A good while ago the anthropologist Stevan Harrell asked me to consider the unique position of Uyghurs as heirs to an urbanism that predates the rise of Chinese cities in the region. He asked me to think through the ways in which this urban tradition has affected Uyghur social organization. I’m still thinking about this.
In a recent article James Leibold, a scholar at La Trobe University in Australia, discussed the way ethnic minority struggles against police and structural violence has often been officially mislabeled "terrorism." At the same time, in China, as in the United States, violent acts carried out by non-Muslims are read as acts of the deranged and mentally ill, but not as "terrorism." In China, as in the United States, the lives of Muslims which are lost as a result of “terrorist” or “counter-terrorism” efforts go unnoticed and unmourned. All losses of life leave gaping holes in our human social fabric, but why are some more grievable than others? What happens when a population is terrified by the discourse of terrorism?
Back in April, signs of the famous Uyghur restaurant chain Herembağ (Eden) began to appear on the streets of San Francisco. A few months later, a location in Fremont was opened in a renovated hotpot restaurant with promises of a third Bay Area location in San Mateo. Like their restaurant locations from Beijing to Astana, Kazakhstan, the American version of Eden serves an upscale version of the traditional Uyghur pasta, lamb, and rice dishes, as well as Hui-inspired northwest specialties such as Big Plate Chicken (dapanji) and Turkish-style döner kebab.
On the top floor of the Aq Saray, or White Palace, hotel in Ürümchi is a massive reproduction of Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David. It is flanked on its left by a reproduction of Ivan Kramskoi’s Portrait of an Unknown Woman (which everyone associates with Anna Karenina). Across the expansive red room, otherwise decorated in the style of a Russian tea room, gigantic reproductions of Venetian canals and cityscapes fill out the walls. Overhead murals of clouds, star constellations, and pheasants in flight glow against the ornate heavy white archways that surround them.
Initially many Uyghurs were excited about the Uyghur photographer Qurbanjan Semet’s book-length photo essay I am from Xinjiang on the Silk Road. They were thrilled to see Qurbanjan’s national primetime interview on CCTV News. They were astonished to see it translated into English (by Wang Chiying) and sold alongside Xi Jinping’s boilerplate biography at Book... Read more »
Wild Pigeon is a special book. It is of the moment and simultaneously untimely. It distills the dreams of millions of Uyghurs who live without the legal right to move beyond the borders of their home prefecture in southern Xinjiang. It shows us glimpses of these dreams; and in the strength of their numbers, the poignancy of their looks, the feelings of their words, they wear us down – wounding our hearts a thousand times.
Last weekend I went to Gulsay Cemetery at the south end of Ürümchi, back behind the power plants right next to the lowest foothill of the eastern section of Heavenly Mountains. Many Uyghur, Kazakh, and Hui heroes are buried in this cemetery; people often just refer to it as “the Muslim cemetery.” Looking at the markings around you, it feels as though you are in a completely Muslim world. In the Uyghur section of the cemetery all of the signs are only in the Arabic script of modern Uyghur. There is little sign in this community of the dead that we're in the largest Chinese city in Central Asia.
The first Uyghur contemporary art exhibition was launched at Xinjiang Contemporary Art Museum on May 16, attended by several hundred people from across the province, including most of the represented artists. Since the majority of the painters were teachers or professors, many leading administrators from local universities were also present. Aside from them and a few Han painters from local art schools that the museum’s leading curator, Zeng Chunkai, had invited for the opening, nearly everyone was Uyghur. Even a famous Uyghur public intellectual, Yalkun Rozi, came and praised the artists – although he clearly didn’t understand contemporary art.
A few weeks ago when talking to a Uyghur acquaintance, I was told: “One the biggest problems among Uyghurs today is the rate of divorce. I think it is as high as 70 percent. Most of it is the fault of women. They have misunderstood what women’s equality is all about. They think that it means that they should be equal to men in every way; or that men should be just like them. They try to control men, stop them from going to bars. They order men to do housework, and then spend all of their money. They don’t understand that that is not their place. If they would be encouraging to men, than men would never cheat on them.”
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.