The 20th- and 21st-century sections of the anthology “Uyghur Poems” edited by Aziz Isa Elkun tell a story of suffering and persecution.
by Ruth Ingram
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I continue in this second part my review of “Uyghur Poems,” the first anthology of Uyghur verse translated into English, edited by Aziz Isa Elkun, a Uyghur poet himself, and published by the UK Everyman’s Library, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
The anthology’s section called “Modern Poems,1900–1960,” begins with Abduhaliq Uyghur (1901–1933), the young Uyghur poet who was executed by Chinese warlord Sheng Shicai at age 32 for inciting nationalist sentiments in his people through his works. On the day of his execution, March 13, 1933, he wrote:
“A Call Before Death”:
“We must always be ready to face life or death.
The fear of death makes us worthless.
Ready to lift our heads
and stand with a courageous gesture.
If I die in battle, I hope one day my flowers will bloom.”
Lutpulla Mutellip (1922–1945), in grasping Abduhaliq Uyghur’s baton, also was executed for criticizing the Nationalist Chinese government. He died at 23 but not before making his own mark on his people’s hearts with his crafted verse and calls for freedom. In 1944 his words prophesied:
“I will not get old at the peak of revolution
My poems will shine like stars before me.
Loitering in the midst of revolution is like death.
I want to be victorious with patience and courage…”
Then, in June 1945, three months before his execution, he wrote:
“The sleeves that I rolled up for the revolution
I will never pull down…”
The day of his death, he scrawled these verses in his blood on his prison wall:
“The Last Word”:
“This world has become a living hell for me.
This bloodthirsty devil has turned the bloom of my youth into a withered leaf…”
Revolution, injustice, and resilience in the face of encroachment by the Chinese state pepper the second half of Elkun’s anthology, in which the poems reflect the Uyghur people’s increasing impatience.
Abdurehim Ötkur’s (1923–1995) “Calling Forth Spring” is a cry for “weary souls, out of the dead of winter” to “call forth Spring.”
His heart is a “boiling pot,” a “volcano.” “Ceaseless weeping” and a “flood of tears” make “traitors” of those who keep their “heads bowed,” he wrote.
The final section of the anthology, “Contemporary Poems, 1960–2022,” uncovers the pitfalls of youth, hope in the next generation, the character of the Uyghur nation, and relationships.
“People Are Wonderful,” by Muhemmetjan Rashidin (1940–2021), describes a “marvelous world” in which “people themselves are banners for living.” “Water for flames, embers for bleak winters” give rise to horizons that are “beautiful.”
But the growing preoccupation with the atrocity meted out on the Uyghur people is inescapable and a sadness pervades the final part of this anthology knowing that China was banning the Uyghur language and, starting in 2017, many authors were being rounded up amid the purges masterminded by Xinjiang’s CCP boss, Chen Quanguo.
Some disappeared, others were sentenced illegally to long jail terms, while still others were permanently exiled, unable to contact their loved ones at home.
Elkun said that he was puzzled why the Chinese nation, boasting a 5,000-year history, would want to ban the Uyghur language, burn Uyghur books, and arrest Uyghur poets.
“These Uyghur poets, writers and academics have worked hard to inherit, develop and continue Uyghur culture,” Elkun said. “The Chinese government is committing an internationally recognized crime of cultural genocide against them. It must stop.”
Born in 1964, Abduqadir Jalalidin wrote verses smuggled out in the memories of his cellmates in 2020. His Uyghur words speak of “anguished thoughts in crushing silence” and being “bereft of hope.” When the verses reached the outside world, he was one year into a 13-year sentence imposed in 2019 for no obvious crime, according to the Uyghur Victims Database.
“No Road Home”:
“…I have seen the seasons change through cracks and corners,
Yet in vain I receive no news from the blossoms and flowers,
This yearning pain has seeped through to the marrow of my bones,
What is this place that I can journey to, but have no road back home?”
Born in 1969, Perhat Tursun’s legacy before his arrest and sentencing to 16 years imprisonment was in urging his people to look for hope even in the darkness.
“Let’s not seek beauty only in the rose,” Tursun, poet and author of the novel, “The Backstreets,” wrote. “The trace of blood has beauty as well.”
Gulnisa Imin Gülkhan, born 1976, part of a growing number of female Uyghur poets who have emerged in recent years, was detained in 2018 and sentenced to seventeen-and-a-half years in jail for spreading thoughts of “separatism.”
Her poem “Tenth Night: the Sunless Sky” holds premonitions of her impending arrest.
In the women’s prison, women with “dirty, cracked and bleeding hands,” “don’t want to shed their tears.”
“They just want to lift their heads,
They just want to gaze at the sunless sky.
Their troubles, their yearning,
Their nightmares and sleepless nights
They want to talk about with someone on the outside.”
Chimengül Awut, poet and chief editor at Kashgar Uyghur Press, was taken to a so-called “transformation through education” camp in 2018, accused of producing “problematic” or “dangerous” books. There have been unconfirmed reports of her release in 2020.
As Awut was being taken away, she penned these words to her child left behind:
“My dear son
Please don’t cry
The whole world will cry for you.”
The words echoed her poem, “Cry Wind,” written in 2017:
“Cry wind, for the leaves you have blown from the trees,
Cry wind, for the wounds you have torn apart.
Cry wind, for the forests you have stripped,
I will learn to cry, to cry from you.”
The final poems in Elkun’s “Uyghur Poems” anthology trace his own journey of separation, mourning, deep sadness, and a longing for Spring. Unable to be with his father when he died in 2017, and “burning fiercely with this loss,” he finds “no cure for his grief.”
In the poem “You Did Not Return,” Elkun laments being unable to return to say goodbye.
“My mother said:
You will come back
When the apricot trees start to blossom,
When the birds sing their Spring songs.
But you didn’t come back.
Instead, all the swallows have returned…
My father said:
You will come back
When Autumn leaves fall …
In the end it was he who fell…”
These days, Elkun tends a rose garden in England where he sits and “as a hostage to that place” living in “constant fear” he tries to keep hope alive. He has planted roses to remember Mother’s Day, the unknown Uyghurs surviving in the camps, and the destruction of his father’s grave, replaced—as he saw on Google Earth—by a parking lot.
“Sometimes, I reflect that I could have been one of the millions of Uyghurs who suffered in the region’s notorious internment camps, or that I could have been among my poet friends who are now spending their lives in a dark Chinese prison. Instead, I am fortunate to be living in London, and able to do something to help my culture survive,” Elkun said at an event in London celebrating his book’s launch on November 1, 2023.
“The book ends with one of my own poems, entitled ‘Roses,’” he said,
“written in October 2021 while I was sitting in the garden filled with sadness for my mother, and grieving for my father whom I lost in 2017. I wanted to end the book with a note of hope:
My roses are blossoming with hope
Singing a song of freedom.
Without waiting for the Spring
They remind us
How beautiful it is to be alive,
To live in peace in our beautiful world.”