Blacksmith, Turfan Bazaar
Thursdays tend to be pleasant. That's the day I meet with my Islamic calligraphy instructor, Abdu-Shukkur.
We've been taking each lesson slowly, going letter-by-letter through different styles of calligraphy. Last term we covered the naskh style, we're currently about to finish up the nastaliq version of the alphabet. Writing calligraphy in or out of class gives me a sense of serenity I can't properly articulate.
To write Islamic calligraphy a special pen is required, a fountain pen with a broad, left-cut nib. For a region where the Arabic script dominates there are surprisingly few places where such pens are available. I suspect this dearth of adequate pens isn't just a trend in Xinjiang: when I travelled across Pakistan two years ago the Urdu Bazaars of Peshawar and Lahore seemed scant on proper pens. On that trip I visited my Pakistani calligraphy instructor from many years prior and found even he had abandoned pen and ink in favor of a software program. When I lived in Lahore in 1993 this same calligrapher was moonlighting for the Pakistani newspapers. At that time technology didn't exist to typeset the language: the entire paper had to literally be written out every day. The standard script used across the country, nastaliq, was too ornate to render nicely any other way. When I caught up with him ten years later he said that developments in software now enabled him to produce five times the output he was capable of by hand. Calligraphy for him was a profession rather than a hobby, but I still feel sad that the old art forms are dying out.
While I've been the sole student through most of my sessions with Abdu-Shukkur; I now have a classmate. Naoko made her way overland from Japan to Urumqi in time for the beginning of this semester. She's taking both Chinese language and Uighur dance courses here at Xinjiang University. We got acquainted in a Chinese class which I have since stopped attending. Upon finding out that I was studying Uighur calligraphy she decided to join in as well. She came to a couple classes prior to the Mayday holiday and seems here to stay. After Thursday's lesson we went shopping for calligraphy materials together.
To find a pen she could use, I brought Naoko to a small stall off the Grand Bazaar. Other than its pens, the current wares are identical to that of many shops around the region: all manner of dried fruits and nuts, bottled drinks, a variety of basic sundries. Like most similarly-sized shops around China, it also attracts customers by providing a public telephone line which is cheaper to use than the pay-phone booths set up by China Telecom.
In spite of its average wares, the signboard above the shop still pronounces it to be the Mijit Qalam Dukanisi, shop of the patented Mijit Pen. Many people I know around Xinjiang seem familiar with this special pen, as its creator--a man by the name of Mijit--marketed it heavily. He crafted a special chamber in which ink could be collected from the internal cartridge, holding it above the writing point inside an open, triangular, double-sided nib. I've never seen a calligraphy pen like it elsewhere.
The renown of the Mijit Pen comes not only from it's clever design, but the fact that the inventor recently committed suicide. He lost a tremendous amount of money when it turned out few people were interested in purchasing a better pen for Islamic calligraphy.
While the one retail location Mijit opened has turned into a shop just like any other around town, much of his stock still remains. The present proprietor is an elderly man from Kashgar whom I liked immediately when I first met him over a year ago. Like many other old Uighur men, he has a long white beard, wears a boxy embroidered cap; huge eyeglasses; and the long, baggy blazer favored by Muslim elders in the region. He always remembers me, and introduces me to whichever other customers might happen to be in his tiny store the occasions I visit. I can never leave without a small gift of golden raisins or almonds, which I am unable to refuse.
This present shop-keeper has no relation to the former but has found that the calligraphy pens do continue to sell, if slowly. Not only do his shelves stock what pens remained when the shop changed hands, but additional Mijit Pens from the manufacturer in Beijing arrive periodically.
There is a variety of Mijit Pens available, ranging in price from 10 to 50 RMB. (Roughly $1.25 to $6.00 U.S..) The nibs are all identical but the cheapest pen is made of a light plastic that is more functional than stylish. 50 RMB gets a hefty metal stylus. I actually prefer the cheapest version, as, while elegant, I've found the cap on the metal pen tends to fall off while in use.
Stock newly arrived from Beijing brought a style I hadn't seen before, a mid-range pen retailing at 30 RMB. Naoko was immediately drawn to one particular pen of this style--a hot-pink model. All the other pens were solid, basic colors, or a metallic black or silver in the case of the top-end models. The nib of the lone pink pen was on the small side (nib size ranges from 2 to 5 mm) so I encouraged her to try out some of the others. I tried to impart that purchasing the hot-pink pen would mean having to additionally buy a pen with a larger nib or proportionately shrink her writing from the point Abdu-Shukkur and I use as a default. She could not be dissuaded. Given the sense of aesthetic I was exposed to in Japan, I shouldn't have been surprised. Hot-pink was clearly the only choice, despite any considerations of cost or nib size.
While Naoko doodled with her new purchase, a young Uighur woman happened in to use the phone. I was immediately introduced to her by the shopkeeper: "Here, meet somebody who has come all the way from America to study Uighur language and calligraphy at the local university!" The woman's name was Bahargul, she could manage a bit of broken English. I opted to speak in Uighur instead, but she was clearly excited at the opportunity to chat in English with a native speaker. I was simultaneously curious (cute, friendly, smiled frequently) and wary (potential English-language groupie?) Of all things, what I found most curious was her dress: I knew at first sight that she could not have been in Urumqi for very long.
Some women around Urumqi do dress traditionally: many go about outdoors with their heads covered by scarves. There are all manner of long garments similar to what women in Iran and conservative Arab countries might wear. Some Uighur women mask their entire head and upper-body by plopping a huge square of sheer, brown gauze atop their head. However, most of my friends are students at Xinjiang University who tend towards jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers.
Bahargul wasn't heavily covered, but had on one of the more traditional outfits worn by women in Xinjiang, a silk dress brilliantly dyed in a pattern referred to as atlas. Her hair hung in two neat plaits, atop her head was a woman's doppa, the same style of boxy hat worn by the proprietor but covered with colorful embroidered patterns.
I have seen women wearing atlas silk and traditional doppas around Urumqi but this tends to be rare enough that I gawk a bit if one should chance by. When I do see such dress, it tends to be on older women. Bahargul appeared to be in her early twenties. I was afraid I was going to hear that usual opening line Xinjiangers use on foreigners, "We should be friends so you can teach me English," but was also curious to get to know somebody from outside Xinjiang's cities. When Naoko gave up her phone number I decided to follow her lead.
Bahargul rang later that same evening, she and I took dinner together at Avral, a local Uighur restaurant that also makes their own rich, buttery ice cream. It's too early to tell if she's somebody I'll maintain contact with but the opening conversation wasn't too bad. It's hard to dislike a smiling woman who has grown up in the pomegranate orchards outside of Kashgar. Still, to some degree I feel that I myself am playing the role of that language-groupie I have so little tolerance for. I found myself reflecting on why I felt ambivalent about meeting again and realized it was solely because time with her might be less constructive for my Uighur than that spent with some of my other friends. The two of us do have tentative plans to spend Sunday afternoon together so shall see what comes of things then.
As I type this Ben and Sandra are probably approaching Seattle. They flew out of Beijing Thursday afternoon. I had a wonderful time showing them around town, introducing them to my favorite people and places. Sharing my Urumqi existence with them was in large part bringing them to restaurants with dishes I knew they would never have tried elsewhere. The three of us managed to squeeze in a day-trip to Turfan along with Shamsiya. We also engaged in a surprising number of activities that weren't region-specific: roller-skating, riding dodgy-looking contraptions at an amusement park behind my apartment, and playing card and word games together.
Even with Ben and Sandra gone, the days seem full. Attending courses and spending time with friends has kept me busy. On top of that, Thursday was a day that felt like summer was about to burst open: trees heavy with leaves, yelling and noise throughout the marketplace, crowds bustling between pushcarts along the street, and the weather occasionally a touch too hot. I'm excited to be here for the season Urumqi is at its best.