For many Uyghurs, poetry is less a niche literary exercise than a vital part of everyday life. Uyghur culture has become a target of the Chinese government’s crackdown in the northwestern province of Xinjiang, a persecution of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities that the United States has said amounts to genocide. The authorities have destroyed Uyghur holy sites, censored Uyghur books, and suppressed the Uyghur language in schools. At least 312 Uyghur and other Turkic Muslim intellectuals, including writers, artists, and poets, have been detained, according to a 2021 report by the Uyghur Human Rights Project, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit, though the actual number is thought to be far higher.
One of those imprisoned is Gulnisa Imin, a Uyghur-literature teacher and an acclaimed poet who was among the roughly 1 million Uyghurs sent to China’s sprawling network of so-called reeducation camps in 2018. A year later, she was sentenced to more than 17 years in prison, reportedly on the grounds that her poetry promoted “separatism.” Imin’s work is not overtly political, in fact, but her poems bear their own kind of witness to the Uyghur experience since China’s mass-internment program began:
Where the words are banned to be said
The flowers are not allowed to blossom
And the birds cannot sing freely
Abduweli Ayup, a Uyghur linguist based in Norway and a friend of Imin’s, told me that prior to her detention, she had self-published a series of poems inspired by One Thousand and One Nights online. Like the character Scheherazade, who tells a story each night to forestall her execution, Ayup said, Imin believed that “her poetry would save her” somehow from erasure. Before her arrest, she had published nearly 350 poems.
But it appears that, even deprived of her liberty, Imin did not stop composing poems. On April 18, 2020, Ayup received a series of messages over the Chinese social-networking app WeChat from someone close to Imin (whom, for their protection, Ayup declined to name). The messages contained photos of several poems scrawled in a notebook dating to the previous month, which Ayup recognized by the handwriting and style as the work of Imin.
When I asked him how her poems could have reached the sender who’d passed them to him, he told me that he had no sure way of knowing. The WeChat account used to transmit the poems was deactivated soon after—a measure he attributed to the sender’s need to reduce their risk of exposure. “People use that technique when they send something outside” China, Ayup said. “And you cannot contact [them] again.” Many Uyghurs living abroad have told me that they no longer keep in touch with loved ones in Xinjiang for fear of endangering them.
In the course of trying to authenticate the poems, I spoke with Joshua L. Freeman, a historian of modern China at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica research institute and a leading translator of Uyghur poetry into English. He provided The Atlantic with translations of two of the poems and agreed with Ayup’s assessment of their provenance. Although he allowed that they could not prove the poems were Imin’s, he was familiar with the scenario. Freeman had spent several years living in the Uyghur capital of Ürümqi, and in 2020 he received a poem from a former professor of his, Abduqadir Jalalidin. Jalalidin was, like Imin, in detention; in his case, the poem had been smuggled out by inmates who, before being released from the camp, had committed Jalalidin’s verses to memory.
For Imin and Jalalidin to choose poetry as their way of communicating with the outside world came as no surprise to Freeman, who told me that Uyghurs have long relied on poetry as a source of solidarity and strength in hard times. Poems—which can be composed, recited, and memorized even without pen or paper—have become a favored literary form during this historic ordeal for the Uyghur people.
“Poetry for many Uyghurs is not just a form of resistance; it’s a form of self-expression in an environment where self-expression is nearly impossible in many contexts,” he said. “Poets in Uyghur society are, to a very significant extent, the voices of their people.”
If you don’t hear my familiar voice
In the moonless nights of your sky
Where were you searching for my star
Amidst days that looked sadly to you
For you I would give everything
Leave my body in the distant wilderness
Hope has frosted over, yet you remain
A drop of dew on wilted flowers
Who strokes your head while I am gone
My companions now are worry and regret
Each day without you is fire in my throat
No choices left, I’m nothing but wounds
— March 27, 2020
When you think of me, shed no tears of grief
You must not fade away for those who’ve gone
If now and then you find me in your dreams
You must not look with longing down the road
Some things in life remain beyond our reach
Hold no anger in your heart on my account
Ask no news of me from people that you meet
Your thoughts of me must not weigh on your soul
Just think of me as someone on a journey
If I’m alive, one day I shall return
I won’t give up on happiness so easily
There is much more that I still ask of life
Both of my stars have now been left among you
Please cherish them for me while I am gone
With the kindness that raised me up from childhood
Let them live within your sheltering embrace
— March 29, 2020
The poems have been translated from the Uyghur by Joshua L. Freeman.