Fear and Writing in Xinjiang: On Tahir Hamut Izgil’s “Waiting to Be Arrested at Night” and Perhat Tursun’s “The Backstreets”
By Benno WeinerNovember 28, 2023
Waiting to Be Arrested at Night: A Uyghur Poet’s Memoir of China’s Genocide by Tahir Hamut Izgil
The Backstreets: A Novel from Xinjiang by Perhat Tursun
“For Uyghurs, poetry is not merely the province of writers and intellectuals,” writes translator Joshua L. Freeman in his introduction to Izgil’s urgent and haunting new book, Waiting to Be Arrested at Night: A Uyghur Poet’s Memoir of China’s Genocide. “Verse is woven into daily life.” In Uyghur society, leading poets like Tahir Hamut Izgil and Perhat Tursun enjoy levels of celebrity and cultural influence that would be unimaginable to their American or European counterparts.
The friendship between Tahir and Perhat (traditionally Uyghurs do not use intergenerational family names, though some in the diaspora like Tahir Hamut Izgil have adopted them) had been forged three decades earlier. Each came from a rural village near Kashgar in the far southwest of Xinjiang. They had been able to take advantage of the relatively moderate and pluralistic reform period in the 1980s, and their own intellectual gifts, to join the first cohorts of Uyghurs to study at Beijing’s Central University for Nationalities. Over the following years, they both emerged as leading modernist poets and writers. Yet, as Tahir sensed that night in 2017 as he watched Perhat vanish into the “back streets” of Ürümchi, their paths would soon sharply diverge. A few weeks later, Tahir and his family almost inexplicably were allowed to board a plane for the United States, where they have since been granted refugee status. Before long, from the safety of the Washington, DC, suburbs, Tahir began to receive word passed through the Uyghur diaspora that each of his companions from that evening, along with much of the Uyghur intellectual and cultural elite, had been detained by Chinese security forces. Perhat, then just shy of 50, would receive a particularly harsh 16-year sentence for undisclosed crimes.
Not only have a million or more Uyghurs, Kazakh, and other Muslim inhabitants of what Tahir defiantly refers to as the “Uyghur homeland” disappeared into a sprawling archipelago of detention sites since 2017, but a dystopian regime of surveillance, cultural erasure, and forced labor has also descended upon the Alaska-sized portion of Northwest China officially known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Just this last August, China’s leader Xi Jinping made a rare, surprise visit to Ürümchi. Speaking to local Communist Party and government officials, Xi made clear that there would be no relaxation of the sweeping “strike hard” campaign that he claimed had achieved “hard-won social stability” in Xinjiang. Many outside observers instead insist that the Chinese state is committing cultural genocide against the Uyghur people. This judgment has been bolstered in recent weeks by the shocking revelation that the anthropologist Rahile Dawut, renowned both internationally and within China for her work documenting Uyghur rural traditions and folklore, had been given a life sentence for the alleged crime of “splittism.” She had been held incommunicado since her arrest in 2017.
Tahir Hamut Izgil and Perhat Tursun are now linked again through two recent riveting but quite different books: Tahir’s memoir, Waiting to Be Arrested at Night, and Perhat’s novel, The Backstreets, both originally written in Uyghur and translated into English. The former is a personal testimonial meant to raise awareness for the plight of his compatriots, and the latter is an existentialist novel in the purposeful tradition of Albert Camus and Ralph Ellison that only references the plight of Uyghurs in the most indirect ways. Written in clear, short, lyrically powerful prose for a non-Uyghur readership, Waiting to Be Arrested at Night weaves across time to illustrate the slow but steady destruction of Uyghur society. The intimacy of Tahir’s portrayal personalizes an urgent humanitarian crisis that to this point mostly has been represented by satellite images of newly constructed prisons and a widely circulated photo of nameless blue-clad inmates sitting in rows surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. Tahir lets us into his innermost thoughts and his innermost quarters. We get to know his wife Marhaba and daughters Aséna and Almila. We are warmed by their love for one another. We fear for their safety. We feel their world caving in around them. Inevitably, the gulf separating ourselves from a tragedy happening halfway around the world to an often unfamiliar people narrows.
The Backstreets, translated by anthropologist Darren Byler and an anonymous Uyghur colleague who has since been arrested as well, is in contrast a dark, opaque story, told through the eyes of an unnamed Uyghur migrant to Ürümchi. The novel, which Perhat began in 1990 and revised periodically through to 2015, explores universal themes of alienation, dislocation, urbanization, racialization, and exploitation. Perhaps what most directly ties the two stories together is the determination to retain (or, in the case of Perhat’s narrator, rediscover) a sense of self, community, and humanity within a colonial system that first minoritized and marginalized—and then targeted for transformation or elimination—Uyghur identity, culture, and bodies.
That system was many decades in the making. In 1949, the Chinese Communists emerged victorious in the Chinese Civil War. That fall, the People’s Liberation Army marched into the Uyghur homeland. Over subsequent years, a massive campaign of state-directed, military-aligned settler colonialism transformed the resource-rich grasslands of northern Xinjiang, where Kazakh and Mongol herders had once predominated, into a landscape controlled by Chinese-run and -operated state farms and extractive industries. Despite the vicissitudes that have accompanied their forced inclusion into the Chinese nation-state, however, through the socialist period and the first decade of the reform era, the oasis towns and villages of southern Xinjiang remained primarily Uyghur spaces. Briefly, in the early 1980s, Party leaders appeared to promote economic development on Uyghur terms. In the wake of the 1989 occupation of Tiananmen Square and a series of lesser-known protests in Lhasa that ended with martial law being declared that year in the Tibetan capital, this began to change.
Beginning in the 1990s, economic development at any cost became the Party-state’s driving philosophy, both as a way to shore up support among China’s Han majority and as a method to complete the integration of minoritized people and places. As subsidies and investment flowed into the Uyghur homeland, infrastructure projects that more readily connected southern Xinjiang with the rest of the country were accompanied by a massive in-migration of Han Chinese looking for a better life and better positioned ethnoracially to take advantage of the new economic opportunities in construction, resource extraction, and service industries. Backed by the coercive and discursive power of the state, many of these migrants, as in other settler-colonial situations, also came to Xinjiang with a version of manifest destiny that was determined to bring “civilization” and “security” to what the Chinese state long considered a “backward” and “dangerous” periphery. While economic indicators rose sharply over the following decades, Uyghur communities often lost what limited decision-making ability they once had possessed as local economies became linked to national and global capitalist networks. This has led to what economist Andrew Martin Fischer, speaking of Tibetan regions undergoing similar pressures, has referred to as “disempowered development.” Strikingly, then, it arguably is under the strains of state and global capitalism, rather than socialist collectivism, that the Uyghur homeland has come under its greatest assault.
As Byler describes in his introduction to The Backstreets, one outcome of this transformation is that “Uyghurs were pushed out of more autonomous livelihoods into the cities in search of work. What they found in the cities, though, was widespread discrimination.” Outside China’s borderland “autonomous” regions, rural Han migrants to east coast metropolises often make up the bottom rung of society. In contrast, as patriotic civilizers and nation builders, Han migrants to the western frontiers enjoy privileges unavailable to even the most educated or sycophantic Uyghur or Tibetan. In the capital of the Uyghur autonomous region and other urban settings, often only the most menial jobs were available to native people, housing was deeply segregated, and social prestige was reserved for the politically reliable Han majority.
The Backstreets explores this reality in the most surreal manner. Over the course of an evening, the unnamed Uyghur protagonist wanders the “back streets” of Ürümchi, which are enveloped in fog, covered in putrid smells, and populated by aggressively antisocial inhabitants, in search of something he cannot name or describe. He has no earthly possessions save the contents of a single desk drawer, no social relationships, no sense of direction. Byler writes that while “The Backstreets should be read simultaneously as a slice of history and a prismatic literary fable of the ethnic and racialized outsider,” Perhat, who was writing for a Uyghur intellectual audience under the watchful eyes of state censors, “is not so much providing documentary evidence of Uyghur life under conditions of colonization as much as portraying it at a symbolic level.” In fact, the non-Uyghur reader only gets glimpses of the colonial dimensions of life in Ürümchi through hints and clues, such as when the narrator describes the “kingly attitude” of a janitor who berates him in “complex tones,” identifying the man as a Mandarin speaker and leading the narrator to question if even the contents of the drawer were really his own. Or more transparently, when he compares the “murky condition of the city in the fog, the murky mental condition of my brain, and the ambiguous position of my identity in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.” All the while, wrenching memories of his childhood village and bitter recollections of his time sequestered with other Uyghur students in Beijing are seamlessly spun into the narrative in a way that disorients the reader while helping to give meaning to the narrator’s sudden realization that “people could become homeless exiles not only in space but also in time.”
Exile is also a theme of Waiting to Be Arrested at Night, in this case the devastating decision to abandon one’s family, friends, and homeland to their fate. In Tahir’s words, to “burn with guilt” while accepting life as a refugee in a foreign land. For Tahir the protagonist (rather than Tahir the memoirist), the extent of the tragedy that would befall the Uyghur homeland was unknown and probably unimaginable … until it became undeniable. This is one of the elements that makes the books so frightening and claustrophobic. Like watching a scene in a horror movie unfold, we know what is coming. When, as late as 2017, Marhaba continues to express reluctance to leave her homeland, uttering, “Things can’t get that bad,” we want to warn her that they can and will. Unlike other recent testimonials by or about Uyghur and Kazakh victims of mass incarceration, such as the Peabody Award–winning virtual-reality documentary Reeducated (2021), here the closest readers come to witnessing the horrors of the internment camps is when Tahir and Marhaba are made to pass by a row of empty cells in a police station basement. Sitting idly by in one of them is a notorious “tiger chair” used to restrain and torture prisoners. They were at the station to submit biometric data—fingerprints, 3D facial imaging, blood samples, and voice prints. That information has now been harvested from nearly all of the inhabitants of the Uyghur homeland and entered into the Integrated Joint Operations Platform, the system used to monitor all Muslim residents of Xinjiang not for past criminal activity but for their algorithmic propensity to commit a rapidly expanding list of pre-crimes. It is only after escaping the police station basement that Marhaba realizes, “We need to leave the country.” By then, but for a quirk of fate, it should have been too late.
In his 2020 book The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign Against a Muslim Minority, Central Asia specialist Sean R. Roberts explores the domestic and geopolitical dynamics through which the post-2001 US-led “war on terror” provided the Chinese state with the language and logics with which to recast Uyghur resistance to state violence (most but not all of it nonviolent) as an arm of international Islamic terrorism. From there, Roberts shows the relatively quick path to criminalizing any expression of Islamic faith or Turkic culture as both an anti-modern act and a barometer of potential extremism. Under Xi, new technologies over the past decade have combined in Xinjiang to terrifying effect with what scholar James Leibold refers to as a “virulent form of cultural nationalism that pathologizes dissent and diversity as an existential threat to the Party and the nation.”
Waiting to Be Arrested at Night tells this story at the human level. Through Tahir’s memoir, we witness from a safe distance the construction of what Byler has called a “digital enclosure” that, even outside the camps, limits movement, restricts expression, undermines social relationships, and demands unfree labor from Uyghur, Kazakh, and other “undesirable” elements. It is a tale of encirclement and strangulation; of ethnoracial dispossession, dehumanization, and humiliation; of utter powerlessness and startling callousness—including the indifference of US consular officials who initially deny visas to Tahir and his family—in which a distinguished man from a proud community is forced to perform ever more obsequious acts of servility to survive a colonial system that seems filled as much with absurdity, banality, and arbitrariness as with cruelty, sophistication, and precision. But it is also a celebration of freedom (a word many of us who have not been made unfree have an uneasy relationship with), love, faith, family, friendship, dignity, compassion, place, and poetry. In fact, one of the great, albeit sobering, treats of Waiting to Be Arrested at Night is Freeman’s translation of six of Izgil’s poems, one of which follows every third chapter. For the book’s epigraph, however, Tahir chose lines not from one of his own poems. Instead, his memoir begins with the following couplet from the poem “Elegy” written by his imprisoned friend Perhat Tursun, which Byler also includes in his introduction to The Backstreets: “When they search the streets and cannot find my vanished figure / Do you know that I am with you.”
Benno Weiner is an associate professor of modern Chinese history at Carnegie Mellon University. He is the author of The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier (2020) and co-editor of Conflicting Memories: Tibetan History Under Mao Retold (2020).
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