Ethnic violence, fear and alienation in Xinjiang
Perhat Tursun’s “The Backstreets” is a meditation on Uyghur identity and the suffocating atmosphere of the security crackdown in his homeland in western China. The celebrated Uyghur writer’s work has received its first English translation by anthropologist Darren Byler and an anonymous Uyghur linguist at an urgent time.
Since 2017, China has arrested some 1.5 million Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking, majority-Muslim people, for “reeducation.” Under the auspices of counterterrorism, Beijing has unleashed a wave of repression and rage against the Turkic peoples of Xinjiang. Using a combination of demographic resettling and forced sterilization, concentration camps, a panopticon of 21st-century surveillance technology, and forced labor, the Chinese Communist Party seeks to eradicate Uyghur culture and identity.
In 2020, Tursun was disappeared, reportedly sentenced to 16 years in prison. He is among the hundreds of Uyghur intellectuals interred by the state in its bid to erase an independent local identity.
“I chose to translate ‘The Backstreets’ because it was a masterful work of modernist fiction,” Byler told me in an email exchange. “It also spoke to the issue I was researching as an ethnographer: how rural migrant Uyghurs live despite the forms of systematic discrimination they experience while navigating settler-colonial institutions in the city.”
A stranger in his own land, the novel’s protagonist reflects on the alienating effects of racial discrimination and the climate of fear choking Xinjiang’s capital city Urumqi. In the modernist tradition, the novel follows a stream-of-consciousness journey of an unnamed labor migrant as he flees the poverty of the Uyghur countryside to take up a government post and find an apartment to live in. He wanders the streets shunned by those around him and horrified by the harsh urban landscape: “The murky condition of [Urumqi] in the fog, the murky mental condition of my brain, and the ambiguous position of my identity in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region seemed to be totally of the same substance; sometimes they mirror each other, and sometimes they seep into each other.”
Tursun captures this lonely atmosphere through his character’s fixation on discarded items such as used condoms, abandoned clothing, and garbage. Each of these items evokes a feeling of connection, meaning, or nostalgia for the unnamed narrator as he grasps for a sense of purpose in the face of the indifference of the Communist Party bureaucracy. The Party, embodied by his ever-smiling supervisor, has little interest in his culture or individuality, forcing him for instance to write in Mandarin despite his struggles with the language.
Perhat Tursun was born in 1969 in Xinjiang, across the border from today’s Republic of Kyrgyzstan at the height of Mao Zedong’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). His father, a schoolteacher, was arrested for “counterrevolutionary activites” while Red Guards terrorized the Uyghur countryside.
Following Mao’s death in 1976, China embarked on market and ideological reforms, offering new space for Uyghur culture to breathe. It was during these years that Tursun moved to Beijing on a government scholarship to study world literature, and quickly immersed himself in the works of Kafka, Nietzsche, and Camus.
Tursun’s own writing echoed the existentialist themes of his heroes, earning fans and hostile critics alike. Tursun drew comparisons to the author Salman Rushdie after his 1999 novel The Art of Suicide incensed Xinjiang’s Islamic establishment and led to book burnings and death threats. The region’s publishers — which are largely state-run — refused to publish Tursun’s work for the next 16 years.
But Tursun has never considered his work to be political. In an illuminating essay that accompanies the novel, the Uyghur author compares his writing to Communist-era Czech author Milan Kundera: “Kundera is also writing about the human experience, but because of his circumstances, his fiction gets read as somehow political. It doesn’t start from politics, it just gets pulled into it. Human relationships are the center; they just get blocked by politics. The same is true for most writers if they are really honest.”
Byler informs me that Tursun, whom he knew personally, always expressed suspicion of ideological dogma and preferred to imagine a world of diverse possibilities. “In the end,” Byler says, “state authorities came to see Uyghur freedom of thought as potentially dangerous.”
A City Torn Apart
“The Backstreets” took Tursun 15 years to write and it meticulously documents the ethnic and class tensions that led to the explosive 2009 Urumqi riots and their aftermath. Throughout the novel, the protagonist struggles to rent a room “the size of a grave.”
Unlike Han migrants who came to the region in search of lucrative jobs in the oil sector, Uyghurs struggled to find work. According to Byler, while some Uyghurs remained within these institutions, the hierarchies of power came to center on Han individuals and values they brought with them, rather than the region’s indigenous inhabitants.
Other forms of discrimination permeated this rapidly gentrifying city. Rental and house-ownership regulations often prevented Uyghurs from becoming permanent residents in the city, while Han migrant resettlement in Xinjiang cities was encouraged and subsidized by the government. “During my fieldwork in the region,” says Byler, “settlers ranging from taxi drivers to university teachers told me over and over again that they viewed Uyghur migrants and colleagues as ‘backward’ and uncivilized.”
In one illuminating passage, the novel’s protagonist reflects on the gaze of racist contempt all-too familiar to Uyghurs: “This wasn’t the only moment when those eyes had stared ruthlessly at me. They appeared in my heart from the first time I opened my eyes to the world, like a poisonous snake. They continually stung my heart cruelly, making me writhe with pain.”
In addition to being ostracized, Uyghurs are forced to constantly prove their worth. Tursun explores this theme through his protagonist’s Kafkaesque job writing official letters in a language imposed upon him by a state that treats him with such scorn. Despite his education and rank in the bureaucracy, the protagonist feels like a second-class citizen. This is made evident when he encounters a Han janitor whose “kingly attitude” and decisiveness of voice in Mandarin make him feel worthless.
The narrator fixates on the injustice around him, falling into a destructive rage. “While I wandered about without finding even a place the size of a tomb in which I could fit my body, at the same time, others lived in apartments in giant buildings, cruised the streets in fast cars, and ate piles of food in restaurants; I began to hate people. Even though I was the shyest person in the world, I wanted to destroy those fancy buildings.”
This complex interplay of racial and class tensions created the powder keg that exploded in Urumqi on July 5, 2009. That evening, following a peaceful demonstration led by Uyghur students, the city erupted into ethnic violence. For three days, groups of Han and Uyghur youth prowled the streets with spiked clubs and machetes, killing one another in fierce brawls. By the end, the streets were covered in skull fragments, broken bodies, and pools of blood.
These grim scenes are referenced when Tursun’s protagonist walks through a rain soaked alleyway. “I heard the sloshing sound of muddy footsteps as I walked. This noise made me really sad. I didn’t know why this sound made me sad. Perhaps it was because it sounded like blood splattering on the ground.”
The ‘People’s War’
The thickening fog in “The Backstreets” acts as a metaphor for the nationalist xenophobia blanketing Xi Jinping’s China. As the protagonist wades through the fog he sees a Han Chinese man approaching, muttering to himself about his desire to eradicate the entire Uyghur population by chopping them down with an ax. The word “chop” is repeated over 200 times to indicate his obsessive fixation on violence. “Every time he said the word ‘chop,’ in his mind, a man’s head was being cut off to roll on the ground, covered with blood.”
This mindset forms the deep rot at the heart of society, corroding everyone it touches. “It wasn’t hard to see from his face that his anger was wearing down his soul. It looked like it was a straw roof being blown by the wind, or like perhaps it was being eaten out by a worm.”
Perhat references the Holocaust as the fog begins to take the shape of a “huge communal shower room.” Gruesome images are evoked, as people fantasize about carving up one another’s naked flesh to watch the blood spurt out. In his vision, it forms the crimson colors of the Chinese flag — perhaps a metaphor for ethnonationalism as social diversity is recast as one nation by threat of force.
In another harrowing passage, Perhat reflects on the way people are more outraged by random acts of killing than they are by industrialized slaughter. “If the massacre took place in an orderly way, it seemed like an acceptable thing to people, and they stayed silent, bowing their heads.”
For all the novel’s dark musings on identity, the nature of existence, and political violence, there are glimmers of hope that pierce through the fog. Confronted with the open hostility of his employer, our protagonist concludes that his life must be valuable otherwise it would not evoke such visceral contempt. He finds comfort in this knowledge and concludes that his greatest power and his strongest act of defiance is simply to keep on living.
“That’s right, the greatest thing in the world is living. There is nothing greater than living!”
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