Ramadan: Arrival

Welcome to part two of this Ramadan series, and welcome to China, once more, to my husband Rora.

After the first week of Ramadan was over I got on a bus to Xi’an to meet Rora at the airport. After checking in at the hostel I hastened to the Muslim Quarter, because I wanted to pray and break my fast at the Great Mosque of Xi’an, the biggest, and probably most famous mosque in all of China. Once I reached the mosque I was already hearing the prayer through some loudspeakers, but I was not sure where the prayer hall was, as this Ming Dynasty (14th-17th century) building has various gates and courtyards. People all pointed me in one direction, and I eventually reached the prayer hall. I was a bit confused when I only saw men and no women, but as the prayer was already halfway over I decided to just pray behind the men.

After the prayer was finished, I was once more welcomed by very friendly people to sit down and have some food, and once more I noticed the absence of women. Actually I was not sitting with the other diners, I was sitting in a room adjoining the kitchen, with two other women, who were kitchen workers.

I was soon on my way again, and walked around the Muslim Quarter for some time, live streaming to my Facebook friends what I saw and heard. At 10 pm I went to the hostel to meet the driver who would take me to the airport and pick up Rora. Once I was in his car I checked Rora’s flight status – it should have left Beijing by then, but was labelled as “delayed”. This meant I had to wait for two hours at the airport, but what’s two hours after having waited for a month and a half?

Around 1 am Rora eventually arrived, and we got to the hostel around 2 am. We ate some simple food, and drank enough water before sleep to get us through the fast the next day. I think we slept until 2 pm, as we were both quite exhausted from traveling. The previous days had been rather hot, so I was relieved that the temperatures had cooled down, but we were not too happy about the constant rain that weekend. The first day we still tried to brave the weather without umbrellas, but at some point we gave in and bought a couple, before becoming completely drenched.

Rora was quite surprised by the big number of Muslims in China – there are about 20-40 millions spread throughout the country, and in Xi’an , a city with a population of 8.5 million, there are around 50000 Hui people, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority. Even our much smaller Hanzhong has around 4000 Muslims in total.

On Sunday afternoon we spontaneously visited a mosque we were passing, and by chance we found some people with whom Rora could speak in Arabic. This mosque, believe it or not, had a beautiful prayer room for women! In the evening we went to the Great Mosque for prayer and iftar once more, and there, too, Rora was able to communicate with some people. We even met a Jordanian Muslim, who has been living in China for many years. This time we were at the mosque early enough to do a bit of sightseeing in this historical place – which usually requires some entry fee from tourists, but which is free to visit for Muslims. It’s certainly worth visiting!

This time I did not have to sit in the kitchen and instead was sitting with two other women and Rora next to all the other men. When it was time for prayer I was shown the designated prayer area for women – a small raised platform surrounded by curtains next to the entrance of the prayer hall: OUTSIDE the prayer hall! This was seriously disappointing, even more disappointing than the sauna-like prayer room for women in Hanzhong.

Once we were back in Hanzhong the rest of Ramadan, and the rest of the school term, passed rather quickly. We went to the local mosque for iftar once more, and Rora had a long conversation with the imam, who speaks Arabic fluently, and I chimed in with a mix of Arabic and Chinese. That night we were treated a bit like special guests, which I’m already used to, but which for Rora was a new, and slightly embarrassing experience. All eyes were on us, and many people wanted to welcome and talk to us.

In the upcoming third and last part of this Ramadan series I will talk about Eid el-Fitr, the big festival at the end of the holy month.

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Ramadan: Beginnings

This year Ramadan, the Islamic holy month during which we abstain from eating, drinking, sexual relations, as well as negative habits from dawn until sunset, was from late May to late June. It was our first Ramadan in China, and the first Ramadan I, Cairene, was working. The last few years Ramadan either fell in my school vacation, or the students were already off, while we teachers sat around at school waiting for time to pass. Actually, I found it was not very difficult to fast all day and teach at the same time – instead it made it easier to get through the day!

The first week of Ramadan I was on my own, as Rora was still in Cairo. On the first day of Ramadan I spontaneously decided to visit the local mosque for iftar – the breaking of the fast – and evening prayer. Having left the house rather late, I rode my bike as fast as I could to get to the mosque on time. When I arrived, quite out of breath, I asked in my broken Chinese where to go to pray, and what time the prayer would start. A kind lady told me to follow her, and took me to the mosque’s dining hall, where on one side of a screen sat all the men, and on the other all the women. Many eyes were on me, as nobody expected to see a foreigner join them for dinner and prayers. The imam welcomed everyone in Chinese and gave a short speech which was followed by supplication in Arabic. We broke our fast that night with a local dish of of rice noodles, as well as some porridge. When it was time for prayer I followed the women to the prayer room.

While the men pray in the mosque proper, the women’s prayer room is in an adjoining building above the dining hall, rather small, and the imam’s recitation of the prayer is played through a speaker. The whole building is very new, and there is no air condition or fan in the women’s prayer room yet, which made the whole experience a bit uncomfortable, to be honest. I am not a fan of this separation of the sexes at all, and it is a global problem: many mosques around the world have no space for women to pray in, or if they do, they are often small and uncomfortable. During the time of the Prophet Mohamed men and women would pray in the same space – men on one side, women on the other…

In Egypt I’ve experienced that women line up for prayer as closely together as possible, which can often be inconvenient, when they try to take up each other’s space – elbows, ouch! In addition to that, many women recite the prayer in a rather loud whisper, which easily distracts one from one’s own prayer. In Hanzhong, on the other hand, the women spread out evenly through the room, and said their prayers in silent whispers.

There are different types of prayers, some of them are called fard, or obligatory, and others sunnah, voluntary. Whenever I went to the mosque in Egypt everyone prayed the obligatory prayer, of course, but only some people stayed for the voluntary prayer afterwards. That first night of Ramadan I was about to get up after the obligatory prayer, and take my things to leave the hot and stuffy room. I was, however, surrounded by women who performed the voluntary prayer – every single woman in the room performed it!

Through observation I learned that many of the voluntary acts of worship are performed like clockwork by the Chinese Muslims. They even have a signal, a bell for example, to begin and end supplication. Everyone stops in their tracks, lifts their hands, says a quiet supplication until the signal sounds again, and then continues with whatever they were doing.

After all the prayers were completed we returned to the dining hall for a proper dinner – that night we ate beef noodles, and whatever we had left from the rice noodles and porridge. One big difference that I noticed between China and other countries that night was that the leftovers, instead of being discarded, were all taken home by the attendees. People in many countries famously overindulge in Ramadan and serve too much food, celebrate excess rather than self-denial, and waste instead of save resources. The Chinese usually do this as well, which made it all the more surprising to me when I saw my fellow diners take out food containers or bags to put the leftovers in.

Before this post gets to long, I’ve decided to split our Ramadan in China into several posts, most likely three, that will focus on different aspects and adventures we had during this holy month. Instead of posting the next update in one week, I shall try to post the remaining parts in the next few days. Tomorrow is my last day of teaching before the summer vacation, which means I will finally have a lot of free time to write, read, and ride my bike.

Ice Cream and Zombies

Do you remember the first time that you ate ice-cream as a child? Or the first time you jumped into the sea?

First time experiences are very nice, but also become rarer and rarer as we grow up.This is why traveling is loved by so many people: All these new first times!

First time to fly to China, first time to eat something new, first time to do, see, hear or breathe all these new things!

Oh, and the first ever flight delay in China!

Imagine this: you have been traveling for countless hours and as a result you are pretty much a zombie, you have reached an airport that you visit for the first time, only to discover that your mobile line – which was supposed to work internationally and had previously worked internationally – is not working, the free wifi of the airport needs – of course – a working mobile line to give you an access code to the wifi network, you have tried to make a call from an airport land line and failed miserably, and your connecting flight to Xi’an is delayed over and over again.

I need to contact Cairene to let her know about the delay. You see: I will reach Xi’an airport late, buses might not be available anymore, so Cairene arranged a driver to wait for me. But since I got delayed so many times, I have no idea if the driver will be waiting or not, no idea of anything else, really, because – basically – I am off grid.

So, I wait, and wait, and wait, take videos, make funny faces at some Chinese toddler, take a video of myself and the situation – just in case they found it later with my belongings and my skeleton in abandoned corner in the airport many years from now – and then wait some more, until eventually – right before my feet get stuck forever to the floor of the airport – the line starts to move, and I find myself sitting in another airplane full of Chinese people flying to Xi’an.

2 hours and 2 coffees later, I find myself in Xi’an airport, with Carine at the exit door with a big smile on her face.(I secretly cried tears of happiness on the inside. Shhh, no one tell her that! I will not become a broke, homeless foreigner, living in front of the exit door of Xi’an airport! Yay!)

And this is how I reached Xi’an city, where Carine and I were to spend the next few days walking around the city, fighting the endless rain and finishing the health check papers.

written by Rora


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Newcomer

My husband Rora arrived in China on June 2. It is only his second time to be out of Egypt, and while the first time was only a short vacation in Germany, he has now moved to China for good. This interview was conducted by me, Cairene, on the evening of June 8, less than a week after his arrival.

Cairene: “Hi Rora, after a few days in China, what are your first impressions?”

Rora: “My first impressions? Well, I was expecting a big culture shock, and the shock for me was that there was no culture shock. I feel that I simply moved from one area of Cairo to another area of Cairo somehow. Not that Hanzhong is like Cairo in any way, it is much greener, and much nicer than Cairo, but the general atmosphere, in my opinion, is not that far from what I’m used to.”

Cairene: “What would you say are the biggest differences?”

Rora: “The biggest differences are that there are Chinese characters everywhere and that I don’t understand them, which is nice, because now I don’t have to take care of so many things anymore.”

Cairene: “And what would you say are the biggest similarities?”

Rora: “Today we were walking in the street with some friend of yours…”

Cairene: “I didn’t know the person! …. Now she’s a friend!”

Rora: “… and I realized that we are walking in the middle of the street…”

Cairene: “Instead of the sidewalk…”

Rora: “Exactly. Because this is China, and it’s more like Cairo in this regard. If this were Berlin or some other European city we would have been walking on the sidewalk.”

Cairene: “What is the most difficult thing for you here?”

Rora: “The crappy internet. Ah, and the chopsticks. I’m still learning to eat with them. It’s difficult, but if I don’t want to starve I will learn it eventually.”

Cairene: “What do you think about the people?”

Rora: “Well, there are two kinds of Chinese I have met until now. The one kind are in big cities like Xi’an where people are basically ignoring you, and might even bump into you sometimes – this seems to be the same in every big city in the world, though. And the other kind are people from a smaller city like the one we are in now and they are more curious about you, they smile at you and they are more relaxed and nicer.”

Cairene: “And they might even start a random conversation with you in the street like the lady today. How do you like the food?”

Rora: “It’s Chinese food. It’s delicious! I like it a lot. Even the spicy stuff. Well, until now I haven’t eaten anything really spicy, but I like it!”

Cairene: “What do you miss most about Egypt?”

Rora: “My family of course, but so far nothing else really.”

Cairene: “Is there anything else that you want to say to our readers?”

Rora: ”Next time you come to China make sure that your roaming and internet service are actually working, because if not you might get lost in a big big country.”

Cairene: “That’s coming from an IT guy.”

Rora: “Exactly.”

Cairene: “From an IT who didn’t make sure that it’s working before he left… Hehe… One last question: what is the weirdest thing you’ve seen so far?”

Rora: “Little kids peeing and shitting in the streets. That’s nasty!”


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Breakthrough

أُولَـٰئِكَ عَلَىٰ هُدًى مِّن رَّبِّهِمْ ۖ وَأُولَـٰئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ

THOSE ARE UPON [RIGHT] GUIDANCE FROM THEIR LORD, AND IT IS THOSE WHO ARE THE SUCCESSFUL. [Al-Baqarah 2:5]

On March 17, 2017, I, Cairene, finally got on a plane from Cairo to Guangzhou. The days before I received my visa, I had been busy with checking flight schedules and prices. After some digging, I eventually found the perfect connection: a direct, red eye flight from Egypt to China on Friday, a hotel for the night near Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport, and an onward flight to Xi’an on Saturday morning. I could have found cheaper options, but they would have been less convenient, as not only would they have been very exhausting due to several long transits, but also would not have allowed as much luggage as Egyptair does – 46 kg plus carry-on.

As I had reserved an emergency aisle window seat, I had all the legroom I could wish for, and was able to get about 5 hours of sleep above the clouds. This amount was enough to get me through Friday afternoon and evening, and ensured that I could go to bed in a timely manner in the evening. I spent the remaining flight time eating and watching the Academy Award winning musical “La La Land”. Despite the high praise from critics and success with the audience, I found the movie a little boring, and the music average; I think there are much better musicals out there, “Dancer in the Dark” is one example.

Once I reached Guangzhou, it was time for immigration, baggage claim, and customs. As Guangzhou is quite a busy airport with many flights arriving simultaneously, the waiting time to go through immigration was about an hour; reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies helped pass the time. The immigration officer was friendly and quick, something you don’t find at every border, and there was no further wait for luggage or customs. Make sure to have a pen ready to fill out the arrival form.

I then proceeded to the hotel information desk in order to find out about where to board the free hotel shuttle. The nice lady behind the counter told me where to find it and I followed her directions, only to find out that her directions didn’t make any sense. The next person I asked was from the bus ticket office, and her directions – different ones – weren’t helpful either. Fed up with being misdirected, I figured I could just as well take a taxi for the short distance. The nice driver helped me with my luggage and asked me whereto I was headed. In response I showed him the address on my phone and asked him to call the hotel for directions. They connected us to an English speaking lady who told me to get out of the car and wait for a few minutes where I was, a driver from the hotel would come and pick me up. The taxi driver unloaded my bags, we said goodbye, and a very short time later I was picked up by the shuttle. I would like to note that the taxi driver did not ask for any money for his help – in Egypt the same situation would have required some baksheesh.

Another thing I would like to mention is that the hotel I originally booked for the night is one that only accepts Chinese guests, not foreigners; a fact I wasn’t aware of at the time of booking. Nonetheless, they arranged a room at another hotel for me that would accept foreign nationals, albeit at a somewhat higher price, but with great service. (I’m speaking of a price difference of roughly 15 Euros, so no big deal.) The hotel provided the airport shuttle both ways, a wakeup call, and a private ensuite room; all in all it cost around 25 Euros and proved to be more convenient and only slightly more expensive than spending the night at the airport on a bench, eating expensive food, and paying for a shower and luggage storage over night. After a long, hot shower I was quite refreshed, and got a good night’s sleep. The time difference between China and Egypt is six hours, and I was easily able to adapt to the difference.

On Saturday morning the hotel staff woke me up, I packed my bags once more, and was taken to the airport. All went well and I boarded the plane, a Hainan Airways flight to Xi’an. Rarely have I been on such a turbulent flight! There must have been strong winds above the clouds, as we were shaken about half the time. Regardless, the plane was comfortable with enough legroom, and the staff professional and courteous. The pre-departure flight safety video was more interesting than that of many other airlines, as it showed the beautiful Hainan beaches, and emphasized protecting the environment. On arrival there was no wait for the luggage, and I proceeded to the exit, where I was to be picked up by Rita from Buckland.

I was in for a surprise!