Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Wembley echoes: a tribute to Hajji Abdullah Gangraker

Courtesy Wembley
MUCH has been said, and written, about the passing of Hajji Abdullah Eshack Gangreker, an iconic benefactor and philanthropist of the Cape Town community. 

He was a man of rare vision and a stickler for quality, which was reflected in the well-known Wembley brand.

From humble beginnings in Belgravia Road, he rose through hard work and tireless perseverance to head a successful business that grew from a green-grocer into a butchery, a bakery, a travel agent and, of course, the Wembley Roadhouse – and so much more.

However, there is one vital element of his massive contribution to the community that I feel has been overlooked – his annual calendar, something he took great pride in and that he produced for over 25 years, distributing it free.  

I do not say this because I had the privilege of working with Mr Gangraker – and later his daughter, Sumaya – on the calendar project for 22 years, but because it gave me the opportunity to witness its impact and to experience first-hand, why Gangraker became the man that he was.

It was his close friend, Dr Abdul Wahhab Barday, who approached me in 1994 at the time of the Tricentenary of Islam at the Cape about shooting a calendar for Wembley. “We’re thinking of doing an aerial view of Shaikh Yusuf’s karamat,” said the irrepressible doctor.

On discussing the project with Mr Gangraker, I soon discovered that he was a gracious, but focused client – and, most importantly, one who trusted me. As someone who hates mediocrity, I think we spoke the same language, but what struck me most was his openness to innovation.

If hanging from the open door of a helicopter was what it was going to take, that was what we were going to do.

Helicopter shot for the Robben Island Wembley calendar.
Photo Shafiq Morton
But my tribute is not just about the calendar, something that he developed into a unique marketing tool. No, it’s more about the relationship that I enjoyed with him over the years, and what I learnt sitting in his office whilst we discussed the calendar.  

“Shafiq-bhai excellence should be a habit,” he once told me, “quality is a promise to your customer on all fronts…your goods, your service and your people.”

He told me this whilst cutting a peach and eating it, not because he was hungry, but because a customer had complained about his peaches. He was personally checking. I’m happy to say that the peach passed the test.

Whilst the production of the calendar was an exacting creative process involving lots of team work, he was always thankful at the end. And he would always say so. He would write to every person to thank them for their contribution, no matter how small.

What I learnt most from Mr Gangraker was his ethos. He would emphasise that neatness and cleanliness were the most affordable things. Dreams, however, were expensive – but worth it – in terms of the necessary sacrifices to make them come true.

One day someone passed a negative remark about Mr X, one of his competitors. His reply was immediate: “Don’t talk about Mr X like that; he is entitled to his riziq. Allah provides for everybody.”

Mr Gangraker wanted his calendars to inform people about the Muslim world, and he was passionate about it. He would say that knowledge in life would empower a person to act better in life.

Like many successful businessmen that I’ve had the honour of meeting, he would say that without faith there was nothing, no focus. “Faith defines you,” he’d say. Work for him was a passion, a mission; it was not just about the money. It was about doing our best in the sight of God.

“Shafiq-bhai, I’ve made mistakes; it’s our faith that puts the light in the darkness of those times. Faith creates a sense of gratitude that keeps us humble, centred in the dunya.”

As he wrote in his biography, Wembley Echoes: “…my friends, we live but once. We shall not pass this way again. We only have one life to live and how we choose to do it, is up to us. Often what we do now lives on long after we are gone. These are the echoes we leave behind…”

As I filed past his body on a cold Sunday afternoon with thousands of mourners, I could finally hear the echoes: those he’d secretly helped, the representatives of the organisations he’d sponsored, community leaders, imams, the poor, the grieving faces of friends and, most poignantly, the tears of a family who’d had to share their father with so many.

 
Shaikh Yusuf karamat from the air, Wembley calendar 1994.
Photo Shafiq Morton