“HERE, people’s names weren’t contagious, / we said they were, it happened. / There was no sand here growing roots, / we said there was, it came. we said it, it happened. / Here the loneliness did not multiply, / we said it, it happened. / Here a thousand eyes did not enamel the sky, / we said that they did it, it happened. / Here, there were no fleeting omissions, / we said there were, it happened. / Yet our words could not undo anything here , / even the things we brought. ”
So goes a poem written by Uyghur poet Tahir Hamut Izgil (translated by Joshua Freeman) and titled Your Unknown Place. Izgil, who lived in Urumqi, says that in 2017 he managed to escape Xinjiang with his wife and children and seek asylum in the United States. His entire life, the apartment he lived in, the film company he and his wife founded, and more importantly, his readership have all been left behind in Xinjiang.
I stumbled across poems by Izgil and poet Muyesser Hendan (also from Xinjiang) during a recent virtual event hosted by the Brooklyn Book Festival. He read the poem in the Uyghur language and it was not difficult to understand the pieces; Persian words like “pareshan” which infiltrated centuries ago in our two languages. Even his reading of the poem in his own language was an act of revolt; it is apparently no longer allowed in Xinjiang, where the state is accused of waging a relentless campaign against the Uyghur people, their language, culture and religion.
Uyghur poetry written by those who have been deprived of their home audience can be read in English on the Internet.
(For its part, the Chinese government has always denied the allegations of human rights violations in Xinjiang, calling them “baseless” and coming from people with “ulterior motives.” It also accused the media of “concocting false allegations.” and from time to time invited foreign journalists to come and study the situation in Xinjiang for themselves.)
Izgil had written about Urumqi as the city it had become when he left in 2017. One story – also mentioned in The Atlantic – left an impression on me. Apparently, the government asked the Uyghurs to bring the books and papers home for inspection by the authorities. The old man brought everything he had to the authorities. However, a few days after the event, he found a copy of the Holy Quran which he forgot to bring to the authorities. Terrified of getting in trouble for lying, he locked it in plastic bags and hid it. But the package, along with the old man’s identity card, was found and opened. The old man, it was said, was sentenced to seven years in an internment camp.
It is not known how long he will survive. But what would liberation even mean? Izgil’s writing in prose and poetry tells about a city that is itself a prison. Neighborhood committees made up of Han Chinese, whom the government is trying to resettle in the region (with the aim of changing the demographics), watch over the Uyghurs in their buildings. According to those who follow the debate on the human rights of Uyghurs, many of them are subjected to blood tests and DNA tests; High-tech biometric imaging is used for fingerprints, and facial recognition technology ensures that they can be recognized anywhere. According to reports, internment camps are hell, as are re-education schools, but life outside as a Uyghur is not much better.
Muyesser Hendan, who is in exile in Turkey, writes poems that deal more directly with the possibility of a return, perhaps because she left before 2017, before real concerns about attempts to erase the culture. Uyghur, including poetry, are not revealed. “I will return to them / Those eyes of mine do not see sleep / My days are night,” she writes, eager for a place to return, knowing that such a return is not possible. His revolt is to cling to hope.
I was able to ask Hendan and Izgil if they had any messages for Pakistani readers. The two were friendly. Izgil mentioned the common bond of poetry; both cultures are deeply attached to it; the cadence and music of the verses told and repeated at meetings of friends and relatives are woven into the history of the two peoples. But he also pointed out a difference: Uyghur culture and language, he said, was on the verge of disappearing due to the restrictions. His fear was that “in 10 years, it will be completely gone.”
These are heartbreaking words. While the reported detention of Uyghurs and restrictions on their freedoms form the mainstay of activism around Xinjiang, the deeper fear among many alleged attempts to wipe out a culture, language and people is equally important.
Pakistanis are in a strong position when it comes to the treatment of Uyghurs. Providing a safe haven for the displaced and helping the language, culture and people to stay alive is our duty as Muslim neighbors. Pakistanis do not live in such a repressive environment and should speak out and raise awareness of the human rights violations allegedly inflicted on the Uyghur community.
Uyghur poetry written by those who have been deprived of their home audience can be read in English on the Internet. At the very least, Pakistanis could read the poignant verses of Izgil, which reminds us in the closing lines of Your Unknown Place, and which were quoted at the beginning of this article, “Yet our words could do nothing here, / even the things that we have created ”.
The writer is a lawyer and teaches constitutional law and political philosophy.
Posted in Dawn, le 6 October 2021