Dispatches From Xinjiang: Sufi Poetry And The Uyghur Justin Bieber

The Uyghur-language songs of teen heartthrob Ablajan Awut Ayup run on a loop through the heads of many Uyghur tweens and young urbanites. Taking cues from Justin Bieber, the ever-popular dance moves of the late-Michael Jackson, and the pretty-gangster affect of Korean pop stars, Ablajan is a self-styled chart-climber; he is a self-made song-and-dance man. Whether  you love him or hate him, the fact remains that he has cornered the Uyghur children’s music market by tying clever songwriting with catchy beats.

Yet beneath this veneer of slightly irritating auto-tuning, dance rhythms, and theatrical spectacle are melancholic questions. His songs tackle contemporary social issues in a major key; on the upbeat they cheerfully report the serious problems inherent in rapid urbanization, the erasure of local lifeways, and the pollution tied to unsustainable planning. Ablajan indexes Sufi imagery to the rhythms of electronica, the harmonies of Chinese children’s music, and aesthetics of pretty-boy pop not in a negative process but in order to generate language, to catalyze new conventions. His cheerful performances are thus heteroglossic movements — they create a resonance of multiple voices/meanings in a singular utterance – in as much as it become a part of public consciousness they are a kind of “cheerful war, the Tower of Babel as maypole” (Bakhtin 1981: 433).

Like many Uyghur-speakers in the city, Ablajan Awut Ayup comes from elsewhere. He travels to the city from Xinjiang’s deep south, a very small village on the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert. Despite his careful sculpture of his celebrity persona, this rural education informs both the imagery of his songs and the forms in which they are written. Take for example his hit song, “Is There Space to Play.” Rather than taking on the call and refrain of chorus and verse endemic in much contemporary popular music, Ablajan organizes the piece in a repetition of tightly phrased rhyming questions which form a narrative arch of desire, blockage, and therapy.

Although it would be reductive to say Ablajan’s writing is derivative of the Uyghur dastan, or Sufi oral poetry, the formal similarities are unmistakable. According to the scholar Mutallip Iqbal, in general terms a dastan comprises three parts: introduction, recitation, and conclusion. That is, a dastan begins with a repetition of classic imagery (usually taken from the canon of Uyghur classical song and Sufi verse called muqam), then moves into the improvisational heart of the particular song before ending with words of wisdom.

As you will hear and see in the video above, this is roughly the trajectory followed by Ablajan’s alter-ego Memetjan in “Is There Space to Play.” After these lyrics, I will discuss the way this line of flight and critique is followed and how it describes a contemporary iteration of a long history of improvisation with symbolic and lived space in Uyghur cities.

Is there space to play?
Who is Memetjan(1)?
He is a bleating goat
His horns are like spears
He has a beard like a mazin(2)
His hooves are like cast iron
He has the bell of a goat who leads goats.(3)

Ring, ring the bell
10 kids skipping to the mountains
Mountain peaks
To play around in
Ma, Ma, Ma
They want to go up on the mountain
Stomp, Stomp, hey, clip, clop.

They want to charge each other with their horns
Hopping, clip-clop
Leaping from rock to rock
Horns tangled together
They want to reach the steep peaks
Led by Memetjan they want to wander
They want to see things in the far distance
They want to kiss the clouds
They want to produce milk

They want to gallop
Like a mountain stallion
With big, big hooves
White rock, black rock
There are clear rocks in the river(4)
You and me together are friends
Is there a child to play with me?

Is there a child to play with me?
Is there a cow mooing?
Is there water for swimming?
Are there galloping, galloping horses?

Going on a heyt visit (5)
Cheek touching face
If we go to Kashgar
Is there a sama we can dance (6)
On my right in Karakash(7)
On my left in Yorongkash
Emerald doppa, woven hair(8)
Do you have eyebrow black?
I have visited all places
They are saying something to me:
Today’s occasion is upon us.

Is there a child to speak?
To greet the folks of the festival
I have one or two things to say
I’m a playaholic child
I know many different ways to play
If there is too much homework
Is there a child to flee from school?
Is there an excuse to flee from school?(9)
Is there such a heavy bag of books?
Is there a remedy for my suffering?
Tell me what is our crime?

Cars are everywhere.
Apartment buildings are everywhere
Where are the stars at night?(10)
Is there a space to play?

Is there a clear shadow in the water?
Is there butterflies chasing
Flowers in the grassland?
I wish I were a little bear
If only I caught fish in the water
And slept in the winter.(11)
Is there a hole?
Are there sheaves of wheat?
Can I sleep there?
Is there a place in the whole-wide world
Where we can sing joyfully?
Is there a child to play with?

A festival has come and the world smiles.
Let’s start all over again
If we have bad habits (12)
Let’s quit, let’s quit

Ablajan begins the song by describing his alter-ego Memetjan as a poet and bard. By using his name Memetjan (1) – which is literally Mohammad-Jan – Memetjan is positioning himself as a Uyghur from the six oasis cities (Uy: alti sheher) of the south. The honorific “jan” is taken by young Altisheherian Uyghur men as a way of describing their coming-into-being as young adults. In this case Memetjan takes on the persona of young goat with a beard (2) in the shape of those who call other believers to prayer. Furthermore, he describes himself as a goat who wears the bells of a serk or “leading goat” (3). This common metaphor for Uyghur heroic figures is derived from Uyghur pastoral traditions in which one male goat is trained to lead and protect a herd.

In the verses following his introduction Memetjan describes the idyllic landscape of the Heavenly Mountains (Ch: Tian Shan) which form the horizontal spine of Xinjiang. He talks of “clear stones,” (4) a reference to the jade which has been a major economic source for Uyghur traders for centuries. Memetjan then moves into explicit Uyghur rituals such as the heyt, or Islamic holiday visit, (5) and the sama dance (6). Whereas the former is a key element in the reproduction of communal relations and the accumulation of berket, or blessing, during the Rosa holiday that marks the end of the month of fasting (Ramadan) and the major autumn holiday know as Qurban, the latter finds its antecedents in the fire dances of the Zorastrians. A sama dance is performed by groups of men linked in a circle in front of mosques during the spring festival Nowruz.

Continuing, Memetjan describes the famous rivers of Hotan (7) – the Black Bank and the Light Bank – where China sources its finest jade. This semi-precious stone — by Western standards — holds pride of place in Chinese jewelry. Jade is more important than diamonds in securing romantic relationships and social status. He then describes (8) the quintessential traditional identity markers for Uyghurs – the formal prayer hat of men and long braids of women – necessary ingredients in liminal events which range from weddings and circumcisions to mundane events such as going to town.

Finally, Memetjan turns his attention to critique. Since the song is ostensibly addressed to school children, his attention to the stresses of the Chinese education system, which still stresses memorization over critical thinking, is an obvious point of resonance – yet the subtle subtext (9) of the erasure of Uyghur language and cultural knowledge by hegemonic imposition of Chinese-medium instruction is also in play.

Memetjan then references the horrible pollution endemic in Ürümqi city life (10). This pollution is the result of an antiquated heating and power system which depends on coal as an energy source, the lack of refined gasoline in the cars which clog Ürümqi’s congested streets, and the topography of a city situated in a mountain pass directly south of the steppes of Siberia. All of these factors make Memetjan wish he was a bear who lived a self-sustaining existence on the margins of society. If he was a bear he could sleep through the horrors of  Ürümqi winters.

Like the Sufi poets of old and new, Ablajan Awut Ayup ends his song with some lines of moral and political advice. His tactic of “making do” is one of opening a space of silence, of “quitting.” As such, his catchy children’s song is a powerful way of disturbing the peace of normal life. By rendering sensible some of the stakes involved in going with the flow of city life, he asks Uyghur tweens to think about what could be otherwise.

Thanks to M.E. for pointing me to Ablajan Awut Ayup’s music and his help in translating the lyrics.

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. The original version of this essay first appeared there on June 24.

|Dispatches from Xinjiang Archives|

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