“HERE people’s names were not contagious,/ we said they were, it came to be./ There was no sand here growing roots,/ we said there was, it came to be./ Here time did not drip from the walls,/ we said it did, it came to be./ Here loneliness did not multiply,/ we said it, it came to be./ Here a thousand eyes did not fleck the sky,/ we said they did, it came to be./ Here there were no fugitive forgettings,/ we said there were, it came to be./ Yet our words could undo nothing here,/ even the things we brought to be. ”
So goes a poem written by Uighur 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 take asylum in the United States. His entire life, the apartment he lived in, the film company he and his wife had begun, and most importantly his readership were all left behind in Xinjiang.
I happened to come across Izgil’s poems and those of female poet Muyesser Hendan (also from Xinjiang) at a recent virtual event organised by the Brooklyn Book Festival. He read the poem in the Uighur language and it was not hard to understand bits and pieces; Persian words like ‘pareshan’ that seeped centuries ago into both our languages. Even his reading of the poem in his own language was an act of revolt; it is apparently no longer permitted in Xinjiang, where the state is accused of running a relentless campaign against the Uighur people, their language, their culture and their religion.
Uighur poetry written by those who have been robbed of their audiences at home is available to read in English on the internet.
(For its part, the Chinese government has all along denied allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, describing them as “baseless” and as coming from those with “ulterior motives”. It has also accused the media of “cooking up false allegations” and has from time to time invited foreign journalists to come and survey 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 The Atlantic — stood out for me. Apparently, Uighurs were told by the government to bring the books and papers in their homes for inspection by the authorities. The old man took everything that he had to the authorities. However, a few days after the event, he found a copy of the Holy Quran he had forgotten to take to the authorities. Terrified he would get in trouble for having lied, he encased 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 stated, was sentenced to seven years in an internment camp.
One doesn’t know for how long he will survive. But what would release even mean? Izgil’s writing in prose and poems tells of a city that is itself a prison. Neighbourhood committees made up of Han Chinese, whom the government is trying to resettle in the region (in a bid to change the demographics), watch over the Uighurs in their buildings. According to those who follow the debate on Uighurs’ human rights, many of them are subjected to blood tests and DNA tests; high-tech biometric imaging is used to fingerprint them, and facial recognition technology ensures they can be recognised anywhere. Going by reports, the internment camps are a living hell, as are the re-education schools, but life on the outside as a Uighur is not much better.
Muyesser Hendan, who is in exile in Turkey, writes poems that deal more directly with the possibility of return, perhaps because she left before 2017, before the true concerns over attempts to erase Uighur culture, including poetry, was revealed. “I will go back to them/ These eyes of mine see no sleep/ My days are night”, she writes, aching for a place to return to, even while knowing that no such return is possible. Her revolt is in clinging to hope.
I was able to ask Hendan and Izgil if they had any messages for Pakistani readers. Both were gracious. Izgil mentioned the common bond of poetry; both cultures are deeply wedded to it; the lilt and music of couplets told and retold in gatherings of friends and relatives is woven into the story of both peoples. But he also pointed out a difference: Uighur culture and language, he said, were on the verge of extinction because of curbs. His fear was that “in 10 years it will be completely gone”.
These are heartrending words. While the reported detention of Uighurs and the curbs on their liberties form the mainstay of the activism around Xinjiang, of equal importance is the deeper fear among many of the alleged attempt to eliminate a culture, a language and a people.
Pakistanis are in a powerful position where the treatment of the Uighurs is concerned. Providing a safe haven to the displaced, and helping the language, the culture and the people stay alive is our duty as Muslim neighbours. Pakistanis do not live in such a repressive environment and should speak out and raise awareness about the human rights abuses allegedly being inflicted on the Uighur community.
Uighur poetry written by those who have been robbed of their audiences at home is available to read in English on the internet. At the very least, Pakistanis could read the poignant verses of Izgil, who reminds us in the final lines of Your Unknown Place, and that have been quoted in the beginning of this article, “Yet our words could do nothing here, /even the things we brought to be”.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, October 6th, 2021