In the short film Rahime, the Uyghur ethnomusicologist and filmmaker Mukaddas Mijit portrays a moment in the life of her grandmother. When she was coming up with the theme for the short film, Mukaddas was feeling dismayed by the many events happening in the world around her. Since she herself was born in an Islamic culture, she felt it her obligation to frame that world in a way to give voice to the humanity and wisdom of that world. She felt that her 88 year-old grandmother could do this by drawing out the richness of her knowledge of Sufi mysticism.
Mukaddas writes: “During my fieldwork on Sufi music in Xinjiang, I had a chance to encounter some extraordinary men and women. They taught me profound values about my culture and history. They are the ones who encouraged me to be open, tolerant and humble (even if it’s very hard and challenging).” It was with this in mind that she decided to put together a short film in which her grandmother communicates some of this call toward openness and understanding. “I just loved the idea of sharing my grandmother’s request to the world: ‘We should not forget our humanity; being kind, generous should be the basic value for us all.’ My grandmother’s name ‘Rahime’ means clemency, mercy, kindness. Her name itself felt like an urge, a duty for me, to make this film and share these beautiful ideas.”
The film we see is straightforward. It follows her grandmother through her home in Ghulja as rain pours down on the northern slopes of the Tian Shan mountains near the border with Kazakhstan. As the rain falls we hear Rahime tell us a story about bread and a boy – a story about the basis of moral human action. At its core, morality is about sharing the pain of others.
The film also highlights the ongoing regeneration of tradition, initially in the figure of Mukaddas’s grandmother and then in the sound in the film itself.
Rahime herself is a testament to what it means to be a modern educated Uyghur – a citizen of the world in the fullest sense. As Mukkadas puts it: “She was born around 1927 to a bourgeoisie family. She went to a Russian girl’s school and educated until high school. It was still the peak moment in the Jadid or ‘new education’ movement. At the age of 17 she was married into an important Sufi Jadid family. She had eight daughters: five of them had a college education and two of them continued on to doctoral studies. She traveled in her later age. She went to see her daughters in Australia and Turkey. And she accomplished a Hajj pilgrimage (which was important for her) several years ago.”
The film demonstrates the ongoing renewal of tradition in other ways as well. In a departure from the usual sounds of Uyghur folk or traditional music, we hear a soundtrack from “The Contemporary Voice of Turkish Music” with Atilla Aldemir on violin and Şevki Karayel on piano. This use of music was strategic. Mukaddas writes that the idea was “to break the fixed, almost frozen image of ‘Uyghurness,’ which has been shoved into all kinds of films about Uyghurs. This systematic stereotypical image of being a ‘traditional,’ ‘frozen in the past’ and ‘exotic’ kind of society has always bothered me a little. And also, I wanted to challenge, (maybe provoke) Uyghur opinions by telling a story with music other than our own. In all my films, I have loved working with music. Because I believe that music has a powerful way of narration, almost all of my work rhymes with some kind of music. I try to let the melody tell the story in a way that exceeds words. And when I searched for music to work with this film, I felt a delightful connection. This piece had some traditional elements close to Uyghur music, but at the same time was completely expressive and avant-garde.”
For Mukaddas and her grandmother, representing Islam and tradition is about living in the present. As in her earlier documentary about Perhat Khalik’s band “Qetiq, Rock’n Urumchi,” Mukaddas also presents an attention to detail, relationships and beauty that is often missing in filmic portrayals of Xinjiang. Through Mukaddas’s lens we see a Uyghur world that is profoundly feminine yet authoritative, melancholic yet unsentimental. Her voice is clear and provocative. Male Uyghur filmmakers and critics who view her work with me frequently mentioned the oddness of hearing a “common” woman’s voice in a position of narrative authority. For them it struck them as provocative in its humility and its unwillingness to conform to Uyghur narrative conventions.
It is for all of these reasons that I am thrilled to see Mukaddas producing new work and excited to see what she will produce in the future. In her words: “As much as I love my tradition, I wanted to try some new ways of showing it. For me a culture should never stop reinventing itself, if it becomes ‘fixed’ it is an announcement of its own death.” As long as Mukaddas is filming, it is clear that Uyghur tradition will never freeze in place.
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.