Ever since Kasim Abdurehim, the founder of the private English school Atlan, took third place in a national English-speaking contest in 2004, Uyghurs have found their way into the final rounds of almost every major English speaking competition in China. This year was no exception. Although Uyghurs represent less than one percent of China’s population, they consistently beat Han contestants from the best schools in the country.
It was a busy week in Ürümchi: musicals, archeology exhibits, art shows, a ComiCon festival, and thousands of visitors from outside the “autonomous” region. Special bus lines were put in place; millions of potted flowers were carefully arranged in sculpted dune patterns; and street corners were plastered with giant red billboards that featured -- a la the Shanghai Expo 2010 -- a dancing cartoon named Heavenly Horse Star (Tianma Xingqi), the slogan “Opening-up and Cooperating for the Building of the Silk Road Economic Belt,” and the logo for the fourth China-Eurasia Trade Expo.
The new documentary film Diamond in the Dunes, directed by Christopher Rufo, tells the coming-of-age story of a Uyghur man named Parhat as he finds his way through college. It shows us how he and his Uyghur and Han classmates at Xinjiang University develop a passion for a game, for abilities and skills that don’t rely on ethnicity or Chinese business connections. It shows us how the citywide riots of 2009 shaped their life-paths and how they found ways to move forward despite the difficulties of their circumstances.
It's been two weeks since the Uyghur rock star Perhat Khaliq took on The Voice of China, and the Uyghur Internet is still buzzing about the way he delivered his songs of loss and longing to a national audience.
Perhat surprised everyone with the painful tension in his voice. Strumming an acoustic guitar, he started his song in a low, almost spoken-word register that slowly evolved into a full roar.
On Friday, the first of August, we woke up to the sound of an explosion in the alley. It was a deep resonate boom: not a firecracker, not a gunshot. It was a window-rattling explosion. We knew immediately what it meant: mangled bodies, screaming women, terrified children, a suicide bomber. But when I leaned out the window, I saw a young man with a fire extinguisher putting out a few small fires next to a mangled three-wheel cart.
The giant 41-meter Buddha faces due west. It seems to embrace the construction on the other side of Bright Red Mountain on the northeast periphery of Ürümchi. Behind him, the constant ring of hammers and the roar of Bingtuan Construction Engineering Company trucks rise from the still-unfinished wing of the new Hilton hotel and the alien-looking international expo center. Every few minutes the low industrial roar is punctuated by the “dong” of a giant bell. Chants of A-mi-tuo-fo are carried intermittently on the breeze.
A lot of people turned out for the final day of the Xinjiang Art Biennale on July 20 at the International Expo Center. The massive complex, situated next to a giant Buddha and Hilton Hotel in the city's northeast, echoed with the sounds of an original score by Philip Glass called “Encounter on the Silk Road.” Indeed, exhibition was heavy on spectacle. Giant video screens, paintings, and sculptures drew the largely Han crowd into massive spaces lit by natural light. Smartphone cameras were often raised at the mesmerizing objects, which called the viewer to contemplate Xinjiang as “a land of many colors.”
A rifle and sword tied with a red flag over a meter of Gobi sand welcomes visitors to the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps Museum in the city of Shihezi, 136 kilometers northwest of Ürümchi. This museum, filled with patched and dented artifacts and hundreds of large-scale historical photos, is the premier monument to the Han experience of the recent past in Xinjiang. It shows us the narrative of experience necessary to understand the history of the people who self-identify as “constructors” (jianshezhe) of Xinjiang.
In 2012 Liu Xiaodong was named the “most socially aware figure of the year” by Art Gallery magazine. He had just completed his Hotan Project in the deep south of Xinjiang. Utilizing his famously “plein air” method, Liu set up his giant life-sized canvases in the middle of a Hotan river floodplain and lived with Uyghur jade pickers. He spent the summer with them in the dust and the heat; in shelters made of stones and earth. In Art Gallery’s assessment of his project, he attempted to capture “the rhythms of people’s lives and the status of their survival.”
Hong Qi discovered Bob Dylan in 2001. That was the year he heard "The Answer Is Blowing in the Wind" for the first time. Speaking in an interview a decade later, he said he liked Dylan's confidence -- the feeling he evoked with his broken voice. Although Hong Qi says his English is "very bad," the imagery in Dylan's lyrics touched him deeply.
Over the past decade, he says he has become a Dylan fan. “I like all his songs, his fascination with all images. I respect his political stance. My songwriting is influenced by him.”
The Uyghur Chinese musician and poet Hong Qi celebrated his 41st birthday on May 6. He doesn’t know if that day was really his birthday. He said his mother just guessed. There is a lot that Hong Qi doesn’t know about his origins: he is one of those rare Uyghurs who grew up thinking he was Han.
With so much attention on the violence emanating from Xinjiang, many of you may have missed the parade of Uyghur dancers who have recently taken the stage on the Chinese version of “So You Think You Can Dance” (Zhongguo Hao Wudao). Not only do we have the child-star-turned-adult-tap-dancer Yusupjan, the nine-year-old break-dancer Surat Taxpolat (who goes by the stage name “Little Meatball”), and the teenage break dancer Umid Tursun, but we also have the model family of Gulmira Memet, a young dance instructor from the Xinjiang Art Institute in Ürümchi.
As in many Islamic societies around the world, Uyghurs listen to cassettes and MP3s of sermons, poetry, and essays as a way to tune in to the sensibilities of the rapidly changing social world and to find their place within larger communities. Those who listen to these forms of media are ordinary Uyghurs, people who work as farmers and seamstresses, small-scale traders, and handymen. They send their children to schools with red scarves tied around their necks and worry that their kids won’t be able to find their way in the new world. Many of the most popular recordings focus on ethical action, on living right, and on what the world “out there” is like. They are both entertaining and instructive.
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.
Although the use of hashish has been a part of the Uyghur pharmacopeia for centuries, drugs appear to have become a widespread problem for Uyghurs in the early 1990s. It was only then that young men in their twenties began dying of overdoses and needle-borne disease. As Ilham Tohti mentioned in 2011, in the intervening decades drugs, along with theft, pickpocketing, trafficking, and prostitution, “have gotten so bad that our entire ethnic group is suddenly perceived as a crime-prone community.” These are issues which Uyghurs discuss among themselves and feel embarrassed about when they are raised among outsiders.
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.
In an earlier version of her “Wild Pigeon” project the award-winning National Geographic photographer Carolyn Drake dedicated one category of her images to dreams and what Uyghur viewers of her images said about them. One viewer told her:
“Good dreams, you tell your good friends. If you do, maybe the dream will come true. If someone says ‘I was in a forest, I faced a tiger, and the tiger attacked me,’ some people will say, ‘don’t speak about it.’ If someone speaks bad words, they will come true.”
The Xinjiang Flying Tigers may have lost the CBA championship to the Beijing Ducks, but Xinjiangers around the world came away from the games with a powerful meme. It came at the end of Game 5, after the Tigers rallied and pulled off an improbable win in front of a hostile Beijing crowd of 18,000. Shiralijan, the star Uyghur point guard for the Tigers who had been tasked with defending Stephan Marbury -- the star of the Ducks (and best player in the league, according to Anthony Tao!) --threw the ball in the air and raised a twirling, emphatic fist:
People still remember where they were the day Exmetjan died. It was Thursday, June 13, 1991. He was only 22 years old.
As is common with the death of an icon, many people refused to believe he was gone. Instead, rumors spread that thugs from a rival disco had knifed him in a back alley or that he had faked his death and gone abroad to marry a princess.
The Xinjiang Guang Hui Flying Tigers are flying high. Riding the phenomenal success of their imported stars, Americans Lester Hudson and James Singleton and a Taiwanese player named Yang Jinmin, the support of China national team players such as the Uyghur point guard Shiralijan (Xi-re-li-jiang) and the Han center Tang Zhengdong, they're back in the Chinese Basketball Association finals for the fourth time in six years -- but the first since 2011, when Quicy Douby took them within two wins of a championship.