An experience on a week-long book tour of South Africa this autumn pulled me up short. Apparently, post-9/11, I had slid into a lazy, ignorant exasperation with the whole "Muslim world", even if I was well aware academically that there is no such homogenous thing.
Simply, I had a Muslim publicist. The one truly invidious aspect of an otherwise cushy career, book tours can be gruelling. Spending day after day with a woman who ferries you to events, plies you with yet more coffee while you mouth off to interviewers, and keeps you company at dinner lest you huddle in restaurants self-consciously by yourself, you get to know her surprisingly well.
Genial, attractive, and crackerjack at her job, Anika is a Cape Town Malay — "coloured", in the old parlance — and while a student she was one of the pioneers of racial integration at Stellenbosch University. On learning she was Muslim, I was at first apprehensive; after long days of repeating myself to the point of self-hatred, I prefer to debrief with refreshment more bracing than orange juice. But I'd nothing to fear. While Anika herself is teetotal, at our dinners she cheerfully ordered bottles of wine, about whose grapes and vintners she was remarkably knowledgeable. She often refilled my glass or urged me to indulge in a nightcap. Before seeing me off at the airport, she drove us over an hour out of Cape Town to the Klein Constantia estate, just so I could score some of South Africa's most celebrated dessert wines. (I know — how we writers suffer for our art.) To my relief, she even nurses one vice herself: she smokes.
Yet my publicist wasn't some backsliding Muslim in name only. Anika is devout. Single, she lives chastely with her parents. She'd never marry a non-Muslim, who wouldn't share her core values. She's already gone on the Umrah, the mini-hajj, and aims to undertake the hajj proper in future.