I still remember the day I met Aziz Hassim for the first time. My friend Nanda Soobbhan had casually put forward an invitation to join him for lunch with his friends, if I had the spare time. Thankfully, I did have the spare time, because the friends turned out to be two famous Durban personalities, Aziz Hassim and Ravi Govender. During the conversation, they chatted animatedly and with street cred about the Casbah, gangs, and goings on in Durban and the country as a whole. There was an instantly recognisable veracity to their anecdotes, but the enthusiasm and style that they told it with, made me think of Hollywood movies. Also, because I recognised some of the names and places, I felt a sense of affiliation with their stories.
It was during this time that I discovered that they were published authors, as well. Not only were they adept storytellers, but also they had been industrious enough to get their stories published. In my defence, I was too engaged with my own family and work and was reading only philosophy in my spare time. I realised fast that my education was incomplete and that further edification would have to begin more locally. I wrote down the name of Aziz Hassims book, “ The Lotus People” and assured him that I would go and find it in the book store.
I did get a copy of “The Lotus People.” I immediately was transfixed with the story, reading about the Badsha Peer, and familiar places in town, and people who he wrote about. I had also taken Aziz’s email address, and felt compelled to send him an emotive email, about how his writing had affected me. I told him that his characters were so real, that I was brought to tears reading about their trials and tribulations. I also told him that Dawood Motala and Richard Ellis had been coerced into taking my daughter and I into town, to walk in the market, meditate at the Badsha Peer, and browse the arcades, that he had written about. Aziz sent me a reply, after reading the email, and thanked me for taking the time to write to him. I asked him if he would meet us to sign his book and he graciously accepted.
We met him at a restaurant in Windermere Road, one sunny day, when he made good on that promise, which by now I had finished reading. When I impertinently confessed that I had fallen in love with one of his characters in the book, Aziz laughed it off. However, it is a rare talent, and no mean feat, to be able to write in a way that makes people identify with your character’s, in a such visceral way, so that you feel elated when they succeed and cry when they go through hardships.
Anyway, that email sparked a friendship and a connection with the inspiring soul that has left an indelible mark on me. Aziz, signed his book, and added: “Until the lion tells his story, tales of hunting will glorify the hunter’. A phrase that condensed in a few words the essence of Aziz Hassim. He wrote a balanced tale, and was not afraid of telling both sides of the story, and he did it well. It was at this time that my daughter, Tasmin Naidoo approached Aziz for assistance, on her thesis for her Art degree. She requested that he allow her to interview him on camera, relating the stories. She told him that when she accompanied me to town to walk about, she was inspired by the architecture and discovered a part of her history that she had no knowledge about before this time. She said, for the first time, she thought about and connected with her roots, and a mysterious epoch, previous unknown to her, had emerged out of this experience.
Aziz agreed without hesitation, to the interview and they set a time and date. He even attended an exhibition of her work, with his wife, where he spoke about everyday life in the Casbah, and how out of this melting pot of cultures that clashed and merged there, certain talents were nurtured that even the oppressive systems could not hold back. I was humbled that he would lend his time to promote others, selflessly, even though at this stage he was cutting down on social events.
In acknowledgement of Aziz’s literary efforts, and achievements, he was awarded the “Too little, too late, award.” I often met with these two gentleman, and at one such meeting, Aziz made a request that Nanda act as a trustee for his literary legacy. Nanda confided, later, that to be even considered, was a great honour which he will always remember and cherish.
Like many men at his stage in life, Aziz was preoccupied with leaving behind a legacy. However, it troubled him, that a whole chunk of important history and people, who shaped our destiny, would be lost to future generations, as would his own personal legacy. To this end, Nanda punted the idea of a literary award in his honour, and the name “Aziz Hassim Literary Award” was put forward. Aziz was very pleased, and asked for a proper proposal to be put together, for his perusal, which he was excited to look over. Nanda took the lead and went through the motions to identify various authors who could be considered for this award.
Unfortunately, Aziz Hassim succumbed to an illness while he was promoting his book Valliamma, for which he felt very passionate. He saw her as an important part of the early liberation struggle, when ideology and dissent was still in infancy. His admiration that, despite her age and sex, she was braves enough to stand up against systems, which were unfair. That her life and death went virtually unheralded was unacceptable, led members of the community to approach him to do the book, and he happily accepted the project despite being engaged in another project at the time.
Anees Hassim, Aziz’s son, was in attendance to stand in for his dad, at the inaugural ceremony for the Aziz Hassim Literary award , and presentations were made to the following three remarkable and acclaimed authors. The Cato Manor Stories by Ronnie Govender ; Memory Is My Weapon by Don Mattera and Buckingham Palace District Six by Richard Rive.
Aziz’s daughter Shireen, posted a small eulogy, on his Facebook page, which sums up the spirit of the man and the loss we all shared when he was no more with us:
“RIP Aziz Hassim, darling dad, ship cleaner and newspaper ‘boy’ who dreamed of being a writer and finally became one at the age of 70. A much loved man of the people, buried last night at the Sufi mosque in Sherwood. Our hearts are broken.”