Almost Another Country

Tatarstan's Muslim heritage celebrated in mosques and an Arabian-themed restaurant
Posted Sunday, March 22, 2003; 1:14 p.m.

Kazan - The view from the 12th floor of the Tatarstan Hotel. The city's white-walled Kremlin, with a huge mosque under construction, is in the background. PHOTO: Meital Hershkowitz

KAZAN - A Soviet-era star peers down on visitors from atop a white tower leading into the Kremlin compound, where golden crescents and crosses slice into the sky. A busload of children and teens, apparently unused to the sight of tourists, fervently wave at a group of curious Columbia University students. Workers tear down buildings, so dilapidated they look as if they've been hit by an earthquake, in preparation for the 1,000th anniversary of the city's founding, which will take place in 2005.

Welcome to Kazan, Tatarstan.

Leaving their train after a 12-hour journey from Moscow, students were greeted by a blast of chilly air and bundled-up taxi drivers calling out for passengers. The bland Soviet-era high-rise building that is the Tatarstan Hotel, the group's home in Kazan, indicated that the easy times of Moscow's luxurious Renaissance Hotel were over. "Skip the restaurant," one guidebook warned, not specifying whether it referred to the limited food selection or the hostile service.

After two hours of rest, the group started their day at the Marjani Mosque, the only one in Kazan to remain open under the Soviet regime. In front of the mosque, two girls with hats pulled closely over their heads and layers of warm jackets and coats shrouding their bodies extended their tiny hands and asked from money. As soon as the students' coins dropped into the children's palms, more beggars, mostly old women, gathered around the generous visitors.

Inside, students took off their shoes and toured the carpeted mosque. They saw an old man rocking his body and reciting verses from the Quran to three somber-looking women in one corner. In another room, tattered, old copies of the Muslim holy book occupied wooden shelves. The group was then received by the deputy mufti of Tatarstan, Valiullah Yakub, who described the history of Islam among the Tatars. "We're one of the few nations of the world which accepted Islam voluntarily 11 centuries ago," he said, through guide Andrei Zolotov's translation.

Yakub told students that Islam in Tatarstan was hidden from some Russian rulers and prospered in the era of others. In 1776, when Empress Catherine the Great visited Kazan, she allowed the Marjani Mosque to be built. Tatar culture and Muslim education bloomed in the 19th and early 20th century until the Bolshevik revolution put all religions on hold.

Today, a lack of qualified, educated clergy is one of the main obstacles facing the ongoing revival of Islam here, he said. A recently opened Islamic university and a number of madrasas try to resolve this problem and alleviate concerns that Tatar students sent to study in Arab countries like Saudi Arabia will come back to preach a more conservative version of Islam than the one traditionally embraced by the Tatars, Yakub said. But the government refuses to issue state diplomas for graduates of Tatarstan's Islamic institutions, he added, and some Christian churches exploit needy Muslim Tatars, providing aid in exchange for their conversion.

The voice of an old imam giving the Friday sermon in Tatar poured into the room where Yakub and the students had their question-and-answer session. The white-turbaned imam spoke of the different features of God, stressing that He is the only one worthy of worship. He also urged worshippers to pray for Iraqis in war with the United States. As he spoke, men wearing skullcaps or traditional fur hats filed into the mosque, greeting one another with the Muslim salute of "peace be upon you."

Speakers carried the imam's voice to the veiled women gathered in separate rooms below the men's floor. "Allahu Akbar," the imam chanted, announcing the beginning of the Friday's noon prayer, the most important Muslim service. With the discipline of soldiers, the women formed orderly lines. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder, they bowed and kneeled in unison in a tableau of harmony and faith. One Columbia University student joined the ranks of the faithful. Looking around her, she emulated their every move.

After the service, the Columbia group headed for a much-needed lunch buffet, where they treated themselves to salads, soups, meats and unfamiliar desserts.

The group was then joined by Rafik Mukhamedshin, a professor at Kazan's Russian- Islamic University, who led a tour of the city that took the group to Kazan State University and to Sts. Peter and Paul Orthodox Cathedral, built in a the Moscow Baroque style to mark a 1722 visit by Czsar Peter the Great. The ornate Cathedral - its walls painted tan with an orangey hue and decorated with protruding flowers in pale blue, orange and green - stood in contrast to a drab brick-walled edifice next to it.

The decorations were duplicated inside the Cathedral, festooning columns and hugging icons on the walls and ceilings. Students had to look high to see all of the church's huge carved iconostasis, gilded with gold. Some browsed through a collection of wood-framed icons, books and pendants for sale, buying gifts for friends and loved ones, while worshippers went about their business. One woman with gray hair kissed an icon of a standing Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus, and another whispered prayers before lighting two candles.

After the cathedral, the group went to the Kremlin, built in 1556 and home to a government palace, a church, a new mosque under construction and a leaning tower that became a symbol of Tatar pride. The Syuyumbike tower, around which local legends revolve, is believed to have been a Russian watch tower that dates back to the 17th century, but its exact story remains unclear. Tatars believe the tower stands on one of their holy sites and have installed an Islamic crescent on it to the surprise of some Russians.

As the sun began to set, some group members attended a Sabbath service at an Orthodox synagogue. Dinner was at Sahara, a multi-floor restaurant featuring exotic dishes like ostrich, crocodile and kangaroo meat. After the food, some puffed on sweet-flavored water pipes. Without warning, a belly dancer appeared in the room, wearing a two-piece sequined suit. She undulated and swayed her hips, pulling some of the diners to dance with her. The excitement created by the dancer's visit dissolved when the bill arrived, and the group realized they had to pay for watching the unexpected entertainment.

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