Safee Siddiqi – Life in the Casbah by Nishaat Siddiqi

Nishaat and Saffee SidiqqiFor the most part of his 83 years, a deep love for the urdu language, characterised the life of Casbah legend Safee Siddiqi. It was a love affair that absorbed and inspired him throughout his life. From the tender age of 3 years , he was already composing couplets in urdu, much to the chagrin of his beloved mother, writing on scraps of paper that he would find lying around the house. He wrote about life, love and everything, in between, that took his fancy. He had a way, one could call it a gift, with words, that would thrill audiences and crowds all over the country.

Born in the Northern Natal town of Dundee in April 1930 he spent a couple of years in this small town, with his parents and elder brother, before leaving for pilgrimage with them, to Mecca. The family then went to India for a few years before WW2 broke out.

On his return to South Africa he quickly settled into a comfortable life in Durban’s Casbah. Enroled at Greyville school he became a familiar figure on the streets of the Casbah. Life for the young boy with stars in his eyes was full of wonder and excitement.

Like most families at this time, life was a struggle for the Siddiqi’s, who resided in Saville Street. The flat that they occupied was too small and the young Safee had to sleep in a room on the roof of the building alongside the West Street Mosque. His beloved mother worked hard to keep the young family fed, and even though there was very little, they never went hungry. His father, Maulana Basheer, was the sole breadwinner. He had to finally cut short his schooling and find work to help out at home. In later years he would often relate stories about those years and the daily grind to make ends meet.

His early years in the Casbah, like with so many others from his generation, moulded and shaped him. While still a young boy of 10, he got to present his poetry to a large crowd at the Grey Street Mosque, during one of the important religious occasions. It was so well received that the memory of that day, the look of pride on his father’s face and the many accolades he received, was to remain with him as an inspiration, for many years.
Sport also played a big part in his early years and was to be so throughout his life. Being a skinny fellow his father encouraged him to take up boxing, hoping that he would build some muscle and, at the same time learn to defend himself on the streets of Durban. He did fairly well until the great Albie Tissong broke his nose in a fight. He decided, very quickly, that his good looks was more important to his life than success in the ring, as he would tell me in later years with much laughter. Ballroom dancing was something else he excelled in and enjoyed, winning a few competitions as a young man.

But, it was poetry that truly sustained him, and as he got more entrenched in the casbah lifestyle he got to present his work before large crowds and over the years built up a following with his uniquely flamboyant and entertaining, yet cultured style. Very quickly he became the face, and voice, of most cultural events, from religious functions to theatrical plays to musical shows to poetry recitals. He was now in his element! With the casbah culture all of its own, it was not uncommon for the people of the different religions, Hindus, Christians, Muslims to mix socially and at religious functions. This was evident even at the annual Urs of Hazrat Badshah Peer, where many Hindus took part.

There was still more to come, and he scaled new heights when the independent Indian radio station, Radio Truro was launched in the 70’s. Being among the first batch of presenters to get the station off the ground he was now, finally, in a medium that he believed that he was born to. His famous ‘Grrrrrrrrrreeeeetinnnngs’ became his signature piece and was to remain so, to the very end, at Lotus fm.

He was a son, and a product of the Casbah, a place he loved dearly, and called ‘home.’ It gave him great joy to take a drive through the streets that he knew so well, towards the end of his life, visiting places and people he shared so many years with. Even though he was quite ill, he would recall, with such clarity, moments of his rich life. Moments with his family, moments with his friends and colleagues, moments with ordinary people, people who had an impact on his life. One of the last places he wanted to visit was Badshah Peer, a place dear to his heart, also the place where his beloved parents were buried. Six months later, he was brought back here, his final resting place. A son of Africa. A son the Casbah.

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