Bento de Gois, in search of the Cathay Kingdom (7)

Great Figures of the Missionary Work

Joaquim Magalhães de Castro

The heart of the city of Kashgar lay in its main mosque, the Id Kha, a real box of surprises where anything could happen. Built in 1442, this building lined with yellow tiles is still one of the largest mosques in China with a capacity, courtyard and the interior gardens included, of 8,000 people. During the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, it suffered heavy losses, but has since been restored several times, and is now, more than ever, the focus of the religious and social life of the Uighurs. The call to prayer, the azan, was made from above the minarets through a loudspeaker, five times a day, as is the tradition in Islam, and to that call flocked, throughout the day, thousands of faithful.

Next to the main gate sat the Patriarchs, mild prattle, stuck in their long coats and knee-high leather boots. During the summer, these elders are covered with lightweight cotton and silk robes with colored stripes, but in winter they wear lined cotton coats, and never cover their chest, even in the coldest days. This is a golden rule and perhaps the secret of their longevity.

Whenever there was a funeral, the surroundings were filled with men dressed in black overcoats with white bands around the waist and a turban around the cap, since for the Uighurs both black and white symbolize mourning.

Women also moved to the Id Kha all Fridays, to bless the specially baked bread in that holy day. Some of them, from more conservative families, wore purdhas, which in the local version is an extended color mesh veil brown placed on the head to hide the faces. Their number, however, to the dismay of the fundamentalist, decreases from year to year. Women of Xinjiang were already emancipated and enjoyed a privileged status compared to women of the remaining Islamic world.

On the other hand, both kafires (as unbelievers who eat pork are dubbed, in this case, the Han Chinese) as believers of other religions had free access to the interior of the mosque. Uighurs are still the most liberal of Muslims — advantages, undoubtedly, of Chinese socialism.

In small metal stalls glued to the sidewalls of the mosque, they sell a little of everything. On the right were exposed caps, berets, metal hardware, shoes and travel bags. On the opposite side were blue stalls trying to sell in a sneaky way Koran copies of all shapes and sizes, antiques, parchments, rare books and all kinds of old stuff. This region was well known for its forgers who went to great pains on copies they produced and whose accuracy was internationally recognized.

During Ramadan – a period of the year when Muslims fast from the sunrise to sunset, usually between April and May – the plaza served as a clue to a ritual dance that men executed at dawn for hours on end, until they reach a state of trance. The shrill sound of the suona (a kind of clarinet) and the devilish rhythm of the drums marking the beat, spreading throughout the city, keeping her awake. The instruments were played by musicians sitting on top of the minaret, their figures silhouetted against a crescent moon sky.

Let us make here a parenthesis to evoke again our Bento de Góis, who expressed astonishment at the amount of mosques and did not forget to point out precisely the sanctity of Fridays and the call to prayer made from the top of the minarets, which today is still done without microphones, and on certain festive occasions, celebrated with the sound of horns and drums, as has been said above.

So, too, with marriages, which always happen in late autumn. At dawn yet, a small orchestra goes to the bride’s house to animate the guests that, throughout the morning,  gather to sip tea and enjoy the pulau – carrot and meat rice – bread with onion and the most delicious melons. The meal is brief and everyone is invited. Known and unknown, friends and strangers, Muslim or not.

In the afternoon it’s time to visit the groom’s house, where equal socializing takes place, with appropriate music, food and drink. Very quietly, in the recesses of the house, and just for the close friends, ak arak, a powerful local brandy, is served.

Come twilight, the groom’s friends leave him in the back of a truck, sounding horns and drums through the streets, while yelling at him “friendly insults.” It’s a bachelors’ party. The remaining guests follow in jeeps and a truck rented for the purpose. The more noisy and raucous, the better the party.

The bride waits at home, accompanied by her family and the Muslim priest, muhla, who makes a brief ceremony so the groom comes to take her with him. As is tradition, the bride should cry because she is leaving the maternal home. Or at least should pretend to cry. Soon after, the procession goes back to tread the corners of the city, again toward the groom’s house. In the air stays, for some time yet, the shrill sound of suonas and the rattle of the drums.

Regarding the traditional hospitality of the Uighurs, Matteo Ricci writes that during the stay of the Azore’s Jesuit in Kashgar, there was appointed head of the caravan of merchants a native of the land called Haji Asiz, which, “when he realizes that our brother was a wise man and quite rich, he invited him to a solemn feast in his house, where, besides the services, the music of those people was not missing.”

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