Columbia University Press
Years of relentless investigation and courageous whistleblowers have provided compelling evidence of one of the worst human rights abuses of our time: the extrajudicial detention and imprisonment of at least hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs from strain in the western Xinjiang region of China since 2017.
Much of this evidence is online, so anyone with a computer has immediate and detailed access to this work. The curious can peruse databases of striking satellite images of the many detention camps and prisons that have sprung up in the region; see the harrowing portraits of those arbitrarily detained; or delve into the bureaucratic inanity of detention records.
However, none of this mass of information provides insight into the experience of what it must have been like to live through the slow accumulation of decades of discrimination and cultural control that Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities suffered before the latest Chinese crackdown in Xinjiang. Young Uyghur men have been particularly hard hit in each of the Chinese police’s “hard hits” in Xinjiang, and during the most draconian years of the detention campaign, they were conspicuously absent from the streets of Xinjiang.
An amalgamation of the experiences of these young Uyghur men is the main subject of Alleys, a little novel by renowned Uyghur writer Perhat Tursun and now translated into English by anthropologist Darren Byler and an anonymous partner.
The novel is told through the eyes of an unnamed Uyghur man who has been given a mildly coveted government post in the regional capital of Urumqi. The only problem is that he hasn’t been assigned accommodation, and his aimless and increasingly haphazard wanderings through the misty alleys of Urumqi in search of a place to sleep lead him to a series bizarre encounters with fellow Uyghurs and Han Chinese (China’s ethnic majority). resembling, punctuated with vivid flashbacks to his childhood with an alcoholic father.
He circles around, amazed that such a sprawling city doesn’t have room for just a bed for him.
“Just as the rat was sliding around the garbage, I was always sliding around the city,” he observes. This dehumanization contains the roots of the Chinese repression against the Uyghurs, whose supposed extremist tendencies must be “eradicated” like a virus and those deemed dangerous “become like rats scurrying down the street”.
The narrator unsuccessfully asks for directions, but passers-by assume he is there to rob or mug them. A woman sees him approaching through the door of her apartment, screams and runs away. In the office, he is treated with utter contempt by his colleagues and is expected to embody his model minority identity by donating much of his small salary to charitable causes. In an American context, Tursun’s descriptions of systemic racism might be easy to understand, in part, by some.
One of the scariest characters in Tursun’s novel is the narrator’s smiling Han Chinese manager, whose bright, pale face never loses its mask of politeness even as he denies the narrator accommodation that non-Uyghurs would have received. , or belittles his Mandarin Chinese. His face is a powerful symbol of the paternalistic attitude of the Chinese state towards its Muslim ethnic minorities.
But worse than outright hostility is the town’s indifference to the narrator’s existence. Loneliness and alienation are the themes that prevail throughout the book, and Tursun’s inspiration from absurdist and existentialist writers like Albert Camus is evident. “I don’t know anyone in this strange town, so it’s impossible for me to be friend or foe to anyone,” he repeats throughout the novel. It is a precarious existence that many Uyghur migrant workers from Urumqi would have had to face, especially after Xinjiang began imposing restrictions on residence permits in 2014 before the crackdown.
Uyghur culture is steeped in poetry and literature, but very few have been translated across China, let alone the rest of the world. Part of the problem is that China has arrested or detained almost every Uyghur intellectual who might have written, translated or published these works for a wider audience.
Among those arrested is Tursun himself. In 2018 he was subjected to enforced disappearance and in 2020 Tursun was reportedly sentenced to 16 years in prison. Byler, a prominent scholar of Uyghur culture who has spoken out against Chinese state oppression, had the chance to meet Tursun in 2016. Byler says he often discussed the novel’s more complex passages with a Uyghur friend who was also in love with Tursun’s writing; this friendship turned into a translation collaboration that resulted in Alleys. Tragically, in an all-too-common twist of fate, Byler’s co-translator was also detained, circa 2017, for unknown reasons.
Reading this book is not a pleasant experience. Tursun’s writing is extremely stripped down, and much of its depth could be missed without knowing the historical and political context of China’s control of Xinjiang. Then there is the constant repetition of words, images and numbers. A recurring pattern in Alleys is that of fog, which covers a filthy Urumqi. Lost in this hellish landscape, the narrator slowly descends into madness, desperately clinging to the numbing logic of numbers to make sense of a world that seemingly resents him for no reason, before the novel suddenly ends the way of Borges. How I wish Tursun, or Byler’s anonymous co-translator, were free to discuss this novel with us in person.