Muslim community gives Chinese city a very Arab flavor
Xian: Mosques look like pagodas, and the driving is very bad
Daily Star staff
I am trying to keep my eyes open as we drive through Xian, the city China markets as its cultural capital. The flight from Beijing to Chinas ancient capital was brutally early.
Although I suspect my 20 fellow travelers are equally exhausted, they are wide awake and staring out the windows of our bus. In fact, one is gripping her friends arm as our constantly-smiling tour guide says: And yes, you will see that the driving here is different from what youre used to. The driving in Xian is very bad, very bad.
As I peer out my window we veer to the left and cut off a car. I notice that the drivers dont stay in their lanes, there are bicyclists everywhere, and the roads are pocked with holes.
My fellow travelers all Americans look increasingly nervous. I lean into my mother and whisper: This is nothing compared to Beirut.
As we drive down one of Xians main roads, however, I realize that the city resembles the Arab world in another, albeit toned-down, way: It is home to a Muslim quarter.
The Chinese government in 1982 reported that 10 million of its 1.2 billion people followed Islam, but some argue that the number is as high as 30 million. An estimated 60,000 live in Xian.
The Islamic influence is evident in the city. Just before parking in the Muslim quarter, we pass a store with a large green-and-white sign reading Muslim Food in Arabic, English and finally, Chinese.
When the bus stops, our guide cheerily explains that because we arrived a few hours early, we have some free time to explore for ourselves. Free time! I could not have heard two better words. In the three days since our arrival in China from San Francisco, every second of our 15-hour outings has been controlled, including where we eat.
Though I enjoy the price of the tour ($1,200 covers the flight, accommodation, transportation, site visits and food) I am quickly discovering that Im just not a tour person.
There are two major sites in this part of Xian one is Drum Tower, built in 1380 AD; the other is Xians Great Mosque. The decision is not difficult, considering I live in the Middle East and a friend Im traveling with has visited mosques in various parts of Europe.
Energized at the prospect of visiting a mosque in China, I practically leap off the bus and lead a dozen travelers from the group down the street.
The ground is damp from a recent rain that has cooled off Xian. The weather is welcome just a few days ago we tromped through Beijings Forbidden City in heat and humidity that made August in Beirut seem tolerable.
Not surprisingly, the sign pointing to the mosque forces us down a narrow alley with vendors left and right. It takes about two minutes upon arrival in China to discover that the technically-Communist nation is a marketing machine, and that its skill for selling rivals that of any capitalist country.
The vendors, most of them women, sell the exact same products that we see throughout our trip: Buddhas with big tummies that are already rubbed raw, cheap silk paintings of animals and nature, and small red books quoting late Communist leader Mao Zedong.
The books, sold in every Western language imaginable, catch my eye. A woman wearing a hijab hones in on my interest and presses a dusty English-language copy into my hand.
I have managed to fall behind my group, however, so I hastily return the book and, out of habit, blurt out shukran.
As we pay for our tickets to the mosque, I glance up, expecting to see the traditional crescent and minaret. But all thats in view are unattractive, grayish apartment buildings, with nothing towering above them.
Established in 742 AD, shortly after Islam was brought to China via the Silk Road, Xians mosque is one of Chinas oldest and was deemed a historic site in 1956.
Looking around, however, there is nothing on the property to indicate this could be an Islamic place of worship. Instead, the grounds while tranquil and breathtakingly beautiful resemble a traditional Chinese garden, with potted plants, magnolias floating in large stone bowls and pagoda-like red ornamental buildings with upturned eaves.
Buildings occupy almost half of the 13,000-square-meter grounds, but mostly line the sides of the property, leaving plenty of room for stone paths and greenery. The vegetation and architecture are such welcome changes from Beijings mid-20th-century concrete-block style that we dont question why we havent seen even a glimpse of a mosque or Islam.
The property is broken into four courtyards separated by large, traditional Chinese-style archways and buildings.
Two inscribed stone tablets lie in the second courtyard, describing the repairs made to the mosque during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties (1644-1911). The dynasties were major contributors the development of the grounds, and furniture from their eras is on display in one of the buildings that run along the side of the property.
The middle of the third courtyard produces the epitome of Islam-meets-China structure: the minaret, instead of protruding high from the top of the mosque, is built in a pagoda-like two-story building adorned with dragons on its eaves. Pagodas are sacred buildings often associated with Buddhism, Chinas largest religion.
Chinese is definitely more prevalent in the writings throughout the mosques grounds, but entering the fourth courtyard, we pass under a stone archway with the verse from the Koran that reads: God said that mosques are for Allah, so do not pray to anyone else but Him.
Unlike the others, the courtyard has only a mass of bare concrete and one building. A man from our tour group darts ahead and peers into the solitary building, yelling back: Its the mosque!
My friend, who has visited numerous mosques, looks at me quizzically. Although we shouldnt be surprised by this point, the building is wide, one-story and with its upturned eaves and a blue-tiled roof, looks nothing like what weve seen in Europe or the Middle East.
We have to jump over knee-high benches to see the inside of the mosque, which is dark but looks a little more traditional. The hall is open, there are worn-out rugs on the ground where a man is praying, and the ceilings are carved with letters shaped like grass and flowers.
The small guidebook we received when we paid our entrance fees (and one of the few offered at any of the sites we visit in China) explains that these letters form 600 scriptures from the Koran. In addition, the pages of the Koran are carved in 600 massive wooden boards around the insides of the walls. Thirty of them are in Chinese; the rest are in Arabic.
We are unable to enter and can only peer into the mosque for a few minutes before a small man who looks very unhappy shoos us away with his broom. We can, however, look longer for a small fee, he says.
Shukran, I tell him, holding up my hand in rejection.
We dawdle as we leave the grounds of the mosque and dawdle even more through the marketplace. The woman wearing hijab who tried to sell me the Mao book is now shoving anything decorated with the late Chinese leader in front of me: There are watches, cigarette lighters, photos, statues.
I decide to go for it and bargain with her in Arabic, which turns out to be a big mistake. She stares at me blankly (no doubt because Im speaking colloquial Lebanese and doing so with a bad American accent.)
Fifteen dollar, she says flatly.
I raise an eyebrow and glance down at the tiny book printed in the 1960s with its poor English and cheesy photos of the chairman. Its probably worth $1.
Im about to offer $3 when my mother waves to me.
Come on, she yells. Were going to be late for the bus.
God forbid. I put down the book, give the woman another hasty shukran and make my way out of Xians Muslim quarter.