Exiled poet and translator Aziz Isa Elkun is the editor of “Uyghur Poems” in the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series.
by Ruth Ingram
Article 1 of 2.
The Uyghur homeland in northwest China is a land of mountains and deserts, bizarre, giant sculpted, landforms wind-hewn over centuries, millennia-old desert poplar forests, verdant oases, rushing rivers, canyons—and poetry.
“The silvery water flows in narrow streams,
Cascading from the snowy peaks of mountains
Where white swans swim in the lakes…
The leaves whisper and rustle in revelry,
A gust of wind blows from the wilderness
And you can hear the branches singing.
Mother Earth, you are my Holy Land.
[from “Mother Earth You Are My Holy Land,” by Tuyghun Abduweli].
Verse runs through the veins of the Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim Turkic people native to Xinjiang, a region three times the size of France abutting China’s borders with Central Asia at the heart of the legendary Silk Road. Verse tumbles out in Uyghurs’ deep love for their motherland, in expressions of burning homesickness and unrequited nationalistic fervor. Their verse is filled with raw metaphors for freedom and loss.
For Aziz Isa Elkun, a Uyghur poet in London, memories of home are never far from his mind. An only child wrenched from his mother and his roots, the embers of his anguish have been fanned during his 22-year exile. His verse is an endless stream of rhyme penned in sadness, turmoil, love, and longing for his faraway land and the people he will never see again.
Elkun, 53, is the editor of “Uyghur Poems,” the first anthology of Uyghur verse translated into English. Published by the UK Everyman’s Library, an imprint of Penguin Random House, under its Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets label, the poems take the reader through the political turmoil, oppression, and armed conflict of Uyghur history, highlighting the inherent beauty of the ancient culture, stretching back thousands of years, moving through the fight for statehood in the early 20th century, to the migration and exile under the Chinese Communist Party’s ongoing murderous crackdown.
“The world will learn through the book more about the Uyghur people,” Elkun says about his anthology. “The book covers two millennia of Uyghur poetry, and reflects the joys and pains of the Uyghurs, for their long struggle to survive.”
Elkun’s poems are in the anthology, too, and in the foreword, he expresses his hope that readers will “not forget the Uyghurs and their poetic voices, which speak out for humanity, love, freedom and justice.”
“It’s essential to share my work and get it published as a book for the wider English-speaking world,” Elkun said.
“The place where I was born
Has turned into a heap of ghostly relics
It exists only as a memory
In this world full of selfishness…
The monster has left countless scars
It has pierced me with needles
But I still call for justice for those
Who have suffered more
But my spirit is still fighting
My hope is still alive
Each time I find new courage
It brings the joy of a smile…”
[from “Roses” by Aziz Isa Elkun].
Over the last two millennia, the Uyghur homeland has been rocked by ruthless empires, civil wars, and revolution. The latest upheaval in the region started in 2017 when China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, ordered that more than one million Muslim Turkic people be rounded up and detained in a vast network of so-called “vocational training schools.”
Persecution has continued with the rollout of forced labor both from the internment camps and among farmers who have been scooped up as “rural surplus labor” and scattered to work throughout China under the pretext of “poverty alleviation.”
Many Uyghurs’ preferred name for their homeland is East Turkestan.
A constant theme though centuries of turbulence, has been their rich history of poetry, weaving oral epics from the second century BC and Buddhist philosophy, together with Islamic didacticism and Sufi mysticism. Legendary heroines and conquerors are remembered together with young early 20th century martyrs executed by the Chinese. Their legacy continues to the present day in the poets and writers caught up in the mass detentions of recent years and sentenced to long prison terms for their work.
Until Uyghur poems began to be transcribed in the 9th century, they were passed down by word of mouth in the marketplaces and at holy shrines enabling the transmission of Uyghur history from one generation to the next.
The earliest recorded tales about the Turkic peoples and their legendary dragon-slaying king Oghuz Khan date back to 200 BC. Passed down orally at first, they were captured in old Uyghur script in the 13th century under the title of “The Oghuzname Epic.”
The verses reveal snippets of the life and loves of their hero Oghuz Khan, who falls unconscious in the presence of an enchantress “so beautiful that if she smiled, Heaven also smiled; if she cried, Heaven also cried.” When Oghuz Khan saw her, it was said that “his whole body started to tremble.”
In the same epic, Oghuz Khan calls himself the “King of the Uyghurs”:
“When I call, those who answer
Will be rewarded
And I will become their friend.
Against those who do not answer
I will march in rage with my soldiers,
I will make them my enemy.”
Ten centuries of Buddhism, from 500–1600 A.D., encompassing Manichaeism and several hundred years when Christianity also bloomed, until the area China now calls Xinjiang was fully Islamized in the 15th century, also made their mark on Uyghur poetry.
Parchment fragments dating from the 8th to the 13th centuries were unearthed in the Turpan Basin, one of the driest and hottest places in China, 500 feet below sea level and 120 miles southeast of Xinjiang’s capital Ürümchi.
“From the beginning of time, desire and vanity have existed together, intertwined, one enemy. A bitter, loveless heart is a poisonous snake…”
While another says:
“What knowledge you seek, learn on your way.
Think more, grow in self-awareness, do not boast.
Of that which you engage in, be vigilant and steady.
I read this with hopeful eyes and send it to you.”
Beloved of the Uyghurs, poet Mahmud Kashgari (1055–1102) was born in Kashgar at the far southwestern corner of the vast Taklamakan Desert. He recorded thousands of quatrains (four-line stanzas) in his “Dictionary of the Uyghur Languages” (“Diwan-i Lughat al-Turk,” 1074), the first Uyghur dictionary, giving a sense of the tradition of Uyghur folk poetry stretching back centuries. Here are some examples.
“Dress yourself in a beautiful robe
Offer delicious food to your guest
Treat your visitor with respect
And your good name will spread.
When a guest arrives, help him dismount
Make him feel at home and at ease
Mix barley and hay for his horse
And brush its coat to sleekness.”
“Let us drink thirty glasses and sing,
Then let us stand up and dance
To leap as a lion, roll and roar,
With cheers, chase sadness away.
Let the young ones do the work,
Shake fruit from the trees,
Hunt wild horses and deer
For the festival, while we drink.”
Uyghur literature blossomed in the 11th century, during the medieval Islamic period when, according to Elkun, Uyghurs valued the acquisition of knowledge and scholars were respected.
The “Wisdom of Royal Glory, a Turkic Mirror for Princes” (“Kutadghu Bilig,” in Uyghur) was a mammoth work penned by author Yusup Has Hajib Balasaghuni (c.1019–1085) for the Sultan Tavgach Bugra Kara Khan. It is filled with pithy suggestions for rulers and their advisers to forsake vice for virtue:
“Gold is only ore beneath russet earth.
Unearthed it becomes the ornament of a crown.
If a scholar doesn’t impart his knowledge
His wisdom, hidden for years, sheds no light.
This world is like a colourful shadow,
If you try to chase it, it will run away.
If you run away, it will chase you.
Man’s heart is like a bottomless sea
And wisdom is the pearl that lies in its depths
But if a man fails to bring the pearl out of the sea
It might just as well be a pebble as a pearl.”
In his 12th century verses “Himket,” meaning “wisdom,” poet Khoja Ahmed Yasawi wrote:
“Of those who enter this life, none can avoid death…
Look down beneath your shoes to where you will lie alone in the dust
You never imagine yourself in that position…
Those who come to the afterlife with faith
Listen to them in that place, but you cannot die with them.”
Elkun’s foreword to the anthology describes the establishment and validation of Uyghur poetry during the 13th and 14th centuries under the pen of Sufi master Ali-shir Navo’i (1441-1501). Although also claimed by the Uzbeks, Uyghurs recognize him as central to their own literary heritage. Elkun’s anthology includes 14 of his “ghazals,” love songs after the Persian and Arabic styles:
“Save other lovers from heartless empty fate,
Exempt them from this ignominy as I face my fate.
I roam aimless past loose talk and pitying stares,
But let their tongues not blame her for the cruelty of fate.
Let no other suffer this immeasurable pain…
O Navoiy, your desires are nothing: all is fate.”
Burning passion, unrequited love, the agony of parting and the search for true happiness in relationships were among the preoccupations of the 17th century wandering dervish Baba Rahim Mashrab (1657–1711), whose travels across Central Asia still inspire Uyghur audiences today. His mystical poetry forms an important part of the text of the “Twelve Muqam,” a suite of 170 songs and dance tunes plus 72 instrumental pieces that, when played continuously, lasts 24 hours and helps form the bedrock of Uyghur musical culture.
The challenges of translating a variety of different poetic styles from Uyghur into modern day English are not lost on Elkun who enlisted the help of other translators and his wife Rachel Harris, Professor of ethnomusicology at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
The outpouring of verse during the 20th and 21st centuries made Elkun’s choices difficult, but themes of persecution, exile, and struggle for a Uyghur homeland were urgent. I will present some examples in the second part of this review.