Searching for a morsel in Xinjiang – Brent Crane
Editor’s note: The Chinese authorities have often restricted Uyghurs from fasting during Ramadan. In 2014, while the author of this dispatch wandered hungrily through the streets of Kashgar, a large swath of Xinjiang’s population was forced to eat during the day. Last year, Radio Free Asia reported that Kashgari schoolchildren and their parents had to sign pledges affirming that they would not fast. This indignity is just one part of an ongoing campaign of repression that has swept one million people into internment camps. The story below is a time capsule of Uyghur life, and of the connections that we can form across religious and cultural divides, if only we are given the chance. – Anne Henochowicz
Unless you are in Kashgar during Ramadan, as a foreigner you will never go hungry in China. Eating is a national obsession, and takes on an almost sacred air. Cheap restaurants are everywhere, people are constantly talking about food, and Chinese hosts will bend over backwards to make sure you’ve eaten enough. Often I’m confronted by a fierce jabbing of chopsticks in the direction of a half-finished communal dish and the barking command, “Eat!”
So I was surprised to find myself roaming the twisting streets of Kashgar’s atmospheric old town with a rumbling stomach and diminishing chances of finding an open restaurant.
It was the fasting month, observed by Muslims all over the world and seemingly without fail by Kashgar’s majority Uyghur population. There wasn’t a proper meal to be found anywhere. It was like a deliberate famine. There was food to be bought, of course – snacks at street stands and instant noodle packets under two inches of dust on convenience store shelves. But I had lived off of those morsels for the last three days. My cells demanded a more satisfying dose of nutrition.
It only made matters worse that there were signs of food all around me: deserted kebab stands, empty noodle shops, abandoned pieces of brass cooking ware, boarded up eateries and chairs stacked tragically on tables like the dusty ruins of some faded civilization.
In front of one streetside dive was a sign with aged photos of egg noodles, lentils and chunks of blackened lamb. Optimistically, I pushed through the green slats of plastic hanging over the open doorway.
The place was small, the kind of restaurant with tiny stools and short tables, a pitiful plastic trash bin underneath each. In nearly two months of travelling in China I had developed passionate feelings towards this sort of dingy chow lair, a combination of nostalgic appreciation and deep-seated loathing. You never knew if you were going to be met inside by a friendly, chatty boss, or a brutish one who would bark at you and expect you to bark right back.
At the end of the room, a skinny man was slumped lethargically at a cheap table. Standing next to him was his wife, wide as an egg noodle, and wearing a piece of lentil-colored cloth over a bun of hair the color of blackened lamb.
“Are you serving?” I asked the pair.
“No,” the owner replied. He looked as if I might have uttered the most imbecilic question of all time. “Don’t you know it’s Ramadan?” The wife stared longingly towards me like I was made of kebab.
“I know, but your door is open.” He shrugged and brushed me off with a wave of his hand. I walked out to resume my search, longing for Beijing.
But what was I complaining about? I had come to Kashgar to find respite from the Chineseness of China. And in my vain quest for food among a city of practicing Muslims, I had begun to achieve that goal.
Kashgar is the only city in China I have been to that feels almost completely detached from what you normally think of as Chinese. Most of its inhabitants are Uyghurs, Muslim and Turkic-speaking. Physically, and also in mind and spirit, almost none of them resemble their Han brethren. The men walk confidently with a sort of self-assured swagger that would make most Han jumpy. The women wear headscarves and cover up their skin with pants and long sleeves, no matter how stifling the heat.
They are also a religious people who refrain from alcohol and pork, two staples of the Chinese diet. Here, instead of pork there is lamb. You can spot the poor beasts tied up in droves outside sidewalk butcher stands, waiting dumbly in a queue for the chop, standing inches from the coagulating pools of blood drained from their slaughtered compatriots.
One day, a Turk I met outside the iconic Id Kah Mosque, the largest and oldest within China’s borders, asked if I wanted to witness the process. “Do you want to see them kill the lamb?” he asked plainly.
“Sure,” I said, and we walked ten feet over to the edge of the sidewalk, where a crowd of men had gathered to watch. The butcher, a man not older than 25, wore a stylish striped T-shirt and jeans. He had no apron, and grinned at the audience as he sharpened his knife. It felt like we were about to see a street magician’s performance.
“They must do it in the right way,” the Turk explained. “So that it is halal, and good in the eyes of God.” He said the last part very seriously, which took me by surprise after his initial boyishness.
“How do they make it halal?” I asked as the butcher kneeled on the ground by the lamb.
The butcher hoisted the animal’s head up by its chin. Everyone leaned in. “As he slices the throat, they will say, ‘In the name of God.’” He made a pretend cutting motion across his neck, and the butcher made a real cutting motion with his knife across the neck of the lamb. “And then the animal will not feel pain.” The creature’s legs kicked futilely above the sidewalk.
“See! Look in his eyes, he is happy to be going to God!” the Turk said. The beast’s eyes bulged widely. Joy was not an emotion I could find in them.
On one of the final nights of Ramadan, I snuck into the breaking-of-the-fast service at Id Kah. I was on assignment, contracted by Al Jazeera to take photos of the holiday celebrations, and was feeling a bit more intrepid than usual. As thousands of Uyghur men poured into the mosque, I slipstreamed in, my Nikon D5100 hanging from my neck, without being stopped.
Inside, a line of famished-looking Muslims were resting on their knees before plates of food. They wore loose pants and breezy tunics. There were red apples, golden pears, Hami melon, torn pieces of nang bread, and slices of watermelon. Next to the plates were upturned drinking bowls of neon green and blue. It looked good, and I was absolutely starving.
Standing there, as men shuffled by to take their place in the seated line, I felt more out of place then I had ever felt before in China. Blonde, tall and wearing shorts, I stuck out like a heathen among angels. Nearly all of them were glaring at me. I was used to being the center of attention in China, but I had never been the focus of so many people’s gaze at the same time. It was as if the entire force of their faith, concentrated and empowered in these sacred moments, was aimed at me like a quiver of holy arrows. Finally one was launched.
“Are you a Muslim?” a voice asked. I couldn’t make out who spoke in the dying light, but that didn’t matter – it was a question shared by the whole congregation.
“No,” I admitted, “I’m not.” I waited for the boot but was greeted by silence. I interpreted this as either listless indifference or congenial acceptance, and I stood my unholy ground.
Feeling I should get out of the line of fire, I sat down on some steps to one side. The hungry chain of fasters continued unbroken along the walls to both sides of me, awaiting orders.
Soon, a man approached to chat. As we started talking I felt relieved to have the morsel of legitimacy that speaking with this friendly insider gave me. If the critics demanded my exile, I would at least have someone who might come to my defense. But his Chinese was worse than mine, and it was a stumbling exchange. I reached a peak of confusion when he handed me a can of scented aerosol spray – some unheard of flower – which to the best of my knowledge I hadn’t asked for.
The crackling of a loudspeaker interrupted our fumbling conversation, and everyone shut up. The voice of the imam boomed over us and after some brief sermonizing gave the go-ahead to gobble. The crowd erupted into a voracious feast.
Watermelon juice dribbled down chins, bread crumbs rained onto the floor. Pits and peels were flung through the air into cracked trash bins. Water was swallowed in great gulps. Not a single word was spoken during the whole affair. It was the quietest pig-out I have ever seen.
Someone came over to me with a handful of white peaches. He smiled like a drunken sailor and offered them to me. I wolfed down the lot, tossing the slimy pits into a drain.
When the imam’s voice came back on over the loudspeakers, all of the food was gone. The congregation stood up and walked towards the hall of worship to face towards Mecca for closing prayers. The night was quiet and the air was still. I snapped a few photos and headed out into the street to find some more food. I wasn’t famished anymore, but I wasn’t yet full. ∎