Author: Darren Byler

‘Anticolonial friendships’: How should anthropologists learn from Uyghurs in contemporary China?

When I was first starting to research Xinjiang as a graduate student in the late 2000s, I spent a few weeks with a Taiwanese-American anthropologist at Berkeley named Cindy Huang, who was just finishing her doctorate. Cindy, whose parents were born in eastern China’s Zhejiang Province and who still has family there, had lived in Xinjiang for over a year just before the mass violence of 2009. In my conversations with her, and in her dissertation, she described the way Uyghur women welcomed her into their world as a friend and sister. After a year of building a relationship with her, her two closest Uyghur friends, Ayshe and Nurgul, cooked a special dinner for her. She wrote: For more than a year, Ayshe has been searching for a suitable Uyghur name for me. She finally settles on Zuhre, explaining that it is a name with Arabic origins, meaning bright, beautiful star. She shaves down a chopstick, dips it in a jar of ink and writes my new name in elegant script. We feast on rice and stir-fried …

‘Nikah’: An astonishing portrait of Uyghur life on the edge of erasure

Mukaddas Mijit and Bastien Ehouzan’s Nikah is extraordinary. It is a quiet film, a portrait of a young Uyghur woman and her family living in a Uyghur world in the late 2010s. It is astonishing in its restraint, in the way it remains true to a ground-level view of what it looked and felt like to be on the verge of internment. Nikah is a portrait of the impossible becoming reality. The story on the surface is a simple one. Two daughters in their twenties, Dilber and Rena, are caught between their own ambitions — careers, travel, love — and community pressures to follow gendered norms dictating what young women should do, whom they should get married to, and the life path of a wife and mother. After the younger sister, Rena, is married to a young man in the community, the pressure builds on the older sister, Dilber, to marry as well — or be lost to old age or, more ominously, as whispers imply, be married off to a Han man. In 2017, the Chinese state criminalized …

Requiem For The ‘Living Dead’: Ten Years After 7/5

Like a frightened flock of sheep, the people’s erratic dreams dividing unbroken Heavenly Mountains: A borderland Great Wall, a natural Wailing Wall Those unrecognized souls are the mud and night of other souls Only the cries of dreams, the tears on faces, like an expression of the heart, need no translation. 像惊恐的羊群 人们时断时续的梦境 隔着一座绵延千里的天山: 一座边地长城,一堵大自然哭墙 那些不被认识的心灵 是另一些心灵的泥淖和长夜 只有梦中的呼救、脸上的泪痕 像内心的表情,毋须翻译 — Shen Wei, an excerpt from “Ürümchi: An Abandoned Bed” (my translation) in the poetry collection Requiem I first heard about the poem “Ürümchi: An Abandoned Bed” from a now-disappeared poet, Perhat Tursun, in 2015. We were sitting in his apartment high above Consul Street in Ürümchi, smoking cigarettes and chatting in Uyghur. He told me that the poem’s author, Shen Wei, was one of the only Han intellectuals he truly respected. He said, “He was the only one who actually acknowledged what really happened during Qi Wu.” Like most Uyghurs, Perhat code-switched when it came to talking about the period of time that surrounded July 5, 2009. It was always just Qī Wǔ (七五) — the Chinese words …

The Legacy of the Uyghur Rock Icon Ekhmetjan

People still remember where they were the day Ekhmetjan[1] died. It was Thursday, June 13, 1991. He was only 22 years old. As is common with the death of an icon, many people refused to believe he was gone. Instead rumors spread that thugs from a rival disco had knifed him in a back alley or that he had faked his death and gone abroad to marry a princess. Ekhmetjan had been in Ürümchi preparing for a concert across the then (relatively) open border with Kazakhstan when he died. Back in those days before the train reached Kashgar and the highway stretched across the desert to Hotan, it was difficult to carry bodies home for burial. There were no freezer trucks. After a long and bumpy ride around the desert Ekhmetjan arrived in his hometown of Qarakash (near Hotan) covered in celery and ice against the smell of rot. People remember when he arrived. As his official biography puts it, Ekhmetjan died of “an illness.” Although everyone knows he died of a heroin overdose, no …