Dispatches From Xinjiang: Traffic Lights And Uyghur Black Humor

On April 13, 2014, Abdulbasit Ablimit, a 17-year-old from a small town near Aqsu, was shot twice. It appears he had run a red light on an electric scooter and, rather than stop and pay a fine, he had fled. According to his friends, he was gunned down three kilometers later. The official state narrative, posted a few days after the incident, says he attacked the police officers with stones, tried to grab their guns, and so on.

Regardless of how, Abdulbasit died within hours. His body was given to his family for burial. But he was not buried. Instead, his body was carried, wrapped in a white shroud, with a procession of hundreds of friends and family on a march toward the town center. They demanded that the officers who had killed him be arrested. As you can hear in the video above, they chanted “God is Great” – one of the few Arabic phrases that everyone knows and understands.

Realizing their mistake, security officials seized Abdulbasit’s body again and arrested many of the grieving protesters and those who told their tales.1 They reported Abdulbasit as a “terrorist” — then decided against it. They didn’t mention that his family was poor, that his father had died when he was 1, and that he might not have had the money to pay the 200-yuan fine the police were known to assign people driving without proper paperwork.

Like all reports of violence in Xinjiang, the details are fuzzy. For instance, we don’t know what happened to Abdulbasit’s two friends who were riding on the back of his scooter on the way home from a friend’s house at 9:40 pm Xinjiang time. But for the story I want to tell here, those details are less important. What is important is the way Uyghurs across the Uyghur Internet responded to the incident. Hundreds of messages were written on Weixin, Weibo, and Uyghur-language message boards. As mentions of Aqsu and Kelpin counties were deleted from social media, Uyghurs took to the famous songs, poems, and memes of Uyghur pop culture as a way of circulating their grief and outrage with what Uyghur life has become. In direct reference to these carriers of meaning – many of which I have addressed on this blog – they twisted their tears into dark laughter.

As is often the case when people are grieving, they started out by transforming the poetry of the celebrated poet Abdurehim Ötkür. They wrote:

(Traces)

We were young when we rode out on the hard journey,
Now it seems those grandchildren of ours are riding motorcycles.
Tell our grandchildren to ride slowly and carefully,
Don’t leave another grave at the traffic light.

They took on the most famous book in the Uyghur pantheon: Alphabet, the reader, which, as I have written, every young Uyghur learns by memory in Uyghur medium elementary schools.2 They transformed the section of the book that appears immediately after a student has learned all of the letters of the Uyghur alphabet – the section everyone knows and loves.

(Gunchem’s Completion of the Alphabet)

Ghunchem came home from school and spoke with her father happily:
“Daddy, Daddy I finished learning the traffic rules.”3
“Ok, then tell me what happens when someone runs a red light.”
Gunchem says, “Police will shoot them.”
Daddy kissed her forehead with satisfaction and said,
“You are worthy4 my daughter, you learned well.
Please go to Kelpin in Aqsu and become a police officer.”

They took on Abdulla’s famous song “After You Are Forty,” where he explains to young people – men who still attach a “jan” at the end of their names, women who still cling to the “gul” or “flower” in their names – that they will understand the feelings of their parents when they are 40. To satirize this description of life-stage shifts, the song was revised to reflect the everyday precariousness of life under surveillance.

(After You Are Forty)

The pains of Kelpin,
The taste of two bullets,
The preciousness of this life,
You’ll understand after you go through the red light.

They took on Hezirti Ali’s famous love song “With Me” in which an underemployed rural-urban migrant asks his lover to stay with him through the responsibilities and shame of unfulfilled life projects. But now, instead of asking his wife to bear the burden of poverty and filial duty, the songwriter asks his partner to ride a motorcycle with him through a red light.

(With Me)

Will you spend the rest of your life with me?
Will you wait at the red light with me?
If I go through the red light because I’m in a rush,
And the police shoot me will you go with me?

Finally, reprising the language of dreams that I highlighted recently on this blog, one writer described the incident as a nightmare in which the arsenal of the nation was aimed at him or her – a rider on an old motorcycle without brakes. The weapons of the nation, like its rules and regulations, are taken to be set up in opposition to this Uyghur Chinese citizen.

I had a dream

In my dream it seems like I was riding an old motorcycle quite fast. After a while I reached the county center and there was a red light. Because the brake on my motorcycle didn’t work well, I went over the line by the span of my hand (gherich). I stopped there. I looked around and the whole area surrounding the traffic light was filled with weapons such as tanks, cannons, armed vehicles, katyusha rockets, fighter jets, helicopters, guided missiles, even spaceships. My heart almost leaped into my throat. I couldn’t go backwards even if I wanted to. Then I woke up. Oh thank God. Since then I’ve been scared of dreaming, especially dreams of going through red lights.

Uyghur satire woven through pop culture sensibilities is an elliptical way to discuss the common experience of life made precarious. The security offered by armed police is creating a way of life that Uyghurs do not recognize as their own. Instead, as is common in the lives of minority people across the world, the police are seen as protecting the interests of the majority. These sentiments show us how trauma is made common and how humor and poetry is a means of coping with this trauma. As a Uyghur friend told me: “I don’t think people have any other way to release the pressure and anger built up within themselves.”

Thanks as always to M.E. for his help with the research and translation in this piece.


1 It’s interesting to note that 10 days after the incident, officials in a neighboring county announced greater rewards (up to 50,000 yuan) for tips on those who contacted foreign media or reports on the presence of foreigners, in addition to the usual information on separatism and terrorism.

2 Many schools have been converted to using Mandarin as the language of instruction.

3 This lyric is a spoof of a Uyghur elementary school text titled Alphabet. The turns of phrase carry the same valence as “See Dick Run” in English language pedagogy.

4 In Uyghur this phrase is equivalent to, “Well done.”

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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