For as long as I can remember, my mother would recite the poem Iz by Abdurehim Ötkür (see end for poem) in its original Uyghur tongue (Uyghurçe). What followed was always the same: praise of how Ötkür brilliantly narrates the Uyghur struggle, how deftly the Uyghur language carries the weight of centuries of heritage, the systematic dissolving of our history and culture through administrative changes in the Uyghurçe, and finally the reminder to never forget my Uyghur identity.
Wait… What is Uyghur? I can tell you what I told my classmates on the first day of class or what I told me college interviewers: Uyghur is a Turkic ethnicity mostly situated in northwest China. And if the person looks a little intrigued, I would continue and discuss the persecutions and the current political situation. (if interested, go on a journey in Google by typing “Uyghur”) However, just as how one of my African American friends put it once out of frustration, “I don’t represent all black women,” I always try to make the disclaimer in a conversation that I don’t represent all Uyghur people. Yet, oftentimes, I am probably the only Uyghur person the other person will ever meet in their life, so I feel a little pressured. Just a little.
Having had a complete Chinese education, I simply do not know enough about my own culture to even begin speaking about it. Yet, what is enough? Knowing how to read and write the language, Uyghurça? Being an Uyghur Muslim? Having lived through protests? Being able to dance at an Eid gathering? Owning a traditional Uyghur hat, dopa? Knowing how to cook traditional Uyghur cuisine? Yet this is precisely how I feel about the word Iz. Although I have a vocabulary of a middle schooler and do not know how to read and write in Uyghurçe, I sometimes ponder, staring into blank space simply thinking on this particular word, iz.
Read more: The origins of Islam in China
The closest English translation to iz is probably trace. Yet trace is not a definition enough to capture what iz means for me. Iz is my father’s kiss on my forehead before I left for the United States. Iz is the scorching heat on my cheeks and feeling of the need to vomit when I had to introduce myself in English. Iz is my mother crying and cheering like a madwoman with a letter from MIT in her hands. Iz is warmth taking over my body as I stepped into a mosque for the first time. Iz is pulling all-nighters trying to finish an essay or a problem set. Iz is my grandmother dying and no one being able to return to our homeland for her funeral. Iz is my mother reciting Iz.
Interestingly, as I ponder about the meaning of iz, my thoughts always steer into the realm of spirituality. In fact, it is after I truly connected with Islam and became a part of a Muslim community that I became to value my Uyghur identity. I began to appreciate the beauty, struggle, and perseverance in other’s stories. In a way, I was listening to a narration of their iz. I noticed that everyone’s iz is in some way inspired by elements in Islam, its warm, welcoming message of kindness, proactivity, perseverance, and discipline.
Just like any egotistical, selfish, and self-preserving human, I want my iz to be known to people other myself. Perhaps it’s a shameless desire to leave a mark on this earth. Perhaps it’s a bittersweet attempt to understand myself through sharing my story. Perhaps it’s a burning responsibility to tell the story. Whatever it may be, I can only promise myself to continuously learn about my past, reflect on my present, and reinvent my future to somehow contribute to the overall iz of the Uyghur people (and by extension, to the ummah), for “the caravan never stops even our horses become thin, Our grand-children or great-grand-children will one day find those traces.”
Poet: Abdurehim Otkur
Translated by T. Abdurazak, S. Saydahmat
|We were young when we started our journey,
Now our grand-children are able to ride on horses.
|Yax iduq muxkul seperge atlinip mangghanda biz,
Emdi atqa mingidek bolup qaldi ene nevrimiz.
|We were very few when started our journey,
Now we’re advancing and left traces on the desert.
|Az iduq muxkul seperge atlinip chiqanda biz,
Emdi chong karvan atalduq, qaldurup chollerde iz.
|Our traces are in the deserts and in the valleys,
There are many heroes buried in the desert with no grave.
|Qaldi iz choller ara, gayi davanlarda yene,
Qaldi ni-ni arslanlar dexit cholde qevrisiz.
|Don’t say they were left without graves,
Their graves covered with flowers in the Spring.
|Qevrisiz qaldi dimeng yulghun qizarghan dalida,
Gul-chichekke pukinur tangna baharda qevrimiz.
|Left the crowd, left the scene, they are all faraway,
Wind blows, sand moves, yet our trace never disappears.
|Qaldi iz, qaldi menzil, qaldi yiraqta hemmisi,
chiqsa boran, kochse qumlar, hem komulmes izimiz.
|The caravan never stops even our horses become thin,
Our grand-children or great-grand-children will one day find those traces.
|Tohtimas karvan yolida gerche atlar bek oruq,
Tapqus hichbolmisa, bu izni bizning nevrimiz, ya chevrimiz.