A Different Eid
Eid is supposed to be a time of happiness—and don’t get me wrong, it is. It’s the holiday celebrated by 1.6 billion Muslims twice a year, one of them marking the end of Ramadan. Bright colors fill the streets, strangers greet one another, families are united, kids are showered with money and gifts, sweets are made, and, in Muslim countries, most work places are closed. But for some, this time becomes a holiday of forced happiness, one filled with the remembrance of their pain. Perhaps it is the first Eid without loved ones because some of them have been imprisoned; perhaps it is the first Eid not in their motherland because they have fled from persecution; perhaps it is the first Eid where they cannot afford a proper feast because their new arrival means that no one in the family can work yet. For the first time in my life, I immersed myself in an Eid that was exactly like that. Clearly, I myself did not experience it, but I could sense the pain and anxiety that had come from it.
Eid is generally celebrated for three days. I spent the first two immersing myself in what I’ve always associated Eid with: excitement, happiness, and warmth. The relatives and family friends I had visited had all been long-settled Uyghurs, who had come to Turkey decades before. Their houses were spacious and beautifully furnished, and the families had greeted me excitedly. For the first time in weeks, my conversations with Uyghurs had nothing to do with East Turkistan, China, or the oppression happening back home. It was Eid, and we celebrated by going out to the Friday bazaar, buying clothing, playing with stray cats, and eating ice cream.
It wasn’t until the third day when I would sense an Eid quite the opposite. One of the newly arrived refugees who I quickly conversed with two weeks prior, Maryam (who I’ve referred to in previous posts), had invited me and my brother to come over for lunch. I could sense grief the moment Maryam’s son had escorted us to their apartment; he walked ahead of us quietly with his head down, only saying a few sentences to introduce himself.
The home was on the seventh floor of an old apartment building with no elevator—an immediate indication to me that their choices of affordable homes were limited. I continued to feel the pain and anxiety when Maryam’s husband opened the door—half of his face was hidden behind the door as he quietly greeted “Assalamu alaykum” and let us in. The conditions of the home were deplorable; the walls were cracked and the home scantily furnished. Maryam walked into the living room and greeted us quietly. The conversation was dark as her husband talked about their current situation and imprisoned daughter. Maryam chimed in occasionally with heavy breathes in between. Her hands also shook as she poured tea into cups, something I assumed showed her emotional instability. Her two teenage sons continuously walked in and out of the room, bringing fruits and utensils to the table. They later sat down and listened in on the conversation with exhausted eyes.
After eating lunch, I retreated into a different room to pray the afternoon prayer. As I was finishing up the prayer, Maryam came into the room and sat down next to me. We continued to converse. She told me things that she didn’t tell me during the interview, like how she was grateful that her sons knew and practiced their religion – but it was under dangerous conditions that they received this education. Back in East Turkistan, she had sent them to an Islamic Sunday School that took place in a moving van. That was their way of avoiding being caught by the Chinese officials.
She then showed me a picture of her one-year-old son, who was left behind back in East Turkistan because he had no birth certificate. Because China prohibits Uyghurs from having more than two children, Maryam had to make her last five children undocumented. A friend of Maryam is currently taking care of her son, and is trying hard to obtain a fake birth certificate and passport for him so he can later join his family in Turkey.
It was with this particular event that I realized how bad the Uyghur situation is in East Turkestan. If I want others to know these stories through a documentary, then I’m going to need to make the film good—really good. I don’t have much filmmaking experience, so for me to create a documentary that might turn out amateur could demean this whole project and my interviewees. I want to do something bigger, and have this fellowship be the first step. I met an Uyghur college student who just graduated with a degree in cinematography here in Turkey, and was telling me that my project is something that thousands of Uyghurs, including himself, dream to do. But, unfortunately, to embark on a project without facing retribution isn’t possible since they still have family back home. He said he would be willing to help me with this project if he were not living in East Turkistan. He suggested that I take this project slow and get professional help along the way—a piece of advice that I took to heart.
It was also with Maryam’s lunch invitation that I sensed her eagerness for us to continue our friendship. She wanted our relationship to be more than just an interviewer/interviewee relationship. And I’m grateful for her eagerness; it was through our continued friendship that has allowed me to immerse myself in her life as a refugee, making it easier for me to share her life story with the world.