Sunday, October 18, 2009

Night Market Q&A

This second instalment is from July this year. Here's the poem:

Night Market

These fish have crossed the desert to be here –
belly-up, eyes still eager – and so have we;
so press among the Uigur breaking fast
on long kebabs dry-spiced with smatterings
of paprika and push towards the pile
of pomegranates like a mud-brick wall
translated into juice carbuncles, ask
the man to turn his crushing wheel for glasses
that look like lamb’s blood, taste of rust-edged roses.
The market glows with coal-flares, TVs show
Imams and kung fu, skull-caps pass for skulls
clapped on the tops of turning heads like wheel hubs
as we disturb naan sellers, chicken choppers,
with our un-native faces’ late-night shopping.
Myself and Yang Lian, both alien,
are equally remote from West Xinjiang
while Emran’s instantly relaxing – here
as in Tehran, the Muslim night adheres
to gentler pulses we recover strolling
beneath dry balconies they will soon fell
in favour of the corporate eclipse
of concrete that surrounds this slow collapse
of strollers and their hopes to a midnight bulb,
the one teashop left open in the globe
where Abdul knows to rouse the owner from
his double hajj-earned slumbers. Empty room,
low-roofed, where we can be loquacious on
long-tabled platforms, thin cream cushions;
beneath the dusty beams and over tea –
black, hot – as endless as we’d like to be
ourselves, but we must break this moment up
like bread, not knowing as we drain our cups
how soon this quartet of our well-warmed breaths
will be abbreviated by a death.

Here's the dialogue:

It starts with "These fish have crossed the desert to be here –...". But I found another version online: "These fish have crossed the Gobi to be here". So?

It's actually the Taklamakan Desert, tho people tended to refer to it as the Gobi. 'Taklamakan' doesn't really scan, of course -- this is in iambic pentameter with couplet half-rhyme, and Gobi came to seem misleading. So I changed it to 'desert'.

"so press among the Uigur breaking fast // on long kebabs...". Press? There are 3 verbs - press, push and ask. But the first one sounds strange to me "press among...on..." - I am not sure I am getting the meaning. Can you help me with some clarification - what is pressed?

'Press among' is the verb unit, it's specific to being in a crowd (we also have 'press' as a noun, meaning crowd, though it's rare); it means the same as 'push through'.

"breaking fast" - It's just the phrase 'breaking the fast', yes?

Well, it's specific to Ramadan, where you fast from dawn to dusk, then are allowed to eat when the evening call is sounded from the muezzin. So it has to sound different from 'breakfast' with its morning associations.

The market glows with all these: coal-flares, TVs show Imams and kung fu

The imams and the kung fu are on the TVs (it's a reference to the mixed Turkic and Chinese society -- very polarised now, of course with the problems in Urumqi, but then seeming a blur of influences), so the glows are confined to the fires and the TVs.

"skull-caps pass for skulls" - You mean that we think of skull-caps as skulls? Or I am completely on the wrong track?

Yes, in the dimness, these little white caps look very like skulls, hence 'pass for'.

skull-caps... A synonym would be kippah, am i right?

I've just checked the Uighur term on Wikipedia:

'Many Muslims wear a kippah equivalent called a "kufi" or topi. Until more recent times, men in most Muslim societies were rarely seen without headdress of some sort. A taqiyah covers most of the head. Finally, the modern taqiyahs worn by Muslims are analogous to the kippot worn by observant Jews whether in the Middle East or elsewhere.
The doppa, a square or round skullcap originating in the Caucasus and worn by Kazan Tatars, Uzbeks and Uyghurs is another example of a Muslim skullcap. The doppa is derived from a Turkic, more pointed ancestral cap, which can be seen in some of the portraits of Jalaleddin Mingburnu.
Conservative Muslims in Indonesia and Malaysia , especially in the rural areas, are often seen wearing a thin kopiah, which looks almost exactly like the kippah in outward appearance.'

Who is Emran?

Emran Salahi is the Iranian poet the entire sequence is dedicated to. He died shortly after this trip to Xinjiang. There were four of us on this occasion: Yang Lian, myself, Emran, and our Uighur guide, Abdul. Here's the little note I wrote to head off the published version:

"...of strollers and their hopes to a midnight bulb". I am not sure about this... Hopes to? You mean "hopes towards" or something else... Here I am really puzzled...

The pertinent part is:

'this slow collapse
of strollers and their hopes to a midnight bulb'

'Collapse' would perhaps be better understood as 'contraction' in relation to their hopes. The strollers are tired, and it's like they're shifting from walking to reclining as they approach the bulb and enter the teashop.

"long-tabled platforms" - what are these platforms? Why they are not just tables?

The teahouse consisted of a ground-level walkway between slightly raised areas on which there were long short-legged tables. These came to around the same height as the conventional table and chair arrangements in any cafe, but the raised 'platforms' were so people could sit cross-legged or recline on cushions, rather than sit upright on individual chairs.

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