Paul Jacob Naylor
From Leeds (UK). Graduate in Arabic language and Creative Writing. Freelance writer and translator who lived in Taiwan 2013-14. Now studying for a PhD at the University of Birmingham (UK) on the spread of Islam in West Africa.
The following is a short story from eRenlai Paul Jacob Naylor, who spent time in Taipei last year learning Chinese and researching the role of Islam in Chinese and Taiwanese history. Paul has a blog were you can read more of his short stories and journalistic pieces from his time spent in Syria.
Bright flashing lights and loud music. Neon tops, cleavages, baseball caps, muscles, hair gel, tattoos, sweat and smoke. Bottles of beer and cocktails glow under UV lights. Sticky floor. A loud voice tells us to put our hands in the air. People collapsed in corners holding their head in their hands, people making out, a sign that says 'If you need to throw up please use the bathrooms.'
It has happened. I have frozen. The night started off very well. We went for rechao, drank plenty of tai pi, went to a bar. Got talking to a film-maker who was making a documentary about an orangutan sex slave in Borneo. Then someone – was it Kirsty or was it Steve?- decided we should go to Babe 18 and now I have frozen. I have no idea how long I have been standing here but I can't seem to do anything else. I was having a good time in the line outside, making jokes, trying it on with the girls, but as soon as I walk down the shiny metal staircase and have to think about cloakroom charges and drinks tickets I just zone out, become an observer.
A table full of discarded champagne flutes, a girl wearing a hat that says 'boy', a man with spiky hair, a chewing gum wrapper on the floor. Scanning the room looking for a familiar face but when I see one I don't go over, just keep scanning, looking busy, trying not to look like I am standing in the middle of the dance floor for no reason. Nobody else is looking around. They are all in their own worlds, doing their own thing. Why can't I do my own thing? Maybe this is my thing.
I look at the dance floor, imagine there's no music and think about why all these people are crowded into this small space and why they are moving around so much. I am in a silent disco with no headphones. I try to get into the mind of each person- 'Why did you come here tonight?' 'What is it you want?' 'Why do you have a hat that says 'boy' on it?' I reproach myself for being so arrogant and superior, but I don't feel arrogant and superior standing here. I just feel confused.
A western girl with a flower in her hair comes over to me. 'Just imagine it's your living room.' She says, dancing and looking straight into my eyes. 'Do you think these people realise there are other people around them? No, they come here to look at themselves in the mirror, to wear nice clothes, to show off their bodies.' She dances off.
An old man wearing a long-sleeved silk cloak is swaying to the music, holding his walking stick in the air. As he sees me standing there, a broad smile spreads across his face. 'A reed before the wind lives on, while mighty oaks do fall.' He says, guffawing, showing the depths of his toothless mouth.
I should drink some water.
'You've gotta finish what's in your glass before I make you another one.' says the bartender.
'But I don't want this one.'
'You gotta finish it.'
'I just want some water. I don't want another drink.'
'Finish it or charge is 200NTD.'
I head to the toilets to get rid of my drink and come back with an empty glass. Easier than arguing.
'No drinks in the toilets' says the bouncer.
I walk back to the dance floor. The old man is gone. I put my half-finished drink (I think it is a gin fizz) under my jumper and walk back to the toilets, folding my arms to hide the bulge. I get to the urinal, take out the cup and quickly empty it out.
'Hey, I saw that.' The bouncer is behind me.
'I just threw up.' I say, wiping my mouth.
'Come with me, now.' I follow the bouncer, still holding my cup. We arrive at the cash desk.
'Pay 200NTD or leave'.
It's cold outside and I realise I have forgotten my coat in the cloakroom, which also has my mobile phone in it. I turn round to go back down the stairs but the bouncer is still waiting there.
'Don't let that guy back in' he says to the security guard at the door as I approach.
I back out into the square, go across to the 7/11 to get a coffee. Nobody is there, not even the attendant. I look across to Babe 18. The queue has gone, the security guard is not there, and the main doors are shut up. The whole square is deserted apart from a scooter parked up in the middle of the square with the engine running and the lights on. The lights cut across the dark of the square, making the small thin trees send out wild shadows in all directions. I wait in the 7/11 and look at the clock on the wall. If it gets to half past twelve and nobody comes back to the scooter, I will get on it. The hum of the engine is the only sound I can hear, it fills my whole head.
By 12:35 I am on the Xinyi express road heading south east. A few solitary taxis pass by, the faces of the drivers hidden in shadow. The sounds of the city are soon lost completely as I leave the highway, pass shuttered noodle shops and the dim red glow of temples. The road climbs and the shops and dwellings get sparser until they stop completely, giving way to trees and bushes and the occasional tudigong shrine.
The drone of the scooter lowers and is replaced by a whirring, then a clattering, then silence. No more fuel. I pull into the side of the road as the headlights slowly dim, leaving me in total darkness. As the cooling engine crackles, the air becomes full of cicadas, the ping of bats and the nocturnal rustlings of unknown creatures.
But among the persistent drone of the cicadas, there is a more human sound. Somebody is singing in the forest. Pushing away branches and fending off clouds of mosquitos I leave the road and climb down a steep incline, towards the noise. The forest turns into a clearing. At the end of the clearing there is a small brick house. In front of the house is a low-walled courtyard. A small naked light bulb hangs above the entrance. Sounds of the accordion and keyboard accompany an echoed gravelly voice, singing in Taiwanese. A group of old men sit outside, smoking and chewing betel nut. They cannot see me approach. In the middle of the courtyard I can see the accordion player, a blind man with a beret, sitting on a chair. The whole crowd joins in the chorus, their cans of beer raised in the air.
I leave the clearing and continue climbing down the slope. In no time at all the music has disappeared. The incessant chirping of cicadas and humming of mosquitos returns. A light breeze shakes the leaves of the trees above, faint traces of incense. At the bottom of the valley is a small temple, lit by the lights of a hundred flickering candles. Monks in red kneel before a statue, hidden in darkness, rhythmically chanting to the quick beat of a drum. I walk past them, following nothing in particular as the long night draws on.
The flat ground comes to an end and starts to rise. The other side of the valley perhaps. It seems I have been walking for ages but impossible to tell. Here there are rocks and boulders, slippery with moss. I begin to scramble up them. A snake slithers across my path, pale and ghostly in the moonlight. I stop for a minute to negotiate my way through the boulders when I hear the snap of a twig close by. I freeze. A rustling of leaves behind. Out of the forest comes a man wearing only a grass skirt. In one hand he holds a spear, in the other a dark bundle that seems to be tied with string. I breathe out too loudly. He hears me and shouts in an unknown tongue to the forest behind, gesturing in my direction. A voice replies. As he comes towards me he is lit up by the moonlight. He is carrying a bunch of human heads, knotted together by their thick black hair. Our eyes meet.
I scramble up the boulders, slip and fall several times, never looking back. The day begins to break and the top of the valley above is outlined on the pale blue sky. Breathless and covered with sweat, covered with grazes and scrapes, I pull myself up the final rock and surprise a few keen photographers. Taipei 101 blinks red in the dawn. I walk down the stone steps and reach Xiangshan MRT in time for the first train of the day.
Steve sits in the living room of our apartment in Taipower playing Fifa, a half-eaten happy meal lying on the table in front of him. 'How was your night?' says Steve. 'You disappeared.'
Photo credit: Amina88
The official seal of Du Wenqiu (1823-1872), Sultan of Dali, Yunnan Province, and leader of the Panthay rebellion
I. A trip into the hills
On a bright July day in 2013, not long after I arrived in Taiwan, I decided to go on a cycling trip. I was told that if I went a little down the busy Chongde Street from the Liuzhangli roundabout, it would quickly become a quiet street, then a lane, then a track rising into the hills and from there on to the massive Liuzhangli Cemetery. Sure enough the traffic thinned, small grocery stores and shrines replaced the 7-11s and noodle shops and in less than ten minutes I was in what I would call the countryside.
Stopping for some water at a temple on a bend in the road I saw a very familiar but incongruous sight, on black marble and in gold calligraphy:
And those who believed will be admitted to the Gardens of Paradise beneath which rivers flow, abiding eternally therein by permission of their Lord (Qur’an, 14:23)
Not since my time in the Middle East had I seen this phrase, the standard epitaph for a Muslim grave. Amongst the hundreds of shrines and the grand whitewashed red-roofed ossuary was this blast from the past. I asked the temple guardian why this was here and kept hearing the same reply: Huizu (回族)
Getting back on my bike I rounded the corner to see a whole hillside of such graves and, at the top of the hill, a vast dome with a crescent moon. Climbing up the steep steps past rows and rows of these graves and religious epitaphs it seemed to me that compared with the surrounding Daoist and Buddhist graves, these ones were not as well kept. Some graves had fallen over, the ornamental trees, plants and flowers that had once shaded the headstones had withered and the soil turned to dust.
In the outer sections the forest had begun to claim back its ground, snaking over the graves with roots and tendrils. The final resting places of dozens of souls had been hidden behind dark brown expanses of bark. Nearing the dome I found that this too showed signs of damage. The concrete was crumbling in large pieces from the curved roof, the Islamic arabesque designs cracked and broken, reducing the ornate symmetry to only jagged patterns. By the entrance to the mausoleum was a rusting can of Taiwan Beer, and a pomelo tree long escaped from its circular plot of soil.
An inscription- the bronze letters had fallen off, but I could still read from the indentations on the marble- “General Bai Chongxi, he earned the love and respect of all.”
The heat of the day prevented any further explorations and I climbed down the hill, got on my bike and cycled back towards the city, in a state of confusion about this mysterious, forgotten place I had stumbled across. Taiwan, I remember feeling, is a country of many secrets, forgotten stories and many ghosts. A ghost island. The road turned busy again, and these thoughts were lost in the traffic and noise, and negotiating my way home past scooters and buses and pedestrians.
Back in Taipei I decided to go to the National Chengchi University, the only place in Taiwan that has an Islamic Studies department, the Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies (CMEIS). In the courtyard of that building, perhaps built incidentally to match the type of courtyard houses I had seen in the Middle East, surrounded by trees and plants, sat a man who turned out to be the Islamic Studies professor. We began to talk in Arabic about my life in Taiwan and our shared experience in the Middle East and elsewhere- he had spent a lot of time in Jordan, but even longer in Leeds, my hometown.
That evening the Arabic students were hosting a barbeque party by the riverside, and Professor Lin- his name- invited me along. He told me that I could find out a lot of information about the Hui, meet lots of interesting people, and speak a lot of Arabic.
I could see the smoke even before I crossed the Daonan bridge. The gathering consisted of 70 or so students and professors. A group of girls were excitedly roasting squids on a barbeque. Next to them sat another group of students, wearing keffiyehs and smoking nargile, the men with their beards grown long. Most of the students who were in their third or fourth year of the Arabic program had spent years abroad in Kuwait, Jordan or Syria and we could speak very comfortably together in Arabic. Most simply wanted an edge in the Taiwanese job market and hoped to work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or in international trade, but a few of them had converted to Islam and studied Arabic for religious reasons. I had a very good time, but discussed absolutely nothing about the cemetery, or the Hui.
II. A professor’s study
I agreed to meet Professor Nabil C K Lin the following week for a more in-depth discussion. I went to his office at NCCU. Professor Lin completed his thesis on the Islamic movement in Fujian province that took place at the end of the Qing dynasty. He has written several book chapters and articles in academic publications related to Islam in Taiwan. He is also a member of the Muslim Taiwanese Study Group. His small room was a warren of books on every conceivable subject concerning Islam.
According to the Professor there have been three major waves of Chinese Muslim migration to Taiwan. The first was at the end of the Ming dynasty (around 1661-2), when Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga) came to Taiwan with his troops- a number of them certainly Chinese Muslims- expelled the Dutch and Spanish settlers, and set up his own loyalist government in Taiwan. The second was in 1949, when as many as 70,000 Muslims who were in the ranks of the KMT retreated to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek from the mainland. The third was in the 1970’s and 1980’s, when KMT loyalists who had retreated from China to Burma and Thailand began to come to Taiwan, many of them Chinese Muslim.
China’s Muslim population has a long history of service in the military, and it was no surprise that Muslims played a major role in both Sun Yatsen’s rebellion, and the Chinese civil war. Indeed, Sun Yatsen was a vocal supporter of the Hui in China, and it was his successor Chiang Kai-shek who, in 1938, approved the foundation of the Chinese Muslim Association, which moved to Taiwan in 1951 following the retreating KMT troops. Many Hui had taken the KMT side in the conflict because it would not have been acceptable in religious terms to be governed by the Communists, who were atheists. Others retreated to Taiwan because they feared religious persecution in China if they stayed. In Taiwan, the KMT continued to give generous support to the Chinese Muslim Association and under the government of Chiang Kai-shek, a disproportionate number of Hui Muslims held important political and military positions.
Hui from the first migration have, explains the Professor, lost their hui-ness. A few do not eat pork, and often Qur’ans and other Islamic artefacts have been incorporated into their family shrines, but essentially they have completely adopted Han folk culture. This same amalgamation is happening now with the second and third waves of Hui into mainstream Taiwanese culture. What is more, this is in complete contrast to their families in Fujian , Xinjiang and other places in Mainland China where despite the fears of repression, communities have actually recaptured and expanded their sense of Islamic identity.
To understand why this is, we have to look at the concept of Hui that arose in the Mainland, one that is distinctly different from that in Taiwan. From the beginning the Communist authorities treated the Huizu as an ethnicity (minzu) rather than a religious minority. Whereas there was some of the feared political repression, the Huizu were given greater economic and cultural independence through the establishment of Hui autonomous zones and accorded privileges based on their minzu status. In Taiwan however, the Hui remain a religious, not ethnic minority, thus they are treated like any ordinary Taiwanese citizens. The result is that the Hui in China feel a stronger bond as they are tied by a sense of shared ethnicity, as well as religion.
“The problem (in Taiwan) is that the younger generation has no concept of Islamic identity” says Professor Lin. In Taiwan the Hui are a tiny minority. Because of their military background they are spread thinly all over Taiwan. In some ways it is inevitable that the community structure they had in the Mainland would be compromised. However, Professor Lin also argues that more could be done internally to provide a cohesive framework, especially for the younger generation. “There is no basic Islamic education for them and as a result they don’t think Islam is important for them at all.”
This pastoral role was fulfilled in the past by the Chinese Muslim Association. Under the leadership of General Bai Chongxi, who was Director General of the Association from its inception in 1939 until 1959, it continued to receive generous government funding. In 1960 the Association finished the rebuilding and extension of the mosque in Taipei to become the Taipei Grand Mosque. The Association was also given land by the Taipei City government in Liuzhangli to use as a cemetery. With the help of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs the association also funded over 200 of its members to study abroad in the Muslim world, in order to impart their learning to Taiwanese Muslims, but with the implicit assumption that a certain number would also help the government of Chiang Kai-shek to gain legitimacy for the ROC in the Islamic world. However, by the early 1970’s most Muslim countries had accepted the legitimacy of the PRC and the Hui were no longer needed. “He (Chiang) just used them, basically” says the Professor. After that, the influence-and funding- of the Association was reduced, and the cohesion it provided for the Hui community in Taiwan was lost.
The clearest evidence of this decline is the Hui cemetery in Liuzhangli. “For the past five decades the Chinese Muslim Association never gave proper attention to the cemetery” says the Professor. “And now Taipei City Government is threatening to take back the land.” Part of the problem is that many of the cemetery’s graves are those of KMT soldiers that came from the Mainland alone. The ones who did not marry a benshengren (local Taiwanese) wife had no family in Taiwan to upkeep their grave. A lot of the graves have now become unknown graves, and so the rights to the land and the responsibility for their upkeep is unclear.
As for the grave of General Bai, it has simply been forgotten. General Bai is known as a key strategist and confidante of Chiang Kai-shek in the war with Japan. However, his role in the Hui community and promotion of Islamic education has been completely overlooked. Even General Bai’s son, the novelist Bai (or Pai) Hsein-yung, like many of Bai’s children, turned away from Islam. “The young generation (of Hui) have no idea about General Bai” says the professor, as we flick through family photos of the Bai family. “Even back then, see how secular they were, so sinicized.”
It is for this reason, says the professor, that there needs to be a similar collective effort amongst the Hui in Taiwan to re-engage with their Islamic identity, as is happening in the Mainland. He mentions a list held by the Taipei Grand Mosque of over 100,000 names of Hui who should be contacted and, if they have lost touch with the community, reintegrated. He talks of oral history projects, a collection of artefacts and an ambitious project to renovate and expand General Bai’s grave to become a tourist spot. But he laments that “there is not the enthusiasm amongst them to do this”.
For Professor Lin, Hui means “Muslim Han Chinese”, and they are a religious rather than an ethnic minority. This separates the Hui from the Uyghurs, the Salars and other Muslim Chinese who are ethnically different as well. So in Taiwan Hui is a religious and not an ethnic term. However, due to the ethnicization of the Hui by the PRC there are some younger generation Hui in China who are starting to say “I am Huizu but not Muslim”, an assertion the Professor strongly disagrees with. Indeed, as a Muslim, he distances himself from the Hui label altogether. “My view of Islam is rather more universal and global. I do not confine myself to the Hui identity. The Hui identity and the global Islamic identity are very different.” he says. Through his work in the Muslim Taiwanese Islamic Studies society Professor Lin is trying to qualify these concepts through research, and a series of public lectures.
Over lunch in a local speciality rice noodle restaurant he also mentions that he is helping to organise an exhibition of Islamic life and Culture at the National Taiwan Museum, in order to make Hui culture more familiar to Taiwanese people. As we part ways I am left thinking about the contrasts and contradictions in the figure of the Professor himself. Dressed in a traditional 唐件 (tang jian) jacket, with his love of green tea and rice noodles, and his belief in a global Islamic revival.
III. A meeting at an exhibition
The opening ceremony of the Exhibition of Islamic Life and Culture at the National Taiwan Museum took place on the 13th of January 2014. It was a grand affair and, apart from the press area, everyone was in formal dress. Aside from the main organisers- the Taiwan Association of Islamic Studies, and the Department of Arabic Language and Culture at National Chengchi University- there was official help and support from trade organisations representing the Sultanate of Oman, Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia, and the list of invitees included ambassadors, trade representatives and cultural figures. The audience was treated to a darbouka drumming performance and a Qur’anic recitation from Chinese Muslim children, followed by a headline speech by the Minister of Culture Dr. Lung Ying-Tai.
However, towards the back of the hall, were a small number of prominent members of the Taiwanese Hui community. Most were elderly men, some with beards and caps, but others, like Ni Kuo-an, wearing a suit and tie. Ni Kuo-an is 86 years old. He came to Taiwan from Henan Province, Mainland China, with the KMT army when he was 19, and was sent to Hualien to work with the ordinance unit. He worked up the ranks of the military to become a Major General, and after his retirement from the military was Director General of the Chinese Muslim Association from 2002 to 2006. When he came to Taiwan, he said, there were almost no Hui from the older migrations from Fujian province who had kept their Islamic faith. “They did not eat pork, that was it.” he said. As there was no mosque (the first was built in Taipei in 1947) he and other Hui officers used to meet in each other’s houses for Friday prayer.
Benefitting from the aforementioned government grants from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, many of his family members and friends went abroad to Libya, Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia for study. As other mosques began to be built across Taiwan (Kaohsiung 1951, Taichung 1951 Taipei-rebuilt- 1960, Taoyuan 1967) they were staffed by these returning Hui, who also gave Islamic instruction to the next generation. Meanwhile, in his military career Ni Kuo-an’s Hui status put him in contact with senior figures such as Bai Chongxi, who in fact acted as witness at his wedding.
Ni Kuo-an’s pride in his family’s and his wife’s family’s mixed Chinese-Persian heritage demonstrates that Hui is not a completely ethnic-free marker. However, like the Professor, he does not believe that Hui can be an ethnic identity either.
“Actually it was the Communists who gave us the name Huizu” he says. “They have 10 Muslim (ethnic) minorities and one of them is Huizu. But we look Chinese, whereas the others look different.”
Confusingly the word Hui, he says, actually has its origin in the word Uyghur 維吾爾, now recognised as a completely different-and definitely ethnic- minority. Before, he says, Islam was called Hui-jiao 回教 or, approximately translated, “Hui teachings” or “Hui religion”, but then, in the mainland, they started to use the more modern term Islam-jiao 伊斯蘭教.” In Taiwan Huijiao is still used to mean Islam, and for Ni Kuo-an the two terms are interchangeable. And despite the completely different treatment of the Hui by the governments of the ROC and PRC, Ni Kuo-an asserts that “the Hui in China and the Hui in Taiwan are completely the same.”
For him, a key constituent of Hui identity-whether in the Mainland or in Taiwan- is Professor Lin’s feared amalgamation with Han Chinese Culture. “I am Muslim, but I am also Chinese, and Chinese people have Chinese traditions.” he says. So while celebrating Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr may be religious duties, giving red envelopes, eating zongzi on Dragon Boat Festival and sweeping the tombs of his relatives on Qingming Festival are cultural duties he feels are almost as important to his identity as his faith.
Readers in China can watch the video here.
Even so, he concedes that the Hui in Taiwan today are facing many problems. “Now Taiwan is so mixed up. Catholic, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, all are one family! And young people are not so loyal to their faith anymore.” For the Hui, marriage between two members of their community was the easiest and simplest way to pass down their faith and traditions. In the modern age, mixed marriages are very common, even the norm, amongst the Hui. A mixed marriage thus severs the transference of faith and cultural heritage to the next generation. However, the age of globalisation also means that many Chinese Muslims he knows have found partners from Pakistan, Morocco, and other Muslim countries and are continuing their Muslim heritage in that way.
IV. To be continued….
The study of Islam in China is a relatively new discipline, and is heavily biased towards contemporary sociological research. This research is itself biased towards areas such as Xinjiang- a Uyghur autonomous zone-, where because of the recent unrest it has become of interest to funding bodies and foreign governments, and something of a trendy topic for PhD students. Research on the Huizu “ethnic” group has, as far as I know, been almost exclusively focussed on Mainland China.
(Photo from the 2013 Asia-pacific Chinese Muslim youth summer camp)
This research shows that here, in the remote western provinces, the Hui population have for a long time lived in their own exclusive communities. So, irrespective of whether -scientifically speaking- the Hui constitute an ethnicity separate from the Han, the concept of a Hui ethnic identity is accepted both among the Hui themselves, but also among local Party officials. These officials are ineffective and unreliable in the resources they provide. Furthermore, they distribute these resources unevenly, giving preferential treatment to Han areas. Discrimination on perceived ethnic grounds, of course, only serves to strengthen the concept of a Hui identity.
Given these circumstances, the Hui community in Mainland China has had to become self-reliant not only economically but also culturally. Distinct Hui cultural traditions, whether ancient or modern, are a touchstone to come back to at times of trouble, and Islam is always a rallying call in any instances of division within the community. The Islamic identity of the Hui has become more outward- most obviously in dress- and more oppositional with regards to the surrounding Han population. Even though the Hui areas often have their own Muslim ganbu officials and are still integrated into the centralised system of government, the relationship between the Hui and the PRC seems to be developing into one of conflict.
Taiwan, when it is mentioned in this research, appears only as part of a list of other places with significant Hui populations. The fact that the Hui in Taiwan have developed in a completely different fashion from their relatives in the Mainland has been overlooked. Indeed, the search for the Hui in Taiwan has been a frustrating one. As impressive as the Exhibition of Islamic Life and Culture was, hardly any attention was given to the history of Islam in Taiwan, and the term Huiwas never used. It seems that in Taiwan -peaceful, secular, religiously tolerant- there is no impetus for the Hui to form a strong collective counter-identity. In the absence of any resistance from central authorities, a Hui-or even Muslim- identity struggles to find relevance and has faded almost completely out of significance.
As I have seen from the handful of interviews already completed, concepts of Muslim identity in Taiwan are by no means uniform. There are those such as Professor Lin who seek to transcend or even supercede their domestic cultures to find a connection to the global Islamic identity. Or, like Ni Kuo-an, there are those who feel their Muslim identity and Chinese identity to be constituent parts of their being. Both of these concepts of identity need to be recognised as forming a part of the greater Taiwanese identity.
Historical study on Islam in China is comparatively sparse, but a few hours of background reading turns up some fascinating details that are essential to understanding modern Chinese and Taiwanese identities. For example, that in the 1910’s Sun Yat Sen was actively exploring a political and cultural alliance between the ROC and the Islamic world, that factions within the Chinese Muslim Association were planning to use their influence within the KMT to carve out an Islamic future for China, and that for a time Japan and the ROC were locked in a battle to win the hearts and minds of China’s Muslim population.
We are running out of time. Many of the Hui who came to Taiwan in 1949 have died, and with them died invaluable first-hand information. But this information would not just be of value to historians. There are many young Hui today who are searching for an identity that for one reason or another was not passed down to them by their parents. Many of these individuals are attracted to the idea of a global Islam, while some try to reconnect with their Hui roots in the Mainland, a conflict which in itself would be an interesting topic of study. Furthermore, there are many new Taiwanese converts to Islam who, given the lack of domestic support, are increasingly looking abroad to countries such as Saudi Arabia to provide funding for Islamic activities. This is a worrying trend given that in countries such as the UK this funding has led to the radicalisation of some Bangladeshi and Pakistani Muslim communities. This younger generation must find a way to balance their Chinese and Islamic identities, as the Hui have been doing for many hundreds of years.
Some contact has been made with the Chinese Muslim Association, but at the time of writing there has been no response to our proposal to conduct comprehensive research on the Hui population of Taiwan.
In Taipei the mountains are never far away. How easy it is to escape from the city and discover a different pace of life. Human voices rise above the roar of the traffic, and in the safety of the mountains people form communities and express themselves in ways that could not happen in an urban setting, for all its apparent conveniences and freedoms. Filmed around Tiger Mountain, 2013.
Overlooking the Xinyi district, home of Taipei 101 and Taipei's financial and commercial hub, are the Four Beasts Mountains (四獸山) : Elephant, Leopard, Lion and Tiger. The image of four wild animals-embodying raw nature- dominating the urban metropolis below is a powerful one. Elephant Mountain has largely been tamed-it is now a must-see on the Taipei tourist trail and also popular with photographers wanting to get the perfect night-time shot of Taipei 101- but Tiger mountain is more elusive.
The Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival is a biannual festival, organized by the Taiwan Association of Visual Ethnography and held in Taipei. I was very glad to attend this year’s festival, and over the five-day event I saw many interesting and inspiring films. One that immediately stood out for me was the documentary A Tale of Two Syrias. I studied Arabic in Damascus, and later returned there for work, so for me the film had a very personal appeal. Nevertheless, A Tale of Two Syrias makes interesting viewing for anyone who wants to know more about the region.
The film switches between two locations and two people. In Damascus, we follow the story of Salem, an Iraqi fashion designer who fled from Baghdad during the Iraq war and hopes to seek asylum in America. In Mar Musa, a remote hillside monastery in the Syrian countryside, we follow Botrus, a Syrian monk. The film weaves between these two stories to paint an intimate portrait of a country that despite the recent media coverage, most people know very little about. By capturing the difficulties faced by ordinary Syrians in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria and also their vision of a better, freer life in the future, in some ways the film pre-empts the current conflict. However, through the beauty of Mar Musa and its inhabitants’ belief in inter-religious dialogue and mutual respect and tolerance, it also shows a vision of what that future Syria could be like.
I caught up with the director, Yasmin Fedda, whom I first met in Syria during my time there, and this is what she had to say:
eRenlai: It was great to see a film with a Middle East focus at the Taiwan Ethnographic Film Festival. How did it happen? Did they approach you? Did you approach them? What was the deal?
YF: I had heard of the Taiwan Ethnographic Film Festival through the Visual Anthropology networks that I am connected to, so I applied to them. They accepted, which was great!
eRenlai: Aside from your family links to the region, what was it that drew you to make a film about Syria?
YF: At the time of filming, in 2010, there were still a very limited number of documentaries made in Syria, both by Syrians and internationals. I felt that it was important to make a film about regular- but unique- people's lives in a country that was largely misunderstood by the world's media.
eRenlai: "A Tale of Two Syrias" is an intriguing title. What are the "two Syrias" you tried to capture while you were filming?
YF: I wanted to reflect the 2 stories of 2 individuals, the city and the country, the official and the unofficial, the before and the after.
eRenlai: Your film shows Syria through the perspective of two very different people, but nevertheless your two interviewees are both male, both Christian, and one of them is an Iraqi only recently arrived in Syria. Why did you choose these two people in particular to represent the Syria of 2010? Some people may question why you did not choose a Muslim or a female voice for example….
YF: Good question. I realised after finishing it that some audiences have assumed that Salem, the Iraqi, is Christian, but in fact he is Muslim, but not very religious. At the time of editing I decided I didn't want to spell out what religion he is because he didn't either. The only person's religion I did mention is that of Botrus. In Syria it wasn't strange for people of different religions to visit the shrines of other religions. I also think it is important to see that people’s religious beliefs and practices can be expressed in multiple ways, and being Muslim or Christian is not just done in one particular way that defines it for the rest. I also chose to have a story of an Iraqi refugee because up until 2010, up to 1 million Iraqis had gone through or settled in Syria and I wanted to humanise one of these experiences.
As for a female voice, I did try to find a female story, but after several different leads the stories didn't work out for various reasons (either bureaucratic, or difficult access to their particular stories). So yes I did intend to have a female voice. But ultimately I was attracted to both Salem and Botrus’s stories as neither of them are your typical person in Syria and I think that gives an interesting perspective on life there at the time.
eRenlai: It was surprising that you managed to capture so many Syrians expressing their political opinions on camera (I am referring in particular to the discussions at Deir Mar Musa). Was there any suspicion on their part? Did you have to do much persuading?
While people were discussing in Mar Musa I was allowed to film, due to being accepted by the community and also because I think people felt safe to speak there, so I didn't need to do any persuading. However the two discussions I filmed there now seem to reflect not only a different time, but also the issues that are pertinent today, like what does freedom look like and how do you share that and accept others?
eRenlai: Has the film ever been screened in Syria or the Middle East? If so how was the film received? What kind of comments did people have?
No, I haven't screened it in Syria or the Middle East, as it is difficult to do so at the moment. But many Syrians have seen it and have given me great feedback, which has been valuable to me.
eRenlai: Could you talk about your changing emotions as the revolution in Syria started, then after a few months when it became clear there was going to be no quick toppling of the regime as in Libya or Tunisia, and finally when the revolution became a bloody civil war.
I was, of course, excited by the potential in Syria for change from dictatorship, and I still support this change. It became clear that this would not be easy as soon as the regime’s forces started killing people at protests and funerals, imprisoning and torturing thousands and using indiscriminate force in various parts of the country.
It is very sad and distressing to see the violence and destruction occurring in Syria today, and a strong solution to end the violence is needed as soon as possible, and then a transition to a different system of governance needs to be built.
Because of events in Syria today, the whole film has a sense of irony, tension and impending disaster it might not have had otherwise. Had there been no conflict in Syria as you were editing the film, would you have made your film differently? What would you have changed and why?
I am sure it would have been edited completely differently, and my perspectives would have been different. It is difficult to know what would have been different as making a film is also very instinctive, and I was editing whilst the revolution was gaining ground and there was increasing repression and violence. I could not separate those things from editing. But in saying that, the Syria I filmed in was run by an authoritarian regime with much structural violence, rising poverty, crony capitalism, and many other problems. It was far from being a non-conflicted country even then. So I feel that this sense of disaster was there, even in 2010, but it wasn't clear where it was going exactly. The tension was there and I re-found it in the footage as I was editing.
eRenlai: At what stage of the editing process did the revolution start? How far had you got with the film?
The revolution started just as I started editing, so it was difficult to see the footage of a few months before with the current news of what was happening in Syria. It took a while for me to edit after that as I could not edit the film easily due to these changes in Syria and the effects these were having on friends and family there. I took a few months off from editing, and then returned to it, knowing that the situation there had changed dramatically.
eRenlai: Before the conflict, Syria was not often talked about in the media. Now, because of the conflict, Syria and films about Syria are getting far greater public attention. As a film-maker, could you describe your feelings when faced with this reality?
While there is a lot of media attention about Syria I feel that there is not enough that deals with it more deeply, as most of the work is about war, which can be quite frustrating. That being said there are more and more great films being made there and they are slowly being filtered out into the world.
eRenlai: With the escalation of the conflict into a civil war between a multitude of actors, some of whom have shown themselves to be just as brutal as the regime, can we still call the conflict a "revolution"? Can we still say that all factions of the rebels in Syria are fighting for freedom?
I think we can say that there is a lot happening in Syria and one of those things is a revolution. There are many other conflicts and fights going on at the same time but that does not mean we must sideline those that work non-violently or who focus on a change from dictatorship or for democracy. Silencing or ignoring them is dangerous, as is understanding the conflict in Syria in narrow terms, such as a conflict made up only of fighting factions, or of extremists, or full of brutal leaders. In reality there are many opinions and approaches.
Also it is important to keep things in perspective. The regime has, and still does, have majority of control of violence. The majority of destruction has been due to the regimes shelling and attacks, as have been most tortures, arrests and killings.
What is happening in Syria can also be called 'uprisings', a set of political processes that are occurring at the same time, trying to work out what they are and where they are going. Also the term 'Freedom' depends on your definition of it, so yes, many factions may be fighting for that, and the challenge is reconciling those different interpretations of the term.
eRenlai: What do you think when you hear what some Syrians interviewed in the media –both in Syria and outside the country- are saying; that they preferred things as they were under Bashar al-Assad to the chaos reigning in their country today?
I hear a variety of opinions coming out of Syria but I cannot say that I have heard this opinion very often at all. On the contrary, I hear the opposite much more. Many people ask for an end to the chaos and violence but recognise that the regime has been the driving force for this chaos from the start in order to win popular support and to become even more entrenched.
Some people do say they prefer Bashar al Assad, and others that they support someone else or some other group, and many others still that they prefer neither of these options. I think this reflects the diversity of experiences and opinions across the country and I think this variety needs to be acknowledged and a space for it created in the future.
eRenlai: Christians in Syria today- and the village of Maaloula in particular where some of your film was shot- are not being persecuted by the regime, but rather by Islamist factions of the opposition. How does this affect Christians' place in the struggle against the regime? They must be in a difficult position now...
I think the premise of this question is wrong and you cannot assume that Christians as a whole are being persecuted. Many Christians have been persecuted by the regime pre and post conflict. At the same time there were individuals that were close to the regime and have favourable positions because of this. Sectarianism was used by the regime as a tool to consolidate power, both before and during the uprising against it. So this is a very complicated situation, as it is for Syrians of all backgrounds, including for Muslims, Druze, or atheists.
I think it is important not to see Christians as one homogenous group of people. There are many differing opinions and experiences which affect people's decisions so I don't think it makes sense to phrase the issue as the 'Christians' place in the struggle against the regime. It is about Syrians as a whole, people all over Syria are being targeted.
eRenlai: What is the best scenario for religious minorities in Syria? At the moment things do not look good either way for them...
I don't believe this is a healthy way to see this issue. I think the best thing is to treat everyone as Syrians, as this is isn't a sectarian conflict, and is still one based on power struggles. By saying that religious minorities are having a hard time, you are ignoring that the fact that the 'majority ' of Syrians, many of whom are Sunni Muslims, are also having a very hard time. Everyone is affected by the conflict in deep ways and this must be recognised for everyone.
It is important to point out that the regime has aimed since the start to make this a sectarian conflict, and this kind of narrative supports their aim. Sectarianism exists, but the uprising did not begin as a sectarian uprising.
eRenlai: Going back to your title, “A Tale of Two Syrias”, what "two Syrias" (or more than two) can you envisage in the future when this horrible conflict has come to an end?
It will take a long time to rebuild Syria but I hope it will be just one Syria after the conflict. One that is based on dignity, equality and able to accept diversity of opinion, whatever it might be.
eRenlai: Will you be returning to the Middle East for another filming project soon?
I am going to be working in Jordan very soon, filming a theatre production of The Trojan Women by Euripides, set in the modern Syrian conflict and made with Syrian refugees who now live there.
For more information about Yasmin please visit her site, http://tellbrakfilms.com/
Abdullah is from Yemen but grew up in Saudi Arabia. He came to Taiwan to travel and to discover a new culture and way of life. Here he shares his experience of Taiwanese religion and spirituality and compares it with his religion, Islam, on a walk around Longshan Temple.
The Arabic language has been my principle subject of study, and means of employment, for the past eight years. Recently I came to Taiwan to have a go at Chinese. Four months on and I can say that Chinese is inordinately easier than Arabic! Why? Perhaps some of has to do with improvements in my own language learning method, but I think it is mainly differences in the languages themselves, and in the approach each culture has to teaching its own language.
The principal difficulty with learning Arabic is the disparity between what we learnt in the classroom and what we would hear on the street. In class we learnt what was called Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), a formal language used for books, newspapers, on the news, but rarely for speaking. This meant that though we might be able to write at great length about American foreign policy in class, we could not make ourselves understood when asking for a cup of tea in the cafeteria. To further complicate the problem, the spoken language (aamiyya) varies widely from country to country, city to city, and even sometimes street to street. So even if we were taught to ask for a cup of tea, "I want" can be "aawiz", "biddii", "ureedu", "widdi", "nibbi" and many more variants depending on what region our teacher was from. So in some ways I can understand why aamiyya was considered off limits in the classroom.
Indeed, after five years of Arabic study, and three years working as a translator, I still regularly met people who I could not understand a single word of what they were saying. Here, it is a relief that whether I am in Taipei or Tainan people's accents -to my ear- are more or less the same, and unless one is speaking Taiwanese, I have an equally good chance of understanding either of them.
Another difference is the reading. Arabic, with 28 phonetic characters, compared to the thousands of Chinese characters each with a pronunciation that cannot always be inferred from reading, and sharing only 400 different sounds between them, should be easier, right? The problem is that in standard written Arabic, vowels are not expressed and in Arabic more than in other languages, vowels are very important. This basically means that every unfamiliar word I come I still end up guessing at the pronunciation (meaning aside!), and in Arabic there are a lot of words! It is embarrassing that after all this time I still cannot really read a newspaper or a novel without the help of a dictionary. At least in Chinese, once you have learnt the meaning of a character, and its sound, you can be sure it is a friend for life.
However, the biggest difference for me in how easy it is to learn a language is how well this language is taught, and Arabic for the best part was taught pretty appallingly. Think 1970s textbooks about conferences in East Germany and visits to the Middle East by President Bush (Sr.), long dictations, reading aloud, all the things that it has been agreed are not beneficial to language acquisition. The first words we learnt in our Arabic class, as I recall, were "Foreign Minister", "Summit" and "communiqué". By contrast my Chinese class –in a small, newly-opened language school- is fun, fast-paced and the emphasis is placed squarely on being able to speak Chinese and not to read and write it. Also, because there is a smaller gulf between written and spoken language –當然 for example, although used colloquially, can also be found in newspapers and books. In Arabic, similar expressions would usually be used only in oral communication, and confined to a small geographical area, so would certainly not be found in teaching materials- it is much easier to learn common oral language and to feel like I am fitting in- in linguistic terms!
Living in the Middle East and trying to get by in Arabic required me to become incredibly stubborn, mendacious and sometimes downright rude just to be able to speak Arabic and not English in my day to day life. One time in Yemen we pretended to be Kazakhs for a week. In contrast, trying out the Chinese I have learned so far –while shopping, at work, at the many regular language exchange events held in Taipei-I have received nothing but encouragement, and nothing but Chinese! I have found that people are generally patient, and if it is necessary to resort to English, people do so reluctantly. However, my flat-mate, who is fluent in Chinese, repeatedly complains that he finds the opposite, so perhaps it is just a question of perspective, and beginner's enthusiasm!
One sure way in which Chinese has been much more instantly rewarding is the advance of technology there has been since I was studying Arabic. There are now plenty of new ways to acquire a new language, all of which Chinese has embraced. For one thing, smart phones have been a revelation for me. Gone are the days of piles and piles of tatty paper flashcards scattered around the house and stuffed in my pockets. Downloadable dictionaries like Pleco also have the facility to create and test flashcards. I am using the AV Chinese textbook series and I can even download flashcard packs which correspond to the chapters so that every time we have a test, all it takes is an hour or two of scrolling through the flashcards- when I am walking, a spare few minutes at work, before I go to sleep- and that's vocabulary learning sorted. Social apps like LINE also are really good for keeping in touch with the new friends I've made here and a great way of trying out what I've learnt.
I do in fact like Arabic. I have had some amazing experiences, met unforgettable people, and discovered a treasure of literature and poetry. Yes, it is hard, but it was taught using the wrong methods. The way to learn a language today-or perhaps ever- is not to do a university degree in it! Advances in technology, ease of communication and travel, mean that universities often seem outdated compared to the many more ways to learn a language there now are.
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