Watching the leaked surveillance video of two men walking with a sea of migrant workers in front of the train station in Ürümchi makes your blood turn cold. You want to look away but you can’t. You want to understand what was going through the heads of those men with their hats pulled low as they marched with the crowd – but you can’t. Only after the shock of the fireball and the smoke clears can you stop looking, but then you can’t un-see it. You can only play it over and over in your mind.
Xi Jinping said the attackers at that train station on Wednesday, April 30 were feeling an “overweening arrogance.” I don’t know what they were feeling; none of us can really know.
But it is in times of grief and shame like this that Uyghurs might turn to people like the late poet Rozi Sayit for a clearer understanding of themselves and what Uyghur life should be.
In his lyric (performed above by Abdulla), Rozi lays out what he sees as the proper role for Uyghur men. He says:
Don’t Call Him a Man
Don’t call someone who denies his origin a man,
Don’t call someone who is ashamed of his friend a man,
The true value of one’s humanity is keeping one’s promise,
Don’t call someone who denies promises a man.
Don’t tie your fate with a liar,
Don’t set out on a journey with one who is ashamed of you,
There is a big difference between flower buds and a useless tumbleweed,
Don’t call someone who deviates from “the path” a man.1
This beautiful world feels like heaven to good people.
This is because it is the deeds of those good people that have made this place beautiful.
Whoever raises a blade against the people, whoever is takan2,
Whoever is a foolish beast, don’t call him a man.
Some people if they find two pieces of bread will use one as a dap.3
Some people if they find a bit of money they will brag about it to the whole world.
Clannish,4 ignorant, white-breads,5 sectarians,6
Don’t call a person who has these traits a man.7
Rozi is referred to as a farmer-poet mainly because his poems reflect the lives and struggles of farmers. He, more than many Uyghur intellectuals, understood the lives of Uyghur farmers since he spent his young adult life working on state farms in the 1960s. He knew what it was like to work hard and eat cornflour bread. He knew what it was like to have one’s life path blocked. According to his official biography, in 1973 when he was finally admitted to Kashgar Teachers’ College at the age of 30, he published a poem called “even a farmer can became a da xuesheng [university student].”
Rozi Sayit was a very popular poet in the 1980s and 1990s. He wrote about the problems of rural life, the struggles of Uyghur men, and the dignity of the past. He was conservative, defiantly rural in his positioning. He called people toward a tradition of honoring the legacy of those who came before by performing one’s social role not as a duty but as a matter of pride and privilege. As the lyric above puts it, he would not call anyone who raises a blade against the people a man.
1 The way we interpret this reference to “the path” is that it is path of faithfulness to Uyghur traditions.
2 We are uncertain about how to translate takan.
3 A Uyghur hand drum roughly shaped like a round, flat piece of bread
4 The word Rozi uses here is yurt-vas, which, like kitab-vas (dogmatic), has a strongly negative association of being too attached to what would otherwise be a positive character quality. Yurt simply means hometown, while yurtvas means something like clannishness.
5 As in the Chinese “chi bai fan,” this refers to someone who eats the finest food – bread made with wheat flour – but doesn’t earn it themselves. Many Uyghurs who came of age in Maoist times remember eating the now staple rice and noodle dishes of polu and laghman only on rare occasions. Instead, most meals were made with cornflour during those days. “To eat white bread” therefore carries the meaning of undeserved luxury.
6 Here Rozi is referring to the old Sufi practice of following a derivish, or leader of a path. For some Uyghurs these are seen as threats to Uyghur unity. In more recent times this feeling is associated with local religious leaders who lead their followers down a path of dogma.
7 Abdulla adds a line here, “Don’t call a person who uses heroin and sells his family’s property a man.”
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.