At home with the Uyghurs

Saturday, July 11, 2009 – Globe and Mail

The air smells of dust, grapes and leather, and blinding sunlight bounces off blue doorways, courtyard walls, the dirt road and our scooter-pulled taxi as Zulmira shows me her neighbourhood.

Approaching her grandmother’s house, she identifies everyone’s ethnicity without hesitation: “That’s a Uyghur house. … That’s Han. Uyghur. Uyghur. Uyghur. Han.”

The 22-year-old student is home in Yining, a bustling city on China’s Kazakh border, for a week-long holiday. She studies English at Xinjiang Normal University (“Xinjiang Abnormal,” she clarifies, rolling her eyes) in Urumqi, the provincial capital, and has been kind, or misguided, enough to act as tour guide for a foreigner visiting from Shanghai.

It’s early last October, two months after the Beijing Olympics were disrupted by deadly attacks in the ancient oasis cities of Xinjiang (and eight months before Uyghur and Han residents would take to the streets of Urumqi in riots that have left more than 150 people dead).

The aftershocks of the Olympic upheaval are still evident in the omnipresence of the People’s Liberation Army and the massive banners exhorting residents to promote stable economic growth and to watch out for terrorists, in that order.

The result is tension – “pressure,” Zulmira calls it – and suspicion. Which is not too surprising, considering Xinjiang’s split personality. Outside the modern city centres, to which so many people from central China are paid to migrate, the region seems like it has yet to escape the era of the Silk Road.

Starting in the seventh century, Uyghur empires brought together nomads and farmers of many ethnicities and religions, with vital trade routes passing through Urumqi and Kashgar. Uyghurs were so famed for their literacy that Han-dynasty officials sought them out to serve as scribes.

Xinjiang is still renowned across China for its raisins. But lately the grape vines have been making way for oil derricks and the scribes’ descendants are fighting to preserve their language and culture.

The region produced almost 45 million tons of oil and gas in 2007, but the Uyghurs complain that they see little in return. Neither are they pleased with Beijing’s bizarre brand of affirmative action: the relocation of young unemployed Uyghur men to faraway factories on the east coast. At one such factory last week, Han resentment boiled over into an attack on a Uyghur dormitory.

The competing languages make Xinjiang a confusing place. There are two names for each city and landmark, one in lilting Mandarin, the other in more gutteral Uyghur, along with a guerrilla time zone – locals mischievously set their watches two hours behind the official “Beijing time” designed to accommodate the capital 3,000 kilometres away.

The result is absurdist comedy worthy of Samuel Beckett: Are you taking a 4 p.m. bus from Wulumuqi to Yining, or the 2 p.m. from Urumqi to Gulja? (It’s funny only until you find yourself stranded.)

But Zulmira makes an excellent guide – one with family everywhere. Her uncle is a grape farmer with oil derricks in his backyard near Turpan, fabled capital of the Uyghur empire. She has cousins all along the Kazakh border, on both sides of the yurt-dotted Tian Shan mountain range and Taklimakan desert, which the government plays up in its glossy brochures advertising the region as an exotic tourist destination. (Fun fact: Scenes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were shot there.)

The extended family comes together at her grandmother’s house to celebrate Eid, the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan. It’s a raucous gathering that features loud chatter and mutton-dumpling soup, eaten while everyone sits on thick carpets in a dark room adorned with tapestries.

Between the cows in the shed, the hole-in-the-ground toilet and the corn piled ankle-deep in Zulmira’s uncle’s house next door, it could be another planet – save for the tiny TV in the kitchen, where we all watch a Chinese-news broadcast of the U.S. Senate’s bailout vote, dubbed into Uyghur with Kazakh subtitles.

The dubbing is sloppy, but like their much better-known counterparts in Tibet, the Uyghurs cherish their culture and history. They realize that worshipping in mosques and insisting that their children be educated in their own language are not the traits of a traditional Chinese patriot and will never earn them the affection of Beijing.

“People who know Uyghur history, they must want to separate,” Zulmira tells me.

But then, as if fearing she has said too much, she tones it down – that split personality again: “If the government treats the Chinese people and the other ethnic groups equal, that will be fine.”

Globe and Mail reporter Anna Mehler Paperny returned from China in April.

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