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Teaching Uyghur Poetry: Updated

This summer, Words Without Borders Campus published a post on teaching the poetry of Tahir Hamut, an ethnic Uyghur (pronounced we-ger) poet and filmmaker who is living in exile in Washington, D.C. following the Chinese government’s large-scale repressions of Uyghur Muslims. The New York Times published a leaked government archive that sheds new light on these repressions, and we have updated the post, below.

Kashgar kids
Uyghur children in Kashgar, Xinjiang. Carsten ten Brink. CC 2.0 license.

On November 16th, 2019, the New York Times published more than 400 leaked Chinese government documents detailing the planning, execution, and justification of the Chinese government’s mass imprisonments of up to a million innocent Uyghur people, including children: “Absolutely No Mercy’: Leaked Files Expose How China Organized Mass Detentions of Muslims.”

It is sometimes difficult for students to connect to global issues of such magnitude, especially at a geographical or cultural remove. Tahir Hamut’s poems, with their immediate emotional resonance, help bridge this distance. Students may well be able to identify with the longing in Hamut’s “Phone Call“:

A phone call makes the heart tremble

a beautiful woman tosses and turns In her mind she kisses the voice In her mind she sees the daybreak

They can listen to the poem in the original Uyghur below and on SoundCloud.


As a creative response, students might write their own poems about waiting, whether for a particular person, an event, or a change in their lives. 

For more poetry from Hamut, classes can then read “A Night Sama,” which connects contemporary poetry with traditional dance.  The Mazateco Mexican poet Juan Gregorio Regino makes a similar connection between tradition and modernity in his poem “Nothing Remains Empty” (in the form of a Mazateco chant); as does the Silver Age Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva in her folkloric  “To kiss a forehead is to erase worry.” Reading those poems in conjunction with Hamut’s will help students understand his work as part of a global conversation about the role of poetry in the modern era: should poetry push art into new directions, safeguard traditional forms of expression, or somehow do both?  

Uyghur Culture and Recent History

Introducing the poetry in this issue, guest editor Eleanor Goodman notes that:

In his poetry, Hamut gives voice not only to his own religious experience, but also to a people who cannot at the moment speak openly for themselves. He writes from a perspective that may soon be lost to the world, as the place in which he grew is rapidly disappearing.

To begin to learn about this world, students can watch a three-minute video featuring young Uyghur people teaching about the culture at a festival in Australia; or read dated but still useful resources from

To find out about efforts to preserve Uyghur culture outside of China, including a seventeen-year-old’s collection of short stories, students can read “The Future of the Fight to Preserve Uyghur Culture,” available from The China Project. If you teach English Language Learners or other students who would benefit from high-interest, simple-English content, the Voice of America Learning English program has a similar story, as well as an archive of other stories, short videos, and audio about Uyghurs.

Mass Imprisonments

As an alternative to the full archive of documents just published by the New York Times (“Absolutely No Mercy’: Leaked Files Expose How China Organized Mass Detentions of Muslims), students might read the shorter piece 5 Takeaways From the Leaked Files on China’s Mass Detention of Muslims.

Tahir Hamut’s own efforts to preserve Uyghur culture go beyond poetry. In 2018, he gave a speech about Chinese repressions of Uyghurs to U.S State Department International Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, stating that “China has turned the Uyghur region into a police state, an open prison.” 

Darren Byler, one of Hamut’s translators for Words Without Borders, is also active as an advocate for Uyghur rights and reporter on the current crisis. To learn more about how a translator can play these roles, students might take a look at Byler’s Twitter feed or YouTube page, or read “Love and Fear Among Rural Uyghur Youth During the People’s War,” an article he co-authored with Eleanor Moseman.

Connections to Other Histories

To reflect on the interplay of history, repression, and culture, students might read Hamut’s poetry in conjunction with other writing about “taboo topics” in China, particularly Liao Yiwu’s powerful accounting of state crimes against human rights: “This Country Must Break Apart“; or with other writing about humanity amidst repression, such as Svetlana Alexeivich’s oral history “The Wondrous Deer of the Eternal Hunt.”