Nuzugum’s banished heroines: Preserving Uyghur traditional knowledge

Nuzugum, a young Uyghur girl was laced with chains and driven with thousands of others out of the Kashgar city gates to walk north over the mountains to Illi, a distance of over 1200 kilometres.

Uyghur land in the south of East Turkestan, now known as Xinjiang province in China’s farthest Northwest, was being overrun by Manchu-Qing dynasty conquering armies in the early 19th century and local people were forced into the northern reaches of their territory.

Many froze to death or died of starvation and ill-treatment along the treacherous route that involved scaling two passes over 5000 meters high. Arriving physically broken, she was forced to marry a Manchu warlord.

Revolted by plans to marry her off to an infidel, she went ahead with the ceremony, only to murder him on their wedding night. She would rather face the death penalty than capitulate. She escaped to the mountains and survived for a month before Manchu soldiers found her and set fire to the reeds surrounding her cave. Her death was immortalised among her people as a beacon of resistance to those who dared to stand up and fight the enemy.

“Most of the Uyghur refugees have lost homes, businesses and all sources of income. Rich and poor alike became destitute and had to start from scratch. Savings brought from home dwindled fast and the future stretched bleak and uncertain for everyone”
Uyghur literature is peppered with folklore heroines. Nuzugum is just one of them. The story resonates powerfully in the diaspora touching on several features of the current crisis; the “invasion” of Uyghur land by foreigners, exile, forced cross-cultural marriage, and punishment of those who resist.

There are several versions of the Nuzugum story, this one told to The New Arab by Zuhre, one of the 21st century Uyghur “heroine” widows sheltering in Istanbul from, as she sees it, the “invasion” of her land—this time by Chinese overlords. But they all serve to illustrate the same narrative. Uyghurs, she said, will never give in to the infidels or perish the thought, ever bear their children.

The Nuzugum charity set up after its namesake, was born in Istanbul in 2013 to support hundreds of de facto widows and orphan children fleeing persecution in Xinjiang when the situation for arrivals with no means of support became critical. A steady trickle of newcomers soon became a flood in 2015 when suddenly Uyghurs in the homeland, who for several years had been refused passports, were allowed to travel overseas.

Turkey became a destination of choice for many given the shared cultural, religious and linguistic background of the two peoples.

The Uyghur diaspora has historically sought refuge among their Turkic compatriots during various periods of political upheaval in their homeland. Between 1950, when the first group of 600 Uyghurs escaped from China over the mountains fleeing persecution and 2017 when the flow stopped, they were scattered across the entire Central Asian landmass taking root even in Afghanistan where some 3000 still remain under the watchful eye of the Taliban.

Estimates are that more than 50,000 have settled in Turkey. Other estimates that there could be as many as 300,000 Uyghurs assimilated into Turkish culture over the years are credible according to Uyghur journalist and cultural historian Musajan Abdulehed’er speaking to The New Arab in Istanbul.

By 2016 the appointment of Chen Quanguo, a new governor in Xinjiang charged with hunting down “terrorists” and “splittists” with an acceleration of Xi Jinping’s “War on Terror” on the home front, passports were suddenly recalled and borders were slammed shut. Financial support for those who had gone on ahead dried up and all forms of communication were cut.

Turkish visitors to the Nuzugum Culture Centre in Istanbul, wearing Uyghur hand embroidered skull caps; and learning about Uyghur hospitality against a backdrop of traditional niche work

Those who came first arrived with meagre belongings and often with children in tow, sent on ahead by husbands hoping to join them with the rest of the family later. More often than not those left behind never made it out and have not been heard from since. Many were taken to so-called re-education camps, others sentenced to long extrajudicial jail terms while others have simply vanished.

Most of the Uyghur refugees have lost homes, businesses and all sources of income. Rich and poor alike became destitute and had to start from scratch. Savings brought from home dwindled fast and the future stretched bleak and uncertain for everyone.

Nuzugum started as the Nuzugum Orphans Fund on November 25, 2013, when a group of concerned diaspora Uyghur women got together in Istanbul to address the most pressing needs of their community. It was later registered by the Turkish government on March 27, 2018, as the Nuzugum Culture and Family Fund.

Relying on voluntary donations from the Uyghur diaspora around the world the charity stepped in to help the most vulnerable. During the initial rush of arrivals, small subsistence grants were given monthly to around 300 orphan children or needy families. Founder of the charity former journalist Munevver Özuygur, prides herself on the support her community has shown to its most vulnerable. “Not a single month was missed in the early days,” she told The New Arab.

A decade has passed, Nuzugum’s orphaned children are ten years older, some already graduating from school and entering the world of work, and the single mothers have learned Turkish, some finding part-time jobs.

But the pain, rather than easing, is growing, says Özuygur, herself an exile from Xinjiang (or East Turkestan as she prefers to call it). “Not knowing whether their loved ones are dead or alive, the torment is ever present and intolerable, she says. “It never goes away.”

As the years melt into each other with no sign of the genocide abating, and even fewer signs that they will ever be reunited with loved ones, trauma counselling has become a priority.

Describing the separation, “It is as if an invisible curtain has been drawn between us,” said Özuyghur. “We have no idea whether they are still there or not, but if they are, we cannot touch them or speak with each other. It is the cruellest thing.” The ache of separation hangs over the community like a black cloud and few moments pass without thinking about those left behind and wondering how they are.

Nuzugum gathers women in groups for a chance to air their struggles. “Women don’t want to burden each other constantly with their stories, but these groups are a chance to talk and be listened to,” she said. “The problem doesn’t go away but the burden is shared.”

Nuzugum’s several hundred registered orphans and countless widows in Istanbul have struggled to make a new life for themselves against all odds. Their gratitude at being alive and free is laced with the weight of the fate of husbands, fathers, elderly parents, family members and their countrymen.

Every piece of news from their homeland drives the nails deeper; whether it be stories of starvation and death during the 120-day COVID lockdowns, the corralling into quarantine camps in the desert and the recent Urumqi fire that killed 44 of their compatriots.

The stories Nuzugum deals with every day are heartbreaking. Firuz and his sister saw their parents carried away by a river whilst trying to escape overland through Thailand in 2014.

Meriem and her brother were abandoned in Egypt when their parents, students of Arabic at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, were rounded up on the orders of Beijing and returned to Urumqi in July 2017. They were “adopted” by other Uyghurs who had escaped the dragnet and brought to Istanbul as members of their family.

Muhtarem, mother of five children, was the wife of a rich Hotan businessman. They came to Turkey for business in 2012 and bought a house from where he used to travel back and forth to Xinjiang for work.

Suddenly in 2016 while he was in the homeland police arrested him and five members of his family. None have been heard from since. Despite having had significant wealth at home, Muhtarem and her children were destitute when they arrived and survived with the help of Nuzugum’s cash handouts. “They lost every source of income and support,” said Munevver Özuygur, “Uncertainty about the future is crippling.”

Mukarrem mans the Nuzugum shop; an Alladin’s cave of “Atlas” the Uyghur ikat-style national fabric in rainbow colours; hanging off the walls and transformed into national clothing by single women supported by the charity, either at home or in the basement of the shop where they learn tailoring skills. Dresses, jackets, children’s clothes and a wide range of hand-embroidered skull caps were the rainbow backdrop as we spoke.

She spoke to The New Arab about the need to keep their culture alive in exile. “If we don’t keep it alive, it will be lost forever,” she said, explaining there are more than 200 different designs of the Atlas fabric that now in exile they commission Turkish factories to make. “We want to make sure that none of the designs are lost,” she said. It is impossible to recreate in Turkey, the hand-woven silk Ikat fabric of the Southern city of Hotan where silkworms are bred, their silk spun, thread dyed and woven on wooden looms.

The complicated technique uses an eight-pedal weaving process whereby the ikat pattern appears on the front side of the fabric and has a glossy, shiny finish. The back side is a solid colour, as the weft threads all go to the back of the fabric. “Atlas, particularly Hotan Atlas is in our blood and we hope someday that some of the young orphan arrivals will want to take up the craft,” she said. At the moment they have to make do with Instructing Turkish factories in the centuries-old practice. ” We send it all over the world where Uyghurs have taken refuge,” she said.

Mukarrem told her story through deep sobs. She lost both parents when she was a toddler and was brought up in Kashgar by her grandmother who died when she was 14.

She married a traditional Uyghur Muslim man; she wore a veil as a matter of course and her husband attended the mosque. But one day in 2013 without warning he was arrested with no reason given and disappeared into the “reform through labour” system leaving her with two children, four and thirteen.

Wearing a veil had never been a problem until 2016, but those who did started to disappear once Islamic observance and outward signs of piety became illegal under President Xi Jinping’s Sinicization policies.

She searched high and low for her husband without success, and after three years when passports became available, she decided to make a run for it with her son by then aged 16 and her daughter seven.

They transited Dubai and arrived penniless on the streets of Istanbul where she was put in touch with Nuzugum, and soon, because of her interest in Uyghur culture and needlework, she got a job in the shop.

She describes herself as broken but defiant. She tells her children that their father is dead, but cannot explain why they have lost contact with the extended family.

She described the deep psychological trauma experienced by every Uyghur exile, who despite their profound losses, still persevered and looked to the future. “The mental health pressure we live under is sometimes unbearable, but we all have to keep going; some of us sewing clothes, some of us making dumplings or noodles to sell, and some of us opening small businesses,” she said.

The circumstances around their flight from Xinjiang still give the children nightmares. Her daughter is nervous around policemen and although they keep asking when they can return, they are afraid to do so.

Mukarrem breaks down again when she contemplates a future without ever seeing her family and her homeland again. “Every night I see them all in my dreams. I miss them so terribly,” she cried. Despite the freedoms she finds in Turkey she says she will never feel free and cannot bear the thought of dying without being reunited. Her greatest fear is that the Uyghur people will disappear completely as a race.

Nuzugum’s support has moved from handouts to concrete measures to get people back on their feet. “It’s not good for the women to be dependent and their children won’t be strong,” said Özuyghur. “We give out less money these days and encourage women to get jobs.” Trauma counselling groups and motivational talks have helped women face the past and move into an unknown future without extended family support.

Computer skills, Turkish language acquisition and tailoring courses combine with parenting advice for single mothers. “Bringing up children while you are trying to deal with your own grief at the same time is hard,” said Özuyghur. “It is particularly difficult when the kids have their own trauma to deal with too. Many have lost fathers, brothers and sisters, and their entire extended family. It feels like a death but there is no goodbye and no grave to visit.”

After several years with no permanent base, Nuzugum has finally bought a building. Classes of every kind fill the daylight hours and its crowning glory is a culture room on the top floor, said Özuyghur, where kids who have grown up in Turkey away from their homeland will be able to see the classic interior decoration style of Uyghur traditional houses and memorabilia that will become a distant memory as the years go by.

The burden of the loss is palpable whoever you talk to. Standing together during the pain of a protracted exile has become more important than ever, and never has the need for a heroine been more acute.

In a later version of the Nuzugum story, this verse appears:

The Tumen River roared and brayed

In blood not water came its cascade

As witnesses to history by thousands of Nuzugums

This very poem was made.

“We are the fruit of Beijing’s terrible cruelty,” said Munavver, “but we are strong and they have not broken us,” she said defiantly. “We will win in the end.”

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