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Scenes from the Disappearance of Perhat Tursun, a Preeminent Modernist Uyghur Author

Perhat Tursun smoking his trademark Xuelian cigarettes in his home in Ürümchi in 2015. Image by Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian.

Perhat was disappeared at the height of his powers by the Chinese state, a victim of the government’s re-education campaign in Xinjiang.

Perhat Tursun is a slight man with a receding hairline. To look at him, you wouldn’t know that he is one of the most influential contemporary Uyghur authors in the world. When I met him for the first time at a reception for a Uyghur-language publishing house in February 2015, his importance was clear from the way other Uyghurs looked at him as he moved through the crowd. He cut a wide swath. After we chatted for a bit at the reception, he said he was really bored. He hated formal gatherings and performing for strangers. He left immediately after the ceremony was finished, glad-handing and mumbling under his breath as he shuffled through the banquet hall. Many people stopped to shake his hand as we walked together to his house.

His house was on the 26th floor of a new apartment building owned by the Uyghur grocery franchise Arman. Many Uyghur celebrities lived in the building. While we were waiting for the elevator, we nodded at Qeyum Muhemmet, the TV actor who was later sent to a reeducation camp along with more than 400 other public figures in 2017. Perhat’s house smelled more of  cigarette smoke than most Uyghur homes. He had some abstract paintings in yellow painted by the celebrated Uyghur artist Dilmurad Abdukadir, which seemed to reflect the complexity of Uyghur traditional urban architecture. Otherwise, his living room was filled with carpets and a coffee table covered with dried fruit.

We talked about his novel The Big City, which I was in the process of translating with a Uyghur friend. We talked about the way the fog of the city acted as an ambient character in the beginning of the novel, but as we moved through the narrative, how the smell of the city and the cold of the air became dominant characters. He said the story was based on his experiences in Beijing as a college student and in Ürümchi as a bureaucrat. In Beijing, five of his Uyghur classmates had mental breakdowns because of the pressures that confronted them there.

He said he himself had not been mentally stable at times. The experience of seeing this happen to his classmates had a big impact on him. It made him want to explain the way displacement is related to mental illness. “I was really influenced by Camus’s book The Plague,” he said. “I read and reread it. When I come back to it, I always feel as though every line says something important.”

Perhat gestured a lot as he talked. When he laughed, his smile looked like it was going to break his face in half. He seemed very honest, with everything appearing on the surface. He listened intently when I spoke, a blank stare mixed with a burning alertness. He seemed like a man starving for life.

Nearly two years ago, on January 30, 2018, I received confirmation that Perhat Tursun had been disappeared. Last week the news filtered out that he has reportedly been given a 16-year prison sentence.

A recent investigation using nightlight luminosity and satellite imagery has shown that over the past several months a number of reeducation camps have closed while activity in other camps has substantially expanded. The transfer of detainees into factories in both Xinjiang and other parts of the country explains some of this development. But growing evidence suggests that many former camp detainees are also being dispersed into the formal prison system.

Last month, I interviewed half a dozen former detainees and their relatives in Kazakhstan for part of a book I am writing about the role of technology in the reeducation system. Over and over people told me that those they met in the camp, or their relatives, had been given long prison sentences after long periods of reeducation.

Researcher Gene Bunin has been hearing similar things. In an important essay published in October, he writes:

As suggested by the government’s own statistics, some limited reporting, and the new evidence presented by victims’ relatives and former detainees in neighboring Kazakhstan, an incredible number of those detained in 2017 and 2018 are now being given lengthy sentences and transferred to major prisons.

It is likely that Perhat’s 16-year sentence is part of this process. He will be 67 years old when he is released. The world may never see the five unfinished novels he was working on. The global literary community may never recognize him as one of the world’s greatest living novelists. He is out of place in this time of reeducation. He was disappeared at the height of his powers. What remains for now are snatches of his work, most of it yet to be published, and scenes from the world he created.

Perhat’s disappearance is symptomatic of a greater violence. As one of our mutual Uyghur friends, a literary critic and translator whom I will call Mustafa, told me in an interview in 2015 (just as the reeducation camp system was being built), “People like Perhat miss the 1980s when no one was willing to listen to someone else’s truth. Everyone seemed to think for themselves back then, and no one seemed to be bothered by difference. Now difference is seen as a weakness.”

Continuing, Mustafa said:

“People don’t recognize how bleak the situation is here now because we don’t have dramatic statistics of how many people have died or disappeared. The situation is more complex than this. The way it works is by breaking people’s spirit and weakening their sense of self. Suddenly the values that they grew up with seem as though they can be replaced by authoritarian Chinese or Islamic values. People are becoming empty shells of what they were before. In prison people are taught to think like police. The prisoners are partnered up and chained together. They have to take a shit together. If one of them fucks up, the other one will be blamed. It is a kind of living hell. Although the living conditions themselves are not as bad as they used to be, the psychological torture is more and more sophisticated. Now they try to break your will to live and desire.

“One time my friends in prison after 2009 asked if they could watch Uyghur song and dance videos and the guard said yes. So 30 or so prisoners gathered in one cell and watched the videos. After a few hours, they were happy and were ready to return to their cells, but then the warden said, ‘No, you asked to watch films, so please keep watching.’ So they watched the videos for 24 hours. Then they asked again if they could leave, because now they were becoming very uncomfortable, but the warden said, ‘No, you asked for this, please keep watching.’ In the end, they watched the videos for 72 hours. The room was full of shit and piss and 30 men, finally they said they would never ask to watch films again and he let them go back to their cells. Fortunately, these men are very tough. They maintained their focus and didn’t let themselves become deranged.

“Now the government is trying to use education as a tool of assimilating people. But just look at the U.S. In the U.S., Native Americans were forced to forget their languages, forced by the economic system to integrate into mainstream society, but still they maintained their own cultural difference. They wouldn’t be assimilated. It will be the same for Uyghurs. All minorities are this way, particularly those that can’t pass as the majority. If you are a minority, you will always be a minority. That position cannot be forgotten.

“Perhat is a very interesting guy. His novel The Art of Suicide was actually put on the list of 100 greatest works of Uyghur culture. But when he heard about this, he was furious. He wrote the Cultural Bureau a letter and demanded that his work be taken off the list. He said he didn’t want that sort of recognition. He didn’t want his work to be listed beside all the other propaganda bullshit. Also, he said that his greatest work had not yet been written. He wrote that book when he was 24 and it was just an exercise for him to learn how to write. It should not be taken seriously, he said. He said he didn’t want to be famous or popular. He wanted to be a shadowy, marginal figure.”

Sometime in 2017, Mustafa disappeared into the camps, too. In 2018, I found a DVD set of his lectures for sale in a private bookstore in Ürümchi. That was the last time I saw Mustafa’s face. Like Perhat, he has become one of those prisoners who has to ask permission to take a shit. One by one, the intellectuals who made Perhat cackle with uninhibited laughter began to disappear.

In March 2015, Perhat invited me to his house again. His wife made us hand-pulled noodles. We ate and talked for eight hours. Along the way we drank two bottles of Johnny Walker Red. The drunker he got, the longer his stories became. During one of his rants, he told me:

“Milan Kundera (Czech writer) is also writing about human experience, but because of his circumstances his fiction gets read as somehow political. Actually, it doesn’t start from politics, it just gets pulled into it. Human relationships are the center; they just get blocked by politics. The same is true for most writers if they are really honest. When I was in Beijing, I took a class with the poet Zhāng Zǎo 张枣. I remember the first time I met him. I told him I liked his work and that I write Uyghur poetry. He said, ‘Oh, you’re Uyghur, what is your name?’ I told him Pa-er-ha-ti. And he said, ‘No, what is your Uyghur name?’ That was the first time a Chinese teacher had ever done something like that. Most of the time they would just say, Oh wow you have such a strange name, or something like that, but this guy was different. That was already really good, but what he said next really got me. He said that he had just been to Tibet and he had discovered that Buddhism was not a religion but a philosophy. He said that he really admired the Dalai Lama. Ever since that first meeting we were close. Zhang Zao has since passed away (in 2010).”

Perhat’s office was filled with hundreds of books. He had the works of all of the contemporary Han poets, translations of even the most obscure Nabokov novels. Some of his books were in English, which he read with great determination and focus. He said that when he lived in Beijing in the 1990s he became obsessed with going to international bookstores and buying everything he could find. He said:

“I learned a lot from Western philosophy and literature. Particularly Faulkner and Schopenhauer. In high school I had read a Uyghur translation of Marxist philosophy on dialectical materialism. In that book they talked about how Plato, Hegel, and Schopenhauer were terrible ideologues. This idea really intrigued me. But I thought that because of the way the Marxist book presented them, that there would not be any metaphysical writing available in China. But when I got to Beijing in the mid-’80s, someone told me that these kinds of philosophical works were available in Chinese. I immediately started studying Chinese so that I could read Schopenhauer. I read The World as Will and Representation in Chinese. It made me feel as though Chinese was the language of Schopenhauer.”

He paused to dwell on this image, his laughter making his words come out like a stutter.

“That is really…funny…to think about now. After that I read Faulkner, then Camus and Kafka. Eventually I read Freud and Jung and all the other psychological thinkers too. What I am trying to write about is human experience. I am interested in every form of human thought. I read the scriptures of every faith. I think religion is beautiful. It is like poetry. I believe there is no final truth. And I believe that mental illness has always existed. Mostly it exists in forms of normality. Actually, people that don’t fit in with the norms are people who are the least mentally ill. People who see themselves as normal are actually much crazier. I like to write about abnormal individuals at a particular place and time in order to show how abnormal mainstream society really is. I use psychology and literature in my own way in order to diagnose the diseases of normality.”

Perhat’s focus on mental illness, suicide, and alienation — and his determination to write about obscenity and sexuality in Uyghur — often made him the target of criticism from more mainstream Uyghur writers. It made it difficult to publish his work.

The last time we met, Perhat gave me a box of green tea to thank me for translating his work. He asked how we could stay in touch. I told him that we could still connect over WeChat or email. I continued to work on The Big City, preparing it in a collection of Uyghur urban fiction that has yet to be published.

At the center of the novel, he wrote that the shape of human life is disappearance. When the protagonist encounters Chinese society for the first time as a college student, he “began to realize that the fog was similar to the shadows.” Continuing, Perhat writes in the novel:

I was realizing that, just as the exact shape of the darkness is shadows, the exact shape of fog is disappearance. The exact shape of humans is also disappearance. At this moment I felt as though my body was transforming into the final stage of the human form.

After I came to this city, I felt as though the threat of getting lost and the desire to lose myself were strangely becoming one inside me. Although everything in the distant and powerful big city where I spent my five years in college felt strange to me; and even though the tall buildings, wide roads, and the ditches and canals were built according to one standard and shape so that it wasn’t easy to differentiate one from another, I never had the feeling of being lost. Every person in that city felt like one person. All of them were folded into each other. Their faces, voices and looks were tied firmly to each other like the jumbled-up hair of a shaman.

The men and women seemed to be identical. You could only tell them apart by stripping off their clothes and taking a look. The faces of men were beardless like women and their skin was very delicate and unadorned. I was always surprised by how they could tell each other apart. Later I realized that it wasn’t just me. Many other people felt the same way. Often we went to watch the only TV on campus in the corridor of a building where the old cadres stayed when they came to improve their knowledge. The Uyghurs who came to improve their knowledge always argued about whether or not a person who had done something unusual earlier in the TV show was the same person that they saw now. They would argue about this from the beginning to the end of the show. Other people, who couldn’t stand this sort of endless arguing, would leave the TV to us and take off.

At first when the classes began, we couldn’t tell the difference between the teachers. Gradually we were able to tell men and women apart and eventually we could even tell our teachers apart. But the other people in the city always stayed identical for us. Later, the most surprising thing to me was that the people in the city could never differentiate us from each other either. One time a couple of police came looking for some people who had broken windows during a fight at a restaurant and had then run away. They ordered us to stand in a line and asked the restaurant owner to look at us and identify who the culprit was. He couldn’t tell who it was even though he looked at us very carefully. He said we all looked so much like each other and that it was impossible to tell us apart. He sighed heavily and left.

In 2017, Chinese state authorities began to line up Uyghurs to decide which ones were safe, normal, or unsafe. In many cases, they seemed not to be able to tell Uyghurs apart from each other. They collapsed them into each other, deciding over a million were pre-criminals and deserving of detention.

The news of Perhat’s disappearance leaked out in coded messages. A mutual acquaintance told Tahir Hamut, one of Perhat’s closest friends, that Perhat had been “hospitalized.” Tahir, a prominent poet, filmmaker, and literary critic who found a way to come to the United States in 2017, told me:

“When I heard this, that he had been ‘hospitalized,’ I had a really ominous feeling. I felt very sad. I tried to give myself some comfort by thinking that this may be temporary, that Perhat might be released after a while because I couldn’t think of any reason why the authorities would detain and punish him. But I was also very worried because I knew the situation was quite serious at that time and anything could happen. I still remember the anxious insomnia I felt that night.

“I met Perhat for the first time in February, 1988. The first time I met him, I found him to be very melancholy, pessimistic, and restless. But still he was very warm toward me and other students, who were three years behind him. He suggested that we read more Western literature. This was the first time I heard about modernist literature, Freud, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, and so on. That is how it began. The last time I saw him was around July 10, 2017. No one really knows what has happened to him since.”

For many of us who are close to Perhat, it has been difficult to sleep at night since he was taken. We hope he is using his restless creativity to draft new novels in his mind. It is the melancholic, pessimistic side of him that worries us the most, the side that made mental illness and suicide a daily topic of conversation. We worry that he may not be able to survive, that he may come to the conclusion that the world is not good enough for Perhat Tursun.

Although Perhat has been taken away from us, his work will always remain. Next year, one of Perhat’s most revered pieces of short fiction, called “Plato’s Shovel,” will appear in a Palgrave anthology of Central Asian fiction in translation. As Tahir put it in a recent conversation, this deeply philosophical piece of narrative fiction distills Perhat’s thoughts. “It shows his basic attitudes and views toward life.” Somewhere in the future, more of Perhat’s work will appear in translation. The Big City, one of his masterworks, will be given a seat at the table of world literature. Until then, one of his most moving poems, “Elegy,” is already in English circulation. A middle stanza in that poem rhymes with Perhat’s own disappearance:

After three hundred years they awaken and do not know each other, their own greatness long forgotten,
I happily drank down poison, thinking it fine wine
When they search the streets and cannot find my vanished figure
Do you know that I am with you.

This article first appeared in the journal SupChina on February 5, 2020.

Filed under: Literature


Dr. Darren Byler is an Assistant Professor of International Studies at Simon Fraser University where he teaches and writes about social theory, urban ethnography and the technopolitics of life in Chinese Central Asia. He also writes a regular column on state violence and Uyghur decolonization for SupChina.

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