When My Tongue Landed Me in Trouble

By Uyghur Aid - December 15, 2018

Abduweli Ayup’s Quest for the Survival of Uyghur Language

Language is a God given gift to every nation, which we often take for granted. As a native Finn celebrating the 101th Independence day of Finland, I can freely greet my fellow Finns in our mother tongue by saying “Hyvää itsenäisyyspäivää!” without the fear of being detained for my words. It was no different 102 years ago, when the Finnish Autonomy was under the Russian rule. It was perfectly legal to speak Finnish, and there were no attempts to turn Ethnic Finns into Russian speakers.

The Uyghurs, a Turkic people living in the Western part of China are not enjoying the same rights. As a matter of fact it is practically forbidden for them to speak their mother tongue, Uyghur, publicly or display Uyghur language signs in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, that the Uyghurs prefer to call East Turkestan.

Abduweli Ayup, a Uyghur language advocate currently living in Istanbul, Turkey, has paid a heavy price for maintaining and promoting the use of Uyghur language. One would think that it would be perfectly fine for Uyghur parents to transmit their language and culture to their children. This is not the case in East Turkestan. Vice versa, Abduweli found himself in trouble after having established Uyghur language schools there in 2011. In 2013 he was detained and sentenced to 18 months in prison for alleged “illegal fundraising” for the schools.

Language, however, is an instrument that cannot easily be queched. There can be attempts to control and manipulate its use, but as long as there are willing communicators in that language, most aspects of it will survive.

Abduweli, what has kept you going after your release from prison?

Abduweli: I war released on a Thursday morning and I decided to stay in Urumqi for one day. The next Saturday I was already teaching in Kashgar. Before my arrest I had more that four hundred students. Half of them had been waiting for my release. I began teaching in my friend’s Language Training Center. Before I worked in a kindergarten and my language training center, that I had established myself, but after my release from prison I just worked for my friend, even though the students were my former students. I also received many new students. I kept teaching till August 2015.

The problem was, I didn’t have a place to live in Kashgar, because my residents permit was in a Chinese city called Lanzhou. I couldn’t live Lanzhou either, because I wasn’t born there and because I was an Uyghur born in Kashgar. Eventually the police placed a sign on my door that said: You are not welcome to live here, as your residence permit is in Lanzhou, and also you have a criminal record. You are not a safe person to live here. That’s when I decided to leave.

In what way are you able to promote Uyghur language today?

I am currently promoting Uyghur language in two ways: I teach Uyghur language courses but I also encourage other Uyghur teachers to teach Uyghur as a mother tongue all over the world. Right now we have a network of sixty teachers, and nineteen Uyghur language schools around the world. The third way is through my writing; I write for children and for grownups.

With my daughters we have Uyghur language weekends, when we speak in Uyghur only. I encourage other Uyghur parents to do the same with their children. Some families have done so. My daughter has also invited other kids to join and they have decided to follow our example. This way we can encourage families to speak Uyghur at home. Also poetry is very rhythmic and easy to memorize, so we like to recite poetry and this way spread our beautiful language.

I have published for books, two are children's books and two for adults. I have also helped others to publish books about Uyghurs. We have now published the first one, and are soon going to publish the second one. I am also in a process of writing about my time in prison in China and another one about comparing the Uyghur and Turkish cultures, and the Chinese Empires and the Ottoman Empire.

Is it challenging for Uyghurs to maintain their mother tongue in diaspora?

Yes, we have great challenges everywhere in the diaspora. We can request our children to speak Uyghur at home, but the problem is that their language basis isn’t very strong. Their Uyghur is a spoken language, which is never as strong as a written one, because there is not a sufficient vocabulary to think deeply or express oneself. Our children attend English, Turkish or Finnish schools, and they can express their ideas in English or in any other language, but not in Uyghur language, because they have never studied any school topics such as History or Science in Uyghur. That’s why their Uyghur remains weak.

At home we can speak Uyghur, but the topics revolve around everyday family life, such as eating and hobbies. This is not enough to maintain one’s language alive.

We do have Uyghur mother language classes, but the challenge is, that Uyghurs are scattered in many different places. In Turkey we have three Uyghur communities, but in other countries such as the United States, Finland or Norway they don’t really have Uyghur neighborhoods.

Even though we teach Uyghur to our kids two hours every week, they are not able to use the language in their every day surroundings. Outside the language school they don’t have the opportunity to talk Uyghur to their friends and peers, neither can they express their deeper feelings in Uyghur.

Thirdly, we don’t have enough books. Our books were left behind in East Turkestan and we cannot bring them to where we live now. We would like to have more books in Uyghur and I encourage Uyghur writers to write and publish in our mother tongue. It’s not always easy, because that would require a professional team to publish there books: people who are good with computers, graphics and illustration and so forth. But this is something we are planning of doing with the network of sixty language teachers, to publish books in Uyghur language, for Uyghurs and about the Uyghurs.

Actually many Uyghur writers that are publishing books in Uyghur, are doing it at their own expense. They don’t really care whether the books sell or not, they just want to do their part in keeping the language alive.

Are there fears of assimilation and how are these fears addressed?

Yes, the Uyghurs are afraid of assimilation. Many are also active in advocating for the Uyghur rights. That’s part of preventing assimilation.

How, in your opinion, is the Uyghur language connected to your Uyghur identity?

The Uyghur language is the essence of Uyghur identity. The language is the core of the culture. Language connects different generations together and it preserves culture through written works. If a Uyghur has forgotten his language, or has not for some reason been able to speak it, it makes it challenging to partake in the Uyghur society.

What do you think happens when a person is robbed of his/ her mother tongue and forcefully made to adopt a foreign language instead?

If someone is robbed of their mother tongue , it’s almost like the person is being robbed of his confidence, because the mother tongue is the source of one’s confidence. When I speak Uyghur I feel confident, it’s something that comes from my heart. When I speak in English, I feel like I’m just imitating something, it’s’s not the language to express the deepest feelings of my heart.

When children are being robbed off their mother tongue, they are being robbed off their identity, dignity and confidence, and one does not feel equal to others. It makes you feel a second class citizen, even if no-one says anything to you, you can feel their gazes, because you cannot speak the language as well as the others. This can be particularly traumatizing, because Uyghur children also look different (from Chinese children) and they are easily recognized as Uyghurs.

I wish all the best to Abduweli’s hard work. May the Uyghur language survive these uncertain times.