South Africa’s Kitabs.

I wrote about the Arabic-based orthographies called “Ajami” used to write various African languages back in 2009, expressing my surprise that Afrikaans had been thus written; now Alia Yunis reports on the Muslim Cape Malay families who own books, called kitabs (kitab means ‘book’ in Arabic), written in Arabic letters:

Even after the official end of slavery in 1834, and prior to apartheid forcing the separation of people by race in 1948, Cape Muslims lived on the periphery of the white colonial rulers, and they remained connected through religion. During community gatherings and family lessons, a religion teacher or family member would write and read from kitabs, which mostly contained Qur’anic lessons and sermons. […]

After some encouragement, we convince [92-year-old Abdiyah Da Costa] to go to the closet in her bedroom and dig out her family’s kitabs. There are two books, each handwritten by her father, and two older, yellowing books that are not mere copybooks but gracefully written, elegantly bound tomes in the practiced handwriting of religious teachers. One is in Jawi, a Southeast Asian language that uses Arabic script. The other one is especially rare: Dated 1871, it is one of the few remaining kitabs in Arabic Afrikaans.

Afrikaans, which today is one of 11 official languages of South Africa, is derived largely from Dutch, as the Dutch East India Company established Cape Town (and later all of South Africa) as a stopping-point colony until the Dutch government was forced to hand it over to the British in 1814. In addition, Afrikaans also carries influences from Malay, English, Portuguese and Khoi, an indigenous language. And the first time Afrikaans was written down—possibly as early as 1820—was with the Arabic script, mostly for lesson writing in kitabs.

Dutch linguist Adrianus van Selms coined the term “Arabic Afrikaans” in the early 1950s upon discovering manuscripts in Arabic script but with Afrikaans words. The oldest existing one is Uiteensetting van die Godsdiens (An Exposition of Religion) written in 1869 by Islamic scholar Abu Bakr Effendi. Linguists believe that although there may have been earlier Arabic Afrikaans publications, the first usage of Arabic Afrikaans, and thus the first written Afrikaans, appeared in homegrown kitabs. Afrikaans was not taught in schools until it became an official state language in 1925.

We ask Abdiyah to read for us from the Arabic Afrikaans kitab. She agrees and puts on her glasses. But then she wavers, becomes overwhelmed, a little frazzled. “No, no, it’s been too long,” she says. “I’m not so fluent. I can’t. No.” It’s a firm no. She only agrees to read us a poem she has written in memory of her husband. She’s tired now. It is time for us to go.

The piece is full of touching stories and striking photographs. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s always useful to be reminded that (despite the name) Afrikaans is not the property of Afrikaners.

  2. One is in Jawi, a Southeast Asian language that uses Arabic script.

    AFAIK, “Jawi” just refers to the Arabic writing system that’s been used for Malay.


  1. […] Hat looks at the kitabs, the books written in Afrikaans using its original Arabic script kept by Cape […]

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