In Istanbul, the last Uyghur bookshops struggle to survive
Located a few feet below street level in the busy Sefakoy district of Istanbul, the Kutadgu Bilik bookshop is a trove of Uyghur culture. If you visit late on a weekday afternoon, you’ll find children whizzing down the aisles, occasionally stopping to flick through the glossy Uyghur-language books that line the walls. It is close to an idyllic scene.
As a people subject to ongoing repression in China — or genocide, as a U.S. congressional committee heard in Washington, D.C. last week — it could appear the Uyghurs have found peace in Turkey, a space where they can preserve and even revive their language and literature.
But on Tuesday, March 14, the Kutadgu Bilik bookshop was raided by the Turkish police. They dragged books out in large bags to a van parked outside.
The first time the police raided the shop in August 2022, they confiscated hundreds of books. This time, members of the Uyghur community protested. Some lay down in front of the police van to prevent it from leaving.
“This shop is a solution for us,” the owner, Abdulla Turkistanli, told me, a day after the police raid. “We can teach our next generations here, we can keep our culture alive.”
Uyghur bookstores in Istanbul play a vital role in sustaining the culture, in giving Uyghurs across generations and continents access to their language and history. Estimates of the Uyghur population in Turkey vary from over 50,000 to around 150,000, making it probably the largest community of Uyghurs outside their traditional home in Xinjiang, a vast region in northwest China that borders several Central Asian countries, Russia, Pakistan and India.
For close to a decade now, the Chinese state has been conducting a violent crackdown on its Uyghur population. This campaign, which has increased in intensity since 2017, extends far beyond China’s borders. Uyghurs in the diaspora are subject to surveillance, while their families back home are sent to re-education centers and prisons where many have been tortured and raped. Uyghur literature has also been a prime target, with dozens of renowned writers, poets, publishers and academics disappeared into the labyrinthine system of internment camps.
This has all but destroyed the small trickle of books coming out of the region, severing a critical link between those who escaped and those still trapped inside.
Turkistanli, the bookshop owner, wears his exhaustion on his face. Years of pressure from the Chinese state have left him depleted of energy, if not of the will to keep fighting. On the night of the raid earlier this month, he was rushed to a hospital with heart problems. It has been, he told me, a chronic ailment, first sustained after he was imprisoned in Kyrgyzstan after leaving Xinjiang in 2008. He says he was tortured by Chinese officials and injected with a mysterious substance.
Speaking on March 23 to the newly formed U.S. bipartisan committee examining the rivalry with China, Gulbahar Haitiwaji, a Uyghur woman who was detained in a Chinese re-education camp for three years, said that the detainees were told they were being vaccinated when they were injected with undisclosed drugs but were actually being sterilized.
Turkistanli was eventually able to leave Kyrgyzstan for Turkey. In 2013, he opened his first bookstore. At the time, he said, Uyghurs could travel more freely between Istanbul and Xinjiang. The Uyghur diaspora would return from each visit laden with books. In this way, hundreds, if not thousands, of books were removed to safety.
Over the years, the Uyghur diaspora community in Istanbul has added thousands of volumes to the Kutadgu Bilik collection. But the cost of reprinting these books is high. There are usually only two to four copies of any given title in Turkistanli’s shop. The Turkish police, when they raid the shop, say that Turkistanli does not have the copyrights necessary to reprint books. Acquiring the copyrights, Turkistanli told me, is impossible without the cooperation of Chinese authorities. Even contacting the authors of the books, if they are in Xinjiang, is impossible. Turkistanli estimates that around 90% of the books in his shop were written by people who have been swallowed up by the prisons and re-education camps.
He believes that the Turkish police are acting under pressure from the Chinese state when they raid Uyghur bookshops. In this environment, he told me, he does not know how much longer his shop can stay open.
It is a fate that other Uyghur booksellers in Istanbul also face.
In the district of Zeytinburnu, the once bustling heart of Uyghur life in Istanbul, Abdulhalil Abithaci told me he would soon be closing his bookshop. The pandemic, he said, and Turkey’s underperforming economy has meant that many Uyghurs — who tend to make less money than the general Turkish population — cannot afford to buy books anymore. Many, he adds, are leaving Zeytinburnu for less expensive areas, while others have left Turkey altogether to seek a better life further away from China’s reach in Europe, North America and Australia.
The first wave of Uyghurs came to Istanbul in the 1950s, escaping religious persecution under a newly formed communist regime in China. Subsequent periods of repression drove more and more Uyghurs to flee abroad. The fall of the Soviet Union brought a new era of controls, as the Chinese state increasingly sought to “Sinicize” Uyghurs by forcing them to assimilate into mainstream Chinese culture.
For the few able to escape China’s harsher crackdowns since 2017, Turkey has been a place of refuge. As Turkic people, Uyghurs and Turks share historical, linguistic and cultural ties, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was once seen as an advocate for Uyghurs. But as Ankara has sought closer ties to China, the situation for Uyghur refugees has become more precarious.
Turkey is home to the largest number of refugees in the world, with millions escaping war in Syria in particular. The Turkish government, though, is itself a notorious conductor of cross-border repression, especially targeting suspected followers of a movement led by the Muslim preacher and scholar Fethullah Gulen who has been based in the United States for over two decades. According to a report by the think tank Freedom House, Turkey was second only to China between 2014 and 2021 in perpetrating acts of “physical transnational repression.”
It is because Turkey so often acts to repress dissent beyond its borders that it acts as a willing accomplice to other repressive regimes, including China, says Howard Eissenstat, a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute and an associate professor of history at St. Lawrence University. “It boils down to a transactionalism,” he told me, “that both China and Turkey see as part of international relations, since neither is concerned with the rule of law.”
Many Uyghurs living in Istanbul fear that the threat to their safety is growing, as Erdogan and Chinese President Xi Jinping become closer. Seyfullah Karatug, for instance, told me he feels his life as a Uyghur refugee in Istanbul depends on the whim of an unpredictable Turkish state. The fear of arrest or deportation constantly hangs over him.
I met the 24-year-old Karatug at the Uyghur bookshop Kutadgu Bilik, the day after the police raided it. One of his eyes had been blackened during the protests from the night before. Karatug told me he visits the store almost every day. As the only Uyghur bookstore in Sefakoy, Kutadgu Bilik closing would be a personal disaster. That’s why Karatug raced to the store when he received a WhatsApp message that it was being raided by the police.
When he asked the police if they had a warrant and filmed them manhandling protestors, a policeman punched him in the face. Video footage seen by Coda Story, as well as a hospital report, corroborates Karatug’s claims. Karatug told me his father had sent him and his brother to Egypt in 2016, fearing for their future in China. The brothers have had no contact with their family since late 2017, when they believe their father was arrested. Knowing the sacrifice his father made, Karatug told me, made him determined to keep his language and cultural traditions alive, to pass them onto his younger brother. It’s why Uyghur bookshops are so important to him.
For now, though, Kutadgu Bilik at least remains open. Once Abdulhalil Abithaci’s bookshop in Zeytinburnu closes, though, there will only be two Uyghur bookshops left in Istanbul. The impact will be felt beyond the streets of the Turkish metropolis, hurting the Uyghur diaspora around the world.
“Books are very important for the survival of our culture and people,” Dilnur Reyhan, a Uyghur sociologist based in Paris, told me over the phone. “If the bookstores in Istanbul do not survive, it will be a major blow. That is why I think the Chinese state ordered this attack, and the Turkish authorities executed it.” Reyhan, who edits a Uyghur-French magazine, added that the war in Ukraine had driven up the price of paper, putting the hope of creating new Uyghur bookstores away from Turkey further out of reach.
One Uyghur software developer, Memeteli Niyaz, has built a website that has around 3,000 free ebooks on it, 600 of which were sent from within China by an anonymous source. But Niyaz has already been forced to migrate the website to a new host after the one he was using received copyright complaints. He fears his website, too, will inevitably be shut down.
A week after the raid, I visited Abdulla Turkistanli again. He told me that some Turkish writers had come to the shop and encouraged him to carry on providing books to Istanbul’s Uyghur community. Turkistanli had just donated hundreds of books from his shop to the community, something he does every year at the start of Ramadan. This year, he was more generous than usual.
If the store is raided again, he told me, it is better that the books are already spread throughout the community, where there is at least a chance they will be read, enjoyed and protected.
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