The following article was written and researched by Rachel Harris, teacher of ethnomusicology at SOAS, University of London, and leader of the Leverhulme research project, Sounding Islam in China; and Aziz Isa Elkun, London-based Uyghur writer and blogger actively engaged in promoting Uyghur culture and history. The views expressed and research presented in this blog are those of the writers and not of Freemuse.
Xinjiang’s system of internment camps, which have already swallowed up more than a million of the region’s Muslim peoples, is showing no signs of slowing down. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of ordinary people imprisoned for the everyday practice of their faith, the Xinjiang government has detained large numbers of the Uyghur cultural elite: writers, artists and intellectuals. The number of Uyghur singers detained or missing is also growing.
The camp system is still shrouded in secrecy, as the Chinese government continues to insist—in the face of massive evidence to the contrary—that they are merely “vocational training centres”, a targeted response to Islamic extremism. The government does not provide an official reason for detentions, or even official confirmation that individuals have been detained, and threatens families who speak out. Even so, we have credible reports of the detention of several of Xinjiang’s most popular singers in 2018.
Among them is Zahirshah Ablimit, a singer who shot to fame in 2015 through the Uyghur talent show Yipek Yoli Sadasi (The Voice of the Silk Road). His twin brother Abduwaris Ablimit, who is now based in the US, raised the alarm in winter 2018. Radio Free Asia was able to confirm that Zahirshah has been sent to the No. 5 Re-education Camp near Atush city in southern Xinjiang. His parents have also been detained, probably in connection with their trip to Turkey in 2016 to visit Abduwaris, who was then working in a restaurant in Istanbul. Having connections abroad, especially links to other Muslim countries, is a common reason for Uyghurs to be detained.
Zahirshah was born in 1985 into a “very ordinary family” as Abduwaris puts it. Their father was a long-distance truck driver and their mother ran a small restaurant in Atush. According to Abduwaris, he was fascinated by music from a young age and spent all his time hanging around other musicians and listening to them perform at weddings. He devoted all his efforts to becoming a singer, learning from different teachers and taking part in numerous cultural events and competitions. He self-released an album of his own compositions in 2006.
His big break came in 2015 when he entered The Voice of the Silk Road competition—a Uyghur language version of the international franchise The Voice.
Elise Anderson is an American PhD candidate who lived in Xinjiang between 2012 and 2016 and became a Uyghur singing star in her own right. She took part in The Voice of the Silk Road and got to know Zahirshah. “I very much respect his singing and musicianship,” she says. “Zahirshah embodied so much of what the producers wanted the show to be: a place to showcase singing that was distinctly Uyghur while also tapping into more contemporary, popular forms of music-making.”
Zahirshah won second prize—a sports car, which he gave to his father as a gift. After the series he released several songs: Guli Rena, which he first sang with his The Voice of the Silk Road mentor Mahmut Sulayman, Janangha Soz, and an emotional song dedicated to his mother, Ana. He gave solo concerts and participated in many government organised events: televised meshrep, Nowruz and new year celebrations.
From celebrity to internment camp
Zahirshah’s swift fall from celebrity to internment camp shows how quickly the political terrain in Xinjiang has changed over the past two years and how the “anti-extremism campaign” has so completely morphed into a broad assault on Uyghur language, culture and identity.
“My brother is a professional singer,” says Abduwaris. “He was sponsored by a popular fashion label. How can he be a religious extremist? He has a good life, and a good job. Why does he need vocational training?”
Since speaking out about his brother and parents, Abduwaris has received messages from the local police station in Atush warning him against publicising their case and demanding that he inform on Uyghur activists abroad, but he remains defiant.
“I’m worried about their (his family members’) health, and I don’t know how they can cope with the interrogation, and so I decided to speak out. I don’t want them to die in those camps. I may not even hear the news of their deaths.”