Within the marriage market of the urban Uyghur community it has almost become a cliché to discuss the moral aptitude of young men in terms of their frequency of prayer. When introducing a potential boyfriend, the line given is “he prays five times a day” (Uy: u besh namazni jayida üteydu). Although this description often overlooks other moral failures such as drinking, smoking, and general carousing, the overall connotation conveyed is “this is a good, responsible guy.” In the short film With Me, Hezriti Ali, another self-made migrant actor-muscian from the southwest edge of the Taklamakan Desert, tackles this problem in an unusually subtle and implicit way.
In the 10-minute narrative film that proceeds his performance of a song, Hezriti lays out the challenges migrant young men face in the city. Since, as for all Chinese men, the first duty of sons (particularly, for Uyghurs, younger brothers) is to one’s parents rather than to one’s wife and her family, underemployed strivers in the city are faced with a complex set of forces. They must simultaneously maintain an image of success vis-à-vis their rural home community (in the form of remittances), the circle of friends who form their wife’s chai circle (i.e. the social distinction of disposable income), and their sense of autonomy among their male peers (i.e. drinking parties and/or Islamic/cultural functions with fellow migrants), while at the same time negotiate their place in Chinese society (i.e. a different set of drinking parties and/or Islamic functions with job providers). The common denominator in all these forces: money.
With the exception of drinking with friends and coworkers, most of these elements are in play in Hezriti’s short 2013 film. The basic scenario is one of a wife complaining that she doesn’t have enough money to pay the rent and keep up appearances while at the same time complaining that her rural-origin mother-in-law is placing too heavy a burden on their urban household. In response to this situation, the young taciturn husband, played by the actor Memetjan, presents his wife with an ultimatum and song which asks her to respect his masculinity and his duty to his mother. In the end the wife abandons (perhaps temporarily) the family for her natal home (with her father — an urbane intellectual type).
Throughout the film, Hezriti’s protagonist models images of a considered and measured response to the stresses he faces. He is the “strong and silent” type – certain in his convictions and responsibilities yet deeply conflicted, as we see in the opening scene of him pacing, deep in thought, in front of a bench on the street. At the 8:15 mark, as he says goodbye to his wife, he breaks into spoken-word narration, summarizing the lived experience of displacement and struggle that is endemic for those who have come of age during the past two decades of infrastructure build-out in rural Xinjiang and the widespread influx of settlers in Chinese Central Asia.
Born in the 80s, under the heavy pressure of life, there is no hardship that I haven’t suffered for the happiness of the people I love. I have listened to every scolding. Sometimes I think, as a man what else can I do besides being hardworking and responsible? Like everyone else I will receive my just share. My life is still in my body. My hope is that I will strive until my last breath to be a good husband. Thanks, thanks, Shuhre.
In the song that follows Hezriti asks his lover to weather the storms of life with him. Midway through the lyric he sings:
No one can say this life has no pain / if hardship falls on my head* can you swallow the pain with me? / Parents are the most sacred so I say for them / can you love them just as you love me? / I don’t know what qismet is waiting for me when Gabriel comes / Can you give up this world and go away with me?
At the 11:10 mark, in the deep focus of a scene in his Urumqi apartment, we see Hezriti praying.
As the anthropologist Junaid Rana has noted in his study of Pakistani migrants, the transition from rural to urban contexts is often accompanied by a cultivation of moral practice. In the context of aspirational striving, a neo-orthodox Islamic work ethic sometimes rises to the fore as an moral ethos. Although it seems counter-intuitive since these practices are often read as aberrant by dominant norms, like practitioners of the Protestant Work Ethic (pace Max Weber), the suffering of the individual is experienced as an indicative of future blessings.
Yet in the song “With Me,” Hezriti is not laying exclusive claim to these future blessings; instead, he is asking the listener to share in his pain. This is an invitation to an ethics of “being-with.” If we read this love song as metaphor for intersubjective solidarity, we can hear within it the overtones of songs of sorrow and other spirituals. Reading between the lines of “With Me” is an invitation to be-with the struggles of young men who are blocked at every turn in the cities and towns of Chinese Central Asia.
Tuning in to their circumstance is a heavy task. “With Me” shows us a way to get proximate to pain. It doesn’t give us a cure, but it gives us a way of sharing in sorrow, and for those who sing these songs — a way of surviving.
*This expression describes a technique of the body in which the sufferer bends his/her head toward the shoulder in a public display of absolute dejection.
Thanks again to M.E. for his help with the translation and his thoughts on this post.
Beige Wind runs the website The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia, which 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 July 1.