The jailed folk singer at the front line of the Uighur struggle

Abdurehim Heyit unites Uighurs, intimidates China and makes the world pay attention to our plight only with his music.

Heyit/ Youtube
Abdurehim Heyit is an Uighur folk musician known for his dutar playing skills and lyrics about the daily life and struggles of his people [Youtube]

Last August, a United Nations anti-discrimination panel shocked the world by reporting that up to one million members of the Uighur community – a Muslim, Turkic-speaking minority in China – were forced into internment camps in the country’s western Xinjiang region.

The revelation prompted some countries, including Canada, France, Germany and the United States, to urge Beijing to shut down the camps, and to respect freedom of religion, expression and association. As international media organisations and human rights groups published further reports detailing the horrific abuse Uighurs are being subjected to at the hands of Chinese authorities, the US even toyed with the idea of imposing economic penalties on China. However, economic and political interests triumphed as usual, the world’s attention moved on, and the global community once again failed to take any constructive action to end the suffering of Uighurs.

In absence of a credible retaliatory threat, Chinese authorities brusquely rebuffed the criticisms of the state’s treatment of the Turkic Muslim group and even defended their actions saying their efforts have been “completely in line with the direction the international community has taken to combat terrorism“.

As an Uighur activist living in exile, I was shocked neither by China’s shameless denial and justifications nor by the world’s inaction. Activists like me have been trying to bring the plight of Uighurs (as well as other Turkic Muslim peoples living in the region like the Kazakhs, Kirghiz, Uzbecs and Tatars) to the world’s attention for decades, with little success. For years, neither reports by respected NGOs nor testimonies by Uighurs themselves managed to convince world leaders to hold China to account. Even the latest UN report resulted in nothing more than a series of meaningless statements – China did not take a single step back or show any remorse for the millions of lives it ruined with its aggressive Sinification policies.

But last month something surprising happened.

The news that a popular Uighur folk poet and musician, Abdurehim Heyit, had died in a detention camp in China went viral on Turkish social media. The reaction of nationalist Turks, who consider the celebrated poet a “Turkic treasure”, was so strong that Turkey’s government felt the need to issue a strongly worded statement condemning China’s treatment of Uighurs.

Ankara’s statement in itself was a welcome development for the Uighur community – fearing economic and political retaliation, most Muslim-majority nations had previously refrained from strongly criticizing China on this issue.

However, what followed the statement was even more important. 

China swiftly denied Heyit has been killed and even released a video appearing to show the Uighur musician. In the 25-second video dated February 10, Heyit states that he is “in the process of being investigated for allegedly violating national laws” and adds that he is in “good health and has never been abused”. Of course, we have no way of authenticating the video or knowing that Heyit is indeed in “good health” and facing a fair investigation – China has a history of forcing dissidents to make scripted confessional videos.

Nevertheless, the release of the video marked a turning point in the efforts to end the suffering of Uighurs. It encouraged Uighurs in the diaspora to start a social media campaign and demand China to release evidence of their relatives’ wellbeing too.

China’s decision to release the video and officially deny the Turkish government’s allegations showed that Beijing is not entirely indifferent to international criticism. Moreover, it demonstrated that Heyit – even in detention – has more power over global leaders and the Chinese state than countless NGOs and media organisations.

So, who is Abdurehim Heyit and why does he scare China so much?

A folk hero 

Heyit is a dutar aficionado – a two string, plucked instrument that is an important part of the Uighur culture.

In the small village where I grew up, situated 20 miles east of the ancient Silk Road City of Kashgar, almost every family has a dutar. Once we owned one too. My mother and my older sisters knew how to play. I, unfortunately, broke our family’s dutar when it was my turn to learn, so I can’t play.

Even though I never learned how to play, dutar played a big role in my life throughout my childhood. The sound of a dutar was always around me. Everyone I knew either played or enjoyed listening to this instrument as most of our favourite folk songs could be played with it. In many ways, dutar was the sound of my childhood and my people.

After I left my village to attend college in Beijing in 1983, however, I gave up listening to Uighur music. I was eager to differentiate myself from the people whom I grew up with in Kashgar and blend in with people living in the city, so I started to primarily listen to western songs. I was trying to hide where I came from, as I did not yet know to appreciate the beauty and uniqueness of my culture. 

In my absence, a new dutar player named Abdurehim Heyit had become the new craze in Uighur music. Everyone, including my family, was constantly listening to his cassettes and played his songs on their dutars. It was impossible to avoid his music. His tunes became instant classics. They were played at every social gathering.  

In 1994, I moved to the US to attend graduate school. In America, I lost my connection to Uighur music completely. But when I returned to Kashgar for a three-day visit a year later, I was once again greeted with the sounds of dutar – and the voice of Heyit. In just a few years, he had become a folk hero for the Uighur people.

Seeing a familiar face on the pages of the NYT 

After graduation, I found a job at a prestigious research institute and settled in the US for good. I had dreams about earning enough money to bring my mother over for a visit. But, only three months after my first day at my new job, I had to give up on those dreams for good.

On February 5, 1997, I saw my people on American news channels for the first time. Uighurs had taken to the streets to protest against the Chinese Government’s decision to ban Meshrep, a Uighur cultural gathering, in Ghulja City. The government had deployed troops to put down the protest, taking many young lives in the process.

As I watched the reports on the violent crackdown on TV, I noticed most of the protesters were young like me. I decided that I could not remain silent while they were risking their lives to protect our culture. Being one of just a few Uighurs in the US who can speak English, I felt I had an obligation to speak out and bring international attention to our people’s plight.

This was a very hard decision to make. I knew if I raised my voice I would never be able to go back home to visit my mother and other relatives. But, I also knew that unlike those young Uighurs back home, I was safe in the US from the government’s bullets. So, I organised a protest with a few other Uighur and American friends to inform the world about the Ghulja massacre and other human rights violations back home. By speaking out against Chinese abuses, I effectively killed my chance to ever meet my mother again. Now that I was an “activist” she had no chance of getting a passport and I could not go back home. Even talking on the phone, we had to be very careful.

Despite our best efforts, the world soon forgot about the Ghulja massacre and I did not hear or read much about my people on American media for some time.

But two years later, in February 1999, I found myself looking at a picture of Abdurehim Heyit on the pages of the New York Times. The feature article titled In a Far-Flung Corner of China, a Folk Star was about the troubles he experienced at the hands of the government for singing songs about the oppression our people faced under China’s rule. This was the first time a major publication outside of China featured an Uighur artist. Three years later, the Times Magazine also carried a feature article on him in its March 2002 edition. The article compared him to the famous American musician Bob Dylan because of the social messages carried in his songs and praised him for his artistic talent.

Having read the articles, I felt very proud of him, but at the same time felt bad for having largely ignored his music – and Uighur culture – most of my adult life. Moreover, as I read American authors praise the depth of meaning in his poems, I realised that I barely paid attention to the lyrics of his songs over the years.

I decided to take a second look at his music and found a VCD that contained some of his performances. I was impressed by his stage presence, the beauty of his compositions and, above all, his lyrics that reflected all the hardships Uighurs experience on a daily basis under China’s rule. I was a bit embarrassed to rediscover this Uighur folk hero with the help of the American media, yet I was happy to finally comprehend what my mother and other relatives loved so much about him. Perhaps I was finally mature enough to understand and embrace my culture fully – as the Uighur saying goes, a fruit returns to the root when it is ripe.

Not just a folk singer, but a general on the front line

These days I watch Heyit’s performances on Youtube on a regular basis. Indeed, there is something special about him. His deep voice and unbelievable dutar playing skills are magical, and his lyrics are inspiring. He is the Uighur Bob Dylan all right, but he is also something much more. 

Heyit is a superstar who has fans and followers around the world, but he acted and lived like an ordinary Uighur until the day of his arrest. Unlike many other singers and musicians who had lost their way because of fame, he managed to stay true to himself over the years. Despite the government’s efforts to silence him, he continued to sing about the Uighur way of life.

At one time, Heyit was venerated across China – he performed with national art troupes across the country. However, in 2017, when he performed a song titled Fathers, which takes its lyrics from a Uighur poem calling on younger generations to respect the sacrifices of those before them, China decided that he poses a “terror threat” to the country and sent him to jail.

However, even in prison, he remained a role model for all Uighurs struggling to preserve their identity under an oppressive regime. He is not just a folk music star, but a general standing shoulder to shoulder with his people on the front line against a much stronger enemy. 

China has been demonising our religion and culture for years to make young Uighurs ashamed of who they are. The internment camps they are now using to allegedly “re-educate” us are just another chapter in this sinister plan to erase all traces of Uighur identity from China. However, their campaign is failing because of Uighur artists, intellectuals and thought leaders like Abdurehim Heyit.

Heyit made me rediscover my culture and be proud of my Uighur heritage thousands of miles away in the US. I know that he had done the same for many other Uighurs back home and across the world. Heyit and others like him use their art and their ideas to bind all Uighurs together. They also hold the power to turn the world’s attention to our plight. The survival of our culture rests on their shoulders.

China is undoubtedly aware of this too. This is why the state is keeping Heyit, like many other Uighur intellectuals, academics, composers, writers and even soccer players, behind bars under trumped-up charges.

However, the events of last month clearly proved that Heyit is stronger than China. Even from a jail cell, where he has no way of speaking up, he continues to help the Uighur struggle. 

Heyit’s art made the Turkish government raise its voice for the Uighur people. I know his captivating music will achieve a lot more for us in the coming days, even if China refuses to set him free. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.