Dispatches From Xinjiang: Abdulla, King Of Uyghur Women, The Leonard Cohen Of Northwest China

Please give a hearty Beijing Cream welcome to Beige Wind, an anthropology doctoral student who studies urban living, popular culture and the arts in the cities of Northwest China. He runs the website The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia, and will swing by these parts periodically to enlighten us with stories from Xinjiang.

This is the third post in a multi-part series on Abdulla Abdurehim.

Abdulla, the undisputed king of Uyghur pop, receives thousands of love letters from Uyghur women. According to those who traffic in insider knowledge of Uyghur models of masculinity, Abdulla’s effect on women first became a subject of manly discussion in the early 2000s after the release of his song “Ranjima.”

As you can see above, the camera lingers on a young woman while Abdulla, clad in a bad-ass Harley-Davidson t-shirt, crones lines such as, “Don’t be sorry, let’s just be friends” – a clear allusion to an illicit affair with the distracted young woman. Young Ranjima swoons. Abdulla basks in love letters which rain down around him from his female admirers. Yet despite this direct appeal to his sexuality, Abdulla carries on a line from Sufi poets who were devoted to “one true thing.” He sings: “Our souls cannot share the same flame.”

For you see, thirteen years ago Abdulla was already a married man.

Rumors always swirl around a public ladies’ man, even if the character portrayed in his songs are not of his writing. At some point in 2012 these eddies gathered enough force that — at least in the mind of some of his male listeners — Abdulla was forced to subtlety confront the rumors of extramarital affairs and the topic of his effect on women more generally. As you will see in the video below, Abdulla addresses these rumors by blithely denying it in order to remember that the injury might be real and out of “the closet.”

The song “I Can’t Forget About You” (Untalmidim) was interpreted alternately by some to be a “make-up” song with Abdulla’s wife, who was injured by infidelity, and by others as an ode to unfulfilled longing for a bared lover. Yet, Abdulla tells us explicitly that neither of these scenarios are in fact the case. As the video begins we see Abdulla receiving dozens of bouquets, and then telling a fan: “May he give you thousands of flowers, may he give you gardens and Edens.” By doing so, everyone understands that he is referring to “God.” He also greets the flower-givers with the Arabic “assalamyalaykum” (“Peace be upon you”), not yaxshimusiz (“Are you well?” favored by urbane Uyghurs and the official discourse of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region), and calls his fans “my son” (oghlum), “my younger sister” (singlim), “my younger brother” (inim). These honorific terms of endearment are important elements of what people like about him. By deploying them here he is building a kind of persona that presents him as a “true son” of Uyghur people. Furthermore, his distinctive intonation of “assalamyalaykum” with a very distinct Arabic accent creates an impression among the people – the majority of whom are Uyghur migrants to the city – that he is a very pious man as well. By saying it this way, he is also sending the coded message that “the God” he was referring to is Allah, and it lends legitimacy to his acknowledgment and denial of the moral failure of marital infidelity which follows in his introduction of the song.

Eventually in mock exasperation he says, “(Are you) Finished?” to which the audience erupts in applause. In a Western context the only time I’ve seen a performer hold an audience in such rapt attention is at a Leonard Cohen concert where 30,000 people held their breath for every word he spoke. Abdulla has the same effect on people. He makes an arena filled with out-of-place Uyghurs in Urumqi feel like an intimate space. The regal way he carries himself makes a fan feel he or she is in the presence of nobility.

Although the concert was headlined by Abdulla’s younger nephew Memenjan, Abdulla is shown to receive much more adulation, and he humbly says (paraphrasing slightly here): “I’m very happy to get a chance to meet you by taking advantage of the stage my brother prepared. I would like to sing a song about the love experience of the 30 boys and 9 girls (the traditional number of performers in Uyghur orchestra performers of the epic Sufi oral poetry known as the 12 Muqam assembled for the concert) sitting here. (I do so) because they requested me to do so. Young people said ‘since you have such a great voice, please sing some songs for us as well.’ So if you allow me, I have a song for young people that I want to share with you.” By announcing the song in this way, Abdulla has denied that the unrequited love for which he sings is his own.

In the song that follows he trots out clichés such as: “I can’t forget about your beautiful face/and your words – sweet like honey…”

There is an interesting psychic double bind in the way virility/fallibility of the king of Uyghur pop represents a model of masculinity in the Uyghur popular imaginary. In order to prove his fealty to his wife and virility vis-a-vis Uyghur women he is forced to publicly acknowledge marital injury in order to vehemently deny it — saying the song is about young people and not an “old man” such as himself; furthermore, as part of the performance of authenticity the possibility of injury must be compulsively acknowledged and denied in order to remember that these injuries are frequently real in Uyghur marriages.

This structure of knowing and not knowing has its richest cultural valence for me in the American figure of “the closet” and the dominant Han trope of “saving face.” The way Abdulla negotiates the secrets of the closet has a long history which is general to the human experience. As sociologists such as Erving Goffman have noted, the concept of “saving face” or protect one’s public persona has valence in many cultural contexts. Although the meaning contained in its Chinese iteration has not been stable across time-space and ethnic boundaries, its operation in the Chinese context has historically been a dense locus of social reproduction. Writing in 1935, the Chinese intellectual Lin Yutang noted: “Interesting as the Chinese physiological face is, the psychological face makes a still more fascinating study. It is not a face that can be washed or shaved, but a face that can be ‘granted’ and ‘lost’ and ‘fought for’ and ‘presented as a gift.’ Here we arrive at the most curious point of Chinese social psychology. Abstract and intangible, it is yet the most delicate standard by which Chinese social intercourse is regulated” (199-200).

The Uyghur version of “face,” or yuzluq, as exemplified by Abdulla here is similar yet different. Where saving face in the Han context often involves an absolute denial of fallibility (“it never happened” or “so what if it did”), in Abdulla’s Uyghur context saving face functions simultaneously as an acknowledgement of potential wrongdoing and a denial that it happened. Like Leonard Cohen, not only is Abdulla an adept poet and moral authority, the connotative impression one gets through his masculine projection is that Abdulla is a slightly dangerous, potentially dark, socially adept person who nevertheless successfully controls his bad impulses, making him the best kind of ladies’ man there is – the most responsible yet ravishing man who walks the Uyghur line.

Further Reading

Lin Yutang. (1935). My Country and My People, Reynal & Hitchcock, Inc.

Sedgwick, E. K. (1990). Epistemology of the Closet. University of California Press

Beige Wind runs the website The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asiawhich attempts to recognize and create dialogue around the ways minority people create a durable existence, and, in turn, how these voices from the margins implicate all of us in simultaneously distinctive and connected ways.

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