In what is vanishing: a reader’s impression of Durban’s Casbah by Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed

  • 2

Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed must be credited for making me see new beauty in what is vanishing. And for elevating the Durban Casbah to the pantheon of great South African places like District Six and Sophiatown.

Durban’s Casbah: Bunny chows, Bolsheviks and bioscopes
Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed
UKZN Press

This reader impression was written and sent to LitNet on the writer's own initiative.

“To see a new beauty in what is vanishing.” – Walter Benjamin, Illuminations

This opening quote from the magisterial book Durban’s Casbah (2023) by Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed took me back to my childhood when we would visit my father’s only sister, who lived in Mount Etna Flats in Warwick Triangle. And how my father would curse that his sister and her husband, both teachers, could live in an area of such incessant noise and mayhem. However, a new mood would emerge as we drove back to Pietermaritzburg. My father would make a detour, easing into third gear past St Aidan’s Hospital, slow down as we neared ML Sultan Technikon, turn right at St Anthony’s Catholic Church, and drive alongside Greyville Racecourse on the left before turning right into Grey Street, although there was a far more direct route to the highway to Pietermaritzburg.

And as we slowly chugged along Grey Street, a magical wonderland would unfold. In an age when “window shopping” was akin to strolling through a modern-day shopping mall, Grey Street had no equal. As we cruised down Grey Street in second gear, my father had a smile that gushed like the Howick Falls after a downpour and a laugh that could be heard as far as the Valley of a Thousand Hills.

As the chapters of this book unfold, so do our boyhoods,” Desai and Vahed tell us. And so did mine. This world, this Durban Casbah, is the subject of Desai and Vahed’s book.

“Every building of the Casbah is a chapter, every street a book.” Some might know it as the Coolie Location, the Imperial Ghetto, the Indian Quarter or Grey Street. Yet, as I read the book, I was transported back to my own boyhood when I would walk these streets, having travelled all the way from Pietermaritzburg, in search of a tailor that could cut me down to size for the end of year school party. And the many times I would take the taxi from the hollow that was still sleepy, get off at Alice Street and zigzag to the Kingsmead Cricket Stadium.

In those days, the name “Durban Casbah” was unknown to us. I believe it was the writer Aziz Hassim who popularised the term in 2003 in his novel The lotus people. In a subsequent interview, he stated:

I think the word “casbah” refers to a slum locality. Whether it comes from an Arabic or Indian word, I’m not sure. But in South Africa, a casbah was where people were restricted. It was a ghetto, you know. … The Grey Street Casbah, as they called it, was almost from the racecourse to Pine Street, the one-way. And from Warwick Avenue running towards Albert Street.

Literary nonfiction of the highest order

Vahed is a historian, Desai a sociologist. This combination comes together in a work of literary abundance. The facts and figures flow into words and then back again, all the while liberating the senses. The undoubted beauty of the book then lies in the literariness of this book and a writing partnership that echoes the great cricket test openers of yesteryear.

The book is replete with beautiful turns of phrase:

There was always something new and the old fighting back. Sliced bread was all the rage in the late sixties. Still, the quarter-loaf bunny stood firm even as the apartheid city tried to hollow out the Casbah.


We are woven out of the last of the tailors’ cloth at the back end of the alley where our grandfathers once walked. Apartheid’s scissors cut away, one family, by one block, by one street, snapping the sinews of lifelong friendships and hemming people into seamless townships on the city’s edges.

The book starts off by looking back at some of the pioneering families – the Jhaceri, Lakhani, Moose Hajee Cassim, Godfrey, Vallee and SK Naidoo families. This is one of the most heartbreaking chapters of the book, as it deals with the forced removals of these families during apartheid and the destruction of community. Make sure to gaze awhile at the 1982 photo of the Durban mayoress, Sybil Hotz, almost in celebratory pose atop a bulldozer that was about to demolish old houses in the Warwick area. Apartheid came with casual brutality.

Forced removals, however, had started much earlier. Quite often, families who were classified as coloured but with Indian roots were moved to Sydenham. Their extended families, who were classified Indian, were all moved to Chatsworth. Many would never see each other again. The authors describe how an area that was once home to 25 000 people was decimated to just 6 950 residents by 1980.

Unlike other books on iconic townships that are nothing more than hagiographies of the political elite, this book is kaleidoscopic. For instance, there is a chapter devoted just to architecture. Not just the depressing architecture of apartheid. We learn that one of the features of the Casbah, architecturally speaking, was its many arcades. Maybe this had something to do with space being at a premium, but the Madressa Arcade, Ajmeri Arcade, Kismet Arcade, Lockhart Arcade, Bhoola Arcade and Rajab (Shiraj) Arcade were some of the most well-known names. While one can be forgiven for thinking that all the streets had very Indian names, this could not be further from the truth. The colonial imprint looms large: Queen Street; Victoria Street, after the queen’s daughter; Prince Edward Street, after her eldest son; Beatrice Street, after her youngest child; Leopold Street, after her eighth child; and Grey, Smith, Field and Gardiner Streets, after colonial governors. However, as the authors remind us: “Empire names were not just imposed, some of those in the Casbah imbibed them: Victoria Mansions, Carlisle Castle, Dominion Buildings and Empire Mansions.” Then there are the Art Deco buildings at the end of Grey Street bordering on Greyville Street.

The book documents the impact of the Group Areas Act and how people from across political divides united to prevent Grey Street from being proclaimed a white area. On 27 April 1973, the struggle, fought on many fronts, won a reprieve. Grey Street was declared an Indian area. But it was a pyrrhic victory. It was promulgated only as an Indian trading area. Thus the community were forced to break century-old ties and were scattered to areas such as Chatsworth and Phoenix, areas which are known as Indian areas. I read about eating houses like the famous Kapitan’s serving their last meals as their clientele were dispersed. Hotels from my childhood like the Himalaya, the go-to venue for so many weddings and where lovers danced the night away in those beautiful ballrooms, were forced to become once-a-week supper clubs. In this chapter, the authors ask: “What was the Casbah without its residents? A body without blood.”

The cross-legged squatters

Many a page is dedicated to the Victoria Street Indian Market. By the mid-sixties, an estimated 1 000 families, or roughly 7 000 people, depended on the market for their livelihood. And then the flames of destruction on 16 March 1973. The book describes how stallholders wept as 35 firemen tried to put out the blaze. Many of the 250 stallholders, with 1 500 employees, never recovered. These were low-income traders who had no insurance. Even more heartbreaking was the city’s heartlessness, for while the embers were still burning, they declared that the tenancy of the stallholders had been cancelled. It was fascinating to read about the court case and the man accused of starting the fire.

The sheer joy of this book, however, is that it does not follow the boring, time-worn pattern of talking about politically active families. This is a book that is the very embodiment of the phrase “history from below”. On these pages, you can feel the texture of life in the Casbah. It is a book about fashion, about bioscopes, about nightclubs, about Indian saris and Indian clothing, about food, about bunny chows. About music. About barber shops. About textile workers. About tobacconists. About Fathima Barmania, the first woman to run a clothing factory. By interviewing everyday people and through carefully selected photographs, the authors succeed in resurrecting the life that so many of my generation and so many of my father’s generation carry in the palaces of their memories. To quote the authors out of context:

Beyond all else, through the pages of the book, we knock on the door of the past so that the generation of our dead parents, locked out of history, can enter the present.

Some say the Casbah had a heart that stopped beating with forced removals. That may be true. But the Casbah had a digestive system, too.

Possibly my favourite chapter in the book is dedicated to the bunny chow. The authors remind us throughout this chapter that, indeed, “places are feasts for the spirit”.

In the chapter “Streets of dissent”, you get a sense that the Casbah was not only an Indian area. Black families were an integral part of the area, as the book makes clear in the chapter on the bunny chow and in discussions about domestic workers, who were initially Indian but later included live-in African women – in medicinal shops, but especially in politics. For me personally, the most poignant photo in this chapter is of the memorial service for Steve Biko at the Emmanuel Cathedral in 1977.

The chapter “House of spirits”, hot on the heels of the bunny chow, is not about that beloved drink of Indians, cane spirit. It is about religion. To most whites, Indians are one homogeneous group. This chapter devotes many pages to the temples, mosques and churches of the region. In this section, the most memorable photograph is the street full of beautiful cars in Queen Street, which used to be closed off for Friday mosque prayers. If there is one criticism of the book, it has to be the use of photographs. This book, with the abundance of historical photos, deserved paper that showcased the richness of the visual history in the book. The photo of St Anthony’s Catholic Church also deserved better. It demanded a different angle, firstly to showcase one of Durban’s finest churches, and then so that the telephone pole could be edited out of the photo. Personally, while I appreciate the impact of in-text photographs, which truly enriches the narrative, I can’t help but feel that this book needed a midriff with important photographs on glossy paper. Some of the archival photographs, taken by iconic photographers like Ranjit Kalley, are truly astounding.

While I am critical of the lack of a more comprehensive photographic section in the book, Desai and Vahed must be praised for their extensive research of education and schools in the Casbah. Anyone interested in the history of higher education in South Africa must read the chapter on the history of Salisbury College, Sastri College, ML Sultan Technikon and my alma mater, the University of Durban-Westville. And one must lift one’s hat to the religious organisations of all persuasions who paved the way for (Indian) education in Durban. It was also with nostalgia that I looked at the photo of the Natal Indian Teachers’ Society. I can only wonder, with a smile on my face, why the famous Mermaid Restaurant was housed in the same building!

Another of my favourite chapters in the book is “Saturday night fever”. For someone who was born too late, it was wonderful to relive the nightlife of Durban’s Casbah that our older cousins spoke about in not-so-hushed tones. The authors evoke quite beautifully the nightlife of that era – the bioscopes, the karate movies of Bruce Lee that spawned 100 karate schools in the Casbah, the Western movies, the music. And the glamour of the nightlife in the Casbah. Ten movie houses in such a small area should give you an idea of the vibrancy of this area. But not just the atmosphere – also the vision and drive of the men who made it all possible. Rawat’s Bio was the first known Indian-owned cinema. Later, he changed the name to Royal Picture Palace. While this cinema was no palace, in later years AB Moosa and AI Kajee opened the Avalon Cinema, which was a truly luxurious cinema. This trend continued with the opening of the Shah Jehan Cinema by the Rajab family. As the authors note, bioscopes were not just bioscopes. They were places that allowed one to escape the drudgery of everyday life. The closing lines of this chapter will break your heart.

I remember watching plays as a young man at the Ashoka Theatre at the University of Durban-Westville. This was theatre unlike anything I had seen in Pietermaritzburg. I was reminded of this in the chapter on the history of theatre in the Casbah. Here, the names Ronnie Govender and Muthal Naidoo take centre stage.

And the music. Not only the music of the disco era, but Indian music. And ballroom music. How wonderful it was to read about the Fataar Brothers and the Flames. Who knew about one Pragaden Reddy who was a master violin maker? This is a beautiful chapter that you never want to end. The authors must truly be commended for bringing the history of the Casbah to life.

Have you ever heard of Indian boxers? Charous in the boxing ring? Never. Impossible! And yet Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed have uncovered this forgotten piece of history. And who was the man at the heart of sport in the Casbah? None other than Ronnie Govender. The playwright. The former marketing manager of the Baxter Theatre and the first (?) black director at the Playhouse Theatre.

But the book documents not only the major sporting codes, but the minor codes like tennis, table tennis and squash as well. Who knew, for instance, that one Cassim Peer was the first South African captain of a non-racial table tennis team and had his roots in Victoria Street in the Casbah?

But it is the chapter on Curries Fountain and Kingsmead that I found utterly fascinating. In the words of the authors:

Kingsmead and Curries are a metaphor for the city’s colonial and apartheid history: Curries as the mecca of non-racial sport, Kingsmead profaned as the willing keeper of apartheid’s madness.

In a country divided by the slogan “no normal sport in an abnormal society”, Curries Fountain was so much more than a soccer stadium. It was the home of the struggle against apartheid in Durban.

Gandhi addressed a mass meeting of striking workers here in 1913. Queen Elizabeth appeared at Curries in 1947. Papwa Sewgolum was given a hero’s welcome here in 1959 after winning the Dutch Open. This was the ground that gave Chief Albert Luthuli a send-off like no other before he departed in 1961 to receive his Nobel Peace Prize. It was at this ground that the Flames sang “For your precious love” to a sold-out crowd. Today, Curries stands dilapidated and forlorn. It’s enough to break your heart.

When I look back at this book, all 400-odd pages of it, the title of Jacob Dlamini’s book Native nostalgia comes to mind. For this is a book that made me realise for the first time that literally within two generations, our forefathers turned the Casbah – the Coolie Location – into a thriving business hub, so much so that the whites tried through the long twentieth century to smash it into bits and feed it to themselves.

As I closed the book, I was overcome by a sense of melancholia, with a sadness that I was saying goodbye to a world that had grown on me. A sadness that in my youth, I was dismissive of the Casbah, of Durban. Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed must be credited for making me see new beauty in what is vanishing. And for elevating the Durban Casbah to the pantheon of great South African places like District Six and Sophiatown.

If you find yourself in Durban, make a turn at the Casbah. Indulge in a Patel’s bunny. Amble through the Top Market and stock up on curry powders with names like “Mother-in-law’s revenge”. Stop at the last of the tailors and let him chalk up a suit. In the shade of Ajmeri Arcade, listen to the sound of the Temptations competing with the muezzin from the Grey Street mosque and with the bells of St Emmanuel’s Cathedral. And feel history move your soul as you stand still.

See also:

LitNet loof maandelikse Crito-prys vir lesersindrukke uit

  • 2


  • Naòmi Moegan

    Dear Darryl, how movingly you write, how you and the authors of this fine book have taken us on a tour of the past in all its cultural richness! No one else but the organizer of South Africa’s most iconic book festivals could have written it, the man who documents the history of church architecture in the country.

  • Reageer

    Jou e-posadres sal nie gepubliseer word nie. Kommentaar is onderhewig aan moderering.