He tried for years to keep literature out of politics. He did not succeed and had to conclude that in Xi Jinping’s China freedom is not for free.
by Kok Bayraq
During decades of Chinese occupation, Uyghurs cultivated a national spirit characterized by rejection of Han assimilation, insistence upon Uyghur identity, unwavering hope for national freedom, and no fear of paying the price when the time comes.
The book “Waiting to Be Arrested at Night” by poet Tahir Hamut Izgil, published in August 2023 and immediately enthusiastically reviewed by award-winning journalist Barbara Demick in the “New York Times,” describes the course of the escape from the genocide of the author himself, his family and his close friends. During this course, the indomitable national spirit of Uyghurs is clearly revealed. The heart of the reader, troubled by the horrors that pervade the book, is comforted and inspired by this spirit. I think this is one of the points that makes the book marketable. Because, in general, excessive sadness makes the reader tired or willing to give up on the book.
This spirit is expressed in the feelings, thoughts, and behaviors of Hamut and her friends.
As a child, Hamut saw three policemen marching a man down the street with his hands tied behind his back and a tall paper hat on his head. This parade was a punishment for “listening to enemy radio broadcasts.” A few days later, Hamut saw the man sitting alone with his arms cuffed in a frying pan in the scorching heat. He realized that the man was thirsty. The policemen were gone for lunch, so Hamut ran home, and, with his mother’s permission, brought a mug of water to the “criminal.”
“His hand were tied behind him, so I held mug to his lips. He drank the water just as I had, in a single gulp. He looked at me and smiled. I turned and run back home.”
Hamut does not know who this prisoner he encountered as a child was, all he knows is that in the end he was shot by the state. The prevailing view in Uyghur society is that if a person is punished by the state, he is a good person, and if he is supported by the state, he is most likely a bad person. Hamut’s desire to help the handcuffed man stemmed from a common emotional impulse shared by Uyghurs: helping the fallen is humane, but helping those who have fallen at the hands of China is part of the Uyghur spirit.
This was the mid-1970s, the peak of China’s Cultural Revolution. At that time, giving water to a criminal was, in China’s view, the same as placing a gun in the enemy’s hand. Hamut was fighting China in the only way he could for his age and with the only means available.
Although the book appears to be written from a neutral stance and does not explicitly offer political opinions, Hamut shows his position by embedding subtle clues. The book is imbued with the hope of national liberation from beginning to end.
For instance, it describes a group of Uyghur friends are having a late-night chat. “I wish the Chinese would just conquer the world,” one says suddenly. “Why do you say that?” another asks, surprised. “The world doesn’t care what happens to us,” the first man replies. “Since we have no freedom, anyway, let the whole world taste subjugation. Then we would all be the same. We wouldn’t be alone in our suffering.”
In this discussion, Uyghurs are not calling on the world to help them; they express their anger at the world’s ignorance about China. This sentiment is actually a reflection of the suppressed and long-lasting longing for freedom. By depicting this longing, the author indirectly calls on the world to do something against China. Both that longing and call have a remarkable aspect. The conversation involved leading intellectuals, including writer Perhat Tursun, author of “Back Street,” poet Tahir Hamut Izgil himself, author of “Trends in Western Modernist Literature” in addition to “Waiting to Be Arrested at Night,” and Almas, the translator of Bertrand Russell’s books on philosophy. “Waiting to Be Arrested at Night” made it clear that these guys were trying to keep literature out of politics. They did not enter this area voluntarily, instead they were dragged there.
Therefore, with its sincerity, this call can be more effective than the calls of politicians and activists, if it is heard by the world.
Due to their cultural and blood ties, excitement and expectations about Turkey are common among Uyghurs. When a Uyghur intellectual plans a trip to Turkey, it arouses respect among Uyghurs and suspicion among the Chinese.
Tahir Hamut left his post of lecturer at the China’s Central National Party School in 1995 and set out to study in Turkey, or, in his words, “to learn science.” However, it was a quest to find a way to facilitate Uyghur liberation. This is clear from his personality and circle of friends. He had hidden this travel plan from his family, because it was not for scholarly purposes. One of the first revolutionary expatriates, Muhammed Imin Buğra, described this point of exile as follows: “We left the motherland for the sake of the motherland.”
Given that China knew the nature of Hamut’s journey, they stopped him at customs, accused him of treason, and imprisoned him for three years. Hamut mentions this incident, but he does not complain or express regret about it, because he believes that freedom is not free.
In “Waiting to Be Arrested at Night,” Hamut neither condemns China nor uses the word “genocide.” He also does not express admiration or sympathy for Chinese culture, even though he studied in China for fifteen years and lived there for fifty years.
Hamut’s father told him that children should receive their parents’ prayers when they embark on a long journey. Remembering his failed trip to Turkey in 1995, Hamut swore that he would never travel again without a proper farewell. During preparation to go abroad and contemplating what to do on there, he was inspired by his wife’s words: “God can save us. God can allow us.” In 2017, when they were about to be arrested, Hamut and his wife escaped to United States.
His son, Tarim, was born in the United States. Even though Hamut was not yet settled, he reassured himself by remembering a Uyghur proverb: “The earth will bear the weight (of the child); his food will be provided by God.”
Such idioms and concepts used in the book shows that the author and his friends, despite being highly educated in the Chinese Communist system as progressive members of the Uyghur community, remain culturally rooted and ethnically proud.
While China took the Uyghur genocide one step further in 2017 and declared Islam a mental illness, and Communists had always seen religion as the opiate of the people, the author’s and his friends’ devotion to their own culture is not only the product of their fight against colonialism, but the form of the fight itself.
Social responsibility is another important component of Uyghur spirituality. Uyghurs say, “Man is man with a man” (in the sense that humans cannot live alone), and a “nearby neighbor is more important than relatives in the distance.” Therefore, when Hamut and his family left Urumqi for exile, they had no difficulty leaving their home or locking up the Izgil company, which was their business. However, their hearts broke when looking at people in the street: “Tahir, are we going to abandon these people?” his wife asked. Tahir’s head dropped. This feeling of being inseparable from their own society has made each Uyghur a Uyghur.
In “Waiting to Be Arrested at Night,” Hamut reveals the mystery of the Uyghur genocide in China in his unique style and shares the pain of his friends and his nation with the world. Thus, he answered his wife’s question to a certain extent. They left, but they did not abandon their people.
I believe that this indomitable national spirit will inspire readers to do whatever they can to stop this terrible genocide.