Ebrahiem Manuel sits opposite me, about to embark upon his story. His living room is filled with material manifestations of his research: boxes overflowing with books and papers cover his entire sofa, newspapers and articles line the floor, and collages of images and texts hang on the walls and sit in the cabinets. It is clear that he is consumed by his passion for heritage, and his personal journey of discovery. He speaks in an animated, almost theatrical tone, raising and lowering his voice, stressing certain syllables, alive as he tells his story of “the ancient kietaabs.”
The journey began in 1997, when Ebrahiem returned to South Africa after years at sea, working as a cook on shipping vessels. Upon his return, he began a quest to learn about his personal heritage, inspired by a dream he had had about his grandfather. This search led him to an old kietaab, given to him by an elderly aunt. This was not the first time he had come across the old book; he remembered seeing it as a child, amongst other kietaabs, stored out of reach of the children, on top of his grandfather's wardrobe. It was inside this book that a possible key to his ancestors was to be found.
This significant find was a range of hand-written inscriptions inside the book, in Arabic, English, and an unknown script. The Arabic script and its corresponding English transliteration read “Imaam Abdul Karriem, son of Imaam Abdul Jaliel, son of Imaam Ismail of Sumbawa.” Here was his family tree, starting from his great-grandfather and leading to two generations before him and, it seemed, their place of origin, the island of Sumbawa in eastern Indonesia. Ebrahiem then decided to go to Indonesia to solve what had become the mystery of “the ancient kietaab.”