The bride's reception hall was located outside of town, in an impoverished residential district. Much of the neighborhood was made of mud and the roads were unpaved. There was loose dirt on the ground and tiny clouds of fine dust would rise up with each step. With thick, heavy grey clouds, the sky looked pregnant with rain; the atmosphere reminded me of a Tom Waits song. The air was very cool. There was no wind.
I had been invited here by Zohra. She was a 26-year-old Kashgarian Uyger who wished to be a university professor, an archaeologist. I had been in Kashgar for two weeks, waiting for the Pakistani border to open. We had met and become close. Zohra worked the counter at a cafe that serves Westerners Western food at Western prices: apple pie, sandwiches, coffee, pizza. The cafe was in the backpacker neighborhood, owned by two Americans who were cashing in on the "independent traveler" traffic. Their niche was familiarity.
The bathrooms had sit down toilets, polished floors, tourist information, English menus and a staff of crisp, earnest young locals like Zohra. She would come to my inn early in the morning, before she went to work and knock on my door, bringing me yoghurt from her cafe. I would usually meet her after 7:00, and she would take me places and teach me things. Late at night we would go back to my accommodation and sit in the grotto with all the other travelers and talk. She liked that: meeting all the strange eccentric foreigners and drinking beer, listening to their weird stories, hip music and odd accents.
One night she told me her sister was to be married that week and asked me if I wanted to be her guest at the wedding. We walked up a tiny paved incline to a large courtyard where the bride's guests were eating. Around the building was a collection of slum apartments made of bright white concrete. A great many children were about, playing jump rope and riding bicycles.
"Bride name Gilbastan, my sister," Zohra said. "Groom name, Ekbar. He is taxi driver. Here many taxi driver," she said, waving her hands past the long lines of taxis stretching down the the narrow road. People had just eaten, men were squatting and picking their teeth with toothpicks. Some were walking around like macho roosters, wearing suits, grabbing their balls.
"Come," Zohra said, "now you eat. You must eat polo (pilaf)." She led me into an long, empty dining room. The walls were pink and white. There were windows covered in pink curtains with pictures of bunny rabbits, butterflies and flowers. It looked like a woman's bathroom. A celebration had just passed, there were paper plates on the ground, chairs knocked over, crumbs and used napkins on the tables. A squad of veiled women cleaned up the mess.
I was served food while Zohra sat and stared at me. She was tall and thin with shaggy black hair feathered like a 70's rock star. She had long bangs that hung low over her black eyes. It looked very fashionable. A small boy in a blue corduroy pant suit came and sat next to us. Zohra lifted him up, pulled his shirt up and blew into his belly, making a farting sound. They both laughed. She whispered something in Uyger into his ear. I liked watching her being affectionate with children. She looked soft.
"His name is Arslan. You know what mean Arslan? Tiger-baby," Zohra explained, grinning widely, her small black eyes sparkling. I looked at the boy and he growled like a tiger. Tiger baby was looking at my tattoos and told Zohra he wanted one too. I took a pen, pulled his sleeve up and drew the words TIGER BABY in stylized graffiti letters on his forearm. He smiled and ran off to show the other kids.
"Now is time they make nikah. Nikah is Moslem ceremony, they eat salt and the mullah make them official." Zohra explains. "You want see?"
We left the reception hall and went to an apartment building next door. Zohra led me up a set of dimly lit stairs. Someone had drawn a heart with an arrow through it and the words "I Love You" on the wall. One of the apartment doors was open, men were walking in and out of the doorway. Inside the small room was a group of people sitting on a raised platform. A painting of Mecca stood upon the wall next to an immense clock. A collection of small bowls filled with dates, raisins and nuts sat spread out upon the platform. A stand with a single light bulb attached to the top cast an uneven pallor over the room. A powerful fan was on, rocking the light back and forth, casting wild shadows inside the cramped room. The groom sat with his father in front of the Mullah who was holding in his hand a large Qu'ran. The bride was sequestered in another room off to the side with her mother. Mullah asked if Ekbar would be good to his wife, support her. Yes, he said. He asked the same of Gilbastan. Yes, her meek reply came from the side room, she would. They ate a pinch of salt together. A brief prayer was muttered. They were now married in the eyes of God.
Zohra wanted to walk around the neighborhood. "There is break. We come back in two hours. Then we eat again and I go with woman to woman (bride's) house, you go with man to man (groom's) house."
We walked north and found a group of dirty little girls who were playing house with bricks from a nearby kiln. They had spread the bricks out onto the dirt and filled the inside with hay and long grass from an adjacent wheat field. The children had pots and pans with vegetables inside. They told Zohra they were making dinner. Next to my feet sat a plastic bag full of rice. We watched as the children somberly took the vegetables, washed them and cut them into little pieces. Young people in the developing world are never young; they are adults who are temporarily small.
Walking away, Zohra picked some flowers from a tree. "What they are called? Flowers," I say. She stopped and glared, narrowing her eyes to slits. She slapped me on the shoulder. "What kind flower?" "It's called…" I took the flower and examined it, squinting with exaggerated professionalism. "This is a forget-me-not," I said with scientific confidence. The truth was I had no idea and had lied to her. She wouldn't know the difference.
"Forget me not?" Zohra mulled this over. "I like this name. Forget me not." She said it slowly, deliberately, then took out her notebook and scribbled it down, frowning with concentration. We were walking into a hot, brown valley; there were some homes, but the area was abandoned. The homes had the tell-tale mark of extinction; the black, spray painted Chinese character for "demolish". In large cities the buildings the government has slated to be destroyed are everywhere. It is the only Chinese character I know.
"It smells like piss here," I told her. "Pees? What is pees?" she asked. "It's like water that comes out of your body." I walked up to a tree and demonstrated. She laughed. "Yes. Pees. It smells like pees," she said trying to imitate me, making her voice deep and gravely. We stumbled down a hill into a small and shockingly green field. There was a man and a woman harvesting tea. As we walked by they stood and looked at us strangely, then smiled, waved and invited us over. Zohra sang the song Sunshine:
You are my sunshine My only sunshine You make me happy When skies are grey
It makes me think of my childhood. "That's a nice song" I tell her. We come to a vacant lot. A wind kicks up and swirls of garbage spin around. There was once a school here that is now abandoned. This is a nowhere place, stuck just outside of the city, unfit for commerce or human habitation. The only people who have to live here are the very old, the beggars, the forgotten humans that fill the outskirts of third world cities like Kashgar. Next to the lot there is a cemetery. "These are tombs." Zohra says to me. "My father and older sister are here." I once asked Zohra about her parents. She was in my hotel late and I asked her if her father will be angry. "My father is…past." She said. I hadn't the heart, nor the courage to ask her more. We walk into the cemetery. The graves a large mounds protruding from the ground made of mud and hay. I ask when they died. She took my notebook and with my pen wrote: "2001.11.13" She told me her father and her oldest sister were walking across the road and were struck by a taxi. I watched her walk into the large cemetery and bend down to the grave and place the flowers on top of the mound. I was thankful I told her they were forget-me-nots. She sat down and began to whisper to the grave in Uyger. I didn't want to see anymore. I turned around and watched the brick kiln pour black poison smoke into the grey sky.
The first thing I saw back in the reception hall was the bride getting out of a car. She swept past me, her long white dress dragging on the ground. She was flanked by a small army of young women with bags of stuff. They disappeared into a room. "What are they doing in that room?" "Woman thing. Woman business." She answers with exaggerated feminity, tilting her head back, closing her eyes and putting her hand on her heart like a southern belle. "Can I see the woman business?" "Yes," she says bursting into a smile, "no problem." We walk over and I look into the room. It is forbidden for me to go inside but I can look. I see the bride sitting regally on a high chair surrounded by a bevy of adoring adolescent girls. "They learn to be woman," Zohra says laughing. It is cool and dark in the room and the floor is covered in bright, bold Afghan carpets. People are sitting on the floor and in the center of the room are large plates of chicken, fish, pastries and candy. The bride sits, looking bored, sad and beautiful.
Zohra tells me that I must go to the groom's wedding reception now. His father is a doctor and thus his reception is located on the compound of the #1 Kashgar Peoples Hospital, a two minute walk away. I go there to find and party among the sick and dying. A 4-piece Uiger folk band played tunes while the patients looked on from hospital beds and balconies. The groom meets me. I was surprised by his smallness. He was wearing a baggy black suit and a green and white tie with a gold thing pinned on. He had a thin voice and sharp facial features. His ear had a small chunk missing from the lobe, like a person who has had an earring ripped off. On his head sat a tall, conical red hat that made him look like an usher at a movie theatre. The groom brought me inside to eat. We passed the band, who were all sitting barefoot and cross-legged on their chairs. Inside the groom's reception hall was a large square room with four long tables, seating twenty. The lighting was poor in the cool room; the only wall decorations were non-functional Christmas lights and a large, framed portrait of ancient Uyger intellectual and writer Mamood Kashgari. These men were redneck taxi drivers. They sat around, slack jawed, staring and play fighting. Childish men. They were almost all very drunk and boisterous. Everyone walks outside and the wedding band began to play music. The men begin to folk dance around the premises, yelling, shouting. People spray green silly string into the crowd. The groom sat surveying this with an expressionless face. He was seated upon a high chair on a golden cushion. He was very short and his feet didn't touch the ground. His boyish, small face and tall hat made him look like a child-prince being entertained by court jesters. Every few moments someone would walk to the band, take out some money and with great circular movements, wave it above their heads and drop it into a bronze bucket. The music suddenly stops then resumes again in a different tempo. They had taken out drums and were beating out a rhythm that sounded like taps. It started slow then got faster. Soon a bass drum was invoked, establishing a manic beat. Each time the bass was struck the men who jump high into the air. It got faster and began to sound urgent, warlike. Little boys jumped in the frey. All who were dancing looked hypnotized, arms flailing, wildly leaping high into the air and spinning around like dervishes. Two Han Chinese gendarmes come and tell the Uygers to break up the party, that they were being too loud. The Chinese looked false and awkward in this place; this wasn't Beijing, this was Kashgar and the young soldiers were out of their element. They looked afraid. I wished the Uygers would beat them and stomp them into the ground. The two soldiers disappear into the ground. I watch them closely and see the groom's father pass them money. They quickly disappear, walking away from the party. The men pick up the groom and carry him on a chair to a waiting car. Now we would cruise around Kashgar before the groom picks up his bride. Allah U Akbar, they chant, carrying the groom. Allah U Akbar! Allah U Akbar! Allah U Akbar! A man tells me I must say it too. "I am not going to say that." "Why not?" He is offended, confused. '"ecause I don't want to and I don't have to. I don't believe it." There are very few positive things that come at the end of this chant. I didn't want to hear it and disliked what it represented. I hated its savage implications, the cold self-righteousness of this chant and the people who shout it. This is what people say before they kill kids in Chechnya, behead journalists or kill young women for looking at a boy. Allah U Akbar! They were at fever pitch. The man looks at me, expectant. "I won't say it," I said again. He shrugged and walked away. The groom is put into a black Mercedes garnished with fake flowers. The rest of us get into taxis. The band gets into a small pick up truck and set up their drums in the back. The band begins to play and we drive off into new Kashgar. There were about 23 cars in all. I was 3rd in line. Sitting with me were 4 drunk taxi drivers, hooping and hollering out the window. We pass through downtown and I see a group of French backpackers whom I disliked. They saw me and pointed, astonished. I was thrilled by this in a very childish way. The taxi in front of me had a bumper sticker that read "Let's open Kashgar to the world then the world will know Kashgar." We soon arrive at the bride's house. The men carry the groom again to her. She is waiting in a room with her mother and sisters. Zohra is there too. She has put on a red dress, make up. The women push the bride outside. There was a great commotion in this, throngs of people pushing and pulling to see the bride. All the women were sobbing. The bride was accompanied by her sisters and mother who were all carrying suitcases. She was wearing a red veil and was sobbing heavily. It was a whiney, hyperventilating kind of crying. "It is our tradition," Zohra tells me, explaining the sobbing. "She will leave home so she is sad." She is brought to the black Mercedes. The groom is inside, waiting for her. He looked bored. She doesn't want to get in and is forced into the car by the other women. Zohra hops into the front seat, sees me standing outside and waves sweetly. She was bound by tradition and I was constricted by for foreignness; only family members could proceed from this point on. Zohra would go with her mother, cousins and sisters, comforting the bride, dong old, ritual things I didn't understand and could not see. I stand and watch the black Mercedes drive down the dirt road, kicking up clouds of dust into the night air. The tail lights turn into little blood red dots on the horizon, eventually disappearing into the ambient light of Kashgar city.