The earth becomes pews as carpets are laid out; slowly, deliberately, in rows upon rows. The minutes sing slowly onward as men in white skullcaps cluster tightly together, shoes discarded behind the rugs in neat pairs; there is an air of great familiarity to the ritual, the rugs, the shoes, the kneeling.
Shoes line the steps in great swathes up to the prayer building. Beyond the open doors, all we can see are the shrouded backs and white caps of those in prayer, and then their feet alone as they kowtow in synchronicity, rise as one soul. Droning chants echo over the cobblestones, well-worn and frayed as the colorful, tasseled carpets upon which men in dark traditional garb sit, stand, kowtow, and do so again in endless, looping cycles.
We stand behind, at a distance, underneath trees trimmed in the shape of umbrellas. Lush green foliage forms a canopy over twisting, snarled branches, shading observers from the dim white sky. A herd of other tourists – all Chinese – are dressed in modern, vibrant fabrics. Older women with red-painted lips, younger generations; all film brazenly with their phones, all shelter beneath the trees, taking photos and videos. They, too, stand and watch, leaving in pairs or groups as they have absorbed enough of the bowing, standing, kneeling prayer.
Dots of white disappear, reappear, disappear again to the guidance of rhythmic chants.
“It is the Hui Muslims who are familiar but distant,” an official placard reads, far from the cobblestones and the rugs and the prayer. This I recognize, in the familiarity of the ritual, in the kneeling distance from Mecca. The Hui are transplanted, but have long settled in their distance. Even later, we are told by an old man with a wrinkled, smiling face that the Hui of this mosque pray five times a day, starting at six-forty, early in the morning; work stops in much of the city for prayer.
There is no difference between the cobblestones and the building, he tells us, smile never fading as he talks in mandarin. It is only the direction that matters. Towards Mecca.
Even for all those praying towards Mecca, some of those men fulfilling this endless cycle on the rugs are not even men. Some are boys, young and quick to bow and stand, short with youth or tall and gangly with growth.
And some have long been men, faces lined enough and movements girded with slow deliberation to have been praying for upwards of fifty years.
I see men of all ages holding their phones as they stream to the exit, signaled by the familiarity of rite and ritual. Their clothes, all uniform and dark from behind, reveal themselves to be startlingly different; younger men wear t-shirts, jeans, and patterned undershirts beneath their traditional dark coats, while older men are clearly dressed in their best pressed button-down shirts.
Later, we will talk to a friendly stranger, surrounded by a crowd of curious mosque-goers, intrigued by our foreignness and different clothes. But for now we just watch, standing beneath the umbrella trees.