I was lying in the dust, staring into the African sun, when their swords came down on me. The crowd was about a hundred strong, all of them Muslims shouting in a sonic blur. First they began slicing my arms. Next, pulling my shirt open, they cut into my torso. My eyes were closed with pain by the time I felt a blade moving hard across my throat. I thought I would die there, in that poor Durban neighbourhood where, despite the warnings of middle-class South Africans, I had decided to go exploring that evening.
Just minutes earlier, I’d turned a corner into a crowd of African and Indian Muslims. And then I was on the ground, being sawed with swords. When they finished with my throat, a dozen hands pulled me up again. Soaked in blood, I opened my eyes and saw it was just sweat. I was not even bleeding, though the scarlet lines from the sword strokes left wheals in my skin for months. Everyone was shouting, ecstatic. It was a miracle, a show of faith and power in which the Africans with the swords were well-practised. They were Rifa’is, a brotherhood of lower-class Sufis, and in the eyes of the assembly I had inadvertently renewed their prestige.