Border – A Song of Transnational Sorrow

Written by Guldana Salimjan

In the past few days, this song went viral on Kazakh social media. It expresses the transnational sorrow of Kazakhs from China’s Xinjiang, who are now stranded in Kazakhstan and separated from their families. “Shekara” (pronunciation chegara) means border in the Kazakh language, here it specifically refers to the Sino-Kazakhstan border. After three decades of the Sino-Soviet split, when the border finally reopened after 1991, China and Kazakhstan engaged in robust free trade and investment in energy industries. Many Kazakhs migrated to Kazakhstan, obtained green cards, degrees, jobs, but also have families and relatives still living in Xinjiang. Many were also satisfied with life in China and enjoyed the flexibility of traveling between the two countries. Borderland is a lived and inhabited space, full of hopes and opportunities for different people.

However, this transborder mobility was disrupted since the Muslim crackdown in Xinjiang began in 2017. Since then border crossing has become dangerous for people whose original home (place of birth on the passport) is Xinjiang and whose minzu status (ethnic identity) is non-Han. In some cases, even when people have obtained Kazakhstan citizenship, they are still treated as Chinese nationals (but secondary citizens) in China, because dual citizenship is not recognized there. One of the most concerning topics among the Kazakhs and Uyghurs who are stranded abroad is how to denounce their Chinese citizenship so as to avoid such profiling if they ever cross the Chinese border. At the moment, Covid-19 quarantine became another justification for the border control, and passport renewal and visa processing services in China are suspended until further notice.

The border is such a powerful existence. It opens and closes under arbitrary state sanctions. Thirty years of border closure after the Sino-Soviet split in 1962, contributed to countless broken families, generational trauma, and fractured Kazakh identities such as “Kitay Qazaq” (Chinese Kazakhs) and “Oris Qazaq” (Russified Kazakhs). For Kazakhs, very often Xinjiang (or rather Ili, Altay, and Tarbagtai) is their “tugan jer” (place of birth), while Kazakhstan, a strangely familiar place, still takes time to live in and make home for future generations. Today, this powerful border can easily destroy one’s freedom and dignity simply by scrutinizing the traveler’s nationality and travel history.

The song “Shekara” is addressing exactly this theme of the human agency being deprived by an inanimate, artificial boundary, and it echoes countless testimonies of Kazakh and Uyghur men and women crossing this border and became ensnared in the camp systems and then reappear as sweatshop workers under the euphemism of “labor transfer programs” in Chinese cities. This border is no longer a channel for opportunities, but a root cause for many sorrows and regrets.

What this song is also telling so well, is the collective, embodied experience of diaspora Kazakh people who are still suffering from the Chinese state violence even though they are relatively safe in Kazakhstan. Life-cycle events such as funerals and weddings are an integral part of Kazakh social life and kinship network but it is now impossible to attend them as people fear the aggressive Chinese police and law that see every returning Kazakh as a terrorist or a spy. The singer did not move around in his environment like in many other Kazakh pop music videos, but solemnly his gestures sometimes suggest a bodily ritual attending Islamic funerals and praying. For Muslims performing funeral rites properly and spread soil on the graves is a moral obligation. But now they have to live in anguish and guilt for not being able to fulfill this obligation for their loved ones.

When I got in touch with the singer-songwriter Ushkyn Zhamalbek, he said,

“I wrote this song because I feel the immense pain of our people who cannot bury their loved one themselves. We Kazakh did not want to harm anyone, we love the land we live in, we drink the water and nourish ourselves from the land, but we also have relatives in Kazakhstan. That’s all. We just want to live a peaceful life. Why are we suffering like this? My goal for writing this song is to wish all our families and relatives safe and well. I only hope the situation can get better and we can all see each other again. I am not advocating anything. I am only hoping for the best.”

This transnational sorrow is circulating on social media such as WhatsApp and Facebook, even surprisingly on WeChat in China. Several people sent me the Youtube link, video, or audio excerpts of the song, amazed by its accuracy in conveying what has been bothering their minds for the past few years. I, too, listened to it obsessively, lost in the recollection of how many missed funerals and weddings of the people I know, back in Xinjiang where we were born. I also couldn’t spread soil on their graves, neither could I bless the newly-wed couples with eternal happiness. I could no longer connect with my relatives by their warm embraces, comforting phrases, and kisses on my forehead.

Here is our imperfect translation of the lyrics.

Artist: Ushkyn Zhamalbek
Translated by Guldana and Tumaris

The hard blows of thunderstorms
Far behind, I left my families and kinsmen
I miss you all so much
My dear brothers and sisters…

I want to go there but I cannot
My tears are forming a flood in my eyes
My blood relatives who passed away
I could not even spread soil on their graves…

It was my ancestor’s wish that
We came to our fatherland
We prayed and waited for happiness
But alas! My parents are left behind…

How can I sit here and not think about it?
All the weddings I attended but I had no mood
Kazakhs on both sides
are separated by this border

Some people say they want to return to their homeland (people)
Some people say they want to go back again and again
Some people are living their days in silence
Thinking where they are destined to be, is their homeland

Many people dream and still believe that
They would meet each other again soon
Praying for the safety of their families far away
Is the only thing people can do…

It was my ancestor’s wish that
We came to our fatherland
We prayed and waited for happiness
But alas! My parents are left behind…

How can I sit here and not think about it?
All the weddings I attended but I had no mood
Kazakhs on both sides
are separated by this border

Dear relatives and brothers
If you were sitting around this feasting table
I would not have other dreams
If only this wish comes true
From the gardens and orchards of Ili
From the mountains of Tarbagatai
I wish to see an endless stream of migration (caravans) arriving
From the other side of Altay
From the other side of Altay…

The sacred soil of my land
The place I was born
I miss you so so much…

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