A culture on the cusp

The unique Uyghurs! This Chinese ethnic minority shows influences from Turkey, Asia and Europe, but the Uyghurs have their own distinct traditions, says Turnisa Masidik. In Vancouver, 300 Uyghurs are holding onto that identity.

Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group,” says Masidik, an Uyghur activist and long-time member of Vancouver’s Uyghur community. “Some are in Turkey, and some live in the region Xinjiang. This is a Chinese name; it means ‘new region.’ We call [it] Uyghurstan.”

The Uyghur community in Vancouver regularly holds events such as musical performances and picnics.

The Uyghur Justin Bieber

Although many live in China and Turkey, Uyghurs have their own music and cuisine, notes Masidik. Even the Uyghur language shows this mix, she continues.

“Our religion is Islam, and our blood is European,” she says, “[but] our language belongs to the Turkic system. Before the middle of the 1980s, our alphabet looked like the English language, like the [Latin] script they use in Turkey.”

Uyghur Turnisa Masidik emigrated from China and now lives and works in Vancouver. | Photo courtesy of Turnisa Masidik

Following an order from the Chinese government, though, says Masidik, the Uyghurs now use another alphabet.

“It looks like Arabic, but it is not Arabic,” she clarifies.

Uyghurs have a unique style of dressing as well, Masidik says.

“Uyghur men have their hats, doppa,” she explains. “Uyghur women have long thin braids, 40 or 41. We have dresses made of textures, crystals and feathers; very colourful shoes; [and] dancing clothes made of silk.”

Masidik is particularly proud of Uyghur music, which she calls “beautiful.”

“We have special instruments, dutar, rawap,” she says, speaking of two types of lute. “We have 12 muqams. It’s very classic music; it contains a lot of meaning [and lasts] more than 24 hours. It’s about the freedom of the Uyghur people. We dance, too. It shows the meaning of the songs.”

Freedom is a key theme in Uyghur culture, as their continued existence as an ethnic and religious minority in China is controversial, says Masidik.

“The ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative by the Chinese government is trying to connect China to the world,” she explains. “Without [the support of] our country Uyghurstan, the Chinese government cannot expand the road to the Middle East, because our country borders Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan.”

As a consequence, Masidik continues, many resisting Uyghurs have been detained. In her view, pressure has been placed on Uyghur intellectuals and on entertainment and cultural figures within the Uyghur community.

“We have the so-called Uyghur Justin Bieber,” Masidik says. “He’s only 24 or 26 years old. This boy is famous for Uyghur children. He’s very good at rap music; he’s created a lot of music and dance, [with] Western and Uyghur music mixed together.”

At this moment, she reports, the whereabouts of this man are allegedly unknown.

Keeping the identity alive

Masidik, who came to Canada in 2006, is pleased with the life she has found here.

“[In China] it was very hard to get work; it took more than a year, almost two years. Luckily, I had a passport; that is why my husband, I, and our son were able to come to Canada,” Masidik says. “We worked hard; we went to school for English, [and] I took a program in nursing.”

She praises the openness of Canadian society.

“In Canada, we have freedom to express what we feel, our music. We have been using our music when we have our events, like the end of Ramadan,” she says. “We have a beautiful culture, beautiful music, beautiful instruments. We are trying to keep our identity, our traditions.”

The Uyghur community continues to raise awareness about the difficult situation they face. Their next gathering will be July 6 in front of the Chinese Consulate.