Posts Tagged ‘Ramadan’

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Uighur Festivities: From the Dinner Table to the Dancefloor

January 10, 2009

11/12/08 Urumqi, Xinjiang, China

For the past week we have been travelling along the Southern Silk Road, the route that runs along the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert, the last bit of flat terrain before, further south, the Himalayas start jutting up out of the sand dunes. We took an overnight bus from Kashgar to Hotan, skipping the towns of Yengisar, Yarkand and Karghlik because we visited them on our trip to Xinjiang last year. From Hotan, we continued along the road towards Cherchen, stopping off in Keriya and Niya, both interesting examples of Hanifications of small Uighur oasis towns.

 

The Han devlopment in Cherchen is at an earlier stage than most of the other towns we have visited so far: parts of the main arterial road is still framed by Uighur houses and poplar trees, while the obligatory ”People’s Square” is still under construction next to the brand new museum. Though small, we decided to stay in Cherchen for a few days, mainly because we had met a girl on the bus, a student at Kashgar university, who invited us to her house for the Uighur festival that was held on Tuesday 9 December. It seems to coincide with the broader Muslim Eid al Adha, but it was explained to us as a day for ancestor worship, something which is not practiced by Arab Muslims but which we discovered occurred in Kazakhstan, and therefore perhaps other Central Asian countries.

 

The use of the word ‘festival’ by our hostess, Harmony, had inevitably led us to have some expectations about the occasion. We had learned that group dancing in front of the main mosque was something that only happened in Kashgar (similar to that which we had the pleasure of witnessing last year for the end of Ramadan festivities), so we knew we would not see any public celebration of that sort. To us, the word ‘festival’ connoted large gatherings of family and friends, seated around a table to share a meal. We were therefore flattered when Harmony invited us to her house on the festival day.

 

We arrived in the afternoon, about 4 o’clock Xinjiang time. Harmony had been out all morning visiting her family in the area, a grandmother who lived out in the countryside some 15 minutes drive away, and her elder brother and sisters who lived in the newer apartment complexed across town. Her father was still out visiting friends, while her mother was at home, both attending to visiting guests and resting because she was recovering from an operation. After greeting her mother, Harmony escorted us into the dining room, in which stood a large table coved with a rainbow of delights. The most eye-arresting of all were the large bowls piled high with tangerines, pears, grapes and pomegranates. Dotted around in small imitation crystal bowls were dates, apricots, raisins, dried persimmons, almonds and jellybeans. High on a platter towered a triple-layer spiral of thin threads of fried dough, all intertwined to form a vortex of crispy scrumpiousness. The only thing that was odd about the scene was that the rest of the room was empty, not a soul was there to enjoy the feast.

 

Despite our disappointment at not being able to witness a large family gathering, we were happy to taste a variety of the delicacies on offer, while Harmony just nibbled, claiming she was full from all the food at her relatives’ houses. We chatted about her family and school, and asked questions about how the Uighurs celebrated other festivals. At one point, we were broached the topic of Ramadan, which we had previously heard was subject to tight controls by government and university authorities. Harmony said that university students were not allowed to fast during Ramadan. In fact, they were forced to eat during the day: their teacher accompanied them to the canteen at lunch and made sure that each of them ate. To refuse to eat was to invite punishment.

 

We knew about other repressive measures taken by the Chinese authorities to quell Muslim practices, such as forbidding the headscarf. However, considering that that is a controversial measure that is also taken by other countries, namely France and Turkey, to know that it was enforced in Xinjiang did not come as a surprise. But forcing Muslim students to eat during Ramadan! What an incendiary policy. when you hear things like that, you realise that the government is not doing itself any favours in terms of winning over support from the ethnic populations that it controls.

 

After we had done eating, we thanked Harmony’s mother and went for a walk to her friend Amina’s house. When we arrived, we had to wait outside for the guests that were already there to leave. As we waited, her older brother came down the road herding a flock of sheep. When they saw us standing in front of the entrance to the courtyard, they veered off into a cluster of poplar trees, and Amina and her brother started hissing and clapping, eventually succeeding in maneuvering the unruly herd into the courtyard. The banal event was enough to keep us distracted from the cold that had set in with the evening, and not too long after the guests who had been inside came out, and we were invited in. The set up was almost identical to what it was at harmony’s house: a table in an empty room piled high with mouth-watering treats, and we were repeatedly encouraged to eat, which we did despite our full tummies, while Amina played hostess, serving us tea and passing round the heavy dishes laden with food.

 

* * *

 

Both girls were happy to use the excuse offered by the festival to visit other friends in order to get their parent’s consent to go out after dark. The previous night we had been out with them, and 18-year-old Harmony was given a 9 o’clock curfew, while 22-year-old Amina had to sneak out because her father was not happy with her going out. So, now that they were allowed to be out, we headed for the disco, and this time we didn’t have to hide Amina with out bodies every time a car passed!

 

The neon sign above the entrance cast an eerie orange light over the large crowd that had gathered outside to watch a brewing fight. Us three girls keep a distance, while J, in appropriate male machoness, got up close to have a look. But it was your usual drunken pub antics, with a couple fiery blokes being pushed apart by five or six others. J stipulated that they were probably rowing over a girl, which, as we entered the disco, seemed to be a plausible explanation: men seemed to outnumber women by about 10 to 1.

 

Inside, small round tables and chairs were set out on graded levels on three sides of the room, looking down on the dancefloor in the middle. It stank of stale beer and cigarettes, and was the sort of place that made me not want to touch anything for fear of contracting an alcohol-borne infection: The floor was slippery with spilt beer and caked a muddy brow-grey with the combination of shoe-dirt and booze, while I’m sure there was more nicotine than oxygen floating in the air. We took a table to the side, attempting to be as discrete as possible, in the knowledge that our foreignness inevitably drew much attention in the small Silk Road town. The lighting was dim and there was a group of men on the dancefloor playing some sort of drinking game to loud music. Before we had even been sitting for a minute, there was a crash behind us as one party-goer tumbled backwards off his chair, smashing his head and his beer bottle, but being inebriated enough to get right up again without seeming too phased by either the bash to his head or the loss of his beverage (another arrived shortly afterwards to compensate).

 

J and I orderer beers, while the girls ordered ice tea. I began to think that it was inappropriate to be drinking alcohol when my companions were not, but a quick glimpse round me revealed that almost every table was cluttered with bottles of beer, whisky, and vodka. Even if they did not partake in it, alcohol consumption was obviously not a novelty for them.

 

It was interesting to note how much alcohol was being consumed by the crowd, because it displayed a discrepancy in the image that the Uighurs like to give of themselves as ”good Muslims”. On one hand, the Uighurs take certain Islamic practices such as halal food, very seriously (to the point where they are reluctant to even set foot in Han Chinese restaurants), whereas they are obviously more lenient about drinking. This was also exemplified by th fact that some Muslim restaurants that don’t sell beer will allow customers to bring their own from outside.

 

After the drinking games ceased and the beat of the dancing music reigned again, the girls dragged me onto the dancefloor. I had been to a Xinjiang disco before, last year in Karghlik, so I had a vague idea of the way that things happened. The style was very formal, following closely along the lines of traditional Uighur dancing. For women, forearms are raised up at right angles to elbows, hands at eye level performing a twisting acrobatics, some shoulder movement, hardly any hips, and stoic, rhythmic steps back, forth, and then rotating 180 degrees with your parter. For men, the arm movements are broader, branching out to the right and left sides of the body, and then folding back at the waist, one arm to the front and the other to the back. At some points the hands are also raised to the head, and then the body is launched into a spiral, rotating a full circle. Slow dances were done even more ‘by the book’: one hand wrapped round your partner’s waist and the other clasped in their hand, you rock back and forth in at a lullaby pace, following the steps of the leader (during these tunes, men dance with women but also women dance with women, one of them adopting the male role).

 

Despite my perpetual itching for nonconformity, I did make a certain attempt to adhere to the predominant style, admittedly with a few more hip gyrations added in here and there… But both on and off the dancefloor, I observed the crowd and was perplexed by the uniformity of the whole scene. I wondered what was the appeal of going out to dance, if it was only to repeat the same set of moves for every song. But I suppose that attraction lay more in the social interaction enabled by the lax environment than in actually getting out to let your hair down and have a good boogey.

 

During the hour that I spent at the disco, my thoughts and emotions swung from one extreme to the other. On one hand, I felt intimidated by the rowdiness, paranoid by the griminess and uncomfortable at the attention I received on the dancefloor. I admit that I danced less subtly than I could have chosen to, perhaps sub-consciously seeking to push the boundaries of the normal moves by inserting a bit of hopping and head-shaking, in a drum n’ bass sort of way. Nothing sexually provocative or anything like that, just more energetic, less composed, unleashing the surface of the dancing demon inside us all that disregards convention and is a slave to the beat… Ok, perhaps a bit risqué given my surroundings, but you know, gotta push the envelope…

 

During one jive, a red-haired bloke who had been dancing behind me grabbed my arm and twisted it round so that my face was in line with his. He held me there, just staring into my face, gazing over my hair and clothes (long skirt and hooded jumper) but not uttering a word, for a good few seconds before I managed to pry myself from his grip and merge back into the circle that I had been dancing in. Noticing my flusteredness at the encounter, Harmony came up to me, brought her mouth up to my ear and shouted: ”He wants to dance with you”. I replied that he would significantly increase his chances if he asked in a more gentlemanly manner… Obviously, my strange dancing provoked some bizarre, but, given the context, probably understandable, reactions. But even when I was not the object of such attention, I saw it happening to others, and came to feel that overall, the venue allowed more for sexually-driven pursuits and alcohol induced debauchery than relaxed, good-natured enjoyment.

 

On the other hand, when I could make myself as invisible as the darkness allowed, there were times when I found the dynamics of the disco to be less threatening, even verging on pleasant. One such moment was when there was an all-male dance. As soon as the music started, only males came onto the dancefloor, forming a circle, and beginning the broad, arm-sweeping movements accompanied by short hops and turns, as the circle rotated slowly. They all danced in unison: a synchronic tide of black leather flatcaps and square, green skullcaps. I found the mingling of tradition and popular culture to be endearing, in the sense that it tore down the pretenses of a gilted disco culture and replaced them by a short-but-sweet return to community ethics.

 

* * *

 

As we exited back on the the psychedelic orange street, we had J take some photos of us girls posing in a Charlie’s Angels sort of formation. It was amusing, and we giggled as we started walking down the road back towards our hotel and their homes. But then Amina’s phone rang: it was her boyfriend, at another disco in town, begging her to come back out. Feigning tiredness even though it was only 9:30 pm, and using our bub to Korla which departed at 8am as an excuse, we managed to wriggle out of having to go along with them.

 

”Won’t your mother be worried about you?” I asked Harmony, perhaps slightly apprehensive that us foreigners would get blamed for her night out on the town.

 

”No”, she replied, ”because it’s the festival, I can stay out a little late”. Ok, I said, but take care of yourselves in there!

 

We said our goodbyes, exchanging the usual promises to stay in touch. They hurried off back towards the town, obviously eager to make the most of their one night of freedom, while I breathed a sigh of relief at the thought of indefinitely postponing the my next visit to a Xinjiang disco.

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Damascus

September 14, 2008

            Today J, Caro and I left Beirut in a taxi to Damascus. Its the fourth time I’ve been to Syria this year, and was the quickest and simplest it’s ever been. I think its probably because its during Ramadan and on a Sunday: during Ramadan, life in general is more quiet because the fasting is so energy-sapping, especially in the heat. The fact that it’s Sunday is significant because it is the first day of the working week in Syria, which means that most people who would have crossed over for the weekend (Friday and Saturday) would have come back on Saturday evening. However, crossing the border in the opposite direction (Syria-Lebanon) on a Sunday is a truly painstaking process, because the Lebanese weekend is Saturday and Sunday (except in some places in the South where its Friday and Sunday).

 

            Regardless, the relatively easy journey was especially welcome after the stress of hearing from Di and Jeevs, who had gone ahead to Damascus in order to buy out train tickets to Iran, that there were problems and that we had to come ”as soon as possible”. When we finally arrived at the hotel to meet them, we realized that the cause for such haste was that, contrary to the information that I had received from the train station a month ago, they couldn’t purchase the train tickets with the scanned copies of our passports and Iranian visas. Which means that we all have to go to the train station at 6am tomorrow morning and try to get them then, before the train leaves at 8am.

 

            We also learned that they were being told that British passport-holders have to pay $150 at the Turkish border, while the French are let in free! Again, different people say different things and we still haven’t confirmed this. Notwithstanding, J has made it clear that he thinks that the fact that the Brits have to pay at all while the French are let off scott free is the height of ingratitude, considering the Brits’ relatively open attitude towards Turkish integration into the EU compared with France’s uncompromising secularist discourse on the issue…

 

            And funnily enough, I am very often surprised at the overt reverence that so many Arabs ( in my experience Egyptians, Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian) have for France compared to their vocal disdain for the US and the UK. Obviously, such attitudes are more the product of the violence perpetrated by the latter in the 21st century. That reverence, however, completely glosses over the horrendous history of French colonialism and its legacies in the region. Especially in Lebanon, I am constantly shocked at the francophilia present in all echelons of society, not just among the nostalgic Maronites with their superiority complex and ‘French education’. Surely, they recognize the French role in establishing the confessionalist system that continues to plague their country? Often, no; they would prefer to denounce the monsters of more recent history instead, as if some precarious balance of blame had to be maintained in which not all imperial powers could be held accountable at the same time.

 

            Anyway, our crossing into Turkey, provided that we do get on that train tomorrow, could be condemning some to falafel and fruit diets while enabling others to be a bit more frivolous in the bazaar’s of Tehran…

 

            We strolled through the old part of Damascus after Iftar had finished and the shops had re-opened. The town, charming in ordinary times, is doubly enchanted in the evenings of Ramadan. The winding alleyways, the stone arches, the balcony overhangs supported by wood that tilt occasionally, betraying their longevity… All these time-machine scenes are rendered more magical by the proliferation of fairy lights and flags strewn overhead, the late-night chanting that rises from the mosques all around and the festive family atmosphere. Children know they can profit from their parent’s good spirits and do not miss an opportunity to ask for an ice cream, a pair of earrings or the latest novelty toy, which they are rarely refused.

 

            And a wonderful first city to start this journey in. The architecture, the food, the hospitality and the current vibe all combine to make it lovely to pass through Damascus. We have all visited Damascus before, so for all of us it is not a discovery, rather a welcoming inkling of comfort before a vast horizon of unknowns.