Written by Carolyn
In transit from England to China, my daughter Li Chen and I spent our first night away from home hidden behind a curtain in the prayer room at Vienna airport. It was a bleak room with a wooden floor and stark overhead lighting. A copy of the Bible lay open on a plywood pulpit, an arrow on the floor pointed towards Mecca and a white curtain circled the walls with ‘Jerusalem’ printed in big letters down one side. There was a foot washing area near the door with a stack of prayer mats beside it and two padded pews, one on either side of the room. I picked up the pews and rearranged them in a corner, in the narrow space which lay between curtain and walls. Li Chen didn’t approve and told me that she’d prefer to sit up all night but lay down anyway and fell asleep almost at once. I felt a little uneasy myself but had begun to drift off when I heard someone enter the room, remove what sounded like sandals and start washing their feet. I held my breath. I heard a prayer mat being placed on the floor and the sound of the man, for it was clear that it was a man, kneeling on the floor.
It was obvious the man didn’t realise there was anyone behind the curtain. I thought of my Muslim friend who’d taken me to the old mosque in Xi’an and told me how women were not allowed in the same prayer room as men and willed Li Chen not to turn in her sleep. I wanted to let the man know we were there and offer to leave but was afraid the surprise would annoy him. He continued reciting. At times his voice dropped to a whisper then trailed off and when I couldn’t hear him I imagined the worst. I pictured him stealthily unsheathing a dagger and stretching my ears listened out for a chink of metal, a clunk of a gun. Li Chen moved, her leg brushed the curtain and the curtain quivered. “Allah Akbar,” the man repeated and kept praying; he must have his head down or his eyes closed. His voice was sonorous and there was nothing casual or cursory about his devotions. Despite my discomfort I felt deeply moved. Eventually I heard him getting to his feet and after washing again he left the room and I listened to his footsteps fading away down the corridor. An hour or so later when someone else entered the room I woke immediately, drew the curtain at once and offered to leave. The man observed Li Chen curled up asleep and smiled kindly, “No problem, I pray, you sleep,” he said and I gratefully drew the curtain again. Another man who came in just before dawn also gently assured me that our presence would cause him no problem. Li Chen woke at 6am without hearing a thing.
We were in the centre of town by 8:00 looking at the colourful organic curves of the remarkable Hunderwasser building. By 10:00 we were wandering through the grand Belvedere Palace enjoying Klimpt’s Kiss and other paintings from the Vienna Secession. By 11:30 we had reached the elegant rooms of Demel’s, Vienna’s famous patisserie and chocolatier. It was here that I realised my wallet was missing. I looked through my pockets, my bag, Li Chen’s bag then everything all over again but it had gone. I concluded I’d left it moments ago on the seat in the taxi. The assistant in Demel’s phoned the yellow taxi company, “Our driver was from Moldavia, such a friendly man…..” “Madam, we have 4,000 drivers but unless your nice driver contacts my office your wallet has gone.” He didn’t phone or answer the call the receptionist radioed to the drivers. I lost 2 credit cards and £250 pounds but fortunately our passports and an emergency credit card were safe in my money belt. We left without eating any cake.
By the time our China Airlines airbus touched down in Beijing nine hours later I was in better spirits. Waiting in line for immigration we fell into conversation with a Texan biker who’d made a home in Shanghai. “I don’t have a licence but it doesn’t matter in China as long as you drive fast enough and never stop for the police,” he reflected happily. On the other side of customs Li Chen struck a keen deal with a taxi driver and I fell asleep in his comfortable air conditioned car for the first time since prayers in Vienna.
So here we are, back in the chaos and thrust of China: the heat, the smiles, missing teeth, men with shirts rolled up to cool their bellies, peasant parents following a successful daughter into the Wangfujin Apple shop—dressed in their best, brown as berries, dazed and dazzled. Down the road an old man in a traditional Chinese gown and hand sewn black slippers sails by in his homemade motorised wheel chair negotiating pedestrians and motorbikes with calm detachment. Shops brim onto pavements, sound, light, chrome, steel, fluted roof tiles, upturned eaves, imperial yellow, red earth—the colours of China. Building sites, shopping centres, two young men moving a display shelf laden with ornaments almost too heavy to hold, items start tumbling from the shelves and customers step aside without complaint, everything available everywhere, food stalls offering deep fried beetles, scorpion, grapes and strawberries, 4 year olds on the pavement wearing rags and playing cards.
Xi’an here we come!