Published 08 January 2024 in News
'1,000 aande/An Ode to Dionysus'
By Shoshanna Kapdi
Published 07 January 2024
(Translated from Afrikaans to English using Google Translate)
Over time, we scrape together affect (and friends), in a queer scavenging style. At the beginning of 2024, Shoshanna writes about a uni 'barbecue', about a res hookup, and about a friend who is no longer with us.
a fresher’s 'braai' can either be overwhelmingly dull or chaotic. more or less, if it’s the latter, i like to think of the proverbial gathering along the likes of a bacchanal - the field drunk with spoils of alcohol, bellies bursting with the shredding of the hunt’s remains, bodies mindlessly swaying to the apocalyptic (yet euphoric) tremor of 2016 drake.
(it was obviously the former, and it pained me to write the above).
it does not paint a pretty picture; neither does it represent ‘truth’ in its primordial form - but i like to think that there is beauty in the extravagance of its disgust, the story it leaves behind, its manipulation of detail, the moulding of truths, the shaping of contours that bring silhouettes to life within such an anecdote. if there is one such body i must bring to the fore, to cast a light on a soul that refuses to shed its brilliance - to revive - it is my late friend, and a soul of many firsts, syed bakang ali taqvi.
that 'braai' was the very first time we laid eyes on each other. yet, that first encounter was not one of swift words or small talk; ali ran up to me, on the verge of pouncing, to embrace me with arms long and wide enough to carry the weight of worlds. ali, you, came into my life with touch; a first impression on skin that longs for its ghost limb.
i had some reservations when it came to writing about you. someone suggested that i speak about sex and dating for my next piece. i thought about it, perhaps, some extravagant reflections on the very intimate aspects of my life. however, to not speak about you would be pointless; otherwise, there would be nothing to write about at all. ali was in many ways, my first. my first kiss. the first to ever kiss me back. my first experience with intoxication. the first head i ever gave.
so you can imagine, ali and i had come (pun intended) a long way since our initial ‘encounter’, as mere ‘friends’ on the internet in 2012. the time between then and our final year of high school left not much between us, except for a few comments, retweets, likes, and a distance of provincial proportions. 2015, however, was alive with matric frenzy. lamenting on the days of old, abandoning the confinement of school adolescence, and relishing in the proximity of university freedoms. a majority of us as ‘internet friends’ were to attend UCT the following year.
2016. our online interactions had now felt more visceral, given that the space between us had collapsed. this anxiety-ridden shadow was not unique to the way i saw myself in relation to ali, but rather to many i had first come to know through the virtual spectre. yet, they were now all flesh, blood and bone, and so was i - a reality that no amount of pixels could salvage. we never hung out much - i was always toggling between hanging out with my friends from high school and wanting to feign a presence for my internet friends.
what made matters more difficult, ali was a first year med student, and so his time was severely occupied by the commitment to a hippocratic oath, and a kind of debauchery to which i was awkwardly averse. it was not until i wrote my mid year exams in June (if i am remembering correctly), that me and ali decided to hook up.
it was on a friday evening, and i was still very much a lost student in the science faculty, having written a biology test and walking up to the north stop jammie to meet ali, before heading off to the 'clarinus' students’ residence. you see, sometime a week prior, i thought it wise to tweet about sucking dick. this prompted him to reply privately, expressing a desire to fulfil mine own - a desire which was, indeed fulfilled a week later.
as we were driven to the residence, there were pockets of silence that filled the air between our small talk. i asked him about his religious and cultural background, because he had always been incredibly articulate and passionate about those aspects of his life. i suppose i was also incredibly in awe of the fact that i was sitting next to someone who came from a muslim background, celebrated it, and 'supposedly', had no qualms around their own queerness. my memory is foggy when i try to recall his response - but all i remember after exiting the bus was this nagging feeling of there being a lot more to be said, a lot more to be desired.
anyway, we get to his residence, and the floor is adorned with a persian carpet ('a gift from a family member', he tells me). he asks me to excuse the mess, a tale as old as time, only for us to leave the bed creased tenfold before the end of the night.
a small shelf of books lay cozily, collecting dust, and there are some spirits lying in corners. we kiss.
it was sloppy, awkward, minty (either from marlboro’s, or actual mints) - yet, it was enough to cement the idea of a life worthy of living. sometime thereafter, i made a joke about me reading to him, while my head rested on a chest oscillating between life and death (he had mentioned it being a romantic gesture briefly sometime ago). regardless of who was reader/listener, we would have been attuned to each other’s breaths - one still, one speaking - voice and pulse humming in unison.
anyway, the idea was joked away, as if scared of what it would mean outside of our already established context. i may not have gotten to share this kind of moment with you, ali - but such a gesture remains to be shared with others.
we saw each other, in that intimate capacity, at the beginning of the new year, when res students were scurrying about, dragging heavy check bags swelling with clothes for the year. in the interim, we became the kind of people that communicated on whatsapp, checking in on each other, hoping to see each soon, but it was either med school or the fees must fall protests that kept ali at bay.
despite this, when we 'did' see each other, we almost always spent time in the confines of his res room. in 2017, my parents had left for 'umrah' for a week, and our third encounter happened to coincide within that temporal window. it was the first night i had ever i lost my inhibitions to spirits (the liquid kind). in turn, my obsessive-compulsive nature warped my understanding of his own “high-functioning” alcoholism, such that I was too afraid to touch him. i was scared that i would be breaching his capacity for consent.
he reassured me countless times of the contrary, and offered me a cheap rendition of gin and orange juice, which i accepted. i felt giddy, aware of my body in its carelessness to time and space, as i slurred my body across walls, melted to the floor in laughter, a body succumbed to a mild frenzy of reverie and stupor.
before i could sense the mischievous flow of alcohol through previously-tamed bloodstreams, ali had to quickly leave for a house residence meeting. i was left to my own devices (which included my phone, his round frame glasses, and the remnants of orange juice speckled with gin).
eventually, he returned, and the next morning i was in my 9AM maths lecture, sleep deprived, hungover - a senile, slow man with a dull register and an inability to teach stood somewhere in the peripheries of the room. my asshole burnt as i sat at the back of the class, living to tell the tale.
my relationship with ali was complex. our last sexual encounter felt like a confirmation of ‘we can’t do this sex thing anymore’ - and although such a phrase became somewhat ritualistic in our endeavours, 2018 brought our physically intimate encounters to a close. our time since then became riddled once again with the online encounter, and all the limits it had to offer and all the opportunities it diminished. furthermore, i often think there was a lack of language in my arsenal that prevented my relationship with him to become more than it was. yet over these past few months, i don’t think language was ever the problem (at least at its core) - but rather, 'maybe', truth.
i once lied to my coworkers that i had a boyfriend in 2019. ali, of course, was 'that' boyfriend. i had never once been swooned, been made an object of affection, allowed the delicacy of giving and returning love, before ali, even if it rarely left the confines of a student res. so when my ‘taken’ work husband at the time teased me about not having a partner, ali was a convenient ‘truth’ i could mould for myself. such a lie went on for months, and i do not think anybody had a suspicion or doubt about it.
so yes, i was delusional about our ‘situation’-ship, whatever the hell our situation was supposed to be. i spent much of the 2019 year-end holiday thinking about ali, yearning their touch, wanting to bring to life a fantasy that truth was so determined to deny. i became viscously drunk on one and a half bottles of wine, home alone, and texted them ‘I MISS YOU’, followed by the proverbial apology, and an explanation of the night’s (and morning’s) messy proceedings.
2020 arrived and it was both our final year of undergrad. i was determined to finish my degree, after my failure of a stint in the sciences. i was also 'very' determined to tell ali that i liked them. and around may/april, i plucked up the courage to do just that. this was not done in person, but rather through my private account to his public account on instagram.
i finally told ali i liked them — and then the pandemic happened.
okay. i’m not saying that my confession to ali was the reason that “something shifted”, but indeed, “shit [was definitely] about to get real weird”.(1) you see, i was home alone when i got ali’s response. i had to go to campus for a psychology lecture, but i was paralysed by a sudden awareness of gravity, such that lying on the bathroom floor was my only remedy. the thing is, ali had not rejected me, but said that he were with someone at the time. it took all of me to go that damn psychology lecture, sit there, and not think about the lost opportunity of telling ali how i truly felt years ago, or how stupid i was to even tell it to him in the first place. the only thing i’m able to recall from that lecture was a message on the chalkboard, presumably left by a previous student: ‘CORONA MY NOU’. as soon as the lecture ended i ran to the same disabled bathroom in pd hahn that i frequented for much of my early undergrad, to flood the bathroom floor with tears which were for a long time inhibited by 'sertraline'(2), once again (unaware of how i would not be able to return to campus, at least for the next two years).
ali had a tendency to identify with the greek deity, 'dionysus'. in mourning, i suppose i was drawn to the dionysian play the way a sinner see(k)s scripture, as a remedy for grief. i had never really engaged with the (ancient/greek) classics as a genre of its own, or at the very least, took it seriously. my dear friend caitlin - who also knew ali in her own delicate and deep capacity, recommended 'the secret history' (TSH) by donna tart (we often wonder if he ever had the chance to read it). i read it just after i had just finished 'the idiot' - and although it did not speak to me in the same way that batuman’s did, tart’s tickled an itch around language in different, yet interesting ways.
'the secret history', often considered somewhat of a precedent in the ¿genre? of ‘dark academia’, was my first introduction to the greek classics, despite it’s nascency as a 'contemporary' classic. it bears all picturesque resemblance to the forms and figures of golden autumns and snowy winters in a small american college town in the 90s, a picture that tartt paints with exquisite prose - only for the puncture of the pen to hit you mid-page, when bunny is pushed off a hill.
i’m not sorry for spoilers. in all seriousness, TSH presents the murder of a classics student by his fellow classmates as not only the central conflict - it is the centre around which the novel pivots temporally - all that leads up to, and all that precedes, the act of murdering bunny corcoran. however, bunny is not our principal narrator. we are introduced to this elusive world through richard pappen - who, upon entering hamden college, becomes a part of the peripheries of campus life, but is no less privy to its inner workings. more so is the case when his proclivity for ancient greek makes him join the exclusive, enigmatic, ¿(un)conventional?, and tiny cohort of classics students. to give each of them a brief character sketch would be far beyond the scope of this piece, but i suppose a relic from the 2014 internet archives conveys enough of their ‘vibes’:
in the first chapter - a retrospective richard presents the following,
‘does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? i used to think it didn’t. now i think it does. and i think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.’(3)
'hamartia',(4) or ‘the fatal flaw’ describes a character trait typical of the hellenistic tragedy, or in this case, a ‘destiny’ ascribed to a tragic character - in which one’s overindulgence in pursuits of success (and excess) result(s) in one’s own eventual demise. i despise destiny; i have come to avoid the idea of nature and humans as having ‘innate’ qualities that predetermine a singular way of moving through the world. but - i do think we are creatures of habit and habitual circumstance, and there is no human history without the threat of tragedy that jumps out when we least expect it. i suppose we think of death by suicide as a ‘fatal flaw’, or perhaps 'the' fatal flaw - it is not only an act which ends in demise; the demise is the end in and of itself. “beauty is terror”, says julian, the ostentatious yet charismatic classics professor to his students.5 he is however, left with the conundrum of desire(s). perhaps all desires, wherever they may take us, are governed by a universal desire “to live”, by which julian extends “…forever”. but what if what lies beyond the edge of the horrors of living, is that beautiful and terrific thing called immortality? is that what ali sought?
as a writer myself, i was drawn to understanding tart’s inspiration for TSH - and through my own investigation (what wonders a wikipedia page can tell you), found euripides’ ancient greek tragedy 'the bacchae' and its central, philosophical conflict, which is much of the foundation on which TSH was built. when ali passed, we could not help but raise a toast to them under (and in) the name of dionysus - and still, we wonder, how they would have engaged with such a text that spoke much to their own dionysian ways. and so, i brought it upon myself to read 'the bacchae', in search of a character lost to time, space, and to the orthodoxies of appollian logic.
'the bacchae' is, at its core, a theatrical conflict between reason and rage, law and nature, west and east, orthodoxy and heresy. dionysus feigns the likeness of 'the stranger', upon entering the city of thebes, a figure whose femininity makes him undoubtedly a spectacle to the theban layman. he comes to avenge his dear mortal mother, for her sisters have denied him his stake to divinity, through his father, king of kings, zeus. thebes is ruled by the stern pentheus, and the stranger’s sudden arrival sparks a frenzy of soil hungry women, or 'maenads', whose devotion to the new ‘oriental’ god is a disruption to the two thrones, one regal, the other divine. dionysus plays his tricks on pentheus, shape-shifting, arousing ecstacy, delight, dalliance and brutality amongst the maenad hive, cultivating an anxiety amongst the ordinary thebans. pentheus’ reluctance to accept the dionysian call only ends in his own demise. and, eventually, a chorus sings as rows of applause honor the beautiful and violent devices of dionysus.
ali was a theatre kid.
he once briefly spoke of a desire to abandon the hippocratic oath in pursuit of the performing arts - but i suppose the former took more precedence over time. i remember accounts of sexual soirées and drunken dalliances at the grahamstown national arts festival in high school. i was often astounded (and somewhat impressed) by his ability to be a master of the bottle, and a charmer of sexual exploits that involved more than merely two people. i suppose ali was very dramaturgical in their ways - the theatre was merely a place that followed him wherever he went. everyone else in his life seemed to be an actor moving on or off stage - but my relationship with ali felt painfully voyeuristic at times. it felt like being an audience member eager to rip away at the curtains; always in fear, however, of being pulled off stage, or tripping before my feet even touched the last step. our entanglements were always on the verge of disentanglement, as we could never find a balance to the scales between truth and exaggeration.
ali’s dionysian qualities were not merely of a dramaturgical force. i find it astonishing just how much ali resembled this divine figure, in character and form, after having read 'the bacchae'. they were a shapeshifter. a shaper of truths, yes, but there were also parts of their university life that took on various eras; perhaps, they would decide to change their style, perhaps their hair took on a different form, at least for every turn of the season. dionysus was also a gender-bender, a political outcast, a theological conundrum, a force of nature - and so was ali.
on top of such flamboyancy, they were a strong advocate of 'groove' - south african nightlife; the music, the drugs, the alcohol, the sex, and the politics of it all. during the pandemic - he decided that he would embark on the journey of writing a book titled, a 'pedagogy of groove'. it sits somewhere now, perhaps in KZN still, stored on a device. we may never know the contents of such a text - but i like to think that i’ve already read it by living it, since nightlife has become a frequent (and very new) pastime for myself. i often walk through observatory or town, for example, thinking of the places he would frequent, whether traces of footprints long erased remain tethered to the tar, whether he followed the same paths i took - what went through such a mind? i go to some club and dance, and maybe when the rush of elation hits me, i think of how such a place was ali’s kingdom once before, and wonder if he looks down on me like a proud mother, dionysus, deity of groove. you’ll be proud to know i made out with two gay men (at the same time) - however, do forgive me, this was at the 'waiting room'.
i’m often still in awe of the rock of the person i used to be. in 2019, drag race all star winner alaska thunderfuck performed in cape town. i arrived alone, and in the time it took to wait for alaska to get on stage, i stood in the same spot for what was exactly an hour, feigning sips of piss-pungent beer. on top of it being my first time in such a club setting for that long, it was also my first time being in what i suppose the queers like to call a ‘safe queer space’. to the habitual queer, i suppose this was just another day - i, on the other hand, ran to the bathroom to avoid seeing people whose faces were once only recognizable from 'grindr'. it felt much like that gif from kath and kim, except i was not lebanese, just an egg of a transsexual in denial.
yet, a few weeks ago, i attended POPPERS, an event at EVOL. if you are not acquainted with such a place, then just be aware that it’s not the best place to bump into your students. steven universe queers would not even make it past the entrance. it is however, where glitter comes to die, where the fumes of hades reside, where the day is merely a thing of a past life. sweat-chiseled flesh becomes brittle under the quake of dance, a twink commands the masses enslaved to britney spears, and i, a maenad of the bacchus, become every so briefly encircled by stars on the vomit-stained dance floor, in the rush ™ of it all. it brings me to the following dialogue from the bacchae:(6)
pentheus: did you come here first to introduce your god?
the stranger: no, everyone of the foreigners dances these rites.
pentheus: that’s because they’re much more foolish than the greeks.
the stranger: in this case, at least, they are rather wise. it’s just that their customs are different.
pentheus: do you celebrate these sacred rites at night or in the day?
the stranger: at night mostly, since darkness induces devotion.
indeed, the brevity of the rush amongst holy sinners is indeed a deeply spiritual practice. the darkness is our refuge when the day is ruled by the flares of helios, when we are blinded by the daggers of the clock, and even our sleep becomes corrupted by the horrors of the day. only in darkness can a kiss from an average-looking stranger feel sexy, perhaps even beautiful.
although, i cannot reside in the beauty of darkness forever.
death is an intriguing conundrum. its absence makes us forget the futility of time, that monstrous thing to which we are enslaved. i don’t speak of time as futile in the sense of having no worth; in fact, quite the opposite. it seems that i was too invested in thinking about the consequences of my thoughts (let alone the resulting actions), that thought became obsolete, devoid of substance. and so, any ‘action’ on my part were merely dreams far past their deadlines.
it is only through death’s presence - that one’s absence becomes tangible. is that not what we call ghosts? the ghost of death is a master at defying the laws of time and space - it not only renders the present visible - it makes the future unforeseeable, stops it in its tracks, such that we cannot imagine the body outside of its own delusional paralysis. weeks before our knowledge of his passing, his disappearance was enough for us to “prepare for the worse, hope for the best”. it didn’t take long for anecdotes of his life to become a thing of history - to conjure those moments solidified an ominous, sudden shift to past tense, of which hope was enough of a return to ground us in the possibility of his ‘presence’.
in TSH, an older richard reflects on the passing of bunny,
“a character like his disintegrates under analysis. it can only be defined by the anecdote, the chance encounter or the sentence overheard… he… touch[ed] people’s lives, the lives of strangers, in an entirely unanticipated way. it was they who really mourned him — with a grief no less sharp for not being intimate with its object”.7
was my relationship to ali defined by the anecdote? was i merely a stranger? why did it feel like i was in a relationship with ali-the-phenomenon, rather than ali, the human before me? i envied the way others knew them. upon knowledge of their passing, many people had shared accounts, or anecdotes, that specified things I was never aware of before, of a life unfamiliar to me - and of course, I had an envious yearning for that particular kind of familiarity. sometimes i even wonder if i have a right to mourn - yet, when i read the above quote, i am reminded of the 'many' people who knew them, and within each encounter, i am certain that ali touched many lives. he certainly, touched me.
i often go through their private instagram, remembering that they once left their bio with the words “I am the question that brings the world to its knees”, with florence welch belting in the left hand corner of the screen. my memory fails me a lot - but a part of me thinks that within this quote, “the world” is incorrect, and ali used “god” in its place. i used to think ali was too much for this world, and perhaps, the inverse may be true - the world as it is, was never made for people like ali. while i knew them intimately, ali was still a mystery to me, and for a considerable portion of my life, i was deluded enough to fall for the beauty of ali-the-deity, no matter how much it cost me emotionally. indeed i fell hard; to the floor, on my knees - in search of answers that were so clearly in front of me. yet, to say that i regret the terror of heartbreak would be giving into my own 'hamatia', and if there is one thing that ali taught all of us, is that indeed, “life is a dishcloth”.
have fun dancing with the maenads in 'jannah ali'. i will always love you, even if such a love was always moving between truth and exaggeration. just one question though:
do they play drake in 'jannah'?