Tarim, My Uyghur Friend36 min read

On an interned intellectual in Xinjiang, by Tang Danhong – trans. Anne Henochowicz

This essay, by Chinese-born, Israel-based author and documentary artist Tang Danhong, is a reflection on her relationship with the Uyghur scholar and poet Dr Ablet Abdurishit Berqi, called “Tarim” in the essay, whose name was later published on public lists of intellectuals interned in Xinjiang. Tang befriended Dr Berqi during his postdoctoral fellowship at Haifa University, Israel. The Uyghurs are a majority-Muslim ethnic group in China’s far northwestern province of Xinjiang and the primary target of China’s ongoing campaign of cultural genocide in the region; since 2017, China has put over a million Uyghurs and other Muslims into “re-education” camps, where their language, faith and heritage are forcibly suppressed. Tang confronts this unfolding horror as she searches for news of Dr. Berqi, a secular Muslim and political moderate who tried to work within China’s party-state system to improve the lives of his people. This is the first time the full translation is appearing in English, and the text is punctuated by excerpts of translated poetry by Dr Berqi. – Anne Henochowicz


I retweeted Erkin: “The president of XX University has confirmed that a research fellow in the College of Humanities, Dr. Z.B., has been arrested; his colleague, Professor G.O., a fellow in pre-modern Uyghur literature, has also been arrested, because he once attended a conference in Turkey. Their whereabouts are unknown.” The tweet included photos of the two scholars. They looked to be in their forties and both had a cultivated poise, the obvious bearing of respected intellectuals.

I thought again of Tarim. It had been two years since he left Israel and went back to Ürümqi. Regardless of their features or demeanor, neither of these men looked anything like Tarim. They were fair-skinned and lean, with expressions of worldliness, and weren’t wearing glasses; while Tarim looks a bit coarse, especially in his Facebook profile photo, with his close-cropped brown hair, high nose, and deep-set eyes, framed by wire-rimmed glasses. He looks like a brooding artist with that sad, reserved expression. If I could see him again, I’d tease him for that hipster photo. “Dr.,” “professor,” “fellow,” “literature”… These words made me think of Tarim. Of course, I didn’t just think of him, I worried about him. I feared that he, like these scholars, had also been arrested.

Erkin’s tweets and photos began to look more and more like a chain of interlocking nightmares. An endless flow of people who had been arrested: men, women, religious leaders, farmers, merchants; “re-education centers” with watchtowers, barbed wire, armed guards; the belated news of death, the orphaned children, the convicted experts, professors, artists. Oddly, this called to mind the words of Ezra Pound: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough.”

Sometimes, I thought I recognized one among the “apparition of these faces,” and I asked myself, isn’t that Tarim?

…Every day, I learn
I shouldn’t look like this
I shouldn’t speak this language
I shouldn’t have this faith…

  – Tarim, ‘Created’


Before he left Israel, Tarim messaged me on Facebook: “I’m going back home in a few days. For safety, I’m unfriending you. We’ll stay in touch through David.” He’d once asked my husband to help him find some medicine, and they had kept up an email correspondence. Tarim had also sent me poetry he’d written in Chinese, so we also had each other’s email addresses. Which is to say, he didn’t want me to email him once he had returned.

I post a lot about the issues of Tibet and Xinjiang on Facebook. Tarim never once liked, shared, or commented on any of my posts. He mostly posted music, and a few short poems he’d translated from English to Uyghur. It was all about matters of the heart, nothing I would ever call sensitive. I never liked anything he posted on Facebook, either. I think he unfriended me because he supposed, or believed, that just being Facebook friends with me could bring him trouble. I often joke that I’m a “splittist,” given my habit of dissent. In fact, I let everyone know that I’m political kryptonite, as a warning to any Chinese person I may encounter.

Could a note of greeting from Israel be the final blow that landed Tarim in a concentration camp?”

Many times, I talked with David about whether he should email Tarim, just to see how he’s doing? In the end, we decided against it. Because writing to him would not make him safer, and could in fact have the opposite effect. We were lost in a fog of indecision. Could someone be hacking into Tarim’s email? If so, did they know that David was my husband? How would “those people” judge Tarim’s association with us “splittists”? Could a note of greeting from Israel be the final blow that landed Tarim in a concentration camp? Since birth, I’ve been stalked by a shuddering uncertainty, inextricable from my experience, that makes me cautious and clumsy, and clouds my life with all kinds of absurdities.

…Every day, I learn
My body is constantly changing
Feet narrowed by shoes
Head flattened by hats
Clothes to choose, to wear or not?
Raped constantly by choices…

  – Tarim, ‘Created’


So, who is Erkin, who sent that first tweet? A person whose parents, naturally, gave him a name. But I don’t know if Erkin’s real name is “Erkin” – it’s a common Uyghur name, meaning “freedom.” People who are being smothered by a despotic regime don’t just choose usernames for privacy. Erkin’s Twitter handle and profiles emphasize his Uyghur identity, his fight against the perpetrators of damnatio memoriae, his hatred of and resistance to the occupation. I’ve never met Erkin; I don’t know where “Freedom” lives. This situation is the perfect metaphor for our relationship to “freedom.” Out of respect for freedom and independence, in this essay I’m calling him “Erkin” instead of using his Twitter handle.

Erkin must have been beside himself when he first direct-messaged me. “That PhD they took is my friend,” he wrote, and when I saw the photo of his friend, I thought of another PhD, Tarim. Before I knew Tarim, Erkin had once DMed about an influential Uyghur poet who had won a scholarship to study in Israel, but he didn’t tell me the poet’s name. After I’d met Tarim, I sensed he didn’t want people to know about his contact with me, so I never brought him up to Erkin. This time, though, I figured that Erkin had ways of finding out if Tarim was safe. “So many academics have been taken … Do you know what happened to that poet who went to Israel?” I asked.

Erkin replied, “He’s already applied for asylum in the US. He got there last year.”

“Oh, wonderful! I’ve been so worried about him.”

“He’s very active. The Chinese police tried to use his six-year-old daughter to get him to work for them, but he refused. Now he can’t communicate with her.” It didn’t sound like Erkin was talking about Tarim.

“Is his family still over there?” I asked.

“He divorced his wife in order to keep her out of trouble. Public Security is holding his daughter hostage.”

I thought, this is very different from the Tarim I know. Besides, if he’d made it to the US a year before, and had become active in the independence movement, he wouldn’t have to shun a “splittist” like me, would he?

“Have you met him?” Erkin asked.

“I’m not sure we’re talking about the same person.”

Erkin sent me a photo of the poet and told me his name. It wasn’t Tarim. I felt confused. Could it be that one of Israel’s few scholars of Uyghur culture, Professor Nimrod Baranovitch, had taken more than one Uyghur poet-postdoc under his wing? I couldn’t decide whether to tell Erkin Tarim’s real name.

It’s true, Tarim isn’t his real name. It’s the pen name he used in the poems he sent me.

…The books the Han can read
I can’t read
The words the Han can say
I can’t say
The things the Han can do
I can’t do
Because Xinjiang is special…

  – Tarim, ‘Autonomy’


So, who is Tarim? Should I use his real name? In Xinjiang, where growing a beard or keeping a copy of the Koran at home are indications of terrorism, what consequences would he face if I wrote about him? Come to think of it, when I DMed the names of universities and professors to Erkin, did our smartphones leak his information? Leaving the country is already enough to land him in the camps. My tangled fears will never match the range of barbed wire. But people tell the stories of victims after the massacre, not when the butchers are choosing the lambs for the slaughter. I’ve never shuddered as I write like I do now. Then again, how could I not write about Tarim? What is his crime? All I can say for sure is that his crime is being from Xinjiang – a “new territory” fertile with the blood of its native people, a land of police cars and tanks, of concentration camps – from the moment I began writing, I’ve been full of trepidation. But I have to write about Tarim, a Uyghur, in this dark time, whose path so briefly crossed mine.

All I can say for sure is that Tarim’s crime is being from Xinjiang”

One spring afternoon in 2016, before the “crimes,” the camps, and the desperate searches, I received a Facebook friend request from a Uyghur who was also friends with Erkin. His profile said he was at Haifa University. I assumed he was the Uyghur poet whom Erkin had mentioned to me before, and accepted his request.

Minutes later, we were chatting. He said that he’d seen my writing on his friends’ feeds and thought it was “very interesting.” I told him that I’d heard from a Uyghur friend that a Uyghur poet was studying at Haifa under a specialist in Uyghur music. He corrected me: “No, my advisor is a China scholar, but he approaches social issues from the perspective of music. Including Mongolians, Tibetans, and Uyghurs.”

I asked him what he thought of Israel. Were the people here friendly to him? “It’s not bad,” he said. “A lot of people here haven’t heard of Uyghurs, and they don’t really know about China, either. They just assume I’m European and leave it at that. Once they find out I’m from China, we have a lot to talk about.”

I told him that I’d once been stopped at the Bangkok airport by Israeli security because I had a Uyghur book in my luggage. The bright young agent said that he could read Arabic, and that my book looked like it was in Arabic, but that he couldn’t figure out what it said. I told him it was in Uyghur, and he asked, “What is Uyghur?”

As Tarim and I messaged, I’m sure the scene outside my window was the same as it is right now: dappled light, the distant sound of cars driving home. From the lush woods at the top of Mt. Carmel, Tarim would have seen the sun slowly fall into the Mediterranean, olives shaken from the trees by the wind.

I asked if he mostly wrote poetry. “I’m pretty wide-ranging. I also write fiction. In the past decade I’ve written a few essays on social issues. Right now I’m studying 20th-century Uyghur literature.”

I let him know that I’d like to read his work. He told me he usually wrote in Uyghur, but over the past five or six years he’d been writing more in Mandarin, because he was writing about Chinese people and wanted to express himself in Chinese. He sent me some of his Chinese poems. Among them were stories of personal humiliation: of a Chinese woman who fawned over him when she mistook him for a Westerner, then changed her tune as soon as she found out he was Uyghur; of sleeping on the street after a hotel refused him a room; of being harassed by the police.

…My hands and feet are made to work the land
to dance
My mouth is made to sing
To pray for peace on earth
Emit the light of love
I come from Xinjiang
Don’t mock my dignity
Dance is not weak or cowardly
Song is not endlessly patient

  – Tarim, ‘I Come from Xinjiang’


It was a Shabbat morning, at first light, and Tel Aviv was like a ghost town, our car alone on the road. I gave Tarim a call to let him know we’ve left, and he said he was already up. David and I, and two of David’s colleagues, often go hiking on the weekends, covering ten or twenty kilometers at a time, and we had invited Tarim along this week.

Tarim looked a bit older in person than in his Facebook profile photo. He spoke Mandarin with a thick accent. I wanted to give him a hug, but we just shook hands. It was our first meeting, after all. David greeted him in Chinese and opened the car door for him.

We took the switchback down the holy mountain, orange in the dawn, from time to time rustling past the scorched remains of trees from a fire several years past. Tarim said his Uyghur poetry focused inward. “It worries me that my Chinese poems are very political. I don’t particularly care for politics in literature.”

We got to the trailhead and met David’s friends. Just like Tarim had said, our Israeli companions assumed he was from Europe, which gave us “a lot to talk about.” I introduced him as “my friend, Tarim. He’s Uyghur.”

I couldn’t bring myself to say, “He’s from China.” They asked where he was from. “China,” Tarim answered nonchalantly. 

The two friends looks at Tarim and me, comparing my Eastern face to his Western one. “Where in China?” they asked, puzzled. 

Feeling a bit uncomfortable, I blurted out, “East Turkestan.”

Their faces went blank. David interjected, “Have you heard of Xinjiang?”

“Oh, Xinjiang, yes.”

David went on, “Xinjiang is East Turkestan. ‘Xinjiang’ means ‘New Territory’ in Chinese…” Then he switched into Hebrew to explain. We all laughed in mild embarrassment, a short laugh, a laugh touched by politics.

It was a bright and beautiful day. We walked fifteen kilometers along a section of the Israel National Trail. Tarim wore brown leather shoes, not the best for hiking, but the rainy season had ended not long ago and the earth was still supple and dustless. We walked across carpets of newly-green grass and gravel roads. We climbed to the top of a hill, we climbed down. We passed through vibrant brush, we passed a Christian relic, we passed pilgrims from Europe. As I write this, why is it that those two striding feet always appear before my eyes? Tarim from “Xinjiang,” a farmer’s son from a desert oasis, who had passed the university entrance examination in his native language, then gone on to get his masters degree, his doctorate, become an associate professor, and had come to Israel for a two-year postdoctoral fellowship, all the while shod in those brown leather shoes. Those shoes were well-made. They kept their shape through the entire hike, and they didn’t end up with too many mud stains. They could still accompany Tarim to the library, to meetings with his advisor, or they could follow him back to the lecture hall in Ürümqi, and then on to his doorstep, where they would be neatly placed next to the rug… No, it’s not about the shoes, it’s about the owner of those shoes, someone who walked freely in a foreign country, while he was still bound to another..

…I come from Xinjiang
At airport security
Please let me go barefoot
I herd sheep in bare feet
I till the soil in bare feet
The grass likes when I fondle it
The crops like when I trample them…

  – Tarim, ‘I Come from Xinjiang’


The owner of those shoes has lost his freedom. 

There aren’t many Uyghurs who have studied in Israel. Erkin quickly found out about Tarim from a Uyghur poet living in exile in Turkey. “Is that person you were asking about named Ablet Abdurishit Berqi? He’s already been arrested. The poet in Turkey said a number of people have confirmed his arrest. They’re not sure exactly when it happened. They’ve heard he’s in a concentration camp. Every purge over there with the intellectuals. My friend who was arrested, the one who got his PhD in the US, he’s a cautious person. You could say he leaned toward the government’s side. And they still took him.”

Ablet Abdurishit Berqi is also a cautious person. He was careful when he sent me his poems, preferring to go by his pen name, Tarim. What does caution mean now? Despite everything, Tarim who wears brown leather shoes, Ablet Abdurishit Berqi who studied Uyghur literature in Israel, who once walked with us in the sacred wilderness, who took off his shoes in some airport in China to go through security and thought of the grass under his bare feet while herding sheep; who was turned away from a hotel in Zhengzhou, and ate an apple under the night sky; who urged me to tone down my critical writing, lest I stir up hatred; who wrote a subtle allegorical poem about the news that children in Shandong Province were given faulty vaccines; who gave me a collection of his poems titled Poetry, My Refuge; that man who walked across the thin ice of caution, walked straight into the concentration camps.

“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you write will be used against you,” a Chinese poet, Liu Changben, cried on Twitter. Now this is also my cry. I am writing down what Tarim said because this thoughtful, expressive person has been – as Chinese government propaganda says of internees – “implicated in terrorism,” and because he, along with others whose “thinking has problems,” has been shut up in a “de-extremification” concentration camp so that “twenty million people can sleep soundly at night.” This Uyghur man, whose path crossed mine in Israel, is also the only Uyghur I’ve ever spoken to at length and face-to-face. His arrest has pulled me across the distance between myself and fear, dread and despair. For this reason, by writing this, I am struggling against exhaustion and aphasia, because you never know who will read this, who will curry favor with the higher authorities, who will “fulfill their duty” and use something I wrote to give a name to his crime, to dig his grave. As I was writing this essay, the first person to tell the world what he went through in one of the concentration camps, the Kazakh man Omir Bekali, learned that his 80 year-old father had been killed in a camp. We understood the vicious message of his death: the right of the survivors to tell their stories, and the right of the victims to have their stories told, even those have been taken away.

…don’t curse the haze
it’s good for thinking
it’s good for falling in love
your cursed bright day and dark night
do not exist before my eyes
all I see is beauty
I’m the song of the mute
written to please the king…

  –  Tarim, ‘Gray Love Story’


When I run through, in my head, our conversation on the hike, I remember I was the one asking questions, which Tarim answered calmly and carelessly. Nothing provocative. I’ve forgotten most of what he said; what I do recall are the most divisive and extreme things.

Naturally, I asked him about the chaos of July 5, 2009, when the riots started in Ürümqi. Tarim was at home, and the gunfire kept him up all night. He was sure that many Uyghurs died. The declaration of martial law kept his family inside, until their refrigerator was empty. He couldn’t stand for his young sons to go hungry, so he ventured out to find something to eat. He mentioned Patigul Ghulam, a mother who was running between the prison and the detention center in search of her son. She hadn’t heard any news about him since he was taken into custody. Later, she was tried behind closed doors for “leaking state secrets,” because she’d spoken to the foreign press. Tarim told me: “Thousands of Uyghurs were arrested or went missing after July 5. This woman dared to tell the public that her son was missing! Her fate is just the tip of the iceberg. You’re also a mother. Maybe someday you can write about this mother.”

In Xinjiang, besides the army and the riot police, Tarim said, there is also the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, and those security teams at oil companies and mines, as well-equipped and disciplined as real troops. The most shocking thing wasn’t that unarmed civilians were called “Uyghur terrorists,” but that each of these armed groups were fighting amongst themselves, vying for control and turning Xinjiang into a powder keg.

I’d read in the foreign papers the suspicious details of the knife attack at the Kunming train station and the bombing at the Ürümqi station. So I asked Tarim what he thought. He granted that he had the same doubts. We talked about Uyghur refugees who were smuggled out of China. Tarim said he had in fact heard that some Uyghurs had joined the Islamic State, but the trouble was, most of the people crossing the border were farmers from the south of Xinjiang who couldn’t even read Uyghur, never mind speak Chinese, and who had never in their lives heard of Syria. What he didn’t get was how these people could manage to drag their children out of Xinjiang – where you need a “convenience ID” just to leave the house – past border patrols, across half of China, all the way to Thailand? And then detour in Malaysia to get to Turkey, and from there cross into Syria?

Tarim used the word Xinjiang. At the time we met, the Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, a moderate who did not support independence, was nonetheless sentenced to life in prison for the crime of “splitting the state.” Tarim said he agreed with Professor Ilham: he didn’t want independence, either, and Ilham’s misfortune didn’t change Tarim’s mind. Tarim’s argument was basically that he didn’t want to see any more bloodshed. In the 1930 and 40s, the warlord Sheng Shicai killed 500,000 people in the decade he ruled Xinjiang, out of a population of just three million or so. Too many people were killed in the Chinese Civil War and Cultural Revolution, including ethnic minorities. If the Han want Xinjiang’s natural resources, let them have them. If we can have true autonomy in exchange, what need is there for independence? Uyghurs are good at business. We don’t need oil and natural gas. What we need to preserve our people and our culture is education, so that we can reach our full potential as a people. In his poem ‘Self-Rule,’ Tarim wrote:

I want self-rule.
Don’t you know
Xinjiang already rules itself?
What more do you want?
You must be really sick.
Why don’t we take care of you?

These lines come from his memories, from immediate threats, and also, perhaps, from a premonition. Now that wealthy merchants and businessmen are also being arrested, there’s no room for being good at business, no simple answer like giving up resources. The poet Tarim, who puts his faith in education – Ablet Abdurishit Berqi, associate professor at the Xinjiang Education Institute – was put in a concentration camp for “educational transformation.” This scholar of Uyghur literature who completed postdoctoral research at Israel’s top university, what kind of “educational transformation” is he being put through?

Chen Quanguo, the Communist Party secretary of Xinjiang, described the camps as “the instruction of schools, the order of the military, and the security of prisons. We have to break their blood relations, their networks, their roots.”

I don’t have a passport
I can’t leave the country
All I can do is smuggle across
But they’ll beat me to death at the border
And I don’t have money for the trafficker…

  – Tarim, ‘Refuge’


We hiked to a high point that seemed to be close to a village. A herd of goats looked up at us from the dense brush, their goatherd nowhere to be seen. The sun began to slant westward and the light turned gold. Tarim stopped to take a photo. This was the only picture he took that day, of the goats grazing on spring shoots in the light of the setting sun. Did this image, I wonder, of the land bathed in holy light, remind the poet of his home? “I herd sheep in bare feet,” he wrote. Did the ding-dong of the bells around the goats’ necks, and their gentle smiles, break his heart?

David got out his phone to take a picture of Tarim and me. Tarim looked concerned, as if the breeze that wafted the scent of frankincense trees and wild daisies had also wafted over the police. He didn’t say anything. David had already taken the photo. He just wanted to give us a souvenir. I didn’t know what to do, but Tarim turned to me and said, “Don’t put that photo online.” (His photo and name later appeared publicly, such as at 6:00 in this video listing interned Uyghur intellectuals.)

“Of course, Ablet, I won’t put it online, I understand.” Tarim worried that other people would find out that he’d spent time with me. According to Chinese law, the things I post on Twitter and Facebook are all crimes of “incitement to split the state.” I gave up my Chinese citizenship a long time ago, but for a Uyghur, if he wants to keep living in Xinjiang and wearing his brown leather shoes, walking in them to the lecture hall to teach Uyghur literature, going back home and placing them neatly on the rug, next to his wife’s and children’s shoes, how is he supposed to explain his connection to a so-called “splittist”?

Could you call ours a re-educational relationship? It’s not just that Tarim opposes independence. He asked me once: “I implore you, could you tone down your political writing just a bit? Sharp words can sow hate. Besides, you shouldn’t just concern yourself with ethnic minorities. Spare some thought for the rights of Han people, too.” Tarim and I met three times, and thrice he asked me the same thing. He didn’t succeed in “re-educating” me, though. On the hike, I started to tell him what I really thought of sharp words, and the Han people, but I said very little, because Tarim seemed to want the conversation to end. He shook his head and forced a smile, saying over and over, in a hushed voice, as if it were a prayer: “Tone it down, tone it down.”

An analysis of tenders for the camps in Xinjiang found 2,768 police batons, 550 stun guns, 1,367 pairs of handcuffs, and 2,792 cans of pepper spray. And that is just a fraction of the items on the procurement list. Since the beginning of 2017, the Xinjiang provincial government has made at least 1,000 purchase orders for the camps. The procurement lists include police equipment, such as uniforms, shields, and helmets, and riot gear, such as Tasers, electric guns, spiked clubs and tear gas. One camp placed an order for tiger chairs, which are typically used in prison for interrogations.

Such are the “toned-down” words of the “de-extremification re-education” camps.

I want rule of law.
Hold on
You’re not ready
To understand the law 
What is love?
Shut up
We know what it means to us.
What is hate?
Don’t play dumb…

  – Tarim, ‘Autonomy’


Professor Ablet Abdurishit Berqi, Tarim the Poet, what is language? What is literature?

China, that ancient state with “five thousand years of civilization,” has a high and mighty dream, and nothing is holding it back. Their system is so perfect, its operation so efficient, its equipment so advanced, its management so modern. Then there are the truncheons, Tasers, handcuffs, stun guns, spiked clubs, and torture racks, used without hesitation or thrift. And our language, utterly defeated, has no way to describe this vast, evil project.

“The poems I write in Uyghur are mostly about love. I like to write about emotions, about love.” Tarim used his native language to write about love, to write about the woman he loved. I haven’t read his love poems yet. I’m waiting for him to translate them into Chinese. Are there verses about gently caressing her skin? About the warmth and fragrance of her body? About her whirling long hair? There must be. No matter the language, when you write about love you write about beauty. But those women whose heads have been shaved, those women whose skin festers with sores, those women bound to steel beds in contorted postures, those are also the women Tarim praised in his poems, ravaged into non-humanity. No language can describe the suffering of the flesh. Only the flesh of the victim knows, only the screams tell their story, their sobs of blood.

For now, I’ll use my language to talk about dinner and wine and song. We had baked salmon with mustard sauce, served on a blue glazed porcelain dish edged with a delicate, undulating floral pattern; young chicken, braised and coated with sesame seeds, served on a yellow platter patterned with mint leaves. David made a salad dressed with olive oil, lemon juice, and pureed mango; Sichuan cold noodles are my specialty. I wasn’t sure if Tarim liked spicy food, so I put the seasonings and chili oil in two little cups on the side. Tarim was happy to see the noodles, and he loves spice. He took two spoonfuls of chili oil. Our home cooking has no need for rhetoric. I’m only writing about it to show the magic of language. This is the stuff of life.

But there are no words for “steamed buns turned to mush and gruel made from a single cabbage leaf,” as one Uyghur described the food in the camps. In the dreamland of China’s Great Rejuvenation, the meaning of words have changed. The places where professors, doctors, writers, lawyers, artists, publishers and entrepreneurs are detained are called “vocational training centers”; purchase orders for a thousand truncheons, stun guns, handcuffs and tiger chairs are called “caring for the collective”; children whose parents are taken away from them are called “kindness students”. “Splittist,” “terrorist” and “extremist” not only describe people who yearn for independence, but also those who don’t seek independence – who wear head scarves, who have been abroad, who send their sons to buy flour and matches, who have read banned books, who don’t eat pork, who don’t drink.

David opened a bottle of red wine from Jerusalem, and was about to pour it when he suddenly remembered – oh, Tarim must be Muslim, and Muslims don’t drink? David had even reserved seats at the Bialik Cafe to hear one of his favorite singers. We had only thought of treating our guest and had forgotten the rest. In fact, our carelessness added to the night’s levity. Tarim laughed and took a glass, comforting David, “it’s fine, I can have a little.” After dinner we walked over to the Bialik Cafe. This lively little space, cafe by day and bar by night, neighbors the Bialik House, the former residence of the great Israeli poet Hayim Nahman Bialik. 

Tarim, do you remember, David told you about Bialik, but the concert had already begun? The music didn’t leave much of an impression, but its volume shattered our conversation. Anyway, Bialik wrote in a resurrected language, modern Hebrew. He used his newborn mother tongue to write prayers for the return to Israel, laments of massacres, tender songs of winged love, poems of death amid summer splendor, and charming nursery rhymes. Tarim the Uyghur poet, you once wrote, “Poetry is my refuge / Where I am most free.” Did you make that refuge with your mother tongue? Where is your refuge now? When you change into prison clothes, when you sing red songs and recite ideology in Chinese, my mother tongue.

When people put on orange and yellow vests, when people sing red songs and recite ideology, a form of Newspeak is rejuvenated, a mutation of my mother tongue – a hard, stiff, mechanical language, a deranged command leading the march of history. Purge your mother tongue with my mother tongue. My mother tongue has no words for this shame.

…I’m a smuggler of love
Though love has no country
Poetry is my refuge
Where I am most free

   – Tarim, ‘Refuge’


There is Xi Jinping’s dream for the coming decades. And there is the dream of “waiting a few years.”

Tarim is someone who waits. He believes that those whom we see as dictators are in fact reformers, that the purpose of the concentration of power is to realize democracy. When Tarim first made this conjecture to me, I stifled my laughter out of consideration. If a dictator at last reveals that he is a benevolent sage, would we think a bit better of him? Would it give us hope for the future? I must admit that a wisp of a fantasy also rose up in my mind. I told myself, maybe Tarim is right. I’ve been out of China for too long. He, on the other hand, thought that we only had to wait a few years for this bright future. Just like his prayer for me to “tone it down, tone it down,” he told me: “Wait a few years, wait a few years, I’m sure that by then, I can host you and David in Xinjiang.” If Tarim still remembers that earlier promise, would he, as I do, feel all the more hurt?

On a scorching summer day, Tarim came to Tel Aviv from Haifa. A few days later he would go back to Ürümqi. I invited him to come say goodbye and was about to make Sichuan cold noodles for him again. He had already unfriended me on Facebook. He said he couldn’t eat, he was busy and had to hurry back to Haifa. He didn’t even stay for twenty minutes. I can’t even remember, did he sit down? Did he have a glass of water? All I remember is that he had to do something at the embassy, and that his parting words will never leave me. He said: “Maybe when I get off the plane, before I get into the airport, they’ll take me to a separate room and beat me up, and I’ll disappear.”

Seeing the shock on my face, he added, “and maybe nothing will happen.”

His expression was sincere. To be honest, the Tarim I know rarely smiled. Still, his words were beyond my comprehension. He’s a poet, a writer, and a scholar, I thought. He’s an associate professor at the Xinjiang Education Institute. He can get a passport and come to Israel for advanced studies. When he goes back he’ll have an offer from Sichuan University as a professor of literature. I asked: “They’d beat you at the airport? Disappear you? On what grounds?”

“That’s just how Xinjiang is,” he said, without any surprise. “When a Uyghur comes back from being abroad, that can happen.”

I went blank again, in even greater disbelief. I looked at him doubtfully. To soothe me, Tarim said: “First I’ll fly to Beijing, then from Beijing to Ürümqi. That will probably be a little better. If I went through customs in Ürümqi, that would be a different story.”

My thoughts slowed down, got tangled up in each other, then ripped apart again. Still, for the most part, I didn’t believe him. I thought, even if such horrible things do happen, they won’t happen to him. I even felt a bit like laughing. How could serious, sedate Tarim joke like this? Because you really could say he was a successful part of the system. The key was that he was able to get a passport and go abroad. Plenty of Tibetans and Uyghurs can’t get passports. Surely he has a few tricks up his sleeve?

I asked: “You’ll have a research fellowship in Israel to vouch for you. Why would they beat you? How could they disappear you?” Tarim had no retort for me.

Then he said, “I implore you.” Those aren’t words you hear every day. The question is engraved in my mind – was Tarim translating his words directly from Uyghur to Chinese? He said: “Just tone down your tweets and your posts, please please, they don’t have to be so … harsh.” He also asked me to tell the Tibetan activist Woeser to think about the oppression of the Han, not just the Tibetans, and to soften her words, to leave “hatred” out of them. That word upset me. “What hatred?” I asked. “I don’t think Woeser has any hatred.”

“Just tone it down, tone it down,” he repeated. If he went to Beijing, he said, he’d go to Woeser and tell her so himself.

Then Tarim said something that stuck in my mind and bothered me for the next two years: “Let’s see, in two years, I’ll invite you and David to Xinjiang.”

What did he mean? He had unfriended me on Facebook as a precaution; he had just told me he could be disappeared at the airport. How could he think of inviting me to Xinjiang in two years?

It’s been over a decade since I left China, and now I have Israeli citizenship. But – like an animal that has escaped from the forest but not lost its sense of danger – certain situations, sounds or senses make me panic. Right then, it flashed through my mind that the Xinjiang police had gone across the country to arrest Ilham Tohti in Beijing. I remembered Erkin’s tweets about Public Security recruiting Uyghurs abroad as informants. Half-refusing, half-probing, I said: “I won’t go to Xinjiang. Wouldn’t a splittist such as myself get arrested?”

“If you get caught, I’ll have my friends rescue you.”

“How?” I prodded.

“By lining some pockets,” he said. “Over there, a bribe will get you out of jail.”

Evening light scattered across the room like a ghost. My heart sank. Tarim seemed to be saying that he had connections with the Xinjiang police. I felt guilty, too, the guilt that comes when you don’t trust a friend.

“I don’t want to go,” I went on. “If a splittist like me can get past customs, people will think I’m a special agent, heh heh.”

Tarim shook his head and chuckled. “They say the same thing about me.”

As soon as he’d said all this he left, rushing to catch the train back to Haifa.

Time flies with the brutal speed of a bullet train in the night. Did Tarim also get on a secret transport train? What’s the difference between a train for Uyghurs and a train for Jews? The trains packed with Jews were slow, putrid, shaky, coal-burning and smoke-belching. The Uyghur transport trains are more modern, more high-tech. Do they use the “harmony” line of high-speed trains? Pulling families apart at 300 kilometers per hour in the long, sleepless night, some never to meet again. “Say, then, how have these lambs sinned?” asked Itzhak Katzenelson, a Jewish poet who died in Auschwitz.

When Tarim said he could be disappeared at the airport, he was speaking the truth that he knew, and the dread in his heart. But I refused to believe him. I preferred to believe he was exaggerating, to keep the illusion that there were logical, normal people over there.

When he uttered that incantation – “tone it down, tone it down” – he was explaining how he had survived: to walk along the knife’s edge, you have to be careful, and more careful still. But I thought he was “re-educating” me. Oh, my friend, forgive me: I still disagree with you. You are toned-down, and Woeser is toned-down, and Erkin is toned-down, and I am toned-down. We are all toning it down. None of us are extremists. Those millions of people put into camps, who among them isn’t also toned-down down?

When Tarim said he would invite David and me to Xinjiang in two years, he was telling me his fantasy. Because in his fantasy, a dictator will at last reveal himself to be a benevolent sage. But in reality, public security in China doesn’t rescue hostages. They take hostages, and let them go only if you can line their pockets. Two years on, the millionaires and billionaires have all been arrested, and there’s no more use for ransom. It feels so familiar. “Aryanization,” Jews, Uyghurs. Confiscation of property, vocational training in concentration camps, forced labor.

There is the dream of revitalizing China; a dream of waiting for democracy. And then there are the dreams of countless lambs. 

Primo Levi, the Jewish writer who survived Auschwitz, once described a dream he had in the camp: “Dreamt with body and soul, / Of going home, of eating, of telling our story.” Has Tarim had the same dream?

In Israel, Tarim talked to me about his two children, how he missed them. The older child would take the university entrance examination that year, and Tarim wanted to go home to help him prepare. The precocious little one had started writing stories at age nine. Now he was twelve and had already written a novel in Chinese, one million characters long. When Tarim talked about them, a smile of pride and affection appeared on his face. Where are his children now?

The last thing Ablet Abdurishit Berqi gave to David and I was a wish. It had been three months since he had left Israel. Fires raged in the urban centers and the forests of Haifa and Jerusalem, razing the homes of Jews and Arabs alike, lapping up enmity in its wake. David got an email from Tarim, the only email Tarim sent after he went back:

“My dear friends, are you safe? I’m so sorry to hear about the fires in Israel. May God bless and protect that holy place!” ∎

Header: The author and her friend, Dr. Ablet Berqi, hiking the Israel National Trail (courtesy Tang Danhong)

The original Chinese of Tang’s
essay was written in November 2018 and first published in February 2019 by China Digital Times; an excerpt from an earlier translation draft was also published in March 2019.