Stuck in a doorway with six thousand muslims, without shoes

“I had come to Spain with some notion of writing newspaper articles, but I had joined the militia almost immediately, because at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do.” – George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia  

Screenshot from footage from this weekend. More info coming soon about the Yiwu project.

This weekend I found myself stuck in a doorway, without shoes and with a camera on a 1,5 meter tripod in my hand, as six thousand Muslims of varying origin tried to make their way out after Friday prayers in the big mosque currently being renovated in Yiwu, Zhejiang province. My shoes were somewhere on the other side of the crowd.

I tend to find myself in strange situations from time to time and I seldom feel awkward about it, but standing in that doorway I felt really out of place. Maybe it was the lack of shoes, or maybe it was all the people asking what media I was from, the smiles, the frowns and the guy that tried to grab his chance to stop demonisation of Muslims by simply stating as he passed by that ”Muslims want peace”. My beard didn’t fool anyone – it was obvious that I was a reporter.

A few weeks ago, I visited a Chinese friend who works for a major state-run newspaper in Beijing. The day before my visit I had noticed a piece that she wrote on one of the first pages about a lawyer who had gotten some award for solving disputes in minority border areas in Southwest China, where I went myself recently to work on a story. ”Oh. You thought that I had gone down there”, she said as we talked about it. I didn’t, but either way she complained to me about how her job mainly consisted of sitting by her desk, browsing through different Chinese online media articles to reproduce, and making the occasional phone call. The impression of disillusion was enhanced by her colleague welcoming me to the office of the editorial staff for the ”opinion” pages, by saying ”this is where we don’t have an opinion”.

Writing for a living without an editor to tell you what he or she wants is strange, because even though you can write what you want, you have to make it marketable. I still haven’t sold that story about Burmese-Chinese relations and Western sanctions that I worked on in Southwest China. I’m glad I went though, because it forced me to see a place that a friend described as one of the last places he would think of going to, and finding out that it wasn’t all that bad (although insane), and because it turned out really well. But to be honest, I’m not very good at managing a company, because the work-profit ratio of what the only employee is interested in is not very high.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand (at least I think I do) why features in major news media get concentrated to the big stories of the day, why the writers of Chinese state-run opinion pages can’t have their own opinions and that a lot of people couldn’t be bothered reading about sanctions regimes or another story about depressing climate change. Still, something in me wants to write them. It’s probably the same impulse that made me grow my hair down to my shoulders as a fat fifteen year old and wear t-shirts promoting class war, contrary to my middle class background, or sneak away from my parents as a child to go look at flowers.

I think I just enjoy being that geeky foreigner trying to find his shoes, in a sea of worshippers moving the other way.

(On another note vaguely related to muslims, China, and the press: I found this satirical, politically incorrect joke that circulated on Chinese microblogs in the wake of the killing of Osama Bin Laden on the New Yorker’s correspondent Evan Osnos’ excellent blog:

Al Qaeda once sent five terrorists to China: One was sent to blow up a bus, but he wasn’t able to squeeze onto it; one was sent to blow up a supermarket, but the bomb was stolen from his basket; one was sent to blow up a train, but tickets were sold-out; finally, one succeeded in bombing a coal mine, and hundreds of workers died. He returned to Al Qaeda’s headquarters to await the headlines about his success, but it was never reported by the Chinese press. Al Qaeda executed him for lying.)

It’s always fun in Yiwu.