Three Poems by Detained Uyghur Poet “Tarim”

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Scholar and poet Ablet Abdurishit Berqi is one of the 338 Uyghur intellectuals confirmed to be detained in a network of internment camps that are holding over one million and other Turkic Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. The poet, who also writes under the Chinese pen name “” (塔里木), was detained in 2017, months after returning to Xinjiang from a two year postdoc studying 20th century Uyghur literature at the University of Haifa in Israel under Professor Nimrod Baranovitch. While authorities claim that the camps are part of “a series of measures” aimed at combatting Islamic extremism, Dr. Baranovitch characterized his former student’s religiosity as anything but radical, and noted his special aversion to extremism, in a recent interview with poet (translated by CDT):

[…] Tang: You are Jewish and Dr. Berqi is Muslim. The way things are today, the relationship you and he have is especially meaningful…

Baranovitch: I’d like to talk for a moment about this issue of religious background that you’ve brought up. Yes, Dr. Berqi is Muslim, and I am Jewish. Since we first met over ten years ago we’ve always stayed in touch. We’re good friends. Dr. Berqi is Muslim from birth, but he isn’t a believer. Just like me, I’m Jewish but I don’t believe in Judaism. […]

Dr. Berqi and I have laughed a lot together at extreme ideologies, he at the sickness of extremist Muslims, while I’ve ridiculed Jewish extremists. We agree on this point: no matter what the religion, it’s always bad when taken to the extreme. On this point we have never disagreed. Dr. Berqi is very open-minded. […]

Dr. Berqi reiterated to me that the majority of Uyghur intellectuals, while they are Muslim, aren’t believers. They don’t look at Israel and the Jews from a religious perspective, but from the perspective of history, and of an ethnic minority: The Jewish people have been oppressed for two thousand years. In that time they didn’t have their own land and country. Other peoples oppressed them. But in the end, the Jews succeeded in preserving their culture, preserving their identity… Many Uyghur intellectuals respect and admire the Jewish people. They see the Jews as an example of how an ethnic group can protect its culture, language, and customs. Of course, I also know that Dr. Berqi’s writings about Israel influenced many Uyghurs, it made them aware of Israel.

Actually, it’s not just Dr. Berqi. Many years ago, I heard the same ideas from many other Uyghur intellectuals. The Uyghurs who believe will look at Israel and the Jews from a religious perspective. They wouldn’t say these things. Uyghurs intellectuals, even though they’re Muslim, their viewpoint is more open and independent. They’re more inclined to look at Israel and the Jews from a national perspective, not a religious one. Also, many Uyghur intellectuals criticize Uyghur religious extremists. Dr. Berqi once said that Islam has led some Uyghurs to become extreme. He often criticized this tendency. In fact, plenty of Uyghur intellectuals have spoken out against this kind of religious behavior among their own people. […] [Source]

In a Chinese-language essay titled “Tarim, a Uyghur Poet” by Tang (a short excerpt of which has been translated by CDT), she quotes her friend on his Uyghur-language : “The poems I write in Uyghur are mostly about love. I like to write poems about feelings, about love…” Judging from a collection of his Chinese-language titled “, My Refuge” (诗歌,我的避难所) his work in Chinese takes on a decidedly different set of themes: ethnic identity, exclusion, and colonial repression. CDT has translated three poems from the ten in that collection:

I Come from Xinjiang (我从新疆来)

Please let me camp out here
I don’t want to trouble the hotel
I’m afraid I’d burn the bed with my skin
and contaminate the water tap

I come from Xinjiang
at the airport
please let me go barefoot through security
I’m used to herding the sheep barefoot
I’m used to tilling the earth barefoot
the grass likes when I fondle it
the crops like when I trample them
I come from Xinjiang
Don’t look at me with doubting eyes
I left the knife in the kitchen
until I saw it in an officer’s hand, I never knew
the shape of a gun
my weapons of choice are the pear and the mattock

What is a bomb?
Isn’t it a hopeless heart?

I come from Xinjiang
My hands and feet were made to work the land
to dance
my mouth was made to sing
to pray for peace on earth
my eyes
are used to love-spreading light

I come from Xinjiang
Don’t treat my dignity like a joke
dance is not weak or cowardly
song is not endlessly patient

—Beijing, September 25, 2014 [Chinese]

I Believe (我相信)

I believe
They say there are two “cannot-leaves”*
The Han Chinese can’t leave the minorities
The minorities can’t leave the Han
What a lovely slogan
What honeyed poetry

I believe
When the hotel refuses me
And I sleep in February 7 Square
The earth and the sky are the same
The stars are just as gorgeous
That fruit has no race

I believe
I speak good Chinese
In Chinese I clearly explain to the police
That I am Chinese
I believe that the hotel refusing Uyghurs
Has nothing to do with whether I speak Chinese

I believe
I can’t leave the police
I can’t leave my ID
I can’t leave Xinjiang
My papers are worth
More than myself
Facing me, nothing
Is prouder than my papers

They believe
More than I
That I’m Uyghur

—Zhengzhou, Henan, April 2013 [Chinese]

*两个离不开, often translated as “two inseparables,” a reference to Mao’s doctrine of the mutual dependence between the Han and China’s ethnic minorities.

Refuge (避难)

I don’t have a passport
I can’t leave the country
My only choice is to smuggle myself
But I’m afraid I’ll be beaten to death at the border
And I don’t have money for the trafficker

I’m a smuggler of love
Though love has no country
Poetry is my refuge
Where I am most free

—Ürümqi, October 2013 [Chinese]

Translation by Anne Henochowicz.

See also CDT’s translation of Tang Danhong’s interview with Professor Nimrod Baranovitch, and of an excerpt from Tang’s essay “Tarim, a Uyghur Poet,” both also translated by Anne Henochowicz.

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China Digital Times (CDT)

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