This post is not about the deep history of Kashgar. Nor the treasure of culture I found in Kashgar, the Uyghur cultural capital. I do, however, encourage you to do some quick research about it only after you read this story, which is about Jimmy (not his real name), my translator in Kashgar.
I personally had a mixed bag of emotions towards my visit to Kashgar. I was giddy like a child because my travel lust and curiosity couldn’t wait to explore this unique culture with an extremely rich history. I was anxious… no, very anxious for multiple reasons. My friends of Chinese heritage in Boston warned me against traveling to Kashgar. I met a backpacker in Urumqi who told me that she was once stuck in Kashgar because of an “incident” that blocked the streets to the bus station. And I was told by many that security measures are extremely heightened in Kashgar. Okay. I was scared, not just anxious. More importantly, Kashgar felt like the pinnacle of my trip because of its rarely talked about, uniquely Muslim cultural community facing an amazing struggle to retain its identity.
When I landed in Kashgar, I made a quick stop by the hostel on my way to the tourist agency office, where I was to arrange for my guide over the next two days. The hostel lobby receptionist, a non-Uyghur, informed me that they close the hostel’s gate between 2 am and 8 am. I asked him if he could make an arrangement to allow me to go to the mosque for the early morning prayer. He was surprised. I thought he was surprised to see an American Muslim but, he quickly explained that there is a Muslim population here that may not let me into the mosque because of my obvious difference. He asked me if I was sure that I wanted to go to the mosque. I affirmed to him that yes, I wanted to go to the mosque. And that yes, I am the same kind of Muslim as the Uyghurs.
“I am sorry to disappoint you though, because I am not really a practicing Muslim,” Jimmy said. I told him it is okay, I don’t judge. I mainly wanted his help in talking to people. I didn’t feel like he was satisfied with that answer. Before getting on our way, I asked him if he had WeChat so that I could text him. He told me that he leaves his iPhone home, in his village, 20 minutes away from Kashgar.
Our first stop was visiting the Tomb of Apak Hoja, a significant figure in the history of Islam in Kashgar and the Uyghur civilization. Honestly, it was a history of rising to power and politics, so I lost interest. But, I was really interested in everything else Jimmy shared. At first, we ran into an official Chinese, government-run tour. Jimmy was quick to express his dislike of giving tours to Chinese groups. He said that they like to follow a strict schedule, which he finds absent of any opportunity to introduce a personalized experience. Perhaps more importantly, he does not like or agree with the Chinese version of history. This same tomb is known in China as the Tomb of the Fragrant Concubine, a descendant of Apak Hoja and buried there as well.
Jimmy was loving the fact that he did not have to explain the Islamic parts of the mosque. He told me that they rarely received Muslim tourists. We took a break in the mosque area of the complex, and Jimmy felt comfortable opening-up. “Soo. Umm. Please, be careful when talking to others. I will translate everything you say, but try to be as… you know… as careful as possible,” he murmured. “You’re fine. You won’t get in trouble. But myself and the people you talk to may get in-trouble. In fact, there was an incident last week that prompted further escalated restrictions.”
“You know Jimmy. I am not sure I follow. What do you mean by an incident? Who are the bad guys here? I really don’t understand,” I pushed back because I was getting both mildly paranoid and quite seriously confused at the same time.
I am not sure if he believed that I didn’t understand, but he carried on to explain that “…there are bad people, extremists, that are against the government. These people were responsible for the stabbing incidents last week. And, last year they stabbed the imam of the Id Kah mosque.” I asked him what he thinks of these people, or what they want, and he simply replied that they are “bad people”. I guess I hit the limits of his comfort zone. He told me that the more incidents there are, the more the government tightens security. He left his iPhone at home because he’s afraid that a cop may randomly decide to search his phone. “Yea. Sooo… they can stop me and ask for my phone and check my social media. I know someone whose phone they searched. They found a social media status of his friend that had an anti-government message, so they took him away.”
“So, I read online that Muslims in China are not allowed to fast during Ramadan?” I figured that we were deep in the midst of an unbridled conversation, so we might as well take it further. He looked at me and smiled in a way that I didn’t fully understand. It was probably the why-are-you-making-me-say-these-things smile. Nonetheless, he said “Yep. That’s right. I’m a teacher. They bring us food during Ramadan to make sure that myself and other suspected Muslims eat it. Umm… I do that to my students. I bring them food. I tell them everyday not to pray or fast. We, at the school, sometimes send students to stand outside the mosque to tell us if their classmates or other students are going to the mosque,” he said. “What happens if you go to the mosque or fast?” I asked. “Well … it depends,” He explained that in the best case, less frequent, scenario you keep your job but never progress in your career. Not infrequently suspected violators are demoted from their positions. Or, most frequently, they are “taken away”.
Jimmy was a polite man. When he became very thirsty during the heat of the day, he apologized profusely when he drank water in-front of me as I was fasting. When I asked him why he won’t try to pray and fast in-hiding from the government, he said that it is hard. They would know. He kept repeating that Islam for him is about cleanliness of the body and soul. Over two days, he accompanied me wherever I went, even to the Iftars I was invited to. Even then, he voiced his feeling of not deserving to join the Iftar meals because he was not fasting.
I honestly didn’t know if Jimmy would be a practicing Muslim under different circumstances. When I told his story to a friend, they asked me a question to the gist of, “did he genuinely want to practice but couldn’t?” And… well… who am I to say? First of all, to answer that question is to be extremely judgmental. On the other hand, how can I treat years of cultural and religious oppression as if it can be changed like flipping a switch. At the second Iftar with Jimmy, and my last in Kashgar, he talked about his views of Islam. I was hungry. I was fasting. I was tired. It sounded apologetic. It sounded like the excuses a man tells himself. But towards the end, he said, “I feel ashamed. I come from a very religious family. My mother’s side is very religious. My grandfather and my uncle went to Mecca. They lived there and they died there.”
Ammar is on a journey to explore Islam in different countries around the world. He wants to show that Islam is a faith not exclusive to a single ethnicity. He hopes that these stories become part of the conversation about tolerance and acceptance in America.
For more information, visit our page about this journey.