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Abdulla, King of Uyghur Women

This is the third post in a multi-part series on Abdulla Abdurehim hosted by The Art of Life in Northwest China

Abdulla, the undisputed king of Uyghur pop, receives 1000s of love letters from Uyghur women. According to those who traffic in insider knowledge of Uyghur models of masculinity, Abdulla’s effect on women first became a subject of manly discussion in the early 2000s when his song “Ranjima” was released.

As you will see in the linked music video of that song, the camera lingers on a young woman while Abdulla, clad in a bad-ass Harley-Davidson t-shirt, crones lines such as “Don’t be sorry, let’s just be friends” – a clear allusion to a failed illicit affair with the distracted young woman. Young Ranjima swoons. Abdulla basks in love letters which rain down around him from his female admirers. Despite this direct appeal to his sexuality in the images of the song, Abdulla carries on a line from Sufi poets who were devoted to “one true thing.” He sings: “Our souls cannot share the same flame.”  Thirteen years ago Abdulla was already a married man.

Rumors always swirl around a public ladies’ man – even if the characters portrayed in his songs are not of his writing. At some point in 2012 these eddies gathered enough force that (at least in the mind of some of his male listeners) Abdulla was forced to subtly confront the rumours of extra-marital affairs and the topic of his effect on women more generally. As you will see in the video below Abdulla addresses these rumors by blithely denying it in order to remember that the injury might be real and out of “the closet.”

The song “I can’t forget about you” (Untalmidim) was interpreted alternately by some to be a “make-up” song with Abdulla’s wife who was injured by infidelity and by others as an ode to unfulfilled longing for a bared lover. Yet, Abdulla tells us explicitly that neither of these scenarios are in fact the case. As the video begins we see Abdulla receiving dozens of bouquets to which he wishes one fan: “may he give you 1000s of flowers, may he give you gardens and Edens.” By doing so everyone understands that he is referring to “God.””He also greets the flower-givers with the Islamic “As-salamu alaykum” (Ar: Peace be upon you) not the Uyghur yaxshimusiz (Uy: Are you well?) favored by urbane Uyghurs and the official discourse of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.” Furthermore he calls his fans “my son” (oghlum),  “my younger sister” (singlim), “my younger brother” (inim). The latter, honorific terms of endearment, are important elements of what people like about him. By deploying them here he is building a kind of persona that presents him as a “true son” of Uyghur people. The former, his distinctive intonation of “assalamyalaykum” with his stress on the Arabic accent of the greeting, creates an impression among the people – the majority of whom are Uyghur migrants to the city – that he is a very pious man who is connected to the vernacular of the Uyghur heartland in the south of Xinjiang. By saying it this way, he is also sending the coded message that “the God” he was referring to is Allah, and it lends legitimacy to his acknowledgment and denial of the moral failure of marital infidelity which follows in his introduction of the song.

Eventually in mock exasperation he says, “(Are you) Finished?” to which the audience erupts in applause. In a Western context the only time I’ve seen a performer hold an audience in such rapt attention was at a recent Leonard Cohen concert where 30,000 people held their breath for every word he spoke. Abdulla has the same effect on people. He makes an arena filled with out-of-place Uyghurs in Urumqi feel like an intimate space. The regal way he carries himself makes a fan feel he or she is in the presence of nobility.

Although the concert was headlined by Abdulla’s younger nephew Memenjan, Abdulla is shown to receive much more adulation and he humbly says (paraphrasing slightly here): “I’m very happy to get a chance to meet you by taking advantage of the stage my brother prepared. I would like to sing a song about the love experience of the 30 boys and 9 girls (the traditional number of performers in Uyghur orchestra performers of the epic Sufi oral poetry known as the 12 Muqam assembled for the concert) sitting here. (I do so) because they requested me to do so. Young people said ‘since you have such a great voice, please sing some songs for us as well ’. So if you allow me, I have a song for young people that I want to share with you.” By announcing the song in this way, Abdulla has denied that the unrequited love for which he sings is his own. In the song featured at top of this post, he trots out clichés such as: “I can’t forget about your beautiful face/and your words – sweet like honey…”

There is an interesting psychic double bind in the way virility/fallibility of the king of Uyghur pop represents a model of masculinity in the Uyghur popular imaginary. In order to prove his fealty to his wife and virility vis-a-vis Uyghur women he is forced to publicly acknowledge marital injury in order to vehemently deny it — saying the song is about young people and not an “old man” such as himself; furthermore, as part of the performance of authenticity the possibility of injury must be compulsively acknowledged and denied in order to remember that these injuries are frequently real in Uyghur marriages.

This structure of knowing and not knowing has its richest cultural valence for me in the American figure of “the closet” and the dominant Han trope of “saving face.” The way Abdulla negotiates the secrets of the closet has a long history which is general to the human experience.  As sociologists such as Erving Goffman have noted, the concept of “saving face” or protect one’s public persona has valence in many cultural contexts.  Although the meaning contained in its Chinese iteration has not been stable across time-space and ethnic boundaries, its operation in the Chinese context has historically been a dense locus of social reproduction. Writing in 1935 the Chinese intellectual Lin Yutang wrote: “Interesting as the Chinese physiological face is, the psychological face makes a still more fascinating study. It is not a face that can be washed or shaved, but a face that can be ‘granted’ and ‘lost’ and ‘fought for’ and ‘presented as a gift.’ Here we arrive at the most curious point of Chinese social psychology. Abstract and intangible, it is yet the most delicate standard by which Chinese social intercourse is regulated” (199-200).

The Uyghur version of “face” or yuzluq (Ch: mianzi) as exemplified by Abdulla here is similar yet different. Where saving face in the Han context often involves an absolute denial of fallibility (“it never happened” or “so what if it did”), in Abdulla’s Uyghur context saving face functions simultaneously as an acknowledgement of potential wrong doing and a denial that it happened. Like Leonard Cohen, not only is Abdulla an adept poet and moral authority, the connotative impression one gets through his masculine projection is that Abdulla is a slightly-dangerous, potentially-dark, socially-adept person who nevertheless successfully controls his bad impulses, making him the best kind of ladies’ man there is – the most responsible yet ravishing man who walks the Uyghur line….

Further Reading: Lin Yutang. (1935). My Country and My People, Reynal & Hitchcock, Inc.
Sedgwick, E. K. (1990). Epistemology of the Closet. University of California Press
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Dr. Darren Byler is a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Washington where he teaches social theory, urban ethnography and the biopolitics of life in Chinese Central Asia. He also writes a regular column on the Uyghur human rights crisis for SupChina.

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