For many Uighurs, poetry is less a niche literary exercise than a vital part of daily life. Uyghur culture has become the target of Chinese government repression in the northwest province of Xinjiang, a persecution of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities that the United States says amounts to genocide. Authorities destroyed Uyghur holy sites, censored Uyghur books and suppressed the Uyghur language in schools. At least 312 Uyghur and other Turkish Muslim scholars, including writers, artists and poets, have been detained, according to a 2021 report by the Uyghur Human Rights Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization, although that the actual number is estimated to be much higher.
One of those jailed is Gulnisa Imin, an acclaimed Uighur literature professor and poet who was among an estimated 1 million Uighurs sent to China’s vast network of so-called re-education camps in 2018. A year later, she was sentenced to more than 17 years in prison, apparently on the grounds that her poetry promoted “separatism”. Imin’s work is not overtly political, in fact, but his poems bear witness in their own way to the Uyghur experience since the start of the mass internment program in China:
Where words are forbidden to be said
Flowers are not allowed to bloom
And the birds can’t sing free
Abduweli Ayup, a Norway-based Uyghur linguist and friend of Imin, told me that before her detention she self-published a series of poems inspired by Thousand and one Night on line. Like the character Scheherazade, who tells a story every night to prevent her execution, Ayup said, Imin believed that “her poetry would somehow save her” from erasure. Prior to her arrest, she had published nearly 350 poems.
But it seems that, even deprived of his freedom, Imin did not stop composing poems. On April 18, 2020, Ayup received a series of messages on the Chinese social networking app WeChat from someone close to Imin (who, for their protection, Ayup declined to name). The messages contained photos of several poems scribbled in a notebook from the previous month, which Ayup recognized by handwriting and style as Imin’s work.
When I asked him how his poems got to the sender who sent them to him, he said he had no sure way of knowing. The WeChat account used to forward the poems was deactivated soon after, a move he attributed to the sender’s need to reduce their risk of exposure. “People use this technique when sending something outside” China, Ayup said. “And you can’t contact [them] again.” Many Uyghurs living abroad told me that they no longer keep in touch with relatives in Xinjiang for fear of endangering them.
In trying to authenticate the poems, I spoke with Joshua L. Freeman, a historian of modern China at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica research institute and a prominent translator of Uyghur poetry into English. He provided Atlantic with translations of two of the poems and agreeing with Ayup’s assessment of their provenance. Although he admitted they couldn’t prove the poems were Imin’s, he knew the script. Freeman had spent several years living in the Uyghur capital of Ürümqi, and in 2020 he received a poem from one of his former teachers, Abduqadir Jalalidin. Jalalidin was, like Imin, in detention; in his case, the poem had been smuggled out by inmates who, before being released from the camp, had memorized Jalalidin’s verses.
For Imin and Jalalidin, choosing poetry as a means of communicating with the outside world came as no surprise to Freeman, who told me that Uyghurs have long relied on poetry as a source of solidarity and strength in difficult times. Poems – which can be composed, recited and memorized even without pen or paper – have become a favored literary form during this historic ordeal for the Uyghur people.
“For many Uighurs, poetry is not just a form of resistance; it is a form of self-expression in an environment where self-expression is almost impossible in many contexts,” he said. “The poets of Uyghur society are, to a very large extent, the voices of their people.”
If you don’t hear my familiar voice
In the moonless nights of your sky
Where were you looking for my star
In the middle of the days that seemed sad to you
For you I would give everything
Leave my body in the distant desert
Hope has frozen, yet you remain
A drop of dew on faded flowers
Who caresses your head while I’m gone
My companions now are worry and regret
Every day without you is a fire in my throat
No more choices, I’m just wounds
— March 27, 2020
When you think of me, don’t shed tears of sorrow
You must not disappear for those who are gone
If once in a while you find me in your dreams
You don’t have to look longingly down the road
Some things in life stay out of our reach
Keep no anger in your heart because of me
Don’t ask about me from the people you meet
Your thoughts of me must not weigh on your soul
Just think of me as someone on a trip
If I’m alive, one day I’ll be back
I won’t give up happiness so easily
There’s so much more I still ask of life
My two stars have now remained among you
Please cherish them for me while I’m gone
With the kindness that raised me from childhood
Let them live in your protective embrace
— March 29, 2020
The poems were translated from Uyghur by Joshua L. Freeman.