Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Back with a conversation in Xinjiang

Now that you are all convinced how much I love Bill, I am back. Not sure how long this will last though. First up, a post I wrote a few weeks ago during all that rioting in Urumqi.

“Have you seen the film ‘Braveheart’?” Rahman asked me.

I turned around, the picture in my camera frame forgotten. The one and a half millennium old earthen Buddhist stupa that had been the sole object of my attention for the past few minutes was now proving to be less interesting than Rahman’s question. It wasn’t the question per se; it was the incongruity of it in the setting we were in that attracted my attention.

We were baking in the 40 degrees Centigrade sun, in the well-preserved ruins of the Silk Road town of Jiaohe, middle of nowhere, Xinjiang, Western China. Jiaohe, built on a large islet in the middle of a river, has a history going back over 2000 years, and was an important oasis town on the old Silk Road. It was abandoned after an uninvited visit by Genghis Khan in the 13th century. For the past hour or so, we had been traipsing among the remains of aristocratic residences, granaries, government offices, temples and stupas in this ancient town.


We had obviously talked about Bollywood in the first ten minutes of our meeting. I have long ago come to terms with the fact that regardless of the part of the world I find myself in, I cannot disown Bollywood any more than an American can disown Disneyland. Perhaps Rahman was drawing a connection between Mr. Gibson and Mr. Bachchan?

The expression on my face must have given away my bewilderment because Rahman was quick to respond.

“You are from England, aren’t you?”

“Not really. I live in London. And yes, I have seen the movie” I answered, even more baffled.

“Don’t you think the film is great? I have seen it more than twenty times”. His eyes shone as he said this, and the practiced smile that he had adopted all morning gave way to a more unrestrained, excited grin.

It was slowly dawning on me. I had met Rahman that morning, at the railway station at Turfan, where he had picked us up. He was to be our translator and guide in Turfan and Urumqi. He came across as suave and competent; his career as a national guide seemed to be taking off. His English was the best I had heard in the country so far. But despite the careful attention that he paid to what we wanted to see and do, he had seemed to hold back. Until now, that is.

Perhaps he had had to make sure that he could talk to us safely. He had quite easily figured out life stories on our way here; he seemed to have convinced himself that we were harmless. Or maybe he was just the kind of chap who takes a little time to warm up. With a little help from Bollywood, Peter Hopkirk and Victor Mair, it looked like he was finally letting his guard down. Either way, I was now keen to see where this conversation would go.

“Yes, it is a well made movie” I said, encouragingly.

But it did not look like Rahman needed any more encouragement.

“It is the same story here, don’t you see? It is no different. Han Chinese and us Uighurs. The same imperialism”


“Of course! An American friend gave me the DVD. I have seen it so many times. It is my favorite film ever”

“Surprise, surprise! The Americans at it again!” Bill muttered. Rahman, not privy to Bill’s views, continued.

“I think we should make films like that here. People will learn more about their history and culture”

I considered telling him the differences between the real William Wallace and the one played by Mel Gibson in the movie, but decided against it. If Hollywood, with all the power that is vested in it, succeeded in instigating some old-fashioned nationalistic feelings in this remote part of the world, who was I to object?

But Rahman had opened a door, and I was not willing to let it shut easily. In my past few weeks in the country, almost all of which had been east of Xinjiang, I had not met a single person who had not been overtly respectful of the regime. It was not surprising that murmurs of dissent would be heard more vocally in Xinjiang, and its Southern neighbors in the plateau where the Han Chinese are not a majority.

“You think that without movies like this, people will forget their history and culture?”

“If the government has its way, it is quite possible. We have to learn Chinese as our first language. It is an alien language, and most of our people dislike being forced to learn it. The company I work for deals easily with foreign names from every part of the world, but cannot say or write my name without mangling it completely. And you have heard about the razing of the Old Town, I gather?”

He was referring to Kashgar, the western most border town which we were to visit next. The historic Old Town of Kashgar is now being torn down, ostensibly to make it earthquake-safe. The residents are being asked to move to apartments far away from their current residences and work places.

“Yes” I replied. “But it is not just Kashgar, is it? Every town we have been in China has been modernized by moving people out of where they live”

“I want modernization and development. But Kashgar is our heart. All of us trace our ancestry one way or other to Kashgar. Tearing the town down is not a wise decision”

He seemed certain of it and I did not want to dwell on so sensitive a subject.

“Uighurs are still a majority in Xinjiang?”

“In Xinjiang, yes. But not in Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang. Urumqi is two-thirds Han Chinese. The government encouraged Han Chinese to migrate just like in Tibet to ensure that our communities are broken up, and then they can wield power. Tibet gets all the attention in the international press, but our situation is no different. I wonder why nobody cares about us” His frustration was evident.

“Hmm. The perception of Buddhism generally…” I started. But Rahman was having none of it.

“Yes, we live right next to Afghanistan. And yes, we are Muslim. But how many Uighur fundamentalist-terrorists have you heard of, other than the uncharged handful at Guantanamo?”

“True enough. So the Uighur people do not want to be part of China?”

Rahman did not seem to have been expecting this. He thought for a while before he answered. He spoke slowly, as if measuring each word.

“I do not think that is the case. We might have fought for independence decades ago, but that is now history. But if I am a Chinese citizen, I do not want to be an ‘Other Nationality’. You know, that is what they call us – Other Nationalities. I live in Urumqi, which has seen unprecedented development in the last decade. I am happy about that, and I want that for the non-Han Chinese areas of the city and for the rest of Xinjiang. But on our terms, not forced to vacate our towns so that they can divide us, control us, and build monstrosities on land taken away from us”

The sun was making its way straight up above the stupa as I chewed on his words. We were at a high but narrow section of the islet by now. From the cliff, I could see the river on both sides with grape vines taking over the river banks - an incongruous stretch of lush green surrounding the dry baked earthen town. I wondered if he wasn’t being a little too honest, too open.

“Rahman, are you supposed to be talking to us about this?” I asked him. He laughed.

“Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to without getting into trouble with the authorities. But today I can. That, in this country, is development”


rocksea said...

Hope china finds a way out in recognizing, preserving and nourishing the various communities within. It is when we hear stories like this that we realize, how in India, "unity in diversity" really plays its role..

Veena, thanks a lot for stories across the border. Have always loved China (except the political mind set).

Veena said...

rocksea: Doesn't look like they will do anything of the sort but we can always hope, I guess.