“Our days became dark, and the nights even darker.” — Kazakh lyrical poem condemning state violence in Xinjiang

Written by Yi Xiaocuo

This is a Kazakh song by an anonymous singer. It is in a traditional oral art genre called tolgau that is shared by Kazakhs, Karakalpak, and Nogai people in Central Asia. Tolgau is like a lyrical poem in English and expresses strong emotions and thoughts in a highly articulated manner, in a way similar to the Italian singing style bel canto.

This song condemns the ongoing atrocities happening in Xinjiang from a Kazakh perspective. It tells of the state’s repression of ordinary Islamic practices such as greetings like “May peace be upon you,” Muslim burial rituals, and halal dietary taboos. The anonymous singer laments that now when Kazakhs return to Xinjiang, they cannot even stay in their relatives’ homes. This is due to the intense grid-style management and surveillance system that requires residents to register their house guests at the local police station. He implies that young Kazakhs who are trapped in China have become tools to serve for the state. He also implies that the older generations are living through the humiliation of losing their language and religion. The singer compares Chinese Kazakhs’ status to mankurt, which was referenced in the Epic of Manas, it means mindless slaves whose memory and historical roots have been wiped out.

We seldom hear Kazakh voices about Xinjiang camps except for high profiles cases like Sayragul Sautbay, Serikzhan Bilash, Kaster Musakhanuly, and Murager Alimuly. If it were not for the tireless work of Atajurt Human Rights Group, we might not even know about them. Same for this anonymous poet, striving to leave a trace of artistic defiance. Primo Levi writes in his work Survival in Auschwitz, “Even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization. We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but we still possess one power, and we must defend it with all our strength for it is the last — the power to refuse our consent.”

Featured image is credited to photographer Theo Paul. The image shows a metal skeleton of yurt in the open air.

Author: unknown
Translated by Yi Xiaocuo and Tumaris

Different era brought on different hardships                                  
like the lashing tail of a horse
Instead of from God,
we are now fulfilling harsh demands from the Chinese (government)
Our heads are beaten by their batons
our brains are smashed into our mouths
Locked in cages like sheep
we are to be eaten by barking officers
we are trampled under their boots
we are punished without any crimes
Alas our golden heads with pride
are now rolling under their feet
Dear brothers and sisters, do you have any solutions?

Living people cannot give proper greetings
the dead cannot get proper burials
Our tongues are tied
our heads are dizzy
nobody can trust each other anymore
Our children return from other countries
unable to stay in their own homes
We suffer from this fate
we became jokes for the Chinese
This life in the boiling cauldron
has made us abandon our traditions
Burning in the fire of hell
our Kazakh people left behind in China
our Kazakh people left behind in China…

We are treated less than livestock
we became slaves of the Chinese (government)
Like tongs and pokers by the fireplace
our children became tools for the Chinese (government)
Our food became unclean
our days became dark
and the nights even darker
The living are like the walking dead
We are in the stove of shame
burning with the fire of repression
our ashes became floating dust in the sky
Dear brothers and sisters, do you have any solutions?
dear brothers and sisters, where can I find solutions?

We are sinking in the swamp
our best people are all in prison
We are eaten alive in the dark cages
by blood-sucking insects
Like a pit of poisonous snakes
they sit on my honorable guest seat
Lying under my threshold
using all the tricks they can
weaponizing the less educated
Twisting our minds
they are turning us into mankurt
Dear brothers and sisters, do you have any solutions?
dear brothers and sisters, where can I find solutions?

Now we must be loyal to China
by losing our language and religion
Our sons are dragged to be sons-in-law
our daughters also in their arms
Once rebellious Kazakhs
are now speechless with cut off tongues
Their sharp eyes carved out
and skinned alive
Mindless savage kafirs
have no shame
no sympathy for the innocent
nor humanity
Our kind-hearted Kazakhs
have no place to hide or run
There is no support to help them stand up
nor is there any law they can rely on
Dear brothers and sisters, do you have any solutions?

Dear brothers and sisters, do you have any solutions?
dear brothers and sisters, where can I find solutions?
Just a few Kazakhs left in other countries
most of them have been killed
After seeing all this,
how can I close my eyes?
In this life full of hardship
when punishment approaches
our blood-kin are under enormous oppression
We are relatives, dear brothers and sisters,
is there anyone Atajurt can call upon?
Is there anyone who can do anything?
we are all dying and hoping
Is there anyone Atajurt can call upon?
is there anyone who can help?
Is there anything that can be done?
we are all dying and hoping…

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