Paris Gourtsoyannis: Why we are all immigrants

The story of Fanny Grainger, a Scottish woman who moved to Cape Town in the late 19th century, contains a valuable lesson about immigration, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis.

Fanny Grainger swapped Edinburgh for Cape Town in South Africa at the end of the 19th century (Picture: Getty)
Fanny Grainger swapped Edinburgh for Cape Town in South Africa at the end of the 19th century (Picture: Getty)

There isn’t a lot I can tell you about Fanny Grainger, but she is where I’m going to begin.

I know she was born in Edinburgh sometime before the turn of the last century. And I know that as a young woman, like so many Scots before and after, she looked around, thought about her life and decided: “I’m going.”

Why or how, I can’t say, but Fanny arrived in the Cape Colony, in the shadow of Table Mountain. There, she met a man who, in a place far away from where Fanny came from but for reasons that were probably not that different, also decided he had to go.

Mohammed Hoosain Ebrahim was from British India, born in Surat, a town in what is now the state of Gujarat. He arrived in Cape Town in 1890, and from small beginnings established himself as a respected businessman, importing sugar, rice and ginger and establishing, among other enterprises, a ginger beer factory. Mohammed also became a religious leader, chartering steamliners to take members of the Muslim community – already present in Cape Colony for over a century – on the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Mohammed and Fanny married and she converted to Islam, from then on being known as Mariam Ebrahim. The couple lived at 247 Caledon Street, which I find has a pleasing symmetry. Their home was in the area facing the port, railway station and 17th century Dutch fort that was the first European outpost in the Cape. Known as District Six, it was the neighbourhood where, as Cape Town boomed and overspilled the canals that formed its first boundaries, new arrivals from across Africa, India, East Asia, the Caribbean and Europe lived beside and on top of one another in an urban tangle that Fanny might have recognised from the Old Town of Edinburgh.

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At Caledon Street, the couple raised nine children, one of whom was Noor Ebrahim’s father. Noor never met his grandmother; she died in 1922, more than 20 years before he was born, on a pilgrimage to Mecca with her husband. Mohammed was married three more times, and had 20 children in all. Noor, who worked for Reader’s Digest magazine after leaving school, lived in the busy family home until he was 26.

As an immigrant story, the tale of Noor’s family is utterly conventional. The long journeys and chance meetings it describes were commonplace along the wide, well-travelled highways of empire.

South Africa, where I spent the New Year, was built with such stories. My own family, decanted from Greece to Canada over three generations, made similar journeys. Perhaps your own family has branches in Africa, America or the Antipodes. But I haven’t stopped thinking about the warning in Fanny’s story since I encountered it at Cape Town’s District Six Museum; how the descendants of a Scottish woman from Edinburgh ended up being ethnically cleansed by their government, their home at the heart of a city bulldozed and as utterly disappeared as ancient Carthage.

In 1966, South Africa’s Apartheid government designated District Six a ‘whites only’ neighbourhood. Its residents were to be scattered, sorted into racially tolerable ghettos east of Table Mountain. District Six was razed to the ground, the names of streets that were broken into rubble following their former residents to unfamiliar new places, like ghosts.

The walls of the museum are carpeted with black and white photos, the kind framed on every mantlepiece and gathering dust at the back of every cupboard. The workaday milestones of family life all took place in homes that no longer exist. Noor is pictured at his brother’s engagement party, the last time the family ever gathered at Caledon Street.

Another picture shows a young, veiled bride embracing her mother before leaving her roof forever; her eyes are only half closed as their foreheads and noses touch, her arm is clasped around the back of her mother’s neck. The intimacy of the loss is unbearable. Modern office blocks cover some of District Six, while the rest remains urban scrubland, a tooth knocked from the skyline. Under Nelson Mandela, a reconciliation process was begun to register land claims from former residents and their descendants, and some have returned to new housing in District Six. Noor, who laid the foundation stone of the museum and guides visitors on tours, is still waiting to go back. At 73, he might not make it.

Fanny’s story was on my mind as Donald Trump, whose mother left behind a life of poverty in Outer Hebrides a generation later, tried to rebound from his latest blast on the dog-whistle by claiming he welcomes immigrants of “merit” to the USA. What merit would he have attached to the young man from Ghana, just graduated from basic training for the US Marines, who a week earlier died rescuing his neighbours from an apartment fire?

It was also on my mind as I read about the latest Home Office plan to make life uncomfortable for ‘illegal immigrants’ – as if people, like acts or objects, can themselves be transgressive – by sifting through bank details of those it thinks shouldn’t be in the UK. And it was with me as yet more reporting confirmed the appalling conditions that refugees in this country endure before being allowed to join society: funnelled into damp, cold, dangerous and undesirable accommodation, barred from working, and if their misfortune continues, indefinitely held in Dantean limbo.

So much of the debate about immigration is about stopping the world and comforting those who wish things could stay as they are, rather than making them comfortable with the world as it has always been: in motion, its currents carrying tides of people from one corner to the other. There is only false comfort in living behind fences in perfectly homogenous Bantustans, as the architects of Apartheid desired.

Fanny Grainger is a reminder that, if you dig deep enough, no matter where we are, we are all from somewhere else.