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.
One of the driving forces in the Uyghur film scene is a filmmaker and poet named Tahir Hamut. A graduate of Beijing’s National Minorities University, Tahir began his academic career as one of the premier Uyghur critics of Western Modernist literature. Throughout the 1990s he, along with Perhat Tursun and others, were the leaders of a Uyghur avant garde poetry movement. Then in 1998 he turned his attention to filmmaking. Now Tahir serves as one of the principle instructors in the Film Department of the Xinjiang Arts Institute in Ürümchi.
One of the emerging trends among young Uyghur film directors is a new attention to documentary filmmaking. This approach has long been a part of Uyghur cinema, but previously it was often part of a larger public relations presentation sponsored by the Chinese Culture Ministry. These new documentary short films are independently produced on limited budgets by young filmmakers who have an intimate knowledge of their subjects.
When Memetjan Semet first came to Urumchi he remembers being shocked at how isolated everyone felt from each other. For the first time in his life he didn’t have his family and childhood friends to lean on for support. He also noticed that he wasn’t alone in this condition. No one in the big city seemed to care about the others around themselves. Instead, people kept their heads down. They focused on their smartphones, chatted with friends in the virtual world, and ignored the difficulties of people nearby. The problems of strangers were not something they needed to feel.
A recent Uyghur-language short film called “Dream From the Heart” (English and Chinese subtitles) tells the story of a group of boys from Qaraqash, a county of more than half a million people in Southern Xinjiang. Shot as part of China Southern Airlines’s new ad campaign by the award-winning director Zhang Rongji (张荣吉), the film references the true stories of how self-taught and underfunded young people from the deep poverty of Hotan and Kashgar prefectures struggle to compete with more privileged opponents.
This week is the screening of the seventh segment of the first round of The Voice of the Silk Road – a show that hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs watch every Friday night at 8 pm local time on Xinjiang TV Channel 9. People like the contest because they can watch their favorite performers joke around with each other; they can see people they know perform or imagine themselves performing in their place. Uyghurs see themselves trying on a performance mode popularized by mainstream English and Chinese-language versions of the show, but instead of English or Chinese pop ballads and American and (largely) Han stories of unrecognized talent, on this show they see the reverse. They largely see Uyghur folk songs, classical muqam and pop music; and they mostly hear Uyghur stories of personal triumph.
On any given weekend in China you can find a Uyghur band playing flamenco. It has not always been this way. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that a young man from Qarghiliq in Kashgar prefecture discovered Turkish variations of Spanish flamenco. Over the next decade that man, Arken Abdulla, along with other early flamenco guitarists such as Qehirman and Tursun (see the above video), introduced flamenco to the Uyghur world.
When young people come to Ürümchi to work or study they are often supported by a network of people from their home village. They rely on relatives and friends to help them find jobs and get on their feet. But there is one thing their hosts cannot provide: food from back home. It's perhaps for this reason that young Uyghurs have developed a food shipping system that brings the tastes of the countryside into the city.
A few weeks ago, just in time for the long ten-day break for National Day holiday and Qurban, the Uyghur comedian Abdukerim Abliz released his first full-length Uyghur language feature film (with Chinese and English subtitles). The comedy Money on the Road (Money Found on the Way in Chinese) features an ensemble of stars, including a cameo by the famous singer Abdulla. It follows the misadventures of three Uyghur farmers who come to the city as migrant workers to participate in Ürümchi’s urban renewal.
On the last day of the four-day celebration of the biggest Uyghur holiday of the year, Qurban Heyt, or Eid al-Adha, it rained hard and cold. By the next morning a light dusting of snow covered the tops of the mountains overlooking the city. Like many holidays of sacrifice and harvest, this "Feast of the Sacrifice" signals the end of the season of growth and the beginning of the long hard winter. People were already beginning to sell long underwear in the walkway at the intersection of Solidarity and Victory Road next to the Grand Bazaar, and in a week, the heat would be turned on across the city.
The Uyghur rock star Perhat has a lot of fans in Ürümchi. Walking around college campuses, it's not unusual to hear Han students humming from the chorus of “How Can You Let Me Be So Sad” – the song Perhat popularized on The Voice of China back in August. And Uyghur students are in awe of how he has become so famous so quickly. They say things like, “Wow, now Perhat is hanging out with rock stars like Wang Feng who sold out the Bird’s Nest in Beijing; just a few months ago I said hello to him when I saw him buying stuff at the corner store.”