My Tatar neighborhood

My neighborhood in Moscow is called “Zamoskvorechye,” which basically means, “Near-the-Moscow-River-hood.”  It’s a pretty hip area with lots of trendy cafés and shops.  It’s also got some pretty wacked-out Soviet architecture and a couple of old churches.  This morning I woke up to a sound I haven’t heard in a long time.  It was a gentle scrape, scrape, clang.  I kind of drifted in and out of sleep, the scrape-scrape keeping time with my watch.  Once I managed to shake myself awake, I ran to the window because scrape-scrape means fresh snow.

снег snow

Something about fresh snow makes everything quieter.  Down on the street people padded their way to the metro without making a sound.  The usual hustle and bustle was, rhymingly, muffled.  I did a quick pass through my neighborhood, trying to capture the silent beauty.

St. Clement’s Church

Zamoskvorechye was originally settled by Tatar communities.  Tatars are a Turkic people that were part of the Golden Horde. Last year I spent a little bit of time in Kazan, which is the capital of the Tatar region in Russia.  But like all Russian peoples, Tatars migrated outside of their home regions and wound up in Moscow in the 14th Century.  Two of Zamoskvorechye’s main street names come from this era:  Tatarskaya (meaning Tatar Street) and Ordynka (meaning “Horde” street).  And you know what?  The Tatars are still here in this neighborhood.  They pray at what is today called the Historic Mosque, which is just around the corner from my apartment:

Историческая мечеть Old Mosque
Moscow’s Historical Mosque

This mosque was built not that long ago, relatively speaking:  1823.  The Tatar community had a rough time getting a mosque built under the czar.  Eventually they did, but only on the condition that it not be called a mosque or look like a mosque.  That’s why this building looks like a house.  Only in 1880 did the Tatars get permission to add the minaret and the cupola.

Oh, but not so fast.  A mere thirty years later the Bolsheviks took power in the Russian Revolution, so the mosque was closed down and the minaret destroyed. The Soviets used the  building as a military office.

In 1993 its door were re-opened to worship and the minaret was eventually rebuilt.

Last May my friend Janet and I decided to take a look around.  As soon as we stepped onto the territory we were asked to cover our heads, so we quickly ducked in to a little shop on the premises.  There, the proprietor was extremely friendly to us.  Janet, who has spent time in Yemen, knew some Arabic so she tried a little out on the shopkeeper, but he only knew some religious phrases in Arabic.  Back in Russian the man tried to sell us some expensive silk scarves but then wound up giving us each a gift of some more modest, cotton scarves.  Appropriately covered, we then wandered around the territory and stopped in to their little café.  We weren’t especially hungry so we just got some tea and a pastry.  I’m now extremely regretful of this because, according to Trip Advisor, the café is excellent.

After we left the café, Janet wanted to check out the mosque.  I asked a few different men how we would do that, but I got confusing answers that I didn’t understand.  At the very least, I understood that was one entrance in particular that we were not supposed to use.  It was at this point that I just gave in and admitted that Janet is braver than I am.  I was nervous wandering around in someone else’s house of worship, particularly for a religion with which I’m unfamiliar.  Janet has been in oodles of mosques so I left her to find her way in on her own while I waited by the entrance.  I’m a big chicken.  Janet found the way in and said it was very interesting.

One Friday I was walking home from the metro and a man in a green vest stopped me and tried to give me a flyer.  I instinctively avoided him, but then another man in a green vest approached me and asked me to move off the sidewalk.  I must have been completely in my head because how did I not notice that both the sidewalk and the street were now closed?  Men in green vests were directing pedestrians around metal barriers and OMON troops stood by on the opposite side of the street.   I walked slowly while I tried to figure out what was going on.  No one was shouting, so it couldn’t have been any kind of protest.  Plus, the OMON troops looked like they were there to help control crowds, not shut anything down.  There was a large group of men inside the metal street barriers, just milling about, talking.  I stood on the opposite sidewalk to watch.

Eventually a man in a skull cap walked out from behind an apartment building.  Oh right, I remembered, the mosque is back there.  He stood on a little piece of wood in front of the crowd and each man pulled out a little wool mat and prepared to pray.  At this point I decided to go back on my way.  Prayer seems like such a personal thing; I didn’t think it was right to just stand there and gawk at people while they were communing with god.

But it seemed so strange to me…why would these people be praying in the middle of the street?  It was fairly damp and it was certainly cold.  What the heck?

Well, some Internet research reveals that there is just not enough mosque space in Moscow.  This, despite the fact that a newly-rebuilt giant mosque just opened its doors in September, 2015.  Moscow’s mayor is a Donald Trump wanna-be, claiming that there are too many Muslims in Moscow and that no permits should be granted for new mosque construction.  Now, like I said above, the Tatars have been in Moscow since the 14th Century.  It appears that the Moscow Mayor’s views correspond mostly to labor migrants who come from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan.  Well, that’s just plain old short-sighted thinking!  Who, Mr. Mayor, is going to sweep your streets, construct your buildings, and cook your food without the migrants?

Right behind my apartment building is the Tatar Cultural Center, which appears to also be a halal meat butcher and a café that specializes in tutyrgan tauk, an apparently hard-to-find Tatar chicken dish.  I was all excited to try it until I watched this video review.  Basically, it is chicken boiled in egg and milk.  That’s it.  I’m sure it’s tasty, but…well.

Anyhow, for a little tour of my neighborhood and a video that includes pouring egg into chicken skin, check out the charming Yuliy Gugolev:

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