An Eventful Ramadan
This Ramadan I’ve found the fasting to be quite hard. I (and other fasting Muslims) get pretty exhausted by the time it’s mid-afternoon, a time when the hunger and thirst starts to kick in and all the body yearns for is rest. Last week, just traveling to Zeytinburnu, a 40-minute route, everyday to do interviews and go to the Quran study group was exhausting.
But this week was particularly harder because, instead of interviewing, I joined 28 Uyghur children on their Sunday school field trip to Ankara, where they showcased East Turkistan and its history/culture through performing songs, poetry, and a traditional dance. But despite the difficulty of fasting while filming dozens of young, energetic children for three days, the experience has been one major highlight of my project — not only has it given me an opportunity to film something other than interviews, but it reminded me that a prime component of the Uyghur diaspora population is children.
We stayed in Ankara for three days total. The first day, after our five-hour bus ride, we settled in at a camp center, broke our fast at the mosque where the kids would perform, and attended the mosque’s comedy show. On the second day, before the children’s performances, we went to President Tayyib Erdogan’s palace to pay respect to one of his assistants, who met with the children to show his solidarity with East Turkistan. We got to enter the mosque of the palace and then later meet Baynali Yildirim, Turkey’s prime minister. On the third day, before heading back to Istanbul, we visited the tomb of one of East Turkistan’s prominent leaders, Muhammad Amin Bughra, who helped set up the first East Turkistan Republic in 1933.
Much of the audience seemed to be awed by the performances, something that I was grateful for because they’ve been at least somewhat exposed to East Turkistan. In the past three weeks I’ve realized that, despite the ethnic kinship between Uyghurs and Turks, many Turkish people don’t know much of East Turkistan. I’ve encountered multiple Turkish people who’ve looked at me blankly when I told them I was originally from East Turkistan. Sometimes when I tried to clarify by saying I was “Uyghur Turk”, they then understood what I was talking about – an indication that many haven’t heard the name “East Turkistan” before, but only knew of the people living there. I started to realize a possible cause of this phenomenon: so far I’ve witnessed a few Uyghurs, who didn’t necessarily flee from persecution and were in Turkey to study, introduce themselves to others by omitting the name East Turkistan and rather saying they are from Xinjiang or China. I asked my father what were possible reasons for them not using the name East Turkistan. He said there were two reasons:
1) If they were planning to go back to China, they have to say they are from Xinjiang or China in order to avoid persecution and imprisonment.
2) They have been indoctrinated and brainwashed by China. When Communist China formally occupied East Turkistan in 1949, the Communist party “twisted the narrative 180 degrees” by claiming that it was not an occupation, but a liberation of the Uyghurs. Many Uyghurs living in East Turkistan today don’t know that they are living in occupied territory, especially since opportunities to learn about its history is banned in China. Many haven’t even heard the phrase “Sherqi (East) Turkistan” or have seen its light blue flag before because the Uyghurs living there are afraid of saying it (even saying “Sherqi Turkistan” or possessing a flag results in persecution and imprisonment). Thus, although many Uyghurs have likely seen the oppression towards their fellow people, they’ve never really had the chance to develop nationalistic pride for East Turkistan– because they don’t know they could have Uyghur nationalism in the first place. And even if they do know that they could have Uyghur nationalism, they’ve been indoctrinated and assimilated into Chinese culture enough to the point where they’ll say they’re from China.
On our bus ride back to Istanbul, I ended up having a casual interview with one of the boys. He was born in Syria in 2006, but he and his family had moved to Turkey a few years before the Syrian civil war began in 2011. One thing that struck me during our conversation was his response when I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. He said he wanted to go to East Turkistan and become a military general to fight China. Knowing that he’d never even been to East Turkistan, and thus never faced the oppression there, I was stunned at how adamant he was about the independence movement at such a young age.
Talking to him reminded me that the children’s parents, who have all lived through the oppression first-hand, want their children to continue their legacy and represent East Turkistan. They immerse them in Uyghur culture at a young age, teach them their history and current situation, and tell them that they indeed have a country of their own. They want their children to be a source of answers when someone asks what East Turkistan is.
I didn’t realize how hard it is to get interviews until I got back to Istanbul. Most people I’ve asked to interview have refused because doing so would possibly result in persecution of their family back in East Turkistan. Even though I assured them they would be anonymous and that I would not include identifiable information, they were still very reluctant. I started to get stressed because the main reason I had come to Turkey was to hear the stories of the Uyghur population, and only a few people were willing to let me hear them.
Their fear of being interviewed showed me the extent of oppression that many of the refugees still face. By threatening their families, China manages to control them even after they’ve fled. Although the diaspora population can exercise most freedoms in Turkey, like freedom of religion, the threat of Chinese punishment hinders their freedom of expression. What frustrates me is that the Uyghurs who have been direct victims of injustice have so much to say — yet when they are given the opportunity to break their forced silence, they, in reality, cannot. Many of the refugees also have to bear the pain of being separated from family or knowing that they are being tortured. Maryam, who I referred to in my previous post, won’t see her daughter for at least seven more years. Nothing can guarantee her daughter being able to escape China once she’s released from prison. I’ve met multiple fathers who managed to escape first but are still waiting for their wife and children (some of whom are undocumented if they exceed the 2-child policy) to obtain passports. One of my interviewees said that he couldn’t even be like Turkey’s stray cats, many of which can be with its litter of kittens everyday.
There are some who haven’t been as reluctant to be interviewed, however. Many of those who agreed told me they were grateful for the opportunity to speak. Maryam told me that she’s been waiting so long for someone to tell everything to. She said that not a single journalist had come to them while back in East Turkistan (because journalists are barred from entering the East Turkistan region) and that I was probably the first person to come to Turkey to broadcast their voices. So when I interviewed her, she vented for four hours and even asked if I could stay for iftar and sleep over so she could continue—but I promised her I would meet up with her again another time because it was late and I didn’t want to bother. What struck me the most though was that, during the interview, Maryam referred to a notebook of notes she prepared a few days before so she wouldn’t forget to say an important point. She had written more than thirty pages and told me she had not finished. Before I left her house, she ripped out those pages, told me to bring them to America and have them translated, and share them with the world.