Korban in Kashgar
... with the Uyghur people
Having already seen, experienced and filmed the first Eit (for the end of Ramadan) in Tajikistan, we were excitedly awaiting to witness its partner festival, Korban Eit, with the Uyghur people. The Korban festival is huge in Xinjiang, with the biggest celebrations occurring in and around the sentimental capital of the Uyghur nation, Kashgar. This festival is to commemorate when Abraham sacrificed a black sheep in place of his son. Being such an important Muslim festival, however, tensions were raised and the threat of follow-up action after the July riots in Urumqi saw an overwhelming police and army presence around Kashgar at this time. Leading up to Eit there were troops patrolling the entire city, all day and night.
The festival itself occurs over three to five days, and varies between city and rural areas. On the first day, Eit opens with the morning prayer. For this day, many people travel from very far away to attend the Namaz at Id Kah mosque in central Kashgar. As expected, with such a large cultural gathering occurring in town, the army presence was boosted especially for this day. About 1 km from the mosque we saw truckloads of soldiers and riot police, ready for action, which was a bit disconcerting. As we approached the mosque we became swamped in the crowds of Uyghur men making their way to pray. It appeared that they were walking in waves, each wave led from the front by an older or wiser man, who would stop every 100 metres or so to chant a few words, and the wave behind him would pull up while he did so, and then move on.
It was all quite spectacular and we could sense that this was a special day indeed. However, unfortunately the tense political situation in Xinjiang temporarily brought a halt to our fun for the day. When we got to within only 200 metres from the mosque we were stopped by the police and ordered to turn back, no buts and no exceptions.
Feeling a bit dejected from being ejected, we wandered the streets to try to find a different avenue to the mosque, but all roads were guarded by policemen waiting to catch aliens like us. After about half an hour without success, we could see that the prayer session had ending because the waves of men were now heading away from the mosque. It was a pity to not witness this big event of the Eit festival, but all was not lost as there was still much more to see over the next few days.
After prayer, the men get on to the business of the sheep. The city lifestyle determines that many people cannot buy and store their black sheep at their home too far ahead of Eit, and instead must buy it on the first day. So, after namaz in the morning, there were many many men in the streets buying and selling their sheep. Walking the streets of old Kashgar before midday, we saw many sheep being slain out the front of the houses. Then we went off to another house to get a close-up view of the way it is done. We found that it was very similar to the sheep slaying that we had seen in Tajikistan, and this was because both were Muslim celebrations modelled on the way in which Abraham slew his sheep. The sheep is tied and held to the ground while the Imam says a short prayer, and then the sheep's neck is slit and the animal is held down while it bleeds out into a hole in the ground. Only three of the four legs are tied, allowing it to thrash about just enough to hasten its death, but not to allow it to escape. Following this, the sheep is blown up via a small incision in its hind leg, and then skinned. The parts of the sheep are then divided in three and given to the women to prepare food for their many visitors over the coming days. This household that we visited to see the sheep slaughter was killing four sheep that day, providing much meat for the festival.
The main theme of Eit is visiting friends and family to show them hospitality, to resolve any disagreements you might have with your friends and family, and to give to the poor. It is about opening up your house to all, no matter the social status. There are different opinions as to whether non-Muslims should also be fed and watered on this day.
After several hours of eating and sharing in afternoon, the men of Kashgar all came back to the mosque to party. Outside in the square the men danced for several hours, to the music of the traditional musicians playing atop the gateway to the mosque. Men of all ages and social class meet here to do the special Uyghur dance, which involves a lot of spinning around. We were glad that the police did not obstruct us from taking video footage of this celebration too!
On the second day of Eit we were taken out to a smaller town about 70 km from Kashgar, to experience the village-style celebrations. First we took a walkthrough of the Sunday market, which was bigger than usual on that day. As a result of the mass slaughter the previous day, there was an abundance of sheepskins, sheep intestines and sheep testicles for sale. After this we met up with a handful of friends and started to walk toward the first home on our visit list. We had to be careful to not draw too much attention to us aliens, or create too big a group, as it may be perceived as a security threat to have a large group wandering in and out of several houses.
At the first house we visited we noted that the Uyghur practices are quite similar to their Central Asian neighbours', the Uzbeks. The Uyghur home's doorways, ceilings and pillars are highly decorated, and great care is taken over the cleanliness and tidiness of the home. For the act of meal sharing, the tablecloth is laid directly on the floor without a table, and hosts and guests alike sit around the tablecloth on cotton mattresses. After sitting down at the tablecloth we were treated to a wide and plentiful variety of the local specialties, including dried fruits, nuts and bread. We also tried some herbal medicinal tea made from flower petals. The main dishes to be served were soup (made from the broth of the boiled meat) and mutton. While there we were invited to another of the friends' houses to share more food, and so after an hour or so we moved on to another home for a similar meal.
As night drew near we started making our way back, but not before visiting the main town square to see the men dancing again. Similar to the scene in Kashgar, all the town's men had come out to dance to the music from the band playing atop the central tea house. But we couldn't hang around too long as it was forbidden for us foreigners to spend the night in that town, especially during the Eit festival.