At home, where intellectuals are hunted down and arrested, or in the diaspora, literature keeps alive the flame of freedom and exposes the evil of the persecution.
by Ruth Ingram
A Sad Uyghur Spring Festival in London
Spring Festival comes round every year for the Han Chinese, but the Uyghur people of North West China have waited longingly for centuries, largely in vain, for their Spring to come.
Gathering in a cellar in London’s Covent Garden, no fireworks or special food for them. The long journey to their homeland to gather with family, as their Han compatriots return to their ancestral seat, is banned, and a group of Uyghur musicians and poets gather to remember another kind of Spring. The one that never comes.
With the majority of Uyghur scholars, writers and many musicians detained in so-called “vocational training centres,” aka transformation through education camps, a UK diaspora remnant and their supporters meet regularly to play national music and keep the memory alive of fellow poets whose fate they can only imagine. They have all disappeared without trace during the last two and a half years, following the ruthless clampdowns of Chen Quanguo, the new governor of Xinjiang. Alive or dead, there is no news.
Lead vocalist of the Silk Road Collective ensemble, Rahima Mahmut, sings with plaintive yearning as she fills the underground space with echoes of the Uyghur plight, accompanied by fellow musicians on national instruments. Aziz Isa Elkun, secretary of the Uyghur branch of Pen International, and a poet himself, reads for those who now have no voice, poets trapped in the homeland behind bars.
Poets Mercilessly Persecuted by the CCP
Rachel Harris, researcher at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies in London), explains the powerful metaphor of Spring underlying much Uyghur poetry which resulted in the arrest of many writers in the 1990’s. Their pining for a homeland and freedom from the grip of Beijing overflowed into their writing. Authors were rounded up mercilessly and artistic expression suffocated. Persecution intensified between 2014–2017 as hundreds of scholars, writers and artists disappeared. Not a single Uyghur language book has been published since 2017. Daily, authors and their writings appear on a banned list, and those in possession of their works spend nights reducing their books to tiny shreds, for fear of being sent to the camps.
Spring is a common theme for Aziz Elkun who describes his own longing for freedom for his people as “a journey of life which is renewed every year in spring.” He calls out sadly in his “Coming of Spring,” “The soul that was frozen and hard begins to warm up. I say to the dark winter “never ever return”. Every day I send my passionate love to the homeland. I say to the long awaited spring, you must come today.”
He pays tribute to Chimengul Awut, whom he praises as “one of the best known female Uyghur writers and poets of the modern era.” While working at the Kashgar Publishing House in July 2018 , she and thirteen others were arrested and interned for their involvement in editing Golden Shoes, a 2015 novel by a well-known Uyghur writer, Halide Isra’il. Their whereabouts is still unknown.
He reads her heart-rending words written on Wechat (Chinese social media) hurriedly penned on July 17th to her son who was studying in Shanghai, as she was being taken away. She wrote. “My dear son, please don’t cry. The whole world will cry out for you.”
Aziz has responded poignantly to her disappearance in these words, a play on the literal meaning of her name “flower bird.”
“I can’t believe you’ve become a wilted flower. I cannot believe you have become a caged bird. I want to break the lock of this cage… You will return one day. You will come back next spring, holding a bunch of flowers in your hand. If you don’t come, the Poplar Trees won’t blossom, the peach trees won’t bloom in Beshkerem. A swallow won’t fly over the city of Kashgar. Life won’t go on without you.”
Refugees Have Their Poets Too
“Oh wind cry! Let me learn to cry from you,” mourns Rahima, in a song she translated and sang with Shotaro Sasaki, a Japanese member of the ensemble playing the ‘ud’, for three exiled young Uyghur women, torn from their loved ones and now living in Turkey. “Oh wind cry… For the wounds you have opened.. for the lilacs you have scattered. For the rivers you have turned to blue ice…Let me offer the heartbreak I utter to my lover…The bullet in your heart is mine. I will cry. I will learn to cry, cry from you.”
Rahima recalls New Year’s Eve 2019 when more sad news came out of the homeland. Abdurehim Parach a well known poet living in Turkey, heard that his wife, and mother of their six children, had died in a camp a year before. “I didn’t know how to express my sadness,” she said, and described how she spent New Year’s Day 2020 translating one of his favorite poems, “The beloved will come,” into English.
“Be joyful my heart, for the beloved will come…The snow will melt on the mountain tops, the era of the nightingales will come. Wearing the crown where the crescent and the star perch. In a blue golden embroidered gown, the sultan will come. How shall I describe it with my feeble tongue?..Oh heart do not explode for the excitement of reunion…Blood thirsty tyrants locked in cages will come. The once oppressed bodies fluttering under the open sky, singing joyful songs will come. The name of longing is dawn. Breaking the chains of oppression the call to prayer will come. Be ready all bleeding hearts, the beloved you have longed for a hundred years will come…please pass it on, the beloved will soon come.”
Abdurehim Ötkur: Remembering a Great Poet
Weaving Uyghur history and desire for their own land, as it is chronicled by writers and poets, Rahima reads her translation of the iconic nationalist Uyghur poet and writer, imprisoned for ten years during the Cultural Revolution, Abdurehim Ötkur’s (1923–1995) “Calling out for spring.”
“When will this bitter winter be over?..I call out for spring to arrive….my heart is like a churning lake of fire…I yearn for fresh beginnings in this winter. Even when my tongue is pinned to silence. Even when the arrow pierces my chest. Even in the spate of my flowing blood I call out for spring… My aspiration soars above my thoughts. O spring I yearn for you. I burn for you….you are the sun of my people which now I sing. I sing for spring in the cave of frigid winter’s night. Let the buds of my life fade. I accept that common fate without complaint as long as I may become my people’s voice and sing out for spring.”
Nurmahamed Yasin: The Poet Who “Disappeared”
Many poets have risked their own lives and liberty to voice the cry of the Uyghur soul for freedom. None is so famous internationally as Nurmahamed Yasin, who wrote the short allegorical story “Wild Pigeon,” which has been translated into 40 languages. It chronicles the son of a pigeon king, who was captured and caged while on a mission to find a new home for the flock, and committed suicide rather than sacrifice his freedom.” For the “crime” of having published this story, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2005, and has not been heard from since. “We have no idea where he is,” says Aziz, who goes on to speak about Yasin’s poem, “Call of Nuzugum,” which is also a metaphor of the Uyghur national mood under the CCP. Nuzugum, a female folk hero, was captured in the 18th century and forced to marry a Manchu general. She killed him rather than wed him but was later captured herself and executed. “This mirrors exactly our situation under Beijing,” he says.
Rahima and the ensemble’s blend of intoxicating vocals and tragic lyrics might give the unintended impression that her people are preoccupied purely with tragedy and desolation. But she is quick to point out the indomitable spirit and resilience that has sustained them through centuries of trials and disappointment. She cites Abduhalik Uyghur, who although he was beheaded at 30 by KMT White Russians in 1933, wrote an exuberant song to awaken the nation entitled: “Let the flowers bloom.” Before breaking into his joyful call intended to invigorate the flagging spirit, she describes the Uyghur character, which despite oppression and suffering, consistently manages to rise above the circumstances in melody and dance. “Regardless of the situation we always find a way to joke and sing and dance and this is how we survive,” she proclaimed radiantly.
Aziz Isa Elkun, despite mounting despair over the fate of his countrymen, still retains a seed of hope that Spring will return to his land. This, he insists, is what sustains him through the darkest night.
“When the daffodils open shyly.
When the nightingale lands in my garden to sing.
When apricot trees wear veils of white blossom,
I say to my long awaited Spring, you must come today.”