Looking for Ramadan in Ürümqi, Xinjiang, China

Looking for Ramadan in Ürümqi, Xinjiang, China

I landed at the Ürümqi airport after having taken my longest flight ever (measured in number of connections). It was four legs: Bosnia→Zagreb→Paris→Moscow→Ürümqi.

When I landed I had a single goal for the day — find Ramadan in Ürümqi. Unfortunately, things didn’t get off to a great start. Along the route from the airport to my hostel, everything I saw reminded me of Shanghai, with two exceptions:

  1. A blatantly excessive police presence and armored cars everywhere
  2. The Arabic letters for the Uyghur language on street signs

Delicacies of China. However, given the crowd that I noticed around this, it is probably not a common item at menus in the Xinjiang region.

Ürümqi is the capital city of the Xinjian region. The Xinjian region is, historically, majority Uyghurs. The Uyghurs are one of the largest Muslim minorities in China. Ürümqi was not neither founded by the Uyghers nor is it a historically Chinese community. Many people I talked to conveyed that in recent years the government’s strategy has been to establish a majority Han Chinese demographic in Ürümqi. To support this initiative the Chinese government is, reportedly, applying its secular protocols more stringently to this region than others. While this is done under the banner of secularism, popular consensus believes the central government’s non-tolerant practices are more racially than religiously driven. This is due to a long history of socio-political misalignment between ethnic Uyghurs and mainland Chinese populations. These histories are, in turn, part of a greater history in Central Asia where Uyghurs have repeatedly called for regional independence.

The unique hat seen here is one of the most distinct visual elements of Uygher culture.

Though the hats are mostly worn by elders, there was no shortage of young men wearing them.

I point out this purported tension because I encountered it even before even arriving in China. Because Ürümqi was my first point of entry into China, the travel agencies that helped me with getting my Chinese visa warned me that because I was born in Saudi Arabia, the chances were high that I would not receive a visa to enter the country. The second sign of the social and political tension in the region was when, despite my best and not inconsiderable efforts, no helping connections were extended to me for my visit to China due to fear of government reprisals. With that in mind, I carried on with my plans to find Ramadan.

The largest minaret in the International Grand Bazaar. The current bazaar was built by a Chinese-owned company in the early 2000’s. Though it attempts to recreate Islamic and Uygher architecture, I was told that it lacks authenticity and is primarily a symbol of tourism.

The hostel receptionist recognized my name as Muslim. “Musliman?” he asked. “Allhamdulillah,” (thanks be to God), I answered. “Assalamu Alaikum,” he responded (peace be upon you). And that was the end of our conversation. I saw him eat lunch during the day, and for that matter, life was operating normally around the hostel. But I didn’t notice many Uyghurs.

The seated man, an Uygher, uses Chinese style beads for dhiker.

It was still early in the day, so I went to the Old Town to visit the International Grand Bazar of Ürümqi with Elizabeth, an Australian English teacher in China and fellow backpacker I’d met at the hostel. I mostly wanted to find where the mosques were so I could return there for iftar. The closer we came to Old Town the more Uyghurs I noticed. It soon became abundantly clear that the majority of ethnic Uyghurs were living in neighborhoods in and around the Old Town. Elizabeth, and I played a couple games: find the Uyghur men (easily identified by: facial hair, Uyghur hat and/or not looking Chinese) and find the fasting Uyghurs (at 4 pm there were a lot of really sleepy and exhausted faces — clear signs of fasting!).

Finding an eagle randomly in the streets reminded me of Kyrgyzstan. Historically, the Kyrgyz and Uygher people were nomads. They used eagles for hunting.

China’s government does not allow Uyghurs to observe Ramadan. The law does not allow them to fast in accordance with their Islamic faith or, as many Muslim communities do, adjust the beginning and end of working hours to better align with Ramadan.

Slow day at the Grand Bazaar.

The shops were generally open, though, their patrons and owners moved with what almost seemed like deliberate slowness. Surprisingly, Uyghur shopkeepers put up with me when I tested my ability to communicate with them using the two words I knew of Uyghur: Assalamu Alaikum (peace be upon you) and tashakur (Turkish for thank you). I think I did great, although Elizabeth found it so entertaining that I began to doubt myself.

Dates are a very popular item during Ramadan in any Muslim community. They are traditionally most common for breaking the fast. These dates are imported from the Middle East. However, next to them are these small dried milk/yogurt cookies, which I have encountered in Central Asia.

We went back to the hostel after we walked around the area for a little bit. An hour before the time for iftar, which was 10 pm in Beijing’s time zone and 8 pm locally. Yes, this region has two time zones. The real local time is based on the city’s location on planet earth. And then there is the official government time based on Beijing’s location, which is a 2-hour difference.

I really meant it. Sheep being skinned on the street.

Meat pies are a popular Uygher street food

I soon returned to the Old Town area. Unknowingly, I had gotten off the bus early by a couple stops. A local good samaritan noticed I was lost, stopped and helped me hitch a ride to the Old Town. The area seemed alive. Restaurants and street food vendors were cooking food. Butchers were skinning recently slaughtered sheep. People were buying fruits and other foods. The smell of bread was wonderfully intoxicating. People were moving quickly towards the mosques around the neighborhood. “Eureka!! I found Ramadan!” I told myself while jumping in the air and doing a celebratory dance. Just kidding. Maybe.

There were many mosques, some as unassuming as this one

Khantegri mosque, built in 1919 and renovated in 2014.

I decided to explore the mosques. There were at least four or five large mosques within three blocks. At every mosque I was faced with the same scenario. At first I was unwelcomed and ushered away, “no photo!” people would shout. At one point someone tried to save me the shouting and winked at me to leave smoothly. However, the attitudes would change quickly once I would announce that I too was fasting, Muslim, and looking to break my fast. People became very excited and asked me where I was from. I tested all answers: American, Jordanian, and Palestinian. Responding with “American” generally got the most curiosity. Patrons of the mosques would double check: “American. Musliman?” Responding with “Palestinian” got the most passionate welcomes. And responding with “Jordanian” was neutral. I checked out three mosques when I finally took my seat for iftar at one of the closest mosques to my hostel.

Also, despite language barriers I was able to communicate with many using Google Translate. In this picture, I had translated a few sentences to Chinese and handed the phone over.

Watermelons on the grounds of one mosque in-preperation for iftar

We broke our fast with watermelons. When I asked why watermelons, they said because it is in-season.

Watermelons were on the table to break our fast with. As soon as maghrib arrived, the table’s occupants devoured the watermelons in front of us. Then we chugged some tea and moved to the hall downstairs for maghrib prayer, after which we went back to our tables for more food.

My new friend over iftar

Everyone was staring at me as I clearly looked like the odd man out. It was divine intervention that I sat next to a man (and later realized that I forgot to ask for his name — I blame the hunger). He was Pakistani and had his own business in dried raisins and other fruits. He had been living in Urumqi for 27 years. And most importantly, he spoke English. I asked him about whether it was difficult for him to be in Ürümqi during Ramadan. He told me that for him it is fine but for Muslims who work for the government it is far more difficult. Known or suspected Muslims are purposely offered food during Ramadan; this is how the government ensures they are not fasting.

The interiors of the mosques I visited were generally very impressive.

Every mosques I visited was very clean and well-maintained

The mosque above the Grand Bazaar was the most impressive. It was clean, spacious, well-lit, and had an amazingly effective air-conditioner!

I was told that this is the main and largest mosque of Urumqi. The interiors were decorated in traditional Uygher style.

After a quick walk following prayer, I devised a plan to later attend the night prayer, taraweeh, in two mosques. I was really impressed by the size of the mosques and how full and well-run they were. One interesting thing — before entering the mosques, I (and everyone else) was given clean socks to wear before entering. This is brilliant, and as many fellow Muslims may know from experience, very much needed. I am confident some readers are nodding their heads in agreement right now. For those that are a little confused, just trust me, the fresh socks are a good thing.

I was surprised by the number of people openly praying outside. I was told by many that at that point of the day, praying in mosques is not allowed for government workers or people below the age of eighteen. Undeterred, I found people filling the Grand Bazaar grounds and praying outside.

While walking from one mosque to the other, I noticed two police offers sitting in a room watching a large screen that had surveillance of the prayers in multiple mosques. While this was a shocking sight for me, I soon became used to seeing such things. Chinese army soldiers, tankers and Chinese police were a common sight on the streets of Ürümqi. Muslims were heavily monitored under a blistering level of daily scrutiny, which was very quickly felt and easily seen.

The Tartar Mosque, named after the Tartar community that privately donated the funds to build it in 1897.

At the next mosque, I tried speaking to the center’s imam, who happened to speak perfect Arabic. He welcomed me to China, and with a forced smile (yet somehow conveying real sincerity) he told me, “we cannot conduct interviews. There are official channels through which an interview must be approved.” Regardless of my responses or requests for clarification he kept telling me, “you must understand. Our situation. You must understand.” I pushed on and tried to ask him some of the safe, exploratory questions that I had asked others in my travels such as his personal thoughts on Islam and Chinese culture, together or separately. He again refused to answer, “I can’t. They won’t believe that we only talked about that.” He then excused himself because we soon had an audience watching an American talking to the imam in Arabic.

Talking to the imam in Arabic generated an audience. All the more reason for the imam to refuse to talk to me.

Overall, I was disappointed in my night and the inability to talk freely to the local Muslim community. I planned on traveling to Kashgar the next day, where the population was more predominantly Uyghur Muslim. I reassured myself that more people would speak with me freely there, although after my first day I knew that a hefty challenge lay ahead of me in China — one far bigger than I had anticipated.

After dark, the streets were even busier with food vendors.

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