On borders, or the crossing thereof


Gjirokastra, Albania, 2008

In a world currently in flux, where great numbers of people are afoot, there is much talk of borders.

Various voices in New Europe (!), claiming to be acting to preserve their identity, by which they presumably mean Christian identity, appear intent on closing borders to those fleeing unspeakable horrors in Syria and elsewhere. Fences bristling with razor wire are being erected.

In Australia, a land/continent/nation-state that is, as our national anthem tells us, girt by sea, there has long been talk of border security. A pernicious euphemism that is now routinely trotted out to disguise acts of bastardry under a cloak of national interest.

But borders are like rules: they are made to be transgressed.

As the great anthropologist James Clifford argues:

“Borders are never walls that can’t be crossed, borders are always lines selectively crossed: there’s a simultaneous management of borders and a process of subversion. There are always smugglers as well as border police.” [1]


Through the mountains to Ioannina, Epirus, Greece, 2008

And where borders are transgressed, exchanges take place. The French academic Beatrice Hibou observes:

“Difference, not homogeneity, is what makes for the richness of exchange. Borders create opportunities; they are not simply sites of separation or obstacle points.” [2]

For me, borders are always a moment of trepidation, but also exhilaration. I remember new adventures arising as I crossed: Georgia-Armenia, Croatia-Bosnia, Croatia-Montenegro, Albania-Greece, Turkey-Iran, Turkey-Syria, Spain-Morocco. And at those I by-passed, skirted, like China-Tajikistan, China-Afghanistan, a sense of wondering at the adventures that beckoned…

Reşat Kasaba reminds us that borders are relatively modern inventions. In days past there were the seats of emperors and kings, but in between were the marches…

“Ottoman expansion involved the conquest of a series of castles, major towns, and crucial waterways and passes. Beyond these, one would be hard-pressed to find any indication of where the Ottoman lands ended. There were no border posts or barbed wires that separated the Ottoman Empire from its neighbours, and one certainly did not need a passport to travel to and from the territories of the surrounding states.” [3]


Van railway station, en route to Iran, 2008

And across the marches, these ill-defined nowhere-lands, moved a multitude of people, facilitating exchange, trade, cultural cross-pollination, the lifeblood of human progress and endeavour.

 “In addition to nomads… hundreds of itinerant merchants constantly crisscrossed the border areas and kept the Ottoman Empire always linked to its neighbours and to the world at large.

“Within the context of Ottoman expansion, it became quite typical for the nomadic tribes who populated the border regions of the empire to form a human link between the Ottoman heartlands and other places that were under the control of neighbouring states. Their vast arcs of migration extended to hundreds if not thousands of miles and frequently went right through the frontier regions.

“In an alternative portrayal that did not privilege stasis but focused on groups such as nomads, itinerant traders and migrant workers who routinely transgressed these lines of demarcation, the border zones would appear more as areas that connected the Ottoman Empire with other parts of Asia, Europe and Africa and not as barriers that separated these lands from each other.” [4]


[1] Clifford, James, On the edges of anthropology, (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press) 2003, p.59

[2] Hibou, Beatrice, “Conclusion”, in Joel Migdal (ed) Boundaries and Belonging (Cambridge University Press) 2004, p.355

[3] Kasaba, Reşat, “Do states always favour stasis?” in Joel Migdal (ed), Boundaries and Belonging, (Cambridge University Press) 2004, p.29

[4] ibid, pp.30-1




Remembering İsmail Gaspirali: Tatar man of letters

IT HAS BEEN a big year for anniversaries. It’s a hundred years since the outbreak of WWI, of course, and recently we saw the 13th anniversary of September 11, a date which must be nigh-on globally recognised. That particular day this year also marked a centenary, one that received little attention. On September 11, 1914, İsmail Gaspirali (Gasprinski) passed away after a lifetime as an intellectual, educator and politician.

A great man of letters and polymath, Gaspirali was a Crimean Tatar. The Crimean Tatars are a Muslim Eurasian people living, as their name would suggest, in the Crimean Peninsula. Another of those fabled/clichéd crossroads, Crimea through its history has seen Greek and Genoese colonists, Armenians, Bulgarians and nomadic peoples including Scythians, Cumans, Kipchaks, Khazars and the descendants of Genghis Khan, the Golden Horde, all of whom to different degrees have contributed to the Tatar gene pool. They are counted as a Turkic people, speaking a language that is related to Turkish.

Gasprinskiy-headshotWith all those comings and goings, the Tatars have had a complicated and torrid history. They established themselves in the Crimea and the northern littoral of the Black Sea in the 13th century, before creating a khanate in the 1440s then becoming vassals of the Ottoman Turks in 1475. Under the Ottomans, the Crimean khans enjoyed a degree of autonomy, with their capital at Bakhchisaray (from the Turkic bahçe saray, literally ‘garden palace’). The Russians, under Catherine the Great, then annexed their territory in 1783, sending thousands of Tatar refugees to Ottoman Turkey, where they were largely assimilated into the Turkish nation.

Born near Bakhchisaray in 1851, Ismail Gaspirali pursued a modernising mission for his people and fellow Muslims of the Russian empire. He was inspired by the vision of the Islamic Modernists a movement that sought the betterment of Muslim societies through the employment of science, technology and education in a delicate coupling with and accommodation and reinterpretation of Islamic rulings and cultural norms.

Gaspirali became an eloquent and effective proponent – and exponent – of the Modernist vision. He saw education and the emancipation of women as the most important and immediate paths to progress. He also saw that it was necessary to educate and publish for people in their mother tongues rather than the Russian spoken by the educated elites across the Caucasus and Central Asia. Gaspirali is also credited as the founder of the Jadid movement (from usul-i jadid, meaning ‘new method’), which established new schooling models for Muslim populations across Central Asia.

The then-new technology of mass printing, in particular newspapers, was central to Gaspirali’s modernisation project. In 1883 – another centenary, this one marking the Russian annexation of Crimea – he established his periodical Tercüman (from the Turkish/Turkic for ‘interpreter’), publishing it in Russian and a modified Turkic. In many respects the underlying philosophy and intellectual bases for Tercüman served as a model for Molla Nasreddin, the celebrated Azeri satirical periodical established in Baku in the early 20th century, which adopted a much more scathing tone but which covered similar intellectual territory including advocating for women’s rights, curtailing the influence of conservatives clerics and championing reason over retrograde custom.

tercuman-imageThe vision of the Islamic Modernists appears entirely reasonable, laudable and practicable even today, all the more so in comparison to the nihilistic apparitions that so many modern-day jihadis espouse. But the Islamic Modernists of imperial Russia’s domain were smothered by the flow tides of history, not least among them the Bolsheviks. Tercüman ceased publication in 1918, four years after Gaspirali’s death. The Jadidists were largely purged and their innovations brought to an abrupt close. So began all manner of horrors.

As for the Crimean Tatars, the travails that began under Catherine the Great did not cease under the Soviets. This year marks the 70th anniversary of their enforced exile from their homeland by Josef Stalin on the pretext that they were Nazi collaborators. A quarter of a million Tatars (as well as other Crimean minorities including Armenians, Greeks and Bulgarians) were deported en masse to Uzbekistan, with thousands dying in transit or, later, in squalor and penury abandoned to the extremes of the Central Asian climate. Stalin’s allegations were entirely false something that the Soviets recognised in 1967. From the mid-1980s Tatars began returning to their homeland, with numbers accelerating after the collapse of the USSR. Still, as of earlier this decade, the Tatars constituted less than one-fifth of the population of the Crimean Peninsula.

The palace at Bakhchisaray

The palace at Bakhchisaray

With events earlier this year as Russia once again annexed the Crimea the Tatars are once again in a precarious position. It is generally understood that the Tatars supported the Euromaidan protests that shook Kiev, that they continue to see Kiev, rather than Moscow, as the capital city they should rightfully owe allegiance to, that Ukraine’s drawing closer to Western Europe would be in their best interests. Since the annexation Russian officials demanded that Tatars cede their land to Russians.  Many Tatars feared that a new round of ethnic cleansing may be in the offing and others are taking it upon themselves to leave before they are forced to do so, fleeing to the safety of Lviv, near the Polish border.

How Gaspirali would weep at the predicament that his people have found themselves in, how circumstances could have gone so spectacularly awry, so far from the optimistic, progressive, enlightened ambition that he had, where he saw the benefits of ‘modernity’ being shared and enjoyed across ethnic and religious and cultural divides by all the peoples of Eurasia… Still, Gaspirali stands as a beacon, proof positive that people of passion, of commitment to the betterment of humankind, of heart, of vision, of compassion are not restricted to any one faith or ethnicity or ‘civilisation’ but might emerge anywhere.

Would that there were more of them, and fewer shitty, malevolent idiosyncrasies in the unfurling of uncaring history and heartless fate…

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.

The ‘colour revolutions’ continue: Tbilisi, Kiev and beyond

IT IS WELL documented that Georgians love a drink, and it appears that they’re pretty keen on a demonstration, too. Georgia saw a peaceful transition of power with the Rose Revolution in 2003, the first civilian uprising that led to the downfall of an authoritarian and undemocratic regime in the 21st century. Here was an example of popular resistance – citizens brandishing roses, no less – to an out-of-touch regime leading to the ouster of said regime and the bloodless shifting of power and a, seemingly, bright new era of democracy, political openness and development.

Sadly, things didn’t quite turn out that way. Putative wunderkind-president Mikheil Saakashvili grew increasingly autocratic during his years in power, spurring Georgians to returned to the streets and squares in 2009, 2011 and 2012 to remonstrate against his despotic ways. Georgia might now get a chance for a fresh start after the electoral victory of new president Georgi Margvelashvili in October this year.

Georgia was the first of the ‘colour’ revolutions to have unfurled over the last 10 years, first starting in the post-Soviet realm, other notable ones being the Orange Revolution in Ukraine (2004) and the Tulip Revolution in Kirghizstan (2005). This penchant for mobilisation amongst diverse and predominantly youthful segments of society was also apparent in the Green Movement that arose in Iran after the disputed presidential election of 2009 and which, to my mind, despite its lack of success in bringing about positive political change, provided template and inspiration for the uprisings across the Middle East since 2011 that have been characterised as the Arab Spring.

tbilisi-squareBut the dream that these revolutions fostered and fed on was greater and brighter and sunnier than the everyday realities that eventuated. Despite successful removal of regimes in Ukraine and Kirghizstan, most of the uprisings haven’t yet amounted to lasting, substantive change. Political change is a gradual process, on a road strewn with pitfalls and unforeseen backtracks, particularly so when institutions are arthritic and when those calling for change come from diverse backgrounds, with often radically different agenda and divergent ideas of how a political future should be constructed, and when new political stakeholders fall into the same traps that befell their predecessors. So it is that Foreign Policy rated the outcomes of the colour revolutions as ‘terribly disappointing’.

The reasons for such ‘terribly disappointing’ results could bear some intense scrutiny and in-depth analysis (looking for a PhD research topic, anyone?) but a quick and dirty analysis might put them down to a lack of robust civil society organs, inability to construct robust democratic institutions, a lack of an educated middle class. Perhaps most telling has been a propensity for the victors to not heed the rule of law, or, alternatively, to appropriate the revolution to their own ends, riding into the presidential palace on a wave of populist enthusiasm which they then ignore or override, pushing through their own agenda once ensconced in the corridors of power. No doubt there is many an Iranian who would describe the events and aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran in just those terms.

Things went awry in a similar way in Ukraine in 2004. The Orange Revolution had a popular momentum. It was seen as evidence of Ukraine’s determination to ‘return’ to the European fold, however this westward lilt was derailed and aspirations to a new, open political arena were never realised. Many Ukrainians have, however, recently decided that they disapprove of the direction that the government of Viktor Yanukovych is taking. Ukrainians have taken to the streets to voice their displeasure. And it seems that a number of Georgians are joining them. Perhaps having recently experienced a peaceful election and a change of government, these Georgians are hankering after a street protest…

All glib remarks aside, it would seem that there are grounds for solidarity between Georgians and Ukrainians, and it is not just a penchant for rabble-rousing that brings people from Tbilisi to join the EuroMaidan protest in Kiev. Both Georgia and Ukraine have been cosseted and smothered by their overbearing neighbour Russia, Georgia depicted by many Russians rather patronisingly as a playground where they may enjoy the beauty of the landscape and tap into a primal spirituality, Ukraine depicted as a bread basket. Georgians bristle as such a characterisation and have shown themselves eager to throw off Russia’s jealous embrace. Georgians are keen to assert their European credentials (a categorisation which in their idiom does not include anything Russian). It would appear that many, if not a majority of, Ukrainians are similarly inclined.

It’s apparent that Yanukovych in his recent (re)turning to the embrace of Russia overstepped the mark, assuming that his own authority allowed him to do what he felt best for the country, despite what the masses wanted. The gatherings in EuroMaidan would suggest an (apparent) majority of the populace would prefer Europe. This was hubris on Yanukovych’s part, a miscalculation as to the weight of his authority. I’m tempted to draw parallels with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan response to the protests in Gezi Park earlier this year. Erdoğan’s hubris, his inflated sense of self-importance, clouded his judgement and fomented a political crisis that might have been avoided if he had paid more attention and given more credence to what punters on the street were saying.

In fact, apart from both being responses to the domineering posturing of Russia, the ‘colour’ revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine shared other parallels. An inspiration for many participants in both uprisings was the OTPOR movement that arose in Serbia in the late 1990s as a civic youth movement that used non-violent means to protest against the regime of Slobodan Milošević and that is credited with playing a pivotal role in his eventual downfall. After their success in Serbia OTPOR members provided inspiration and training in methods of non-violent resistance for like-minded groups in the ‘colour revolutions’ that broke out in the former-Soviet realm. OTPOR also inspired activists in the early 2000s in Albania, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, and more recently, having morphed into an organisation called CANVAS. Under the direction of Srdja Popovic who was central to the genesis of OTPOR, the same activists and strategies were involved in protests in countries including Egypt and Tunisia during the Arab Spring.

twitter-graffitiOf course, it’s a favoured tactic of un-democratic or authoritarian regimes to espy foreign plots in any instance of local resistance or dissent. Lazily dismissing discontent as the work of pernicious outside forces is a convenient way of avoiding the hard work of addressing bothersome social and political issues or admitting shortcomings in one’s own administration; it also has the benefit of rallying loyalists to the cause. Russia saw only foreign hands manipulating the ‘colour revolutions’ in the early 2000s, rather than acknowledging that free-thinking citizens of newly independent nations might actually want to strike out on their own. (Indeed, Russia remains convinced that Western governments continue to meddle in the former-Soviet realm.) And in Turkey earlier this year, Prime Minister Erdoğan pointed the finger at unspecified and ill-defined foreign lobby groups, accusing them of fomenting large demonstrations that went on for several weeks. Whether he believed his own cant or if it was a way of galvanising his supporters is difficult to discern, but during my time in Turkey in June I certainly encountered punters who parroted his lines. (I don’t know that Erdoğan is much of a student of local geopolitics, so I’m not sure he’d be that familiar with the ‘colour revolutions’, but he was certainly aware that, at the time that the Gezi protests were continuing, people power removed his buddy Mohammed Mursi from power in Egypt.)

In fact, seeing civic movements of this nature effectively removing unpopular regimes from power only makes unrepresentative governments more stridently blame external agents and foreign governments for all sorts of problems. Such assertions may grow louder as the political equilibrium is shifted. In the various ‘colour revolutions’ and beyond, it is undeniable that foreign nationals have participated and in some instances actively facilitated and organised popular resistance, but that is not to say that foreign governments have worked to undermine rival or neighbouring states on the geopolitical stage. Rather it appears that common aspirations, shared across borders by citizens of many nations, an empathy with others suffering under heavy-handed regimes, is at work and is prompting common people to action.

Twilight in Kashgar

A shortened version of this feature first appeared in the Travel & Indulgence pages of The Weekend Australian on September 7-8. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/travel/another-time-and-pace/story-e6frg8rf-1226712070378 

Evening is a drawn out affair in Kashgar, the great Silk Road entrepôt in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province. Official time is in sync with Beijing, so in this city four hours’ flying time west of the capital the working day effectively ends in the mid-afternoon and darkness doesn’t descend until 9:00pm. I learn quickly that when making arrangements it’s vital to specify whether a rendezvous is at “Beijing time” or “Kashgar time”.

In October, as summer has faded and the clear skies of autumn hover, sticking to “Beijing time” lends an unhurried  quality to the gloaming. In and around Kashgar’s Old Town this just gives the locals longer to congregate outdoors.

old-town-pedlar-kashgarAs elsewhere in Asia, life is lived on the streets here. Walking along Seman Lu I encounter a lively poker game on the broad pavement. Women congregate to chat. Market gardeners sell grapes, weighed out on balancing scales. Passers-by gather for snacks at roadside stalls.

It’s my first time in China but I can’t overcome a sense of familiarity. It feels uncannily like Turkey, where I have travelled many times before. The card players on Seman Lu wear embroidered Islamic prayer caps, the gossiping mothers sport unruly headscarfs and flowing dresses, the snacks are sunflower seeds shared from newspaper cones. All of this echoes streetlife in Turkey. But of course, the local population are Uyghurs, a Muslim people who are culturally and linguistically related to the Turks.

In fact the Uyghurs are the ones who stayed behind when the nomadic Turkic peoples started their long westward migration across Eurasia in the tenth century. Yet while 1000 years may separate the residents of modern Turkey and the Uyghurs who mill around me, the similarities between the two peoples are overwhelming.

The conviviality of life in the street, the tendency to clutch the forearm of the person being spoken to, even the way pedestrians blithely step across major roads unconcerned at oncoming mopeds and taxis are so familiar it’s as if I’ve found myself in a Turkish outpost squeezed into a corner of China. The language, too, is similar. When I enter a shop and use my halting traveller’s Turkish to buy bottled water I am gifted an array of smiles.

A favourite spot for both tourists and locals is the venerable Uyghur Teahouse.  On the edge of the Old Town, the teahouse, reached via rickety stairs, offers a view of the comings and goings on Handicrafts Street. Here Uyghur elders congregate at length over pots of tea – another penchant they share with the Turks – stroking their beards, flicking prayer beads and discussing the affairs of the day.

At street level , plumes of tangy smoke rise from the grills of the kebab makers. Decorated rounds of nun  bread are on sale outside the baker’s tandir. When I visit in the afternoon, I spy several barber shops that also offer dental services, a vocational coupling that doesn’t strike me as the most obvious.

music-factory-kashgarOn Handicrafts Street, Uyghur artisans hammer at copper tea pots or sharpen knives while maintaining conversations with passing friends. At the Uyghur Musical Instrument Factory, a shop reeking of resin and wood shavings, collected traditional instruments are on sale. After buying a souvenir  tambourine I am treated to the plaintive vocals and shimmering dutar (long-necked lute) performance of local muqam musicians. Outside sassy Uyghur teenagers check their mobile phones while scooting around on mopeds adorned with woven saddle bags.

This oasis city on the fringe of the Taklamakan Desert has seen the comings and goings of peoples over millennia. Through here came Silk Road traffic moving both ways between China and the Mediterranean.  Different faiths and all manner of trade goods passed through Kashgar, a plethora of cargoes on the backs of mightily laden camels.

Marco Polo once passed through making dismissive comments about the local “Turkis”. During the height of the Great Game in the 19th century the city was prone to “international melodrama” as the spies of the British and Russian empires sort to outpoint each other. And at intervals came Chinese dynastic armies expanding out of the east, seeking to subdue and envelope a vast frontier territory of which Kashgar was the focal point.

Most recently, in 1949, the People’s Republican Army marched in. The Chinese claim Xinjiang as an integral part of China, citing Han Dynasty control in the 1st century BC and episodes of central rule since. The Uyghurs largely see it otherwise, pointing to long intervals when Turkic sultans and khans or local warlords held sway. Some draw parallels to the situation in Tibet and maintain demands for autonomy or independence.

For now, Beijing is firmly in control, marshalling the Xinjiang region (fully one-sixth of the Chinese landmass) for redevelopment and modernisation. Redevelopment in Kashgar centres on the Old Town, much of which is being demolished to allow ranks of apartment buildings to be constructed. Winding alleys, shaded courtyards and centuries-old stucco houses adorned with carved wooden embellishments are being bulldozed in the name of progress.

Authorities claim that the Old Town is an earthquake risk and new housing is necessary. Local opinion is divided. One local, Khadija, tells me it is “good and bad”. She likes the idea of modern conveniences but fears the dispersal of her neighbourhood community. Another, Mustafa, tells me, “Some Uyghurs say that [existing] buildings are old and small. But mostly they say ‘no, no, no…’”

Parts of the Old Town are being preserved, however, as a “living museum”. I buy an entrance ticket and wander several streets. Here, life is lived at close quarters. Little girls play on doorsteps. Boys kick footballs in alleyways that have coded paving stones, hexagonal for throughways, rectangular for dead ends. There are no cars, just the odd pedlar arriving on a three-wheeled motorbike to deliver vegetables. Conversations echo in enclosed spaces. Hearing the Turkic lilt of Uyghur voices, I could be in old Istanbul.

livestock-market-3-kashgarSome see the pulling down of the Old Town as a move towards smothering Uyghur identity. Others claim the Chinese government’s action, whether done with good intentions or otherwise, will ultimately lead to the assimilation of the Uyghurs. The Uyghurs and the Han Chinese already share many characteristics: a flare for communal storytelling, gregariousness, a predilection for round-the-clock cups of tea, eating breakfast with chopsticks. Will Uyghur distinctiveness eventually be lost?

I prefer to think that a culture and lifestyle as vibrant and boisterous as that of the Uyghurs will not be so easily overcome. I think of the sassy moped pilots, the noisy pavement poker players. At the Sunday livestock market I watch burly Uyghur farmers wrestling yaks onto trucks, man-handling sheep and taking donkeys for “test drives”. These dignified men, with calloused hands and buttoned waistcoats, are no push-overs.

This region has long been a melting pot. Cultures and creeds have intermingled and overlapped here since time immemorial. Chinese and Uyghur cohabitation need not be a zero sum game. My last meal in Kashgar is evidence of this. Surrounded by Chinese and Uyghur chatter, I eat chilli-encrusted lamb with pulled noodles and braised cabbage.

Leaving the restaurant, I pause at the kerb. Twilight again. A brooding sky. Swallows zip overhead. The street lights suddenly ripple on. I abandon myself to the traffic and step out amongst the racing mopeds.


Tomb of Imam Asim: meeting point for Islam and Buddhism

EARLIER THIS WEEK the outstanding online news cooperative The Tuqay ran my story about the tomb of Imam Asim in Hotan. Hovering on the southern perimeter of the Taklamakan Desert, Hotan is perhaps most famous for its jade, something that has drawn Chinese traders for millennia. It’s also renowned as the first place outside China where silk was cultivated. According to the story, in around AD 50  a wily Chinese concubine who was married off to a Khotanese prince brought silk worm eggs out of China in her hair. Perhaps this was an act of industrial espionage, in reverse, the concubine exacting her revenge by ending China’s monopoly on silk production after she was banished to the conjugal relations on the periphery of the realm.

Modern Hotan is still known for its jade, and has a reputation for carpet making. I spent a bit of time at the jade market, a clamour of traders and shoppers on the banks of the Yurungkash river just on the edge of town. Apparently the river, which was long the source of jade, has been over exploited. Among the stalls and shops there was jade in all manner of forms – some looked like little more than tarted up river pebbles with a cheap gloss of varnish. There was nothing much that caught my eye, but I did buy some cheap costume jewellery – amethyst glass – from a weather beaten Uyghur woman with leathery palms.

hotan-carpetThe tomb of Imam Asim was far more interesting than the jade market, for mine. To get there we had to pass through the edges of town. So often it is in these little-visited corners that you get an insight into workaday life, into what makes a place tick. I remember dusty roads, corner shops, kids on bikes, irrigation canals, clusters of houses that didn’t quite constitute villages, kids swimming in the canals, stands of tall, shady poplars such a feature of the agricultural areas that ring the oasis cities of Xinjiang.

Hotan, for all of its current backwater status, played a pivotal role in various histories. This was a foothold in the region for Buddhism, which emerged out of India to the south. A Buddhist kingdom of Khotan was established here in around 200BC. It was conquered by Tibetans in the late 8th century, then the Karakhanids (or Karahanlı as they are known to the Turks), amongst whom moved Imam Asim. It was then that the Turkic languages came to replace pre-existing languages of the Taklamakan.

In 955, Karakhanid Sultan Satuq Bughra Khan was the first Turkic ruler to convert to Islam. Arabic sources say that ‘two hundred thousand tents of the Turks’ converted in 960. It’s my understanding that prior to this the Muslim presence in Central Asia was entirely Persian (indeed, a strong Persian imprint remains in Tajikistan, obviously, but also the notable cities of Uzbekistan, including Samarkand and Bukhara). Whatever the case, it would seem that Turkic groups didn’t convert on mass, but the process of Islamicisation took place over centuries. By the time Marco Polo passed through Hotan in the second half of the 13th century, all the population was Muslim; he noted that they “lived by trade and industry” and were “not at all warlike”.

The Karakhanids had become the dominant Turkic dynasty in the region following the decline of the Uyghur khaganate, which was established further east in Mongolia (in around 744) and after which the Uyghurs of the modern era are named. But the Karakhanids are significant because they mark the first instance of the westward movement of Turkic peoples under the banner of Islam that resulted in the Turkification of much of Central Asia but also saw the eventual arrival of the Turks in Europe.

Phew! That’s a lot of dynasties and eras… Perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea, but if your interest is piqued and want more explanation (in prose a lot more appealing than this post!!) Valerie Hansen’s Silk Road: a new history is an engaging read.




Images from Afghanistan, art inspired in Persia

ONE OF THE curators of the fantastic “Love and Devotion” exhibition of Persian manuscripts that ran at the State Library of Victoria asked me to write a review of some associated exhibitions for The Asian Art Society of Australia Review. Turns out I missed the deadline, so I’ll put the review up here, along with some of my own random pictures from the bazaar in Shiraz (somewhere there are a lot of Hazaras milling around).





The destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan was, for many observers, one of the great tragedies of Taliban rule in Afghanistan. The yawning holes left in the gritty sandstone cliffs after the Taliban’s determined and systematic dynamiting where once stood the imposing Buddha figures were pivotal images in the recent exhibition of photographs at RMIT Gallery by  Afghan-Australian photographer Abdul Karim Hekmat. Yet Hekmat’s exhibition served to highlight not only the loss of the Buddhas but also the difficult plight of the Persian-speaking, Shiite Hazara people, long resident in Bamiyan province and elsewhere in central Afghanistan.

Through his lens Hekmat observed makeshift schools attended by willing Hazara students, Hazara villages destroyed at the hand of Kuchi nomads competing for grazing land, the first faltering steps of democracy in Afghanistan at the election of September 2010. The result is an unflinching portrait of a desperately poor corner of the globe that receives little international aid and the people who inhabit it.

Here running water, electrical services and paved roads are unheard of luxuries. Yet Hekmat encountered moments of pathos and human warmth, such as in his image of donkeys wearing certificates of appreciation presented by their Hazara owners. These certificates, whimsical though they may sound, were also a form of protest against government neglect, awarded to the donkeys so they “should not forget us like others [do]”.

If all of this seems like dispiriting subject matter, the resilience and humanity evident in the photographs is heartening. The eagerness to learn is apparent in the eyes of youthful students at lessons conducted under canvas; serenity and stoicism is clearly written in weather-beaten faces. Similarly Hekmat’s images capture the harshness of the remote, rugged terrain but also sudden and surprising elements of beauty such as the intense lapis blue of the lake of Band-e Amir west of Bamiyan.

Running concurrently with Hekmat’s photographic exhibition was Only from the Heart Can You Touch the Sky, a collection of Persian-inspired artworks that also highlighted the plight of the Hazara. Taking its name from a quote from Maulana Jelaladdin Rumi, the exhibition featured the exuberant Persian script of Iranian-born researcher, poet and playwright Mammad Aidani, the calligraphy of Kabul-based artist Ali Baba Awrang and the paintings of Khadin Ali.

Inscribed in a large and flowing hand on a partition wall, Aidani’s script – excerpts from Rumi – greeted visitors as they entered the space. Ali Baba Awrang’s calligraphy is of an altogether different tenor. Discrete, intense and sometimes claustrophobic his creations are composed of home-made inks on handmade paper. Repeated brushstrokes layered one over another create images out of Persian script, with elements of duck-egg blue, gilt or brilliant red emerging from intricate lattice works of black. The works of Khadin Ali, now based in Sydney, display a similar intensity. Drawing on the ages-old Persian tale of The Shahnama, his own experience as a Hazara and classical miniaturist techniques, Ali incorporates mythical figures, elements of calligraphy and opaque washes of colour in his allegorical works.

Unsafe Haven: Hazaras in Afghanistan and Only from the Heart Can You Touch the Sky were held at the RMIT Gallery, 344 Swanston Street, Melbourne, 12 April – 9 June 2012.