Film Photo from An Unanswered Telephone Call, by Aziz Isa Elkun. Shared with filmmaker’s permission.
Interview with Minam, organized and written by Yi Xiaocuo, Oct 27, 2019
Mother! I will not speak of how you birthed me
Nor will I speak of your sacrifices
I will not speak of your love or your tears
I will not speak of your humanness, how you are girl and woman
How you are an individual expected angel
Surely heaven lay at your feet before those feet were hardened by callouses
No, I will not speak of your soft voice which coos me to sleep
Nor of your might when you are resolute
The way you mould like the metal poured into flames
And become the sharp sabre
Mother! I need you like the earth needs rain
Whether you flood me or leave me dry
I will hasten to drink your downpour
Mother! We have been separated by borderlines made by man
In the most unnatural accomplishments of globalisation
During times where earth is smallest and
Water is always available,
I am surrounded by a sea of salt
While you by barbed wire and men who spit venom
Let me hold you one last time
Before we are separated by the heavens
Let me hear your voice, aware of your own impending sleep
These devils who hold us apart
Cannot know we are connected by roots deeper than their satellites can penetrate
I will send my soul to your dreams
And the birds who travel to distant lands will
Bring to you seeds of my love
And the songs of my heart
I know you never despair, my life
I will not despair either
Though the world may darken through my tears
Let the flames in our heart burn those who dare disconnect our voices
We are the harmonious chord made from light
Refracted upon every crevice of the earth
Our songs will meet once again
I love you
I will feel your embrace again.
Minam began to collect stories from the Uyghur diaspora to send to human rights organizations. Very quickly, she was inundated by the intense pain in these stories. They all have a common theme: family separation.
“I don’t know if they are alive or not,” has become a catchphrase to describe the broken state of diaspora Uyghur family life, the same goes for many Xinjiang Kazakh refugees who fled to Kazakhstan. Many of them haven’t seen their loved ones for years after the crackdown on Turkic Muslims began in 2017 in Xinjiang. Minam has encountered people who had taken to recording every dream they had about their parents, and people whose chronic heartaches have manifested in physical illnesses, many more are simply living with pain one day at a time, pouring all their energy into work and activism.
The poem “Mother” came about after Minam read one particularly harrowing story about a woman who could not go back to her homeland due to her activism. This woman is a single mother with no other family in the diaspora. She had been diagnosed with cancer but did not tell her mother, who she hadn’t seen in many years. She couldn’t tell her about the chemo therapy she would have to go through alone in the US. During that period, her mother passed away in Xinjiang.
For Minam, a Uyghur whose entire family has immigrated to the US a long time ago, it was devastating to hear about families who could not even support each other during sickness, nor comfort each other in times of crisis. While witnessing the ongoing atrocities in her ancestral homeland from afar as a diaspora member, this pain is also complicated by reflecting the gendered expectation and elevated position that women face in Uyghur society:
Another thing I was doing around that time was reading Ana Yurt, where there is a passage about how Uyghur mothers carry such intense burdens. I think Uyghurs place mothers on a huge pedestal, which can be a double-edged sword. We have intense respect and love for mothers, but that also places a lot of burden and expectation on women. We see women and mothers as the backbones of our homeland and community but that is a heavy weight to bear. So, with all that in mind, I wrote “Mother” as an outpour of grief for those people separated from their mothers, who we cherish, and for those individuals who happen to be mothers.
It is this pain that diaspora Uyghurs have to connect to one another. While activism requires level-headedness, tact, and a certain level of emotional restraint, art and poetry have become places where they can explore, express and lay bare their feelings, trauma, joy, guilt, love, and so on without holding back. As Minam has shared with me, “Perhaps it is a way of giving ourselves permission to feel pain when we know that people back home are experiencing even greater pain.”