x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Muslims from near and far thrive in trading centre

Wholesale markets have been the talk of the town for 20 years.

The light is fading in Yiwu, and while the ethnic Han Chinese who make up the vast majority of the bustling trading city's inhabitants are rushing back home, the Muslim quarter is still relatively quiet, as long as daylight holds. It is Ramadan. Restaurant owners are busy hosing down the exteriors of their hostelries and sweeping the floors of the outdoor cafes, street hawkers are fanning the coals on their mobile grills in preparation for the skewers of lamb while the halal butchers are gearing up for business once evening falls. Yiwu City, in eastern China's Zhejiang province, has just shy of two million residents, but around one million of these are a floating population of traders and business people. While the city in the booming coastal region of south-east China is 2,200 years old, it has really become a name to conjure with since it started focusing on wholesale markets some 20 years ago. At the large mosque downtown, the imam's name is Mohammed in Arabic, or Ma Chunzhen in Chinese. "Some people come here temporarily, for six months or one year. But others come for a long time. We do a lot of trade here - clothes, textiles, small machinery, white goods," he says. China has now 20 million Muslims, about half of them being from the Hui ethnic minority. Mr Ma reckons that 35 per cent of the Muslims in Yiwu are Chinese and the rest come from overseas. He believes that more than 20,000 Muslim immigrants have settled in the area in the past five years coming from Syria, Iran, Yemen, Egypt and Libya and about 1,000 from Iraq. "The Iraqis have been coming since 1978. After the war, many Kurds came here too," he says. "Life here for Muslims is the same here as everywhere else, I think. It's convenient enough and there are many Arabic restaurants around here. "We have a good relationship with the local Chinese people because our business is so closely linked to their business. They are interested in our religion and our customs." During the past 30 years of reform and opening up since the end of the 10 destructive years of ideological frenzy called the cultural revolution, the Chinese government has allowed Muslims, and other groups such as Buddhists, to rebuild places of worship and their Islamic schools after they were destroyed by Red Guards. Relations between Muslims and Han Chinese are not so peaceful elsewhere in China. Tensions between Han Chinese and Uighur Muslims, a Turkish-speaking minority of more than eight million, flared up into violence in July and nearly 200 people died in the riots in the city of Urumqi in the far western province of Xinjiang. But the imam insists Yiwu was different. "During the recent troubles in Urumqi there was no tension here. We increased security but there was no tension with the local people," Mr Ma says. The former silk factory where the mosque is now sited is in a central area of downtown. There are rumours the mosque could be moved because of traffic congestion during prayer meetings, so popular is the place of worship. "A few Muslims came here in 1998. By the time I came here in 2001 you would have 100 at religious services. The mosque here was built in 2004, previously it was very small. "The main event is the Friday prayer meeting which at times has attracted over 8,000 people," says Mr Ma. The government provided Muslims the land and helped them found the mosque, but Mr Ma says the religious affairs bureau has given them freedom to manage the place of prayer and study themselves. Police patrol the grounds of the mosque, but they seem mostly concerned with keeping the beggars at bay and there was no effort to stop this correspondent entering. In cities such as Urumqi or Kashgar in Xinjiang, it is difficult for those so clearly non-Muslim to even come close to a mosque. The beggars are an extraordinary sight, some with bewildering and grotesque deformities. A taxi ride away, still in downtown Yiwu, a few people are eating at the Alaqsa Restaurant. The owner of the restaurant is Mohanad Shalabi, from Amman, who has been in Yiwu for nine years and running the restaurant for five. "Our customers come from everywhere. There are lots of Arabic people here, but we also get Hui Muslims, relations are very good with people around here. Yiwu is my home now," says Mr Shalabi, who is married to a Chinese woman and has two sons, both of whom speak better Chinese than Arabic, to his bewilderment. There is an Arabic school, too, but he prefers his children to go to a local school. He is seeking to branch out and has started a company that he hopes will export stainless steel finished goods to Saudi Arabia. "We will do goods in bulk, but you can trade everything here. Everything you need, it is here," Mr Shalabi says. His friend, Jamal Flaieh, also from Jordan, joins us at the table. "I export all Chinese products, and I have customers all over the world - in the Middle East, in America, South America, Europe. I was the first Arabic company to set up here 10 years ago, back when this place Yiwu was just a small town," says Mr Flaieh. "I've seen so many changes taking place in front of my eyes. There are people from every country in the world in this town, and they export to everywhere. I had some business in Thailand before. My brother invited me to visit him here on holiday, I came, and stayed. This is my destiny here." business@thenational.ae