*editor's note: this post deserves accompanying photographs, but I am really bad at remembering to bring my camera places. In the future, please accept substitute pictures from a previous year's Eid celebration.
The invitations poured in throughout the week. "Come celebrate Eid with us!" We had been waiting for these calls to make plans for one of the biggest days on the Islamic calendar--Eid-ul-Fitr. The celebration of the end of fasting during Ramadan. While it is my understanding that each region's imams and sheikhs determine when the fast begins and is broken based on the cycles of the moon, it seems the Hui Chinese ahongs (same as imams) really enjoy the spontaneous nature of the timing. A few nights before the end of Ramadan is the Laylat al-Qadr or Night of Power. This night commemorates the first revelation of the Qur'an to Muhammad (pbuh) and some Muslims will stay at the mosque all night, praying and reciting Qur'an with the belief that the heavens are most open on this night for blessing and revelation from Allah. We kept asking all our Muslims friends what night it was, but they said the ahongs had not announced it yet. Finally, last Tuesday morning we get a call informing us, "Tonight is the Night of Power!" That's how it works out here.
Eid was a bit of a mystery as well. It is usually around 30 days from the start of Ramadan, but the exact date depends on the sighting of the crescent moon. Nonetheless, it was "announced" that Sunday would be the day (perhaps the government here requires more concrete planning?), though official confirmation could not be given. That did not stop the invitations from flowing in, and the more calls we got, the more excited I became. It is said that around 200,000 Muslims go to the Dong Guan Mosque on Eid and I was anxious to see it. After that, there was all the good food awaiting at whichever homes we visited. I've observed Ramadan once before, but not in a community, so no Eid celebrations. Today was my first.
After a late Saturday, M and I did not make it up for the traditional small breakfast of honeyed dates, nor did we make it to the khutbah (sermon). We did make it to the mosque just as the crowd was dispersing. I have no way of knowing if it was truly 200,000 people, but I will say that traffic was stopped for blocks around because the streets were filled with elated Muslims wearing white caps and colorful hijab, many wearing new clothes or shoes. Everyone was saying to one another, "Salaam!" and "Eid mubarak!" to us as we walked through the crowded streets and alleys around the mosque. It was incredible. We saw some friends. We also saw tons of beggars who receive a special zakat (charity) from the mosque for the holiday, as well as collect a lot of small change from the worshippers at the mosque. They had come from all the surrounding counties to the great mosque here in Xining. It was a sight.
My friend from the Middle East was approached several times to speak Arabic (true Arabic speakers are rare here), and people looked at me questioningly like I should be able to speak it too, but they weren't sure. My friend UE then started us on the long journey of bringing gifts to people's homes as they hosted us for Eid meals. Between 11:30 am and 7:30 pm we thanked our three hosts with four bags of fruit and a case of yogurt in return for three large meals. It was all delicious, but by day's end I was stuffed to the gills. I was assured by M that for Qinghai standards, these were small meals. Thank goodness!
I also made some new friends at these meals, a few who spoke very good English and few who patiently encouraged my Chinese and chopstick usage. One of our hosts is an influential man who was responsible for the development of sports in western China during the Mao years. He was a bit...impressed with himself, but was the consummate host. He even had us go to a park for post-meal exercises! Our second hosts were a family of brothers, the youngest two of whom were policemen. We crammed eight of us around a small table and ate and talked (or listened, in my case) and laughed. Again, impeccable hospitality, accompanying us down six flights of stairs to the gate in order to say goodbye. Finally, after a two hour break, M and I made our way to his good friend's family's house. We had so much food and so much fun and were again shown the most amazing hospitality (though they are comfortable enough with M to tease him quite mercilessly. I was assured that it would not be long until I would suffer the same fate). We finally returned home at 11:30 pm, very full and very satisfied. There was nothing else to say but, "Eid mubarak".