The last of the Ashiqs: the Sufi troubadours of Xinjiang

Yengisar-streetLAST WEEK I was fortunate to attend a seminar at the Monash Asia Institute focusing on the influence and persistence of Sufism and shamanism in modern Xinjiang. For this event two visitors from Xinjiang Normal University in Urumqi, Liu Xiangchen, Professor of Visual Anthropology, and Dilmurat Omar, director of the Institute of Ethnology and Sociology, came to Monash to discuss their work.

The Monash Asia Institute has for several years been running a project to document the significant cultural sites and spaces of Kashgar, the spiritutal capital for the Uyghurs of Xinjiang, so to have experts visiting from Xinjiang was a great thrill. All the more so for me because I got to meet both professors beforehand and to impress (!?!) them with my few words of Uyghur (and some perhaps not entirely relevant Turkish…)

Incidentally, the Monash Kashgar project has resulted in a fabulous book, published by Frances Lincoln.

Discussions at the seminar highlighted Xinjiang as a realm of overlapping and intersecting cultural traditions and practices, perfect grist for the mill for this blog. In the first session of the seminar, Professor Dilmurat outlined the persistence in Xinjiang of shamanistic practices amongst the Kirghiz minority, an ostensibly Muslim people; the second session included a screening of Ashiq: the Last Troubadours, a documentary detailing the life of Sufi musicians/mystics on the south-western fringes of the Taklamakan Desert.

Aside from the day-to-day rhythm of the life of the ashiq, the film presented a compelling portrait – in miniature – of oasis towns and cities including Kashgar, Yarkand, Yengisar and Hotan. The incidental detail – distinctive Xinjiang vernacular architecture, remote mazars (tombs), pencil-slim poplar trees rippling in the breeze, the curious melding of Chinese design motifs with Turkic (or Persianate), the gregariousness and endless good cheer of the Uyghurs, the great comings-together of people, sitting cross legged on carpeted floors – were so redolent of my brief time in Xinjiang that I could almost smell mutton kebabs and feel talcumy dust on my fingers.

Uighur-homeThe film detailed the role that the ashiq play in the spiritual life of the Uyghurs and how that may be diminishing in the face of the modernity and other forces that are brought to bear in western China. The ashiq tradition stretches back into the mists of time, with its origin somewhere amongst Turkic and/or Central Asian peoples. It has had a pervasive influence. Moving westward with the great Turkic migrations it was notable amongst Turkish and Azerbaijanis dynasties (distant, Muslim, cousins of the Uyghurs). It continues to be popular in modern Azerbaijan and Iranian Azerbaijan, and, as aşıklık, it is deemed by UNESCO to be part of Turkey’s intangible cultural heritage.

It also appeared amongst Christian peoples. As the Turks encountered the Armenians and Georgians of the Caucasus so the tradition was adopted by them. Armenian poets and minstrels from around the 16th century assumed the title of ashuq, the most famous, Sayat Nova, is Armenia’s favourite bard and is sometimes said to be the greatest ashiq of the Caucasus. Apparently the tradition also made it to Greece (ασίκης), and it is tempting to draw parallels between recurring themes in the ashiq canon and notions of courtly love that were popular amongst the bards and minstrels of Medieval Europe.

In fact, at its most basic the message conveyed by the ashiq is all about love. It seems clear that the very terminology comes from “eshq” (عشق ), the Persian word for love, from which we get the Turkish (aşk). In the Christian milieu, medieval bards (certainly in the case of Sayat Nova) sang of romantic love (often of a star-crossed, unrequited, doomed-to-tragedy variety), but in the Islamic ashiq tradition love was spiritual, desire not for a worldly coupling but for union with the Divine.

This is the case in the performances of the ashiq and lay people in Liu Xiangchen’s film showing modern practice in Xinjiang. The songs, chants and genuflections were an aspiration to some sort of heavenly consummation, although that is not to say that they were without elements of aforementioned star-crossedness or the torment of unrequitedness. It was not unusual to see Uyghur singers and observers, their hands upturned in an attitude of prayer, moved to tears.

Liu Xiangchen, from Xinjiang Normal University, has made a string of films about the peoples and cultures of Xinjiang. At the Monash seminar he explained how his interest in the ashiq was aroused when he was appointed by the Chinese government to film muqam performances in Xinjiang as part of an application to install the Uyghur musical form on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. (Muqam itself dates back into the early history of the Turkic peoples of Xinjiang, although Ammanisa Khan is credited with formalising the musical form in 16th century Yarkand. Much of the poetry that accompanies muqam shares imagery and themes with Sufi poetry, particularly themes of spiritual longing for the Divine.)

For Ashiq, Liu spent around 400 days filming, having met with and won the confidences of his subjects in locations on the southern fringe of the Taklamakan. He remarked that he found it extremely hard to edit the film as he had to leave so much valuable footage on the cutting-room floor. As it turns out the film now stands at around 122 minutes, but he has a longer, director’s cut version at around four hours.

Uighur-girlsLiu explained that the ashiq see themselves as marginalised, both by the forces of modernisation and by the wider Uyghur community. The ashiqs and their Sufi followers captured in the movie appeared to be on the fringes of society, both physically and figuratively. They tended to be blacksmiths, barbers and beggars living in cramped and humble surrounds. One memorable quote describes the tradition as “700 years of marginalisation and vagabond life”. In some regards, this is a source of strength and may be a part of its appeal. Underdog status may well be a point of pride from some ashiq, tenacity in the face of adversity may be seen as a noble quality and even the fact that Divine spiritual union must remain unconsummated (at least until death, hypothetically) lends a degree of delicious longing to the life of the ashiq and to Sufis of all stripes.

The film revealed the diversity and intensity of the Sufi experience. Communal practice at times was shown to be hypnotic and intoxicating, hordes of men bobbing together in unison and chanting. Individual devotions could be powerfully moving. Sitting at a mazar on a windswept dune, a circle of women, their cheeks streaked with tears.

For all the material poverty and gritty circumstances that were on show, it was evident that ashiq performance and Sufi ritual is hugely enriching for the participants. It put me in mind of a memorable description from The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen’s wonderful account of a walk into Dolpo, on the Tibetan plateau. Matthiessen recounts happening on a local acquaintance who appears “as enchanted as ever with his meagre life”. And so it is with the Uyghur Sufis: despite a difficult existence on the fringes of the severe Taklamakan, despite marginalisation, despite lack of material comforts, for them life is a fulfilling journey, one that may promise rewards in the hereafter, but also one in which every step is acknowledged, appreciated and relished in that very moment.