written by Yi Xiaocuo, Sep 17, 2019
When I first saw this autophotography by Yangisar, I suddenly remembered a book title “The Plaint of the Hunter Above the Abyss”—a book dialogue between renowned Kyrgyzstan author Chingiz Aitmatov and Kazakhstan author Mukhtar Shakhanov, partly because in the picture Yangisar is literally standing on the top of abyss, looking particularly precarious, hands up in the air, blindfolded, without any support.
It was incredibly coincidental that this is indeed a cliff on the mountains along the borders of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Yangisar asked his friend to take this photo of him. Underneath the dark head cover, his face faces east—his ancestral homeland East Turkestan—a place that is today officially called Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
As a member of the persecuted Turkic peoples born in this region, I was most immediately connected to Chingiz Aitmatov and Mukhtar Shakhanov’s dialogue on the survival stories of their families during Stalin’s purges in 1936. First published in 1998, the book was popular among post-Soviet Central Asian readers seeking an intelligent discussion on roots, national identity, and Soviet legacy. Many years later, Chingiz Aitmatov passed away, while Mukhtar Shakhanov continues to symbolize Kazakhstan national literature and language, however bounded by the border. The same person who lamented the Soviet persecution of Turkic peoples has signed a letter to advocate shutting down the Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights Group in Kazakhstan—the world’s only organization documenting China’s abuse of Xinjiang Kazakhs.
Yangisar on the abyss poses questions for the people who are forced into an exiled, stateless life, a life in which everyday existence is precarious and uncertain just like in this picture. His questions echo in the mountains: “In the times when darkness is devouring our world, does one feel utterly helpless? Does he feel unable to change anything? Does he give up and surrender? Or even worse? Does he choose indifference for a certain amount of comfortability?”
Ironically, both Mukhtar Shakhanov and Chingiz Aitmatov’s books are now banned in Xinjiang. These most well-read authors among Kazakhs and Kyrgyz around the world, are probably considered ‘terrorists’ or ‘harboring separatism’ in the eyes of Chinese state authorities.