Born a Crime (2016) by Trevor Noah is a memoir about his childhood, adolescence and early adulthood in South Africa just as the apartheid crumbled. I actually listened to it as an audiobook because it was narrated by Noah himself. His stories range from middle school crushes and teenage acne to attempted murders, incarceration, theft and domestic abuse. However, Noah still managed to keep us laughing throughout.
“Death was never far away from anybody back then”
This isn’t a cliche celebrity tell-all on how he achieved his fame. The star of the whole piece is actually Noah’s fearless, fiery, religious and rebellious mother. He never even mentions his move from South Africa to America and he doesn’t talk about The Daily Show or his current status as a household name. He instead shows us how a strong woman molded and influenced his life.
“It didn’t matter that there was a war on our doorstep. She had things to do, places to be”
His personal anecdotes are juxtaposed against the political climate of South Africa. His funny stories about being hidden in his grandmother’s house or his mum hiring a nanny that looked like him to go out on their walks in public are contextualised by facts about the apartheid. He had to hide because it was an actual crime for him to be his mother’s son.
His mother’s opinion on God’s will is amazing (and I really see eye to eye with her n a lot of topics, we’d totally be besties), her faith is admirable and unshakeable and her love for Chritstianity reminds me of the way I think about Islam. However, this is juxtaposed against how this is a ‘white’ religion that was ‘imported’ via the christian coloniser. Noah doesn’t let us forget that their history was affected by the West’s need for an ‘endless supply of expendable bodies’.
“In any society built on institutionalized racism, race mixing doesn’t merely challenge the system as unjust, it reveals the system as unsustainable and incoherent. Race mixing proves that races can mix, and in a lot of cases want to mix. Because a mixed person embodies that rebuke to the logic of the system, race mixing becomes a crime worse than treason.”
I loved the way he introduced us to South African culture. It was loving but also a little mocking (a tone I tend to take on when describing a few of our cultural habits too). He explains how when lightning strikes you can sue your enemies, and the lightning is your evidence that they’ve used black magic against you. He also described family politics. In families with more than one wife, the first family were the heirs and so were always at risk of being poisoned by the subsequent wives/children. He called this Game of Thrones for poor people.
He also mentioned the way they treated women. Dinky (his aunt’s husband) would go around saying ‘if you don’t hit your woman you don’t love her’.
“Women held the community together. “Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo!” was the chant they would rally to during the freedom struggle. “When you strike a woman, you strike a rock.” As a nation, we recognized the power of women, but in the home they were expected to submit and obey.”
He looks at the different roles that he saw the women in his life occupy. Compares this across families and tribes and shows us all the little lessons his mother gave him in how to respect a woman.
He also showed how ‘whiteness’ reigned supreme even within a predominantly black country. This is the same in Qatar where people assume a white person would be more knowledgeable than a local. This even trickled down to his own family (Noah is mixed, his father is white). His grandfather mockingly called him ‘mastah’ and his grandmother thought his prayers were more powerful because he was a child who prayed in English to white Jesus – ‘look at white people, clearly they’re getting through to the right people’ – and gave him reduced punishments compared to his black cousins.
He then, of course, brought this into context of the country. In terms of language, English is the language of money because of who the economic superpowers are on a global scale. Thus, English in South Africa is equated to intelligence.
This is the same in Qatar, and, unfortunately, even I fall pray to this way of thinking. I tend to value degrees from Ivy-league American institutions or renowned British universities more than those from local universities. To get into those places you have to take English language standardised testing, like TOEFL, ACT, SATs that are based not only on your fluency but also on your familiarity with Western culture (this is also classist, as it of course refers to a certain type of Western culture – think opera vs hip-hop). This means I tend to think people who speak English are smarter. And I still think this even though I studied in Georgetown University, Washington DC and came to the conclusion that most of the students there were… well… quite frankly, idiots. This was at a school that is ranked fifth best in the world in its field. And yet, in spite of me deeming them to be ignorant, incapable and surprisingly deficient in vocabulary (they only speak ONE language and they barely spoke it well, most people in Qatar are bilingual at the very LEAST with most people I know being trilingual), I still instinctively cast English-speakers as smarter.
“Language brings with it an identity and a culture, or at least the perception of it. A shared language says “We’re the same.” A language barrier says “We’re different.”
He showed us how most families would have to build a home over generations. How a 2-room house represents years of one family unit’s hard work. He turned driveways in Soweto into a heartbreaking metaphor of hope in the face of poverty.
“I became a chameleon. My color didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my color. If you spoke Zulu, I replied to you in Zulu. If you spoke to me in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.”
TBH the way Noah treated the concept of language throughout his memoir was genius. He kept reaffirming that language brings with it an identity and a culture. Most people tend to think that if someone doesn’t look like them, then they can’t speak like them. I’ll let you read Born a Crime to discover the anecdotes Noah uses as I wouldn’t like to spoil them so I’ll interject with an anecdote of my own that I often bring up.
Coming from Qatar, I look Arab. I have the dark hair, brown eyes, fair skin with an olive undertone, the hooked nose. Now, as I mentioned, I did a stint at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. While there, I was discussing my progress in an American Literature class with a nice old couple. I spent a good twenty minutes waxing on about how I was acing the class and helping out some of the other students. While changing the subject, the husband looked me dead in the eye and asked, “do you find that language acts as an obstacle or barrier? Do you have trouble speaking in English?”
I faltered. My mother studied in the UK up to the post-graduate level, and was a professor in phonetics for twenty years. My father studied in America also up to the post-graduate level and speaks English fluently. I speak English better than Arabic and consider it my first language, having attended primarily English-language schools my whole life and watching The Disney Channel, the Cartoon Network, Nickolodeon growing up. I went to pantomimes and musicals in London and New York. I spent months at a time in Waterstone’s bookstores, staying until the point where I would be dragged out by my bored cousins. I had sleepovers in the UK where we watched Grease and sang along to NSync and Britney Spears. I even have an American accent due to exposure. Most people ask me if I’m American when they hear me speak.
I was certain I had misunderstood his question.
His wife put her arm on his and said, “Now, Tom. She’s been speaking to you in English this whole time”. He needed to be TOLD that we were communicating in English for the better part of an hour. Had he thought he had magically been translating Tagalog, Mandarin, French or Arabic? Which language did he think we were using? Because I did not look like him, because I was not white, there was no way I could speak his language.
“Nelson Mandela once said, ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’ He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, ‘I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being”
In South Africa, the law is a lottery. This is probably true in many places tbh. Your incarceration also depends on your funds, your appearance, your connections and, in SA, even your language. Noah introduces us to a lot of sad stories of the people he’s come across, befriended and met. One of the ones that touched me the most was of a meek but massive jailbird who was the victim of misunderstandings and circumstance. First off, I have a soft spot for all gentle giant type figures (think Lenny in Of Mice and Men). It also reminded me of The Green Mile, which I watched when I was really young and so touched me in a way that only the vulnerability of youth can allow.
“The first thing I learned about having money was that it gives you choices. People don’t want to be rich. They want to be able to choose. The richer you are, the more choices you have. That is the freedom of money.”
Sidenote: Trying to remember the title of the movie I had to Google the plot. While I found it pretty quickly, let’s just talk about the IMDb page for a second. Michael Duncan doesn’t show up until the 7th picture, and to see that you have to actually open and scroll through the pictures. The black male protagonist is nowhere on the front page and isn’t even on the movie poster. This film was produced was just under twenty years ago. So I clicked on Duncans IMDb profile and he isn’t on any of his first three movie posters either. It makes me understand why African Americans are so focused on representation.
Anyway, back to Born a Crime. The moral of that story, of a lot of his stories was that: ‘Potential doesn’t equal opportunity’. He actually gives us a lot of great life lessons. He had a crazy childhood, that’s true, but a lot of the content is relatable. His mother taught him to learn from the past without being bitter.
“Being chosen is the greatest gift you can give to another human being.”
Another funny similarity between South Africa and Qatar is the excitement over Western fastfood franchises. McDonald’s opening in SA is like that in Doha – Wendy’s opened it’s first branch here a month ago and everyone went wild. Noah points out that the most important part is that the people KNEW about it before it came. KFC, Burger King, Pizza Hut – these are all globally known and recognised. How many Arabic franchises can be as widely recognised? Will we soon find a Shatter Abbas in a random hick-town in the US? Unlikely. Even the Arab-inspired (or Chinese-inspired or anywhere-not-in-the Global-West-inspired) cuisine is of the US’s own making. I’ve been to China, and trying to find food in Beijing is what made me realise that the ‘Chinese food’ I’ve come to know and love is an American export – an American re-imagining of Chinese food.
“We live in a world where we don’t see the ramifications of what we do to others because we don’t live with them. It would be a whole lot harder for an investment banker to rip off people with subprime mortgages if he actually had to live with the people he was ripping off.
If we could see one another’s pain and empathize with one another, it would never be worth it to us to commit the crimes in the first place.”
He drops a lot of truth bombs about human nature. How we treat each other, how hate and love aren’t really mutually exclusive, how we do bad things without really thinking of them as bad (similar to Stay With Me, and that’s not the only parallel, they also have goats in common LOL). His mother once described an abusive man’s need to judge the people around him by saying: “we have people who cannot police themselves so they want to police everyone else”.
“The name Hitler does not offend a black South African because Hitler is not the worst thing a black South African can imagine. Every country thinks their history is the most important, and that’s especially true in the West. But if black South Africans could go back in time and kill one person, Cecil Rhodes would come up before Hitler. If people in the Congo could go back in time and kill one person, Belgium’s King Leopold would come way before Hitler. If Native Americans could go back in time and kill one person, it would probably be Christopher Columbus or Andrew Jackson.”
Noah’s funny story about a dancer named Hitler (read the book!) is what led to the quote above. For some reason, the white man’s pain must be respected more than any other. The holocaust, horrible, yes, is NOT the only genocide that has happened and is not even the most recent nor the most brutal. But Hitler’s name is as fearfully whispered as Lord Voldemort’s. Even I was taught about World War II in highschool in Qatar- something which I’m not sure Qatar even participated in seeing as how it was probably a handful of nomad tribes under a British protectorate at the time.
“Abel wanted a traditional marriage with a traditional wife. For a long time I wondered why he ever married a woman like my mom in the first place, as she was the opposite of that in every way. If he wanted a woman to bow to him, there were plenty of girls back in Tzaneen being raised solely for that purpose. The way my mother always explained it, the traditional man wants a woman to be subservient, but he never falls in love with subservient women. He’s attracted to independent women. “He’s like an exotic bird collector,” she said. “He only wants a woman who is free because his dream is to put her in a cage.”
Even this anecdote I can relate to – sadly. Many men in Qatar will choose a woman who he KNOWS acts, dresses and thinks a certain way. After proposing – or even after the marriage takes place – he will then enforce a more conservative dress code and a more traditionalist lifestyle on her.
IN CONCLUSION – The memoir is funny and discusses a LOT of important topics. Even when you can’t relate you will still enjoy it. Sorry for what is probably the longest post I have ever written. I probably can’t even call it a review at this point, but a mini comparison between my memories and Trevor’s memoir. Enjoy 🙂