In his sumptuous book Istanbul Orhan Pamuk talks of “Huzun”. It means "melancholy" in Turkish, and he says it characterises the feeling many have towards their city.
Having just returned from a visit to this ancient and wonderful city, with its skyline defined by tall minarets and huge domed mosques, I wondered what emotion would characterise Joburgers. I asked a number of people. Their answers suggest a love/hate relationship with the city.
First answer was fear, then greed, then hope, as in “digging for gold”, I was told, quite literally the first prospectors who rushed to a bare piece of veld in the Transvaal to claim a slice of the gold pickings.
Another said passion – “pure passionate pride”. Others felt that passion too: “Joburg is like a passionate lover – one both drowns in overwhelming love and fervent hate for her, simultaneously.”
For one it was anticipation: “… always something exciting in the offing”. For a newcomer to the city it was inspiration and its diversity of cultures. “I love the fact that Johannesburg is a cosmopolitan city.”
For me fear is always prominent – we watch our backs all the time, whether it’s driving out the driveway, stepping out of a taxi at night, or, sadly, just walking in our neighbourhood.
I feel melancholy too at other things. The poverty, the dirty streets, the late buses, the speeding taxis, overcrowded inner city blocks, street beggars, faulty traffic lights, potholes, long queues for taxis, aggressive behaviour on the roads, and more.
Pamuk says huzun goes back to the Prophet Muhammad. He used the word to describe the loss of both his wife and his uncle in one year, as “Senettal huzn”, “the year of melancholy”. He says that Istanbullus feel melancholy too over the loss of the Otterman Empire around 100 years ago, when Istanbul was a city of immense wealth and prosperity.
But Pamuk’s deep love for his city glows. Joburg too gets under the skin. Its glorious sunsets; dripping purple trees that herald spring; violent thunder storms that wash it clean; wonderful summer evenings; crisp winter mornings; the iconic Hillbrow tower; the Soweto Theatre in Jabulani; our beloved Madiba; a grand city hall and central library, and many other illustrious buildings; public art in the inner city; the ostentatious Kliptown square; the historic Vilakazi Street; riding a Rea Vaya bus or the Gautrain or a tuk-tuk; the Wits Great Hall and its grand columns; the Credo Mutwa Village in Jabavu; our splendid zoo; the Apartheid Museum and the Hector Pieterson Museum; the Joburg Art Fair; the food markets; the Art Deco buildings in the inner city; the head gear, Voortrekker wagon and coco pans in Main Street, reminders of how Joburg came about; Melville Koppies; the Regina Mundi Church in Moroka; the indigenous Walter Sisulu Gardens in Roodepoort; the George Harrison Park in Langlaagte, where gold was first discovered; Liliesleaf Farm, where the ANC top brass were arrested and later imprisoned for almost a lifetime; the other-worldly Circa on Jellicoe; the glittering shops in Sandton City; Arts on Main and Main Street Life; Zoo Lake; the Klipriviersberg Nature Reserve and many other reserves that dot the city; St Mary’s Cathedral and other lovely churches and shuls; the grand Mosque in Midrand; the Oriental Plaza; the Mai Mai and Faraday muti markets.
The Bosphorus splits Istanbul into a city in Europe and a city in Asia. It is more than a river. It has traditionally given comfort to Istanbul residents – when they feel low they walk along its promenade, counting ships coming up and down and enjoying the life on the river. Says Pamuk: “If the city speaks of defeat, destruction, deprivation, melancholy, and poverty, the Bosphorus sings of life, pleasure, and happiness. Istanbul draws its strength from the Bosphorus.”
Our city certainly has plenty of destruction, deprivation, melancholy and poverty. I think of the destruction of Sophiatown, the once-vibrant, often dangerous, multi-cultural suburb north-west of the CBD. It was flattened in the 1950s and 60s, its miserable replacement called Triomf, as if it were a triumph. Or the destruction of Vrededorp, never to be replaced by an apartheid substitute, now still a wasteland. Or the recent flattening of our mine dumps that for decades have defined the city. They gave it character and distinctiveness, but they are fast disappearing for the same reason they were created: gold.
What gives us particular pleasure in Joburg, I wondered? Is it going to the movies, the theatre, clubs, the markets, bookstores, concerts, exhibitions, pubs, the picnic spots in its many parks, keeping warm around a brazier or fireplace, waking up mostly to endless blue skies. Or just being with friends over a glass of wine, or bottle of beer.
But perhaps in the end it’s the people. Joburgers are curious, adventuresome, hardworking, entrepreneurial, and always, always ready for a party.