‘A Uyghur Poet in Fairfax’ by Nuo Ya

written by Yi Xiaocuo

He wiped away his tears gently in the Wall Street Journal‘s news room when telling the world how Xinjiang has turned into an open-air prison. Shortly after that, his and his wife’s family members were taken by the Chinese police.

This is Tahir Hamut, one of the most renowned contemporary Uyghur poets, starting his life all over again in US at 47 years old. The mundane everyday scenes in America make the perilous exodus out of China seem unreal. He added gas to the car; he patiently described the mass arrests of the Uyghurs, again; he walked around the park holding his head high, not letting the hardship ruin his posture. The park in the Virginia winter is peaceful and quiet, but not a tree branch resembles Kashgar. After a silent moment, his tone suddenly became warm and lively when reading a poem in Uyghur, his mother tongue, his last sanctuary.

James Baldwin, in his The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity, talks about that the artist is an analogue for the integrity of being human. “Only an artist can tell … what it is like for anyone who gets to this planet to survive it. What it is like to die, or to have somebody die; what it is like to be glad… The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t. Statesmen don’t. Priests don’t. Union leaders don’t. Only poets.”

Displacement is not just the physical removal of one’s body from their native land. In the film, the psychological stress of uprooting and struggling hides in the silent gestures of his performance. Underneath his fierce cultural pride, his belonging to the Uyghur lifeworld still burns bright. Tahir is still writing, he writes poignantly about the distance between all the capital cities in which he has lived his life: Urumqi, Beijing, and Washington DC. The experiences of everyday life as an exile, a transnational being, struggles with immigration paperwork, survival, and witnessing the violence in homeland from afar… still linger and shape his poetry.

Born in Mexico, filmmaker Nuo Ya traveled to Kunming in China in 2008 and learned about the Uyghur community there. He has been following the situation in Xinjiang since then.

Read more about Tahir Hamut and his poetry on Words Without Borders, Asymptote, Banango Street, Frontier Poetry, Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia.

Tahir Hamut
tr. Joshua L. Freeman

I saw you looking in the stone mirror before,
dripping water, your idea was so close to me then.
Today you tasted the winter wind, a bitter taste.
The same depression, the same downcast features.
Two drops of the black night, your eyes!
You can’t imagine a homeland you’ve never seen.
Where did you find the stone mirror? In a bygone age, or in your dream?
In those times all hearts were sand, were wind,
and they had a black smell that wouldn’t fade.
Now, clouds crowd into the bottom of your ear, you can’t hear,
you feel the mournful cold, you slowly lift your head,
loneliness follows loneliness, as sunlight sinks into sunlight.
Tell me, can I kiss you with frozen lips?
Tell me, will the sun that lights the stone mirror swallow us?
Goodbye my dearest, flee, get far from here!
But a tree will not defy the land.
Here it’s still winter, the trees haven’t yet grown leaves.
A handful of pale gold soul in my palm, in my fingers.
The spring season is my resolve.
Time is still long, like time itself.
Oh my dearest, tell me now: which one of us should die first?

November 1995, Ürümchi

Tahir Hamut
tr. Joshua L. Freeman

Watching the mysterious unknown figure of Kashgar
I shudder in dread of glorious nights.
Girls that have married, friends that have died, a dry spring.
Eyes are a pinch of earth that has vanished from the land:
a television, cheap tobacco, dirty socks, the original of a translation.
The green bridge and the greengrocer market are dim in my memory,
I lie stretched out like a boneless animal,
my stomach is hungry, my face is dark, my heart is empty!
But in far Ürümchi someone chews an icy stone,
her eyes, her face are damp; sin before her, and God behind.
Clear steam rises from sugared cornmeal gruel,
sparrows step slowly along the power lines,
in the low sky a frightening heaviness.
Mournful elders, wayward youths, eager children,
in just three years all have grown old and ugly.
Kashgar—the moment between eyebrow and eyelash,
paper stuck to the face of the sun, eternal black ink,
a festering old wound, pathetic love.

But you
balled up wind and threw it at the sky,
then you looked at me,
rain drips from a coin-sized hole in our thoughts.

March 1998, Kashgar

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