Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Muslim Street

One of my favorite aspects of Xi’an is its diversity. There are shoppers and strollers, sightseers and foreigners. There are old buildings and new, old buses and new, old people and… young. And they all commingle virtually seamlessly. At any given point you might drive by a park dedicated to statuary, or an edifice that has stood since the days of Genghis Khan. And that would be right next to the new shopping mall, complete with McDonalds’.

No less a spectacle is the Muslim Quarter. Xi’an boasts a fairly large Muslim population, and they are centered around the centuries-old Mosque near the ancient drum tower, which just happens to be very close to the heart of the old city. Matter of fact, everything in the Old City is within walking distance from the South Gate of the original City Wall.

Please feel free to google any of these images. Again I regret that I can only include one or two pictures with each blog entry. Although I am posting pictures on my flickr page, it seems to me that I would be inconveniencing you to urge you to go look there, when you can just as quickly google some results. Not everything has to be from me, I realize. Besides, google might have better pictures than I do. Or at least more variety.

My job is to paint pictures with words. As I am intent on doing my job well, I now invite you to walk down Muslim Street with me.

Coming here is, in a sense, coming home for me. Not just Xi’an, but especially Muslim Street. It has nothing to do with religion, tradition or custom but more with the hustle and bustle, the life, the excitement, the wares, the very air and atmosphere and the timeless practice of barter and trading, eating and strolling, eyes wide with wonder and heart soaring with elan. When one walks down Muslim Street, listening to the vendors hawk their wares, tripping over that loose cobblestone, taking in the traditions in craftsmanship, cookery and trading, one feels like they have turned the clock back about 400 years and changed geographical points altogether.

It is a loud and fragrant place. There is no restaurant section, sales section, this section or that section. Everything is all mixed together. At any given point you might find a whole lamb shank roasting over an open fire right next to a craftsman making jewelry, right next to a baker making their strangely tasty, unleavened bread. Most of the food is cooked outdoors and if you find an entrancing chef, it is perfectly OK to stop and watch him. And they are always a ‘him’. No ‘her’ chefs in the Muslim Quarter.

Many of the vendors sell the same type of tourist kitsch; it is a tourist attraction, after all. You have to look past those vendors to get the beat of the true Muslim Street.

There is one distinct section that is in fact reserved for tourists. The first time I went to Muslim Street with Ken, last year, he declared he did not even know that section exists. However, the fist time I came to Xi’an I was in fact a tourist and that is the only part of Muslim Street I saw.

In this narrow alley, off the main thoroughfare of the Quarter, Chinese vendors hawk their wares almost exclusively to tourists. Their calls of ‘Hey lady! Hey Lady! You come! You buy!’ are almost comically stereotypical. They like to grab your arm and pull you into their shop. And, unless you bargain with them, they will not respect you. For all of that, I do have to say that they do indeed have nice, touristy stuff: Terra Cotta Warrior replicas, copies of Chairman Mao’s red book, various tee-shirts and some Chinese clothing. There are silk painters who will custom paint for you; there are artisans who will paint on rice paper, there are trinket and toys and things for little and big ones alike. There is jewelry and teapots for sale, along with the requisite variety of teas, and there are ornamental boxes and a million other trinkets.

Had that been all there was to Muslim Street, I would be writing about something else instead. I was not enchanted until Ken showed me the other parts.

As I walk down Muslim Street, alone this time, I take in the sights, sounds and smells. My hands are in my pockets and a small, knowing smile plays on my lips. I almost close my eyes and let my other senses guide me. I do not need to see tourist kitsch; I need to feel the connection to this living time machine.

These Muslim are humble and hard working. They do not accost you directly; it is more the skill of their hands and the aroma of their food that beckons. Theirs is a type of seduction that, although you might be able to resist momentarily, its lure and chant will haunt you until you return, again and again, to behold it, if not take part in it.

For you are a participant when you are on Muslim Street. That is, if you do it right.

You should go there by day, the earlier the better. Certain types of food are only cooked early morning, and their delicate aroma is trumped by the smell of roasting meat if you go later on in the day. Besides, if you get there before the tourist buses, you can see what life is truly like on Muslim Street without getting squished by throngs of people or assaulted by tons of vendors.

Early-day food cooked and served, men head to the mosque at the center of the quarter. The chant from the minaret is loud, clear and powerful in the morning air. There is camaraderie evident among the devout as their sandaled feet slap the cobblestones. An aura of reverence descends on the Quarter at prayer time and, even though the men smile and talk and laugh while walking, the closer they get to the mosque the more hushed and awed they become. Tourists are allowed to enter the mosque, even at prayer time, on the condition that they do not cause a disturbance or interrupt prayers. Women must be properly attired: no bare shoulders or low cut shirts.

Or you can take in Muslim Street at night, when it reinvents itself to become a bazaar. There is a sensual feel to the smoke from the barbeques, the cracking sound of the fruit presses for fresh pomegranate juice, the popping of walnuts churning in their roasters, and all around you the night air, silky and redolent with the fragrance of flowers and herbs. At night you are anonymous, a face in the crowd, a part of the swelling masses. At night, Muslim Street happens without you being able to see it for all of the noise and the press of the people. But you know you are there.

One night, I put away my laptop and needed a walk. Invariably my feet took me to Muslim Quarter. I didn’t need the lights or the people but I wanted the sounds and the smells. I walked on, an island in a sea of faces, feasting on the aroma and drinking in the sights. Rather than stick to the main concourse I decided to run the side roads, which are substantially more narrow and infinitely more real to me. That is where life happens in Muslim Street at night.

As I walked on I came upon a small drama. A kitten had perched on a scooter seat, and the scooter’s owner was trying to dislodge it. The man did not simply exert his larger size against the kitten’s more fragile countenance, scoop it up and deposit it unceremoniously on the ground. Instead he encouraged the kitten to jump down of its own volition. Man and cat wrangled for a minute, with the feline hissing and the man nudging its hindquarters. Finally the cat understood that the man was giving it dignity by allowing it to descend on its own. It raised its tail, jumped down and found its own way along the cobblestones to its next perch. The man mounted his scooter and rode away.

That is the essence of the dignity and life of Muslim Street.

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