Zahira Asmal

THE READER: Zahira Asmal

Design activist Zahira Asmal shares her reading favourites


Zahira Asmal is founder of DESIGNING_SOUTHAFRICA, a non-profit organisation that advocates the use of design to bring about positive and meaningful social change. Having collaborated with renowned London-based architect David Adjaye OBE on his book, African Metropolitan Architecture, and exhibition, Urban Africa, the pair are once again working together – this time on an architectural pavilion at Johannesburg’s Park Station.

What are you reading at the moment?

I am reading a number of books currently – largely relating to cities, democracy, freedom and forgiveness. Our current projects Designing Democracy and Movement: An Urban Anthology explore the notion of democracy as a movement. I am discovering that a discourse on democracy in South Africa needs insight into forgiveness and healing. Books on these topics occupy my desk — including The Book of Forgiving by Desmond and Mpho Tutu, South Africa’s Suspended Revolution by Adam Habib and The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law by Justice Albie Sachs.

What book has had the greatest impact on you?

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. I recall a trip to India in 1995. I was a teenager and in a constant state of confusion — I couldn’t quite understand the social dynamics that I was observing and experiencing. I have Indian heritage; I assumed that being in India would mean a great deal more to me than it actually did. This lack of understanding led to confusion and impatience. I discovered A Fine Balance much later – it was only at the point of reading this book that my trip to India and its social complexities were revealed to me in a very beautiful and moving way. I realised that I felt African rather than Indian – despite my paternal heritage. I feel rooted in South Africa.

Zahira Asmal

What is your favourite novel of all-time?

A House of Spirits by Isabel Allende. It is magical. I also love Daytripper by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba. It is a unique graphic novel that is both beautifully written and visually stimulating. The book is full of surprises.

What were your favourite books as a child?

I loved Stephen King books when I was little. The big world, the horror but most of all there was sensuality there that was very unfamiliar to me as young girl living in a small town in KwaZulu-Natal during apartheid. Stephen King’s words took me to so many places – far away from my limited existence.

What’s the last book you gave as a gift?

My own book that was published two years ago. I just returned from a trip to Brazil and I gave copies of my book, Reflections & Opportunities: Design, Cities & the World Cup to the people I met there. The book is published in English and Portuguese and I thought it would be an insightful read about South Africa’s World Cup especially in time of the Brazilian World Cup.

What’s the last thing you read that made you laugh?

A love letter I received this week. It made me happy to receive such a gift from a special person, but it also made me sad that he is so far away.

Which book have you never been able to finish reading?

Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier. My first copy of the book went missing between London and Johannesburg. I purchased another copy as the book received rave reviews – I am 50 pages into the second copy and I can’t seem to move pass this point for some reason.

What book do you turn to for advice?

The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. It is a simple book with great advice.

Your favourite magazine?

I don’t have a favourite magazine. I browse through various titles.

What book would you give to the president to read?

South Africa’s national president? Not a book but I would give him copies of the Freedom Charter as well as South Africa’s Constitution and Bill of Rights. He may require gentle reminders.

If you could have dinner with a dead writer, who would you dine with and where?

A cliché I realise: I would love to fiesta in Pamplona with Ernest Hemingway.



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