Dusk In The Moslem Quarter
The Moslems of Xi’an live beyond a dark tunnel at the end of which sit trees. The bright lights perched on the sparse branches punctuate the darkness like tiny pin pricks of neon. In the late hours when few are about the lights elongate the shadows of passers-by.
The Moslem quarter is a filthy and beautiful place. The area is the focal point for Xi’an’s Moslem’s of which there are said to be 70,000. This census is hotly contested by all.
I climb atop a small pile of rubbish and peer down the narrow lane. Boys stir great bubbling cauldrons and shout. Their breath comes out in tiny puffs of steam.
At night people come here and walk around. The streets are unfit to host vehicular traffic; cars honk and flash their lights into the dense crowd. A man waves his fist at a pack of beautifully sullen adolescent girls walking. They are holding hands.
The streets are labyrinthine and symbols of the Arabian imperialism appear sporadically; women are veiled, boys wear starched white conical caps, swirling Arabic script (God is Great) appear on storefront marquis. The tall bottles of cheap beer sold in street cafes become rare. Boutiques sell appropriate clothing for the believers.
The faces of the people here are different. They are rounder, paler, and more Caucasian. Green eyes, blue eyes. The women are spectacular.
The largest Mosque in all of China, the Great Mosque, is located here. With its ornate, eaved rooftops, spacious courtyards and stony arches, the architecture is straight Chinese.
Abdullah is an Imam here, one of 19 who serve under one grand Imam who today is at a conference in Beijing.
His room is small and tall. A cracked chalkboard sits bizarrely high upon the wall explaining times for prayer. A single light bulb hangs from the ceiling. In the room sit three wooden chairs, lined in a row.
With a large feather duster he clears a place for each of us; ‘you are most welcome here,’ he says with a majestic sweep of his arms.
Abdullah is dressed simple with a black overcoat, simple trousers and dusty leather shoes. He wears oval, wire rimmed spectacles.
On his head sits a striking orange and green turban. It is loosely wrapped and when he turns to fetch tea, I notice a fringed tail that hangs down to his bottom.
He is handsome, young.
With a great clamour he drags one of the chairs so we sit face to face. The acoustics of the room amplify the sound and the racket is startling.
We are quite close, like two chess players. My interpreter sits adjacent to us. In this arrangement we make a T formation.
He crosses his legs; a surprising display of femininity for a Moslem theologian. His movements are slow and exaggerated. As if in slow motion he takes his hands, folds them into each other and raises them to his pursed lips and rests them there, a pose of a man in deep contemplation.
“I await your inquires.”
Above his heads sits a calligraphic painting; swirling Arabic and stout Chinese characters enmeshed on the lithograph.
‘It’s a traditional Chinese painting with Arabic calligraphy mixed in,” he says, with his head turned away from me, admiring the art. “In the middle, see, there are classic Chinese blessings and on the sides, are sura’s from the Qu’ran.”
He tells me about his pilgrimage to Mecca.
“I wanted to cry,” he explains after a moment of reflection. “Then I wanted to share this feeling with my brothers and sisters. It was this overwhelming sensation of clarity and serenity. Words fail me,” he pauses to think. “I knew I wanted to go as many times as possible.”
He has since been twice.
The first visit to the holy city was arranged via a charitable Saudi organization; a common practice.
“As you can see, we in China are not wealthy. You must understand that we as Moslems have rules, rules that we must abide by. Any Moslem male who is able must make Hajj. It is very clear.”
He suddenly becomes agitated, restless. I feared I offended him somehow. He leans way back and exhales loudly. I was surprised at the sound; hissing, deflating. The chair creaked with his movements.
I ask him what is wrong.
He wants us to leave ‘for it is late and soon it will be time to pray.” I look at the chalkboard: 8:15pm. Half an hour.
“It is quite important, I am sure you understand, to show up. As an Imam if I neglect my duties, then perhaps the others will feel it is permissible to neglect theirs as well,” he says grandly. It has been my experience that Moslems have this wordy cadence that is simultaneously grand and lyrical.
Outside his door a great many Moslems are gathering in the courtyard. I realize it is Friday, the Moslem holy day.
A man named Yusuf approaches. He speaks English. Yusuf was born on the little lane behind the Mosque. He points at his home, the roof of which peeks over the walls of the compound. Ramshackle house; a place of poverty. He has worked in this Mosque since 1979, the year of my birth.
When Yusuf completes his sentence, he smiles, widens his eyes and raises his eyebrows, like a sexual pervert making innuendo. I disliked Yusuf and wished to be away from him.
His mother died when he was young, during labour. “Us Moosleems have very big, eh, famaleeeees. It is our way,” he hisses.
“I work here for my mommy,” he says. This juvenile word sounds awkward coming from a grown man, out of place.
“I love my mommy,” Yusuf tells me, holding his hand to his heart. “It was her wish.”
A line of men, arranged according to age stand at the top of a concrete staircase in front of the central prayer hall. As the faithful arrive at the line, they slowly shake hands with each man lined up. It was an intimate, two-handed affair, with each men enveloping the hands of the other. “Salaam a laykum,” rasps one toothless old man to another.
The muezzin, a chubby, red-cheeked man takes his place in front of the minaret. He takes the microphone and, closing his eyes, bellows into it deeply, like a Wagnerian tenor. The piercing wail will be heard throughout the crowded Moslem quarter.
With that, the entire courtyard drains into the vast Mosque. I watch as the ancient building swallows up every last man into the place for which I am forbidden to enter.
Leaving the premises, I walk against a thick stream of Moslem stragglers, out into the street and home.