At first, the idea of a Tibetan Muslim had surprised me; a Tibetan seemed, almost by definition, to be a Buddhist, a follower of the Dharma, although on consideration the notion was no odder than a Tibetan being a Christian, which had happened, or an Italian being a Buddhist, a prevalent conversion. The Habaling Khache [= ‘Kashmiri‘] were part of traditional Lhasa society and the economic life of the city, a minority in an outwardly uniform land. According to one writer, “Unmolested by natives to initiate whatever trade they desired, and inspired by incentive, the Muslims became commonplace features in the major cities of Lhasa, Shigatse, Gyantse and Tsethang.” They were renowned for speaking in chaste, courtly Lhasa dialect, even if they did sometimes eat dishes from Central Asia, which gave rise to the Tibetan warning not to be taken in by sweet words: “Do not listen to a Muslim’s voice, look at what he is eating.”
Most of the Habaling Khache were indistinguishable, physically, from other Tibetans. Only the names were different: Hamid, Abu Bakr, Salima, Fatima. In the past, most of them were merchants, but some had been given posts in the Dalai Lama’s government as writers or translators, and been allowed to wear a special court uniform. A second group of Lhasa Muslims lived beyond the Potala, having been given a plot of land by the Fifth Dalai Lama. Their imam, Abdul Ghalib, told me that most of his small community had fled in the 1950s, and there were now only a few dozen of them left. Abdul Ghalib, with his Central Asian face, lived by an orchard with chickens and cows and apple trees and an old water-pump. It was an idyll, but he knew his world would soon disappear.
Mariam’s uncle, the imam of the Habaling Khache, had known the history. He was responsible for the documents, going back to the twelfth century, which recorded the important marriages in their community, how the traditions had begun, what lands and privileges were granted to them in Lhasa by previous Dalai Lamas, and how their ancestors, merchants and traders, had made their way up from coastal China through the mountains to Tibet. There were about two thousand indigenous Tibetan Muslims left in Lhasa now, trying to preserve something that had been nearly washed away, their position undermined by the arrival of ambitious new Hui and Chinese Muslims from the east.
When the Red Guards—all of them Tibetan—came to purge Lhasa’s main Muslim quarter, Thelpung Khang, in 1969, there was a moment of bafflement. The Habaling Khache, being Muslims, had no idols or statues that could be smashed, no painted frescoes that could be defaced, no sacred pictures that could be ripped. There was nothing to destroy. So, after retreating to discuss this problem, the Red Guards sought out the ledgers, the old legal papers, the name-books, the dustar or ceremonial prayer caps, the maps, an ancient decree granting Muslims an exclusive graveyard on the edge of the city (Buddhists do not bury their dead), and every copy of the Holy Quran, including the imam’s own, which was several centuries old, and made them into a great bonfire in the courtyard in front of the mosque. The history of the Habaling Khache went up in flames.
The mosque was made into a cinema, for the watching of propaganda films; farmers and their animals were sent to live in the precincts and in the madrasa. The imam, Yahya, aged about eighty, was paraded through the streets to the east of the Barkhor wearing a conical white paper hat with the word “ghost” written across it. Later he was slapped and pushed and told that he was an exploiter of the people.
“But he was a purely religious man,” Mariam kept repeating, tugging at the straps of her black lace headdress, “a purely religious man.” He died soon afterwards, she said, of grief.
Mariam tried to describe the effects of this destruction. There were no words for it. For much of the Cultural Revolution, she had “just felt like dying.” Finally, she compared the Habaling Khache to a person who has eyes but is unable to see. There was a problem translating exactly what she meant. She seemed to be saying, miming, that they were like someone whose vision was blocked by a cataract. They had the capacity for sight, but they could not see.
The Habaling Khache were deracinated. They no longer had any way of knowing what had made them what they were. And so, in this way, another part of Lhasa was destroyed.