Waiting to Be Arrested at Night review – the Uyghurs’ fight for survival in a society where repression is routine

From The Guardian:

A group of Uyghur friends are having a late-night chat. “I wish the Chinese would just conquer the world,” one says suddenly. “Why do you say that?” another asks, surprised. “The world doesn’t care what happens to us,” the first man replies. “Since we can’t have freedom anyway, let the whole world taste subjugation. Then we would all be the same. We wouldn’t be alone in our suffering.”

It is an understandable outburst of bitterness. The Uyghurs are a Muslim minority who live mainly in China’s north-western Xinjiang region. They have long faced discrimination and persecution. Since 2016, the repression has greatly intensified, with mass detention, forced sterilisation and abortion, the separation of thousands of children from their parents, and the razing of thousands of mosques. Yet support for Uyghurs has been equivocal, not least from Muslim-majority countries, many of which are outraged by the burning of a Qur’an in Sweden but remain silent about the detention of more than 1 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang, for fear of upsetting Beijing.

Tahir Hamut Izgil’s Waiting to Be Arrested at Night, which recounts that conversation, is not, however, a bitter book. It is suffused, rather, by a deep sense of sadness, and of despondency even amid hope. “Yet our words could undo nothing here,/even the things we brought to be”, as one of Izgil’s poems laments.

A poet and film-maker, Izgil is famed for bringing a modernist sensibility to Uyghur poetry. He did not set out to be a political activist. The very fact of being a Uyghur, though, in a country that seeks to erase Uyghur existence, both culturally and physically, turns everyday life into a political act. And for a poet living in a culture within which “verse is woven into daily life”, writing is necessarily also an act of witness and of resistance.

Despite the subtitle of the book – “A Uyghur Poet’s Memoir of China’s Genocide” – there are no depictions here of genocide, or of torture, or even of violence. We know all these things are happening, but off-page. Izgil’s memoir is a story about how to survive in, and to negotiate one’s way through, a society in which repression has become routine, and the power of the state is unfettered. The book’s restraint is also its strength. The tension in the narrative flows from the dread captured in the title – the dread of waiting to be arrested, to be vanished into detention, a dread no Uyghur can escape.

Beijing’s strategy has been, over the past decade, to cut Uyghurs off from the rest of the world and from one another, too. When censorship and surveillance made it impossible to link to the internet beyond the Chinese firewall, many Uyghurs took to keeping in touch with the outside world through shortwave radios. Until, that is, the government banned the sale of such radios and organised mass raids into people’s homes to confiscate them. “We suddenly found ourselves living like frogs at the bottom of a well,” Izgil observes.

Beijing seeks to cut off Uyghurs from their past and their traditions, too. Qur’ans are seized and history books banned, including many previously authorised by the state. Even personal names become part of the assault on Uyghur culture. Beijing’s list of prohibited names tells Uyghurs what they cannot call their children. Some names are apparently too “Muslim” – Aisha, Fatima, Saifuddin; others, such as Arafat, too political. When the list was first introduced, newspapers carried announcements such as: “My son’s birth name was Arafat Ablikim. From now on he will be known as Bekhtiyar Ablikim.”

The greatest dread is of the physical repression wreaked upon Uyghurs: mass detentions, torture, violence. We get a glimpse of the horror when Izgil and his wife, Marhaba, attend a police station to have their biometric details collected – fingerprints, blood samples, facial scans. Along a basement corridor, `they see a cell fitted out with iron restraints and a notorious “tiger chair”, used to force detainees into agonising stress positions. On the floor are bloodstains.

People start disappearing, first in small numbers, eventually up to 1 million. They are taken to “study centres” – the code for mass detention camps – though nobody knows which one. “They simply vanished,” Izgil writes.

The police knocked on the door when “your name was on the list”. There was, though, “no way to know if or when your name would show up on the list. We all lived within this frightening uncertainty.” It spawned a climate in which people feared one another as much as they feared the authorities.

Link to the rest at The Guardian