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“My culture will survive”: the Uyghur poet Fatimah Abdulghafur Seyyah on her family’s devastating persecution

In a series of specially commissioned poems, the writer who left China in 2010 refuses to be “defined by genocide”.

By Anoosh Chakelian

When Fatimah ­Abdulghafur Seyyah was growing up in ­Kashgar, an oasis city in the desert ranges of north-west China, her family would always leave their apartment door open. Now, they are under house arrest.

Seyyah, 41, is a geologist and poet. She is also Uyghur, the Muslim Turkic ethnic group that is being persecuted by the Chinese government. She recalls the region Uyghurs call East Turkestan – known to the world as Xinjiang – as a place where ­strangers would invite her in for a cup of tea as she walked past. “I never felt the place was dangerous. I could ride my bike at 11pm home from my friend’s. The whole city was like a family,” she says of the homeland she departed for university at the age of 18.

She is talking via video call from her adopted city of Sydney, Australia, where she has lived since 2017. Her childhood home was in a six-storey block surrounded by a hospital, bus ­terminal, two shopping centres and the primary school she attended with her younger brother and two sisters.

[See also: Behind Xi Jinping’s Great Wall of Iron]

Five years ago, when studying geoscience at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, her phone buzzed in the middle of the night. It was a voice message from her father on the Chinese messaging service WeChat: “Daughter, I have something urgent to tell you, call me back.” Seyyah rang her father as soon as she heard his message the following morning. He didn’t pick up. She never heard from him again. In September 2020 a UN document reported his death from “severe pneumonia and tuberculosis on 3 November 2018”.

Seyyah suspects that her father was detained in an internment camp. More than one million Uyghurs are reportedly held in such camps – escapees recount physical and mental torture, mass rape and sexual abuse. The US is one of several nations that have accused China of committing genocide.

“[My father] had diabetes and I’m pretty sure he didn’t have medication at the camp and just slowly decayed,” Seyyah says, speaking from her office at Macquarie University in Sydney. Graphs and formulae fill two whiteboards behind her – calculations for her geophysics PhD. Seyyah is dressed in a lace navy blouse and with large headphones sandwiched over her short blonde crop. The harsh office light bounces off a gold chain – a gift from her father, from which hangs a pair of her mother’s earrings.

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Unable to contact her mother, brother and sister (her other sister lives in Turkey), Seyyah has been informed by indirect sources that they are trapped at home – and having their “every single phone call and move monitored”. The Chinese authorities, however, have said that her mother is “living a normal social life”.

“It’s as if I’m an orphan,” says Seyyah, who left China in 2010, after finishing her undergraduate degree in Changchun, to study geology in Italy and Germany before moving to the US and, latterly, Australia. “I know I have this huge background, my relatives, friends, house, city, my culture, everything… I do have them, but I just can’t have them.” 

When she found out that her father had died, she honoured his memory alone by donning a black dress, cooking polo (a traditional rice and lamb dish), and dancing to a Uyghur song that her mother used to sing while her father danced along. He was a great dancer and a “very typical Uyghur”, she says. “Very resilient, his sadness never lasted longer than an hour.” Seyyah  remembers her father’s glowing cheeks, and that his pockets were always full of snacks and sweets for his children.

[See also: The Uyghurs’ plight shows the biggest threat to democracy is Western apathy]

A year after the Soviet Union fell in 1991, her family opened a live music restaurant that served traditional Uyghur fare, Uyghur-Chinese fusion and Russian baked goods. Seyyah spent much of her childhood playing with her siblings alone in the evenings while her parents entertained customers. The children would ring the restaurant for their dinner each night. Classic dishes included polo, laghman (pulled noodle soup), da pan ji (wok-cooked “big plate chicken”, a modern dish she believes her family’s restaurant introduced), gosh nan (meat pie), and her favourite, pitir manta (steamed thin-skinned dumplings filled with lamb and onion). “I’ve had it since, here and there, but it’s just never the same,” she smiles. “I miss everything about that place.”

Yet the city was divided. The Han Chinese and Uyghur neighbourhoods didn’t mix. Under Xi Jinping’s oppressive regime, Seyyah’s family would only speak openly about local tensions when under their own roof, in whispers after midnight.

“We were very much brainwashed or ‘educated’ with the party agenda. It’s an everyday life thing. Even in kindergarten, we would sing, ‘Party is mother, country is father, and party gave us the bread.’”

In her first volume of poetry, The Mystery Land (2018), and in three new poems commissioned and translated for the New Statesman, Seyyah draws on Uyghur symbolism. “We use spring a lot because spring is something new after the dead winter.” She also invokes the ocean in her wistful and evocative work, despite never seeing the sea when she was growing up. “All the deserts were oceans before,” she says, viewing it not only as a metaphor for distance, but as “an arm holding us together”.

In the final stanza of “Fossil and Tear”, the image of a fossil represents “this waiting, longing to be reunited with family, friends, my culture, the homeland – it is as if I’m getting fossilised”, yet the tears “keep things fresh; they are not just sadness, but also like spring, like the rain”. Seyyah cites the contemporary ­ Uyghur poet Ahmatjan Osman, the 19th-century French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, the 12th-century Sufi philosopher Ibn Arabi and the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi as inspiration.

Cut adrift from her background, Seyyah uses poetry to preserve Uyghur culture and prevent it from being characterised by victimhood. “I’m scared of being defined by only genocide,” she says. “My culture is such a joyful, happy desert – it’s sandy, it’s shifting, it’s hot. My dad was always a happy person.

“I want my culture to be seen by the world as resilient. It’s been there for thousands of years. It will survive.”

Fatimah Abdulghafur Seyyah’s poetry collection “The Mystery Land” is published by CreateSpace 

This article appears in our series, The Silencing, on China and the Uyghurs

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This article appears in the 16 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Edge of War