‘Nobody Can Say It’s Not a Great Tragedy’: Sinologist on Uyghur Poet Fleeing Xinjiang to France

Merdan Ehet'éli was recently given asylum in France after being told to return home from Serbia.
‘Nobody Can Say It’s Not a Great Tragedy’: Sinologist on Uyghur Poet Fleeing Xinjiang to France Travelers show their documents to a border police officer at the immigration desk of Roissy Charles-de-Gaulle international airport, in France, Feb. 1, 2021.

Merdan Ehet'éli, a young Uyghur who was stuck in Serbia without travel documents for the past two years, arrived in France and was granted asylum earlier this month with the help of the French embassy in Belgrade. A French society for authors and the European Uyghur Institute played an important role in the passage to France of Ehet'éli, An accomplished poet whose poems “Country” and “Common Night” have been well received.

In 2016, Ehet'éli went to the Greek-controlled part of Cyprus to study. A year later, he completely lost contact with his family in Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian), in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Authorities are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities since early 2017, including many intellectuals and cultural elites who have worked to preserve their ethnic heritage. Facing financial difficulty because he could no longer receive money from home, he decided to suspend his studies and start a band with two Uyghur friends. In 2018, the three of them went to Belgrade, where they began performing in nightclubs and were planning to record and release an album. 

After Ehet'éli and a bandmate lost their passports, ID cards, and bank cards while on a train, the Serbian government demanded that they leave the country within two weeks. The Chinese embassy in Belgrade told Ehet'éli that he would have to renew them in the XUAR, where he was certain to face persecution amid the ongoing campaign of extralegal detention in the region. RFA recently spoke to Ehet'éli about his troubles in Serbia and to renowned Sinologist Marie Holzman, who stressed how important it is for governments to give political asylum to young poets and artists such as Ehet'éli at a time when the Uyghur language and culture are under assault.

Ehet'éli: My two musician buddies and I went to Serbia together to play music. We had a band called “None Wu,” [and we played] electronic music. I was in charge of all the writing for the group, including lyrics, stories. One of the guys in the group was Hassan Rock, a curly-haired Uyghur guy who lives in Spain and plays the guitar. The other one was Irpan Tughrul, who lived in Japan. We had visas for Serbia in our Chinese passports. We wanted to release an album, and so at first, we spent three months working on that. When it was nearly finished, we’d run out of money, so we started playing shows. We played our first show in a nightclub. In about a year and a half, we played dozens of shows in famous clubs in Belgrade.

Our work in Serbia was going well, but two of us lost our passports. We were stuck there, unable to go anywhere. Both of our things were in one bag, which we lost on the tramway. We were worried about going to the Chinese embassy and sought help from other people, but Serbia is different from other countries. If the Serbian government were to give you asylum, you wouldn’t ever be able to leave the country, and still, they wouldn’t give you citizenship. The police detained us once, and in court they requested that we leave the country within 15 days. Finally, we made the decision to go to the Chinese embassy. They accepted our applications but then called us several days later saying they had found Irpan’s passport but apparently not mine. He went and picked it up. Twenty-some days after that, they called saying my passport was ready and I could go pick it up. [It was then that I was told that I had to return home to renew my passport].

Preserving Uyghur culture

Holzman: The Chinese government targets all people who offer interesting aspects of life, for example poets and musicians. They give us the best parts of life. Nothing could happen without the artists. In some ways they open the minds of the people and they help them live better lives and happier lives. So, it is part of the human soul. It might not be part of the material life, but it's the part that is so important for human beings. And the sad thing is, the Chinese totalitarian system, of course, wants to crush that, because this is a part that brings out the best. But now, finally, I think nobody can say that nothing is happening [in the XUAR], and nobody can say it's not a great tragedy. So, that is a good point too, because it's sad that it had to go so far, but at least now people are waking up, and understanding that the Chinese government is not a peaceful ally, is not someone you can work with and not be ashamed of working with them. This is a real, real turning point.

France now has accepted to receive another Uyghur writer, Merdan Ehet'eli ... And his case is particularly important for France, because a group of people has been asking for the creation of a house. The name of the house would be the House for Political Refugees. And I was asked to suggest names of people who could be welcome and who could spend some time in this house for political refugees, a house that would help those people adjust to their new life and get their health back and recover from the stress and the pain and long travel. I gave the name of Merdan Ehet'eli, and I'm happy to say that this house for political refugees is not open yet but will open this year. His name is on the list. So, I really hope that he will find a comfortable and friendly lodging and living situation at least for some time. As soon as it opens, he should be the first one or one of the first ones to enter the house.

[I’ve also considered] the possibility of creating a center for preserving Uyghur culture, because if you have that kind of center, you need people … who are really invested in teaching the language, the culture, and people who are themselves the possessors of a [unique] culture. If you don't have that you can't teach it. So, I'm very happy that we have this newcomer who can help, I hope, in preserving Uyghur culture.

I can say as an outside observer, the more I talk with my Uyghur friends, the more I realize how much they are losing now, how great their culture was, how magnificent, and what a lifestyle they had, for people who had a little bit of money. How they organized [fraternal groups of men called] meshreps and bands and music and concerts and reading of poetry. When I hear the description of their lives 40, 50 years ago, for me, it's almost like a fairy tale. I myself have never lived in such a highly cultivated, culturally rich environment. And I feel almost envious of their memories and doubly sad of imagining what [the XUAR] is losing now.

Reported by Jilil Kashgary for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by the Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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