For many Uyghurs, poetry is not so much a specialized literary exercise as a vital part of everyday life. The Uyghur culture has become the target of the Chinese government’s campaign in the northwestern province of Xinjiang, persecuting Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities that the United States has said amounted to genocide. Authorities destroyed Uyghur holy places, censored Uyghur books, and suppressed Uyghur language in schools. At least 312 Uyghurs and other Turkish Muslim intellectuals, including writers, artists and poets, have been arrested, according to a 2021 report by the Uyghur Human Rights Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, though the actual number is believed to be much higher.
Among those imprisoned is Gulnissa Amin, a famous Uyghur literature teacher and poet who was among the nearly 1 million Uyghurs sent to China’s sprawling network of so-called re-education camps in 2018. A year later, she was sentenced to more than 17 years in prison, over The premise that her hair promotes “separatism”. Amin’s work is not explicitly political, in fact, but her poetry bears a special kind of witness to the Uyghur experience since the start of China’s mass internment program:
Where words are forbidden to be said
Flowers are not allowed to bloom
And birds cannot sing freely
Abdoulaye Ayyub, a Norway-based Uyghur linguist and friend of Amin, told me that before her arrest, she herself published a series of poems inspired by One Thousand and One Nights Online. Like the character Scheherazade, who tells a story every night to prevent her execution, Job said, Amen believed her “hair would somehow save her” from being erased. Before her arrest, she had published nearly 350 poems.
But it seems that Amin, even who was deprived of her freedom, did not stop composing poems. On April 18, 2020, Ayup received a series of messages via Chinese social networking app WeChat from a person close to Imin (whom Ayup declined to name for their protection). The letters contained images of several poems written in a notebook dating from the previous month, which Job recognized in handwriting and style as a faithful work.
When I asked him how her poems might have reached the sender who passed them on, he told me he had no sure way of knowing. The WeChat account used to transmit the poems was deactivated shortly after – a measure he attributed to the sender’s need to reduce the risk of exposure. “People use this technology when they send something out of China,” Ayoub said. “And you can’t call [them] Again.” Many Uyghurs living abroad told me that they are no longer in contact with their loved ones in Xinjiang for fear of endangering them.
While trying to document the poems, I spoke with Joshua L. Freeman, a historian of modern China at the Academia Sinica Research Institute in Taiwan and a prominent translator of Uyghur poetry into English. Foot Atlantic Ocean with two translations of the two poems and agreed with Job’s assessment of their source. Although he allowed that they could not prove that the poems were Amin, he was familiar with the scenario. Freeman spent several years in the Uyghur capital of Urumqi, and in 2020 he received a poem from his former professor Abdulkadir Jalaluddin. Jalal al-Din, like Amin, was under arrest. In his case, the poem was smuggled by prisoners who, before being released from the camp, stored Jalal ad-Din’s verses in memory.
Amin and Jalaluddin’s choice of poetry as a way of communicating with the outside world came as no surprise to Freeman, who told me that Uyghurs have long relied on poetry as a source of solidarity and strength in difficult times. Poems—which can be composed, recited, and memorized even without a pen or paper—became a favorite literary form during this historical plight of the Uyghur people.
“Poetry for many Uyghurs is not just a form of resistance; it is a form of self-expression in an environment where self-expression is nearly impossible in many contexts.” “Poets in the Uyghur community are largely the voices of their people.”
If you don’t hear my familiar voice
In the nights of the moonless sky
Where have you been looking for my star
In the midst of the days that seemed sad to you
For you I will give everything
Leave my body in the far wilderness
Hope has froze, but you remain
A drop of dew on wilted flowers
Who caresses your head while I’m gone
My comrades are now worried and regret
Every day without you a fire in my throat
I have no options left, I’m nothing but wounds
– March 27, 2020
When you think of me, don’t shed tears of sadness
Shall not fade for those who are gone
If you find me now and then in your dreams
You should not look longingly on the road
Some things in life remain out of reach
Do not be angry in your heart at my expense
Don’t ask me any news from the people you meet
Your thoughts of me should not burden your soul
Just think of me as a person on a journey
If I’m alive, I’ll come back one day
I won’t give up on happiness so easily
I still ask for a lot from life
Both my stars are now left among you
Please cherish them for me while I’m away
With the kindness that raised me since childhood
Let them live in your arms
– March 29, 2020
The poems were translated from the Uyghurs by Joshua L. Freeman.