experience we have about being human–being humane, being spiritual, being spirited. This applies equally to how we “feel” and enact religion – our religious sensibilities. He is concerned that the choice for in lightness spirit, eschews the heavy religiosity that blunts feelings of joy, compassion and love, which all humans are capable of experiencing and making meaning with about their lives and the world.(A word of explanation here about my phrase “heavy religiosity” – I am not questioning the gravity or sincerity with which religious persons approach their faith,but rather considering whether the approach fosters tolerance and love towards others or promotes intolerance and hate. Whether it is religion or politics, Banoobhai, it is seen, is centrally focussed on the uplifting aspect of human nature; in the case of religion, he is firmly positioned against dogma even though he is clear that issues of injustice can be clearly articulated and protested against.) The same applies in terms of the religiosity or beliefs of the non-religious individual in his or her secular universe, who is nonetheless concerned with the same issues of the valuing of life.

The point here is that the choices for enhancing lightness Shabbir makes in crafting his creative language is aimed at both literary and psychological effects. To me he is a very practical minded and plebeian writer. Banoobhai is a former school teacher and shows awareness that the business of challenging and countering some of the heavier aspects of the times might well benefit from the absence of certain kinds of loftiness in art. And, indeed, let us be clear, saying this does not make this writer any less masterful as a literary artist!Let us also be clear, that claiming such psychological aims is not to relegate the writer to the dubious stage of pop psychology. By attributing psychological aspects to his works, I am alerting the reader to this writer of literature’s deeply-thought out understanding of human nature and power. As a writer of literature, he offers us language – evocative metaphors and images as well as striking reflections and deductions – that are crafted from within the creative intellect and imagination. Such crafting produces not the quick-fixes of pop-psychology aimed at encouraging retention in the mind for all of one hour, but rather writing, art works, that engage the mind in deep contemplation and vivid experiencing of the world, re-vision-ed and evoked through literature.Focus on the psycho-spiritual is an important element of Sufi literature and is aimed at up-liftment and spiritual progress in the human being and society.


Shabbir digs down deep to unearth that which has been spoken of before by poets, mystics, philosophers and ethical beings … which time and again become buried in the rubble of human folly


One more point I would like to make here about the reflective ruminations in Seeing Perfection: meditations for living peacefully, indeed, in all Shabbir’s writings, further concerns its location in the mystical tradition. We do not find in his works claims ofen tire or new philosophies or even new philosophical formulae for living intelligently, deeply and spiritedly. Rather, as in the age-old mystical and ethical traditions, Shabbir digs down deep to unearth that which has been spoken of before by poets, mystics, philosophers and ethical beings over the millennia of human time, but which, time and again, become buried in the rubble of human folly. We are reminded that we are a species that repeats its mistakes but one that is nonetheless able to regain the loving path, as in the best Sufi or Islamic, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Hindu and other mystical traditions as well as secular schools of ethics. In this tradition of optimism, love, patience, fortitude and compassion, the poet – the lover of life –affirms once again,affirms unceasingly,for the world.


lightness is seen in the poet at play in the world
of the imagination …playing with the clay of words …
celebrating joyfully wit, humour and the embrace of life


Reading Shabbir’s poetry and spiritual treatises, one paradoxically experiences the freshness of rediscovery after the long spell of moral bluntedness stemming from self-paralysis and conformity,occasioned by both tyranny and immaturity of the self. There is also in his writing the distinctive echo of old wisdom,still preserved in the clarity of poetic imagination, an imagination at once collective –our human imagination – and at the same time,unique – the individual writer’s style. This instinct for life and love is the opposite of draconian and unethical power systems that lead to wholesale slaughter, injustice and a living death for individuals. While religion may not be the oeuvreof some readers, life and the spirit for its thriving, embedded in the ethical and humane identity of the human being, is. By understanding the paradoxical nature of life, language and the human being, by making the connection of embracing lightness as the opposite and complement to heaviness in order to set the spirit free, one participates in the human spirit. The writer is ultimately making the claim that the personal is intensely political. Thus the soul or spirit, laughter, tolerance and humaneness as well as opposition to injustice in the ordinary lives of ordinary beings take on extraordinary complexion.

In Shabbir’s poetry collection, the drums beat all night, the title which takes itself from a poem about imminent death, we see again the call for spiritedness even in the face of death. In many of the poems, even those dealing with serious social subjects or personal hurt, lightness is seen in the poet at play in the world of the imagination, the poet playing with the clay of words and celebrating joyfully wit, humour and the embrace of life. Such play is not an abdication from adulthood or a narrow seeking of pleasure in the narcissistic or anti-social sense, rather it is the meaningful act of the creative being revelling in the endless potential for fullness via the imagination. The spirit, open and unfettered, at play, we are shown, enables the becoming of the very best the human is capable of being– tenderness, compassion, resilience, love and life-givingness itself.


by bearing his writing task conscientiously and fashioning his craft lucidly, he invites us to nurture confidence in ourselves, in our collective humanity and in our future – in our power as human beings


In Shabbir’s writings we see an optimism in the future and in human beings. By dint of bearing his writing task conscientiously and fashioning his craft lucidly,he invites us to nurture confidence in ourselves, in our collective humanity and in our future – in our power as human beings. To quote Shabbir Banoobhai:

if i met you and you allowed me to
i would ask only to brush your hair

without asking, i would clip your nails
so that i could hold your hands and touch your feet

i would say nothing more
i would hold you so lightly you would never know

This is the value of lightness of being, of remaining open to being humane and fully human and of holding to our wonderful capacity for freedom, gifted us by the generous writer.


  1. This is a revised version of a talk I gave at the book launch of Seeing Perfection: meditations for living in peace and the drums beat all night in November 2013 in Cape Town at Timbuktu Books. All views expressed are solely my own.
  2. Banoobhai, S. 2013. Seeing Perfection: meditations for living in peace. Cape Town: Shabbir Banoobhai.
  3. Banoobhai, S. 2013. the drums beat all night. Cape Town: Shabbir Banoobhai.


© Roshila Nair – Text of Talk; © Shabbir Banoobhai – Poem. All rights reserved.