Even unto China: Ramadan in Beijing, by Zain Masud
I discovered a couple years ago that my great great grandfather who we believed to be from Turkmenistan actually emigrated to Singapore in the late nineteenth century from Yarkand, an oasis city on the ancient silk route in China’s Xinjiang province. His name was Hajji Ismail. We have no photographs of him and have no idea whether he was a Uighur, Han-Chinese – or any of the other ethnic options in that regional melting pot – but this nugget of information has captured my imagination, deepening my natural interest in China and perhaps the fondness I feel here. It also heightens my curiousity about the Muslim community, which is pervasive in the capital too.
Muslim restaurants punctuate Beijing, are very popular across the board and yet a subtle reminder of China’s Muslim demographic of over 21.5 million. They typically serve Xinjiang cuisine, Turkic in flavour, grilled meats accompanied by beer, pomegranate wine, photographs of the holy cities and tapestries of exotic, wide-eyed beauties. My father and I headed to Beijing’s Muslim quarter this week in search of a good iftar. We didn’t really find it, though the Crescent Moon Muslim Restaurant across town gets my vote.
Later we visited Nuijie Mosque, the oldest in the capital. We went to take it in and pick up a schedule of Ramadan timings but it was assumed we were there to join the evening’s tarawih. We were ushered in separate directions, my father across to the men’s elaborate courtyard and prayer hall and myself to do my wudu and join the women. Young girls and old ladies, we all knew the sequence to these ablutions, and perhaps for the first time here I stopped feeling foreign.
It didn’t matter that my dress grazed my knees. Majida, the kind mosque attendant insisted I use her own long skirt and hurriedly found me a veil so I could pray. Unjudging, instant inclusion. I can’t imagine my bare legs being so readily overlooked in a mosque elsewhere in the Muslim world. In a country where I barely speak the language, everyone said assalamu alaikum and understood my response. The imam began to lead the prayer in the men’s hall, which was broadcast into the women’s. His Arabic was heavily accented but I recognised every sura. For once in China I understood exactly what was happening and being said! I was deeply moved to find myself there, a pocket of belonging in an unassuming corner of the city.
Founded in 996 AD by an Arab scholar, Nasruddin, the mosque occupies two main courtyards connected by well-tended passages. Looking for my Pa later, I was wowed as I entered the men’s courtyard. Wholly Chinese in architectural character, its pagoda-island like structures were, however, subtly embellished by the shahada in Arabic calligraphy. It boasted old impressive trees and a resident golden ferret scampered between steles as the muezzin call for prayer from the entrance to the hall. The adaan always stirs something in my bones…
Soon the congregation began reciting unusual verses, rhythmic and songlike, interlacing their silent raq’aas. It didn’t sound much like Arabic anymore (probably down to the collective Chinese voice) and in any case an interesting addition to the tarawih. As I waited for my father a few old men carefully washed watermelons and arranged them whole on a constellation of tables, ready for the hungry worshippers soon to emerge.
Iftar: breaking of the fast
Tarawih: ‘extra’ Ramadan prayers. Up to twenty raq’aas to be said after Isha (evening prayer).
Wudu: specific ablutions necessary before prayer.
Assalamu alaikum: ‘Peace be upon you’, the universal greeting between Muslims or often in the Arab speaking world.
Imam: like a Muslim priest. Amazing to hear this one give his sermon in Mandarin…
Sura: verses from the Qur’an. The imam here started with shortest, unusual as generally during Ramadam the imam will begin the month with the first, longest suras. I imagine this is a practical adaptation of the norm for a congregation for whom the language is challenging.
Shahada: the Muslim creed
Adaan: the call to prayer
Raq’aa(s): prayer cycle
Zain Masud is assistant fair director at Art Dubai. Born in Saudi Arabia to a Hijazi mother and Pakistani father she was raised in London, read Art History at SOAS, UCL and Oxford. She worked in contemporary art, in Paris before joining the fair in 2009. She is an art nomad and food sleuth.