The man was sitting three tables away from us. Dressed in a black jacket and a striped polo shirt, he looked like an average middle-aged Uyghur man. He seemed to be talking intently on his smartphone. Over small glasses of Turkish tea, A. and I were reading and translating a Uyghur novel called The Backstreets. We had been meeting this way each morning for several weeks. The problem was that the same man had been sitting three tables away from us the day before. Two days in a row seemed like too much. I whispered to A., who had his back to the man, “I think that guy might be following us.” I nodded at the man with a tilt of my head. “He was in the same spot yesterday. I might just be paranoid, but I think he might be taking pictures while he pretends to talk on his phone.”
A.’s face went white. He lurched to his feet. We took off, walking in different directions, trying to see if anyone was following us. Back in 2014, facial recognition cameras and checkpoints had not yet been installed across the city, so tracking people in space required human intelligence. We deleted WeChat from our phones in case we were detained and forced to show the Ministry of State Security (MSS) agents our contacts and chat histories, but there was not much we could do to delete the text messages on our smartphones. And we knew that Tencent and China Mobile could always share our information with the MSS if they were really serious about investigating us.
Several hours later, I texted A. to see if he had spotted anything unusual. Nothing. After waiting a day, we started meeting again, relieved that it must have been a coincidence. We smoked our cheap Hong He cigarettes, laughed at our paranoia. We went back to our tea in our corner of the teahouse, quietly translating our novel, the first long-form work of Uyghur fiction to appear in English.
In 2014, translating Uyghur knowledge into English felt like a subversive act in itself. English was a language that A. associated less with American imperialism and more with anti-racist texts like Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X. Even though The Backstreets had already been published in an online Uyghur literary forum, translating it into English would dramatically raise its profile. And the subtle allusions in the text to anti-Muslim racism and the colonization enacted by Han Chinese settlers in the Uyghur homeland would be thrown into sharp relief when critically examined by readers who were free to speak their thoughts out loud.
We knew this would be the case because, as we read The Backstreets—a difficult fable of a Uyghur man fleeing rural domestic violence, poverty, and alcoholism in the countryside, only to find himself scorned by non-Muslim bosses, colleagues, and janitors in the city—the book called to mind a pantheon of foundational postcolonial literature from Camus and Fanon to J. M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K., all of which were major sources of inspiration to the novel’s author, Perhat Tursun.
Even more importantly, translating the novel helped A. to think about his own life: his upbringing in a village that was slowly overrun by Han settlers, and the way the promise of education and economic development was withheld by racialized institutions that slotted him into token positions at best and repelled him like unwanted vermin at worst. Though he had found a way to pursue his obsession, chemistry, after leaving college, A.’s work at a chemical factory and then as a science teacher was undermined by the way his coworkers and students smirked at his accented Mandarin and mocked his hair and mannerisms. He felt that everywhere he turned he was asked, “What are you doing here?” This is why he was stuck in the ghettoized Uyghur enclaves of the city, hiding from the Chinese gaze.
The Backstreets diagnosed the colonial malady that confronted Uyghurs and offered a space for reflective thought about it. In 2014, the reeducation system of internment camps was just beginning, and it primarily targeted young Uyghur men in rural areas. A. imagined that in the big city of Urumchi, the capital of the region, there was still a space for Uyghurs to speak quietly. Here, even if they would never be treated as equals to the Han, Uyghurs could still live a decent life if they played their cards right. He never imagined that just three years later, he and 1.5 million others would be deemed untrustworthy and sent to camps.
We met in the tea shop to do the translation because an American anthropologist like me meeting an underemployed Uyghur with fidgety hands like A. in either of our apartments might raise suspicion with the Civil Affairs Ministry personnel who had installed QR codes on every apartment door. They scanned the codes, which pulled up high-resolution images and digital records of registered inhabitants, with their smartphones and conducted surprise inspections of Muslim homes every few days, looking for unregistered people. So it was better to do the translation out in the open, taking advantage of the vibrant tea culture that Uyghurs share with peoples throughout Western and South Asia. We tried to reassure ourselves that we did not have anything to hide. The only thing we were doing was making an all-too-common Uyghur story of systemic discrimination accessible to the English-reading world. But we knew even this action of translating an everyday reality was transgressive, and this shared knowledge, along with the rhythm we developed as co-translators, built an intimacy between us.
We were usually the first people in the tea shop right as it opened at 9:00 a.m. Sometimes, if I was a few minutes late, I would see A. across the street gesturing with his thin, trembling hands, muttering under his breath, cursing me for wasting his time. But still, when I got to our table, I would see that he had already bought me a two-yuan tea and the tahini pastry that he knew I liked. As an underemployed young Muslim man, he really did not have much to do other than apply for jobs and talk about literature and politics. We became close. If I did not meet him for a day or two, he would call me asking where I had been. He protected our friendship. He did not want me spending too much time with other Uyghur men who were outside his friendship network.
At noon, two friends from his village would often join us and we would eat hand-pulled noodles or a rice pilaf called polu together. In the evening, we often made elaborate plans regarding what and where we would eat. We would argue about whether to eat sunflower seeds in the park or play pool. We stayed out late, talking about philosophy, romantic love, suicide, and music. We talked about the disappearances of people in the countryside, about protests and revenge killings, about police shooting indiscriminately into crowds, surveillance systems, political education camps, and the way state policies allowed Han settlers to get wealthy while preventing most Uyghurs from owning businesses, finding jobs, or even having a secure right to the city.
Translating The Backstreets with A. was intense. It meant poring over complex grammatical structures and odd turns of phrase, trying to get at the emotive equivalence of each line. But more than the literal meaning of the words, it taught me about the rich knowledge system and world of experience that shapes Uyghur life, things that were impossible for me to learn in a college classroom. It guided me to a whole new set of questions to ask the dozens of young Uyghurs I interviewed about their past and their imagined futures as part of my ethnographic research. Most importantly, it showed me what it means to be a friend, and to sit next to the pain and loneliness of someone in the midst of a deep, intractable depression. Reading the text together allowed us to dwell on A.’s rage. It showed me how the trauma of colonization seeps into all aspects of life. It shapes individuals’ possibilities, their life paths. It does not erase their agency, their ability to narrate their own story, but I found that it narrows it.
A. told me that he felt Tursun’s novel was written about him. It gave him a way to understand the value of his own story of science obsession, ridicule, and rage, as an experience shared with the protagonist of an anti-colonial novel. He was the character J.M. Coetzee described, after reading The Backstreets, as a half-crazy hero, struggling “to make sense of a world of oppression.” He was trying to figure out his life, but no matter how close he got to cracking the code, he was always already blocked.
When I left the region in 2015, I promised Perhat Tursun and A. that I would find a publisher for the novel. But instead, I waited. I wanted to make sure that the media attention that publication would bring wouldn’t cause undue harm to either of them. In 2017, A. reached out to tell me he couldn’t remain in direct contact with me and other foreigners as he had before. Several months later, another friend from his village told me he had been taken to a camp near his home village in Southern Xinjiang, far from the city. Around the same time, I heard the news that Perhat Tursun had disappeared as well.
When I went to the region for the last time in 2018, I asked all the booksellers and neighbors I could find if they had any news about Perhat. Nothing. Then, around a year later, I learned from Perhat’s friends that he had been sentenced to sixteen years in prison. A.’s friends still didn’t know where exactly he was or why he was taken.
It was only then that I decided that it was time. Perhat’s half-crazy hero deserves his place in the sun. It is all I can do now to give life to A.’s quiet rage that still burns in a camp cell or locked factory on the other side of the world.
Copyright © 2022 by Darren Byler.
This essay is adapted from Terror Capitalism: Uyghur Dispossession and Masculinity in a Chinese City published in 2022 by Duke University Press.