Alam was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He studied
and taught chemistry in London where he obtained a PhD (Doctor
of Philosophy) from the University of London. In 1983 he was
awarded the Harvey Harris Trophy by the London Arts Council
for best photographer of the year. Due to prior copyright, Arts
& Opinion is not able to present Alam's photos which
may be viewed at ShahidulNews.
I’ll admit it. I do have a soft spot for older women.
My grandmother, my mother, Shejokhalamma, Chotokhalamma, Chotomami,
Sufia Khala (poet Sufia Kamal, Didi (Mahasweta Devi) were all
pretty special. All in their eighties or so. I can’t be
entirely to blame though. When a woman says, “I’ve
been waiting for you all day. I’ll wait all night. You
must come.” How can one say no? Especially if it’s
a woman you haven’t even met. And Fatima Meer was some
was a long route from Mexico City. I had stopovers in Frankfurt,
London and Dubai, but it was Johannesburg I was headed for.
There had been an initial panic when Professor Yunus’s
assistant Lamiya told me that the meet and greet with Nelson
Mandela had been scheduled for the 8th. There was no way I could
make it over from Mexico by then, but my good luck held out.
Madiba rescheduled for the 10th! Arriving on the 9th, evening,
I headed off to Kensington to the home of Wilson and Rayhana.
Wilson had been at Pathshala for two years, and they had kindly
offered to put me up.
Lamborghini, two Porches, a Ferrari, a Bentley and a Rolls that
I saw parked next to each other in Mandela Square, spoke of
the huge inequalities that still had to be dealt with in South
Africa. Watching “Jerusalem - The Promised Land”
on the flight in, reminded me of the post-apartheid expectations
that needed to be matched by ground realities. The British had
lured in Indians with the Dick Whittington story of streets
paved with gold. Now the youth in Hillbrow wanted to see the
gold, and they wanted it now. As Mandela had said upon release,
the long walk to freedom had only begun. Lucky Kunene wanted
was no ordinary assignment, and I knew there was not going to
be a second chance. Checking out with Lamiya what the drill
was for the 10th, I charged my batteries, cleaned my lenses,
emptied my memory cards and double checked all my equipment.
There was too much at stake. Access to Madiba was always going
to be difficult. Robin Comley, the picture editor of The
Times had only obtained permission for her photographer
to be part of the pool. The foundation would vet the low res
images, and select which ones would be released. The pictures
were to go out in the foundation’s name. There was no
chance of an exclusive session. I was privileged and very much
Bhai had put in a strong recommendation for me. The fact that
I had written about Dr. Yunus and had historical pictures of
Grameen, had helped. My photograph filled the front page, and
my article was the key feature of the foundation’s brochure
for the 7th annual lecture. So while I was theoretically only
allowed limited access to Madiba’s room in the Mandela
Foundation, I ended up being the first one to go in and the
last one to leave. To be face to face with the legend was stupendous
in itself, but he looked frail, and I found myself asking why
we were making this wonderful man put up with this parade. Madiba
and his wife Graça Machel were waiting inside. Yunus
Bhai, Lamiya, Kamal Bhai and I made up the Bangladesh delegation.
Three others from the international film crew, who were not
allowed to film, also came in. The official photographer and
cameraperson made another two, and of course the officials of
the foundation joined.
hands, posing for pictures, repeated shakes for the camera,
one sided conversations continued. I had photographed royalty
and heads of state before. This was typical of a ‘meet
and greet,’ but though I felt uncomfortable, I also wanted
to be selfish. I wanted to talk to him, to soak up his presence,
even an urge to be photographed with him. But as a photographer
I needed to snap out of my reverie. Yunus meeting Mandela was
of huge significance to Bangladesh. A few functional shots of
the two meeting, shaking hands, a short video clip. I had ticked
off my check list. Now I wanted the picture I had come for.
Madiba as I had pictured him. The statesman, the leader, the
rebel, the visionary.
was only one part of the room where the light was just right.
Yunus Bhai was in front of me. I could hardly move him out of
the way, and there was no question of shifting Madiba. So I
prefocused on Madiba, and waited for a gap to emerge. One frame,
another, he slowly turned, looked at me and smiled.
had made contact the way a photographer makes with a subject.
We were doing this together. I remembered Sasa talking of how
Madiba, in an official ceremony, had shortened his speech, so
that he and the other photographers soaking in the rain could
go on home. More importantly I remember Zapiro talking of how
Madiba had called him after his critical cartoon of the ’slipping
halo.’ He was worried that he had offended the most powerful
man in the country. Instead, the president had praised him for
his work. As for the criticism? “But that’s your
job,” he had replied. I had been pleasantly surprised
to see the ‘offending’ cartoon displayed in both
the Mandela Foundation and at the exhibition in the Apartheid
Museum. My mind was wandering, but the minders were waiting
to usher me out. I took one longing look at my hero, and left.
City Hall in Johannesburg was packed with glitterati. The vice
president of South Africa, Professor Yunus, Achmat Dangor, the
CEO and Professor Jakes Gerwel, the chairman of the foundation
were all on stage. I was uncomfortable sitting in the front
row, knowing Winnie Mandela, the rest of the Mandela family,
Oliver Tambo’s daughter, Graça Machel’s daughter,
members of the cabinet, the Bangladeshi High Commissioner were
all behind us.
stay in my seat long. I needed to search out the best angles,
find the right light. But this was one situation where I could
not be disrespectful. Sello Hatang, the information and communication
officer nodded to me, letting me know when Madiba was about
to enter. Officially I was not allowed this space, but I could
read the signals. They trusted me and were going to turn a blind
eye. I would be allowed to go where I wanted.
crowd rose like a wave, as he entered, helped along by Graca
Machel, but walking with just the help of a stick. He looked
less frail, made more eye contact, had small conversations.
The crowd was there to see him. The great man responded.
haunting voice of Zolani Mkiva set the scene. Professor Yunus
ad-libbed his hour long lecture. The audience was spellbound.
Gill Marcus, the deputy governor of the reserve bank, wept.
It was a different Bangladesh that South Africa was seeing.
As the crowd mingled at the end of the talk, I went looking
for Sello. I had promised my students at Pathshala that I would
ask for a message from Madiba for their first book. I knew it
was too much of an ask. Winnie walking past, squeezed my arm
and gave me a tiny pinch. She had enjoyed my capers as I had
wandered down the aisles looking for the best angles.
meant to take the morning flight to Durban to see Fatima Meer.
Vinay Lal from UCLA and his friend Goolam Vahed had given me
the contact details. I had even rung to let her know that I
would be coming over. The day had gone on captioning pictures,
uploading files and informing clients. I had rung Maarten at
World Press Photo, checking up on phone numbers for photo editor
friends. “What was it like with Madiba?” he had
asked. “The pictures came out well,” I had said,
“but it would have been sufficient for me, even if I hadn’t
taken any pictures. Just being around him would have been enough.”
“I thought so too,” Maarten had said. “I know
you as an activist.” I reluctantly rang the freedom fighter
Fatima Meer to tell her I wouldn’t be able to make it.
It was too late to call on her. The woman who had spent time
in prison with Winnie, and along with her husband Ismail, had
been one of the closest friends of Madiba, had other ideas.
Quickly searching the Internet for the cheapest flight and taking
along the minimum equipment, I got into Wilson’s car.
There was no time to charge batteries or empty cards. but it
would be OK, I thought. After all, I’d only have a few
minutes with her.
took a while to find 148 Burnwood Road in Durban. As I went
up the stairs to see this woman wrapped up in her easy chair,
I thought of the fiery activist whom the apartheid government
had tried to assassinate. I remembered the irony of Nelson Mandela,
Fatima Meer and all other members of the ANC, having been listed
as “terrorists” in the US, even until last July.
The apartheid government, which had openly conducted so many
targeted assassinations, had never been on that list.
you eaten?” was her first question. I remembered I had
entered an Asian home. A stroke had left her left side paralyzed.
“Lucky it was the left side,” she said. “I
can still work.” She then got busy arranging for a place
for me to sleep. The corner room was ready, towels, soap, fresh
blankets had all been put in place. I was happy I didn’t
have to find a hotel that late at night. I was hesitant to ask
if I could record what we were saying. I needn’t have
worried. Gandhi, slavery, Mandela, the movement, her mind was
a repository of South African history. When I heard that Mandela
had stayed in this house upon leaving Robben Island, I had asked
which room he had stayed in. Sensing my reasons, she said Desmond
Tutu, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu had all slept in the middle
room. Calling over her night nurse, she quickly instructed.
“Fix that room for him. He is going to sleep there.”
I was going to sleep on the bed that Mandela used to sleep in.
talked of the Koran that Dada Abdullah had given Gandhi when
he sent him over to South Africa. Of the Sura from the Koran
which he had read when thrown off the train. Of how it had inspired
him to resist. She talked of the house being surrounded by fire,
and they being shot at. About how her husband Ismail, even while
in jail during the treason trial, had helped her in carrying
on the resistance. Thinking she might be tiring, I suggested
we have a break. “Let’s get on with the recording,”
she said. We talked of the ‘bronze giant’ Mandela
chatting her up and teasing her. But also of wanting the couple’s
opinion about Winnie, before the new relationship had formed.
She had loved the ‘black pimpernel’ in the 1960s.
She loved him still.
talked of establishing the Women’s League for Durban Districts,
and rebuilding alliances between Africans and Indians following
the race riots of 1949. She spoke bitterly of how the riots
had been instigated by the whites, in retaliation for the Gandhi
inspired resistance by the Indian community. But she had questions
too about Gandhi, and Madiba and the present government. Gandhi
had been too British initially for her liking. Madiba’s
handing over power to Mbeke was a misjudgment. “He failed
to build the second tier of leadership.” She spoke of
the tyranny of the ANC, the party she had helped to build.
ran out of memory cards. I did have my computer with me, so
was able to download the movies to make space. Then I ran out
of batteries. I had woefully miscalculated the vitality of this
eighty-plus woman. I still needed portraits, so I would have
to leave it till the morning, hoping the batteries recovered
sufficiently for me to take a few shots. Fatima was more than
willing. It was three in the morning. My flight was at 8:40.
I woke up just before sunrise and quickly packed. There was
barely enough light to photograph the room and the bed. I needed
to conserve battery for the portraits. Fatima knocked on my
door. As I went over to her side and asked her if I could take
the photographs, she simply said, “Let me do my hair first.”
The hair was done, the photographer was called. She had put
on her sunglasses. I was happy to photograph her with her glasses,
but also wanted pictures of the way I remembered her. The animated
face recounting those wonderful tales. “Will you smile
for me?” I had asked. “Well I haven’t put
on my dentures,” she said, but smiled anyway. This woman
had certainly won my heart.
had been a call for each citizen of the world to provide 67
minutes to commemorate the 67 years of service that Mandela
had given to South Africa and the world. “This recording
will be our 67 minutes. This story needed to be told,”
were Fatima’s parting words.
her trusted taxi driver, Babu, dropped me to the airport, I
remembered Fatima talking of how prison had robbed the nation
of the best years of their greatest leader. I remembered Madiba,
delicate and frail. This giant of a man would be leaving us
at a time when we needed him the most. He had fought against
white domination, and he had fought against black domination.
He had a dream of a democratic and free society. A dream he
had been prepared to die for. It is for those of us who live
on, to realize that dream. I now knew why Fatima had wanted
the story to be told.
Birthday, Madiba. You built the road to freedom. We need the
courage to walk it.
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