Uyghur poet Abduweli Ayup: ‘I had no choice but to flee’

Uyghur poet and teacher Abduweli Ayup talks to Jan-Peter Westad about language, cultural survival and the unspeakable.

In a small building painted white in the Norwegian town of Bergen, an unusual Sunday school lesson is taking place. Abduweli Ayup is teaching a group of Uyghur children their mother tongue. Were this lesson happening in China it would be a dangerous political act. For the Uyghur minority, expressing their culture has seen more than a million detained in re-education camps.

After establishing a series of Uyghur-language schools in China, Abduweli, a quiet, serious linguistics professor by training, found himself an unlikely political figurehead. He spent two years as a prisoner of conscience, escaping to Europe after his release in 2015. Since then, his poetry and political writing have been read by millions of Uyghurs and his prison memoirs are due to be published soon.

Norway, Abduweli’s adopted home, feels far from Xinjiang, the autonomous region in northwest China native to the Uyghur people. ‘There we had endless deserts. Here are endless forests,’ he remarks. But in teaching, Abduweli finds normality. And his desire to nurture and protect his language remains stronger than ever. ‘It’s the structure that holds our identity and soul together. We have to protect it.’

‘I was accused of being a separatist, but all I was doing was teaching. We were well within the Chinese constitution. We broke no laws’

Abduweli was first inspired by Mahmud Kashgari, a Uyghur scholar who in the 11th century compiled the first Turkic dictionary and is buried in Opal, the village where Abduweli was born. ‘My imagination was filled with fairy tales, poems and proverbs,’ he remembers, but already in primary school, he was aware that language was political, too. ‘We would work out how many miles it was from Shanghai to Beijing, but we had no idea where these cities were. We learned Chinese ethics and Mandarin, but nothing that we recognized from our lives.’

Buoyed by watching on television the 1989 student protests at Tiananmen Square, Abduweli was determined to study in Beijing. When he arrived there in 1992, he soon discovered that attitudes towards minority rights were becoming less tolerant. ‘I was shocked when one of my Uyghur lecturers said there would be no need for our language in 30 years’ time.’ During the same period, Uyghur universities back home in Xinjiang were starting to teach only in Mandarin. ‘That was the moment I knew we could not compromise.’

After studying for two years in the US, Abduweli chose to return to an increasingly repressed Xinjiang, and by 2011 had set up a language training school and two kindergartens which taught students in Uyghur. It was then that his problems with the authorities began. ‘It became a social movement. More and more people wanted to use Uyghur, in schools, universities, even restaurants,’ he explains.

After organizing a language conference for other minorities in the region, he was arrested and falsely charged with investment fraud. During an interrogation lasting many hours, he was fastened to the notorious tiger chairs which bind the prisoner by the wrists, neck and ankles. ‘I was accused of being a separatist, but all I was doing was teaching. We were well within the Chinese constitution. We broke no laws.’

Abduweli is direct and matter of fact and the memoir of his two-year incarceration draws power from this clarity. Only when describing his sexual assault at the hands of prison guards tattooed with dragons does the writing slip into more abstract metaphor: ‘They asked me to strip off, and I was turned into a diversion … played like a monkey in a circus.’

Abduweli’s poetry, too, is reserved for expressing his deepest emotions. Take, for example, these lines written upon learning about the arrest of his family members:

Suffering, it is not you that I buried in my chest, / My heart is filled with the luxuriant thorn of revenge. / No answer has appeared, even though I die for it, / One cannot wash away the blood of humiliation with blood.

In prison, the ties between language and power became part of the abuse. Abduweli explains: ‘Uyghurs would be asked a question in Mandarin and told to reply in Uyghur. Then they would switch around. Every time we answered in the wrong language, we would be beaten.’

On his release, Abduweli knew his phone was bugged. He had to carry an ID card, which would be checked multiple times a day, and was arrested and beaten by police on the way to the new school where he worked. ‘My language and profession were now an anti-government activity,’ he says. ‘I had no choice but to flee.’

Now, memoir completed, he is trying to write about his younger sister who is currently held in one of Xinjiang’s camps. ‘How else can I fight for her?’ he asks. He admits it’s proving difficult. For once, Abuweli cannot find the words.  

Abduweli Ayup’s memoir The Prisons Made in China is to be published by Norwegian Penn.

His work, and the work of other Uyghur poets, can be seen here.