Stepping into the mosque, I am greeted with a familiar “Assalamualaikum” and a smile – but that’s where our conversation ends. We try to let our smile linger for an awkward moment as I search for words in Chinese and she thinks of something to say.
She perks up again and asks, “Salat?”
It’s the Arabic word for prayer – and we’re beaming from ear to ear again, happy to have found another concept we both understand and a little proud that we had found a way to cheat the language barrier. Nodding, I stand next to her as the call for prayer begins.
The one thing I have always loved about religion is that no matter where you go, you can almost certainly find a community of Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs – whatever your religion – that you can be a part of. This is something that is a complete blessing as a TCK.
Having grown up in India, United Arab Emirates, and Turkey – countries where there is immense awareness about Islam – my most unique experience as a TCK Muslim was when I was studying abroad in Shanghai. Fall semester junior year, I found myself in China with a group of about 100 other eager students, none of which were Muslim.
At that time, Ramadan was coming to an end. It’s a month in which Muslims around the world observe fasts from dawn to dusk in an effort to renew and strengthen their spirituality and sense of community. I had no clue which day Eid-Ul-Fitr, an end-of-Ramadan celebration marked by a large morning congregational prayer, was to be celebrated as it was based on the sighting of the moon and I had no one to ask.
I did my own calculations as to when the new moon was likely to show up in China and arrived at the mosque early in the morning armed with the translation of “Ramadan” and “Eid” in Mandarin on a tiny piece of paper. I found the mosque empty.
I finally cornered someone, but it was obvious that they had no idea what I was saying. Through some pretty creative sign language, I eventually deciphered that Eid had already passed the day before. Thus, my first Eid in China ended up being a complete fail.
The Muslim calendar has two big celebrations – Eid-ul-fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, and Eid-ul-Adha which honors the willingness of Prophet Ibrahim to sacrifice his child and marks the end of the pilgrimage of Hajj. I happened to be in China for Eid-Ul-Adha as well, and this time I made sure I knew my dates. I found a halal restaurant in my neighborhood and figured out which day they expected Eid and this time I showed up on the right day and the right time.
The experience was euphoric. I was shown up to the women’s section that looked down upon the men’s area – a sea of white head caps traditionally worn for prayer. The other women were clearly talking about me and whenever I caught their eye they smiled and nodded, which I understood as a universal sign of “Welcome!” The sermon was in Chinese interspersed with mentions of “Muhammad” and “Allah,” the only words I understood.
But the prayer was in Arabic.
The best part of being a Muslim is that no matter which part of the world you go to, everyone prays in the same fashion and in Arabic. As cliché as this sounds, in that one moment of prostration, I connected with everyone around me and all other barriers disappeared as we melded into one big community.
After the prayer it was as if I had found a lost family. We didn’t feel like strangers anymore as everyone hugged and greeted each other. Some of the elderly gave out dried fruits and nuts from a little plastic bag and, seeing that I was clearly not Chinese, made sure to give me a few more than the others. Stepping out of the mosque, I came across other Indian faces who took the opportunity to say “Eid Mubarak” – a common greeting for Eid in parts of South Asia.
A bazaar had popped up in the streets outside the mosque where Chinese Muslims – mainly from the northwestern provinces of China – were selling their food and wares. The air was filled with aromas of different kababs and breads when the most curious thing happened: I started hearing bits and pieces of Turkish, recognizing the sounds from my years in Turkey. After an eager scan to see if I could make out Turkish looking faces, I realized that the Turkish sounding words were coming from the Chinese vendors. Some of the vendors present were speaking what was probably Uzbek, Kazakh, or Uyghur, languages which were in many ways similar to Turkish.
As a TCK, you only really need one aspect of familiarity to connect with someone, and that day I had found many: in being Muslim, in being Indian, in knowing Turkish. And there I was, an Indian Muslim speaking Turkish with a Chinese street vendor while celebrating Eid in the streets of Shanghai – a true TCK experience.
Photo courtesy of Neeha Mujeeb.