The end of Ramadan

Sunday was the much-awaited end of Ramadan, definitely by those who had been fasting for the previous month, but also by me who was lucky to be in Kashgar on that special day. It was going to be a unique chance to see the huge assembly that gathers on the mosque square on religious festivals.

The preparations for the event started on the eve: street sweepers were busy cleaning the streets, the mosque chimney was capped by a dense plume of coal smoke as bread was being baked. The police fenced off the areas reserved to the faithful.

At dawn, I was still lying in bed when I started hearing the scratchy voice of the preacher over the loudspeaker. In the numbness of sleep, I looked down from the balcony and saw an ocean of people kneeling on their prayer carpets. They were neatly arranged in rows that covered not just the square, but also the side streets. It was an incredible tidal wave of bodies.

I was hungry, still I rushed down the stairs in order not to miss a single moment of this extraordinary event. I reached the front of the square and the terrific assembly was all before my eyes. Only few policemen stood on the rooftops to supervise the happening, but probably many more were infiltrated in plain clothes among the crowd.

Some people were listening to the sermon in concentration, but here and there someone was taking snapshots with their mobile phones. This was as extraordinary a spectacle to them as it was to me. The imam wound up his speech and recited the Fatiha. At the final line the thousands of voices present intoned a powerful Amin in such a low-pitched chorus that I came round to the fact that the crowd was exclusively made up of men.

Then the same faceless voice resumed command and pronounced the words that made the congregation simultaneously kneel down, bend over and sit up again. Finally, they slid their hands down their cheeks as if they were rubbing away an invisible layer of impurity, looked towards the right, then towards the left. When the final blessing was imparted the crowd lost their geometric arrangement at once. They stood up, rolled up their prayer carpets and started to disperse. I imagined the square would get jammed with the sudden exit of this massive human presence, but the outflow was smooth. It took much longer for the those inside the mosque to come out through the narrow entrance.

The sunshine eases a bit only in the second part of the afternoon. In waiting for this momento, I made myself a cook and prepared a dish of yidali mian, or Italian pasta, for my friends’ lunch. At 6 Beijing time, which is 4 by the local sun, Haotian and I set out to explore the crumbling houses in the old town, where the new buildings announce its imminent transformation into another anonymous Chinese town. Centuries of history will be replaced by modern buildings. The administrators’ greed knows no limit when they face the prospect of enrichment.

The Sunday market was closed because of the Eid, but we made our way back to the centre passing by the Chinese town where a ludicrous statue showed Mao Zedong standing in his winter coat with his hand raised to the sky. In the sweltering heat of Kashgar this was the best caricature of the man. Opposite the monument, red lanterns remind that the Chinese presence is well-rooted in the land of the Uyghur. At least they make a nice colour patch against the white building of the Bank of China.