After my kindergarten
class (the evening one between seven and eight for tots with pushy parents) Adham Samedi, who was thirty five with hard eyes and a sad serious face, told me how the only land he knew no longer felt like home.
It was a surprise the way he said it, I thought we had been talking about his four year old daughter, specifically the boisterous delight she took during class from pointing to the pictures on the wall screaming out English words like “dog” or “cat” loudly enough to be heard five thousand kilometres away in Beijing, but in this place, underneath it all, even kindergarten English was about the land, and that is why he said “those bastards have stolen my country”.
He told me that his daughter had been enrolled in my English class (the lessons revolved around primary colours, animals and nursery rhymes) so that when she grew up she could tell the world all about it.
Adham was a Uyghur, one of two million swarthy round eyes with a Turkic language, a mighty love for spicy lamb kebabs and wistful, hard to follow stories of the time many centuries ago when their ancestors had put the fear of God into the Mongols along with much of the rest of Asia.
It's all long gone now, what was left of the Uyghur’s Central Asian Empire, nearly forgotten by all but them, had been splintered, then ruined, then incompletely digested by the states that came after it- and its cities and palaces and vine covered courtyards were slowly buried by the drifting Gobi sands.
Eventually the majority of the Uyghur kingdom came to fall within the boundaries of modern China.
The Chinese called it Xin Jiang, which in Mandarin means something like new territory, and although it has been included on maps of China for at least four hundred years, before 1949 they had rarely come there as anything but exiles and soldiers, and were sometimes known to describe it as hell on Earth.
Xinjiang is hard to say. 'Xin' is like Shin. Jiang is just one sound, but sort of sounds like two, first a 'ji' then an 'ang', put together very quickly.
It's an epic sprawl of deserts and mountains, forests and lakes spread over fault lines cultural and geographic and subject to all the explosions and tremors that such a position entails. It shares borders with countries as far apart as Afghanistan, India and Russia.
Even crammed with legends and languages enough for four or five countries it feels empty.
Like its southern neighbour, Tibet, Xinjiang had always been religious (Christian, Buddhist, Muslim and Jewish relics have been dug out of caves there, someone even found a little statue of Bacchus) and desperately poor, the very weirdest and most ragged edge of the Chinese Empire.
For the Chinese, people with a very solid sense of who they are and where their country is, Xinjiang was considered foreign territory, a country beyond the sight of heaven peopled by barbaric races with ugly features, incomprehensible languages, slovenly habits and dirty food.
From time to time, without very much effort, bits of the huge territory had broken off and formed their own short lived nations, the Khanate of Kashgaria and the Islamic Republic of East Turkestan were two- and although in many ways, with its brutal clan wars, bandit kingdoms, grandiose chieftains, insecure borders and religious discord, its history over the decades has been incredibly complex, on another level it is fundamentally simple- in this remote place people were used to being left to live how they would, and were profoundly hostile anyone who presumed to tell them different.
It was only after 1949, seeing that in this untamed land to their immediate west they could drill for oil, grow grapes, resettle the population of their seething eastern provinces and explode nuclear weapons, that Xinjiang became important to the Chinese. 1949 was the that year that, finally finished with decades of war amongst themselves and against the Japanese, the victorious Communists turned their attention to wresting back control of the outmost territories which their predecessors had once controlled but let slip through decades of strife and decay.
In Tibet, more isolated and unified than Xinjiang, they did it through a direct invasion. When it came time to take Xinjiang, they were marginally more subtle.
From Beijing word was sent to the men who looked as though they might be leading the place towards a real though impoverished independence that China was willing to grant them aid and autonomy if they agreed to disarm their militias and come into the People's Republic peacefully.
The plane the Communists sent to take them into China for further negotiations crashed into a mountain, killing everyone on board- make of that what you will.
Since then, once again echoing the fate of Tibet, the process of imposing direct rule on the independent minded people who call Xinjiang home, even after the mid fifties when the last bands of resisting horsemen were hunted down and exterminated, has been characterised by horrifying violence.
Continuing to this day very few of the horrors men with guns inflict on innocent people have not been inflicted on the people who live there.
And there I was in 2006, alone with Adham in an empty classroom at eight where the air was sharp with early autumn cold and chalk dust, while outside in the hallway his daughter Fatima played with a big red ball and her little friend who was named Ye Sheng Cheng. We could hear them prattling away in Chinese and hollow thwunk of their ball bouncing against the concrete of the school hallway.
Xinjiang now wasn't the mysterious forbidden kingdom of centuries past, or even the grim garrison state it had been forty earlier. All through China it is known for its grape vines and plentiful watermelons, and the dark era when government policy had involved turning mosques into pigsties and booking up the local soccer field for public executions is a faded memory.
But although their methods have become less dramatic it is a fact that there are still camps for political prisoners hidden away in the mountains, and in these camps, it is whispered, people are fed to wild dogs. This was the sort of thing I had previously heard about only in movies and books, but now in this classroom it was suddenly too real, and it was awkward standing there with my hands in my pockets while this man talked geo-politics of the sort that could get him put away as though I might have some way of really understanding, and he had nothing to fear.
Uyghurs like Adham who speak English usually do it with an ease that is very unlike the Chinese. They have an accent that is right out of Eastern Europe, and often a knack for using swear words, but one thing they do have in common with the people who have conquered them is that very few of them have been around foreigners enough to learn to see them for what they are.
When talking to me both races tended to become earnest and confessional.
Adham's talk frightened me. I had seen local cops viciously beat an old guy whose crime was selling vegetables without a permit, and had no doubt that some of the stories about what they did to political prisoners were true. But although I felt I should tell him to stop, somehow the word wouldn't come, and instead I just waited till he was done then nodded my head a little in a way that meant nothing.
When he asked me what I thought, I didn't know what I would say until I said it, and I was surprised to hear myself telling him that the the whole thing left me confused and very conflicted.
This was why.
The old Xinjiang had been no happy land, enough of it remained for me to have seen this reality for myself. I could understand why the Uyghurs would look back on the past and pine for a time when they had been their own masters, but the truth was that for them this had also been a time when children had grown up hungry and often died young. And although no one would envy them their current status as second class citzens in a police state, the rule of the local chiefs that the majority of them had endured before the Chinese arrived had often been even crueller and more arbitary.
Dust grimed cement, struggling crops, starving people and farm yard smells- these had been the realities of ordinary life in Xinjiang before the Chinese- every winter people had died.
New Xinjiang, by constrast, was like any town in the new China ( a little cleaner maybe) just transplanted 1000 kilometers west. It was more comfortable than the old Xinjiang, and it probably wouldn't give you typhoid, but it was a malignant cuboid blot on this landscape where before there had been nothing but goats, grass and wind blustering down from the mountains.
The Chinese called the new city Black Oil Hill, ‘Hei You Shan’, and the mysterious oily stuff that burped and dribbled out of the enormous refinery at its edge made it one of the wealthiest towns in all of China. With every year that passed it became thirster and brighter and more apart from the land on which it was built, and every week dozens more Chinese arrived from the east to settle in it.
To walk inside this town was to see straight lines and flower beds, parks and playgrounds, schools and wide mostly empty roads which, not three kilometers past the end of the shopping strip, simply stopped with the abruptness of some surgical scar and gave way to wilderness. For all the trouble the Chinese had taken in designing it as a bastion of civilization in what they considered a savage wasteland even right in the middle of the city the desert could not be denied, and if you came out late and stood in the dark on the edge of town it was possible to hear the wolves off where the mountains started.
Though they called the wilderness a desert, it was actually more of a meadow- endless goat gnawed grass that was brilliant green for a month after the rains then turned scorched yellow/brown and stayed like that till winter when it froze to a solid crystalline white.
At night, in every season, it was dark like the ocean.
From the main street on a clear day the massive Tian Shan (the Mountains of Heaven) were minor punctuation just ahead of the horizon, and even in summer they were always iced by snow.
Just past the edge of town, by the side of the single solitary road that cut north into the desert and lit out towards the mountains, there was a lonely sign that squeaked and warped and banged and, in rust streaked blue and four languages (Russian, English, Chinese and Uyghur), proclaimed that foreigners were not permitted out there between the town and the foothills.
No one could tell me why. From the sign it was impossible to see anything except for dizzy lines of heat rising from the soil and sometimes flocks of goats (in the distance they like drifting clouds).
Stuck in this odd little place so far from home it was frustrating to be able to see but not touch the wilderness, but I was soothed a little, in spite of myself, by consolations like the indoor swimming pool with its indoor waterslide and the cheap availability of bootleg CDs of pretty much anything ever filmed. Before the Chinese had arrived there had been none of these things, and although I hadn't met a Uyghur who needed any more prompting than a bottle of weak local beer to start whispering conspiratorially about how they loathed them, I could help but sometimes feel that this way, for all the pain and blatant injustice that went along with it, might be better for everyone overall.
So I asked Adham, fairly confident that my foreignness would prevent me was getting a broken nose, whether or not if he could see that.
Adam spoke about humiliation, and watching things closest to his heart become obsolete and semi-legal. He was allowed to speak his language, but in schools and on TV it was only Chinese that counted, and he knew it would be in Chinese, not Uyghur Turkish, that his kids would come to think. He was free to go to the mosque if he wanted to, the trade off being that if he did his job would be in peril, and though he told me that he yearned to, the law simply forbade him to take his son.
It ate him up.
The stuff that officially didn't happen was darker, it was the way Uyghurs were harassed by the police, typecast as thieves, patronised by the tourist literature and often looked down upon by their Chinese neighbours who almost never took the time to learn their language. A brilliant student I knew was alarmed enough by the notes his classmates sent him telling him that he was an upstart who ought to watch his back that he seriously thought about dropping out, and more than one of my well meaning Chinese co-workers told me to avoid Uyghur food ('bad for health!').
Not ten years before, in a town not far from us, local Uyghurs had taken to the streets in protest against issues such as these. The protests had started small but soon spiralled out of control, which was when the military had been brought in to solve the problem by shooting a lot of them.
Of those not killed on the streets or executed afterwards there were dozens still in prison. No one talked about it, but everyone knew someone who knew someone who had been there, and people lived in fear.
As well as being charged with the conspiring to split the state, the majority of Uyghurs arrested then and since were accused of being involved in terrorism. Whether or not some individuals really were mixed up in this I just don't know- but even among the Chinese it seemed that most people felt such charges were usually nothing more than a politically expedient excuse used by the state used to lock up the people it saw as enemies and throw away the key.
The Uyghurs know that even from within those western societies which they look out at as icons of freedom and where the terrible fate of neighbouring Tibet has become the cause of celebrities, they are unlikely to find any support if they are arrested on such a charge. They will simply cease to exist.
For all this, if given the chance, a lot of Uyghurs probably would have been able to see the good things the Chinese had brought to their country as well as the bad, to negotiate some kind of understanding with the reality of foreign occupation. The Uyghurs I lived among were not fanatics or xenophobes or people who could ever have any sympathy for the sort of creepy fucks who advocate terrorism- mostly they were just ordinary people who wanted to live their lives in peace.
But they weren't given the space to negotiate anything.
Instead they watched their homes demolished, their youth gunned down, their intellectuals exiled and imprisoned and their children sent to schools to forget their mother tongue, and any public deviation from the idea that this happy state of affairs was the best thing in their lives become high treason.
It was amazing that more weren't totally consumed by hate. I would have been.
For Uyghurs like Adam there are really just two choices- to smile indulgently at the slow painful death of their language and culture or see the individuals they love destroyed by the state.
Adam, choose the first one, and to hear him talk about it you could feel this tearing him up inside, but for the love of his son and his daughter he was willing to become a man without a country.
And then there's the other stuff I felt and saw in Xinjiang and still think of every day- stories about teaching little kids that are much sweeter than big ugly tale I've just told, but harder to tell too because its all moments and smells and overlong paragraphs about months that were warm and subtle- a quirky little comedy with slapstick sweetness and a cute ending that is inconclusive but optimistic.
Strange but true, when you teach small children, after a few weeks on the job, you stop seeing them as the tiny creatures which they are. You somehow adjust to their scale of things, and suddenly concepts such as the importance of spelling tests, the coolness of those multi barrelled pens with red, green, blue and black ink and why Pokémon trading cards are vital for life become clear.
About two months after I started teaching I noticed that we were somehow going through an entire packet of coloured chalk each week, and found that the mystery was really getting to me.
Where could it all be going?
When I found out the truth (through a tip off from grade two) that it was being stolen by a cartel of forth grade girls who were so impressed by its prettines that they were taking a piece each day and stashing it under a stone in the school yard, I was really shocked.
Sure they were only seven, but I thought they knew better.
The girls were all tears and excuses when they were brought into the staff room (“but she told me to...”) but I was never going to go through with my threat to call their parents and five minutes later they were sprinting off to the lunch room to get the rice and beans the cook had kept warm for them.
But most of the time when I remember that time it's the undramatic days I think of, the long afternoons I spent standing in front of my class at their minature desks with their book bags (usually Pokémon themed) hanging off the back of their chairs and tiny faces faces struggling to sound out sentences from the awful text book we had to use (“John likes carrots. Carrots are yummy”) or (when they thought I wasn't paying attention) whispering to each other and passing notes.
“Laoshi, ta ma wo!” - Teacher, she swore at me!
But away from school everything was different, and on the rare occasions I'd see one of the my kids in the street, perhaps being towed along by Mum and Dad on an after dinner stroll, I'd be genuinely startled about by how helpless they looked away out of the classroom and under the huge desert sky. In school, in their element and among friends they almost like little men and women.
Outside when I stopped to talk with their parents most of my them would try to hide behind their mother's legs, and they were small enough to do so very easily.
Even swaddled by their doting parents to ward off the Central Asian freeze they all seemed so utterly small and fragile.
Names and faces. The little Chinese used to take on English names when they studied with me. The Uyghurs usually preferred to keep their own.
Lucy- Large for her age and capable of beating up any boy. Though she is good at English and polite to teacher she has a sharp tongue and is always stealing someone's coloured pencils.
Ellen- Lucy's somewhat mismatched neighbour. Much smaller and wears her hair tied up into two little tufts. Her Dad's an English teacher and she's way ahead of the rest of the class, but if I don't choose her to read out loud she will start to cry and refuse to speak to anyone for the next hour.
Big Bob- Fat and the absolute bottom of the class in everything. I think he's a sweet kid at heart, but all the boys along with Lucy taunt him endlessly by calling him 'pangzi' (fatty) and he occasionally belts one of them. His mother is a harried looking woman who coats her face in makeup, and I get the feeling that she worries about him too much. One day, when she came to collect him at the school gate, I saw her her offer him his pick from a box of chocolates.
Alamas- Small Uygher kid with sandy hair, bad teeth and a big silly grin permanently fixed on his face that says it all. He’s a shambolic rag doll who means well but never seems to be able to concentrate and spends English class filling up pages with pictures of aeroplanes and racing cars. His Dad is a sullen fellow in a leather jacket who scowls at everyone and comes to pick him in up on a motor bike.
One Saturday morning in winter I was coming home from a jog when I saw Alamas scampering along the side of the big empty avenue that ran through the centre of town.
It was a clear day, although it had snowed heavily that night, and the world was quiet in the way it sometimes can be in the morning when everything is frozen and little is moving.
From down the hill and at the end of the road there was the rhymthmic 'wooosh, wooosh, wooosh' of the exhaust flame at the oil refinery, but apart from that nothing but the sound of this tiny kid crunching through the snow on the way to visit Grandpa.
The road had been bulldozed into the desert so recently that even the pine trees planted by its side were spindly stick like things. The branches drooped under the ice and just were starting to glint with the first droplets of melting snow.
Alamas didn't seem to be in any great hurry because when he got to the base of each tree he would stop and kick the trunk as hard as he could, causing a night's worth of snow flakes to flutter up into the air then down onto him.
The sun was right on us then, and the flakes seemed a special sort of sparking gold that only comes from clean ice and clear sky and early morning- an angelic shiver let loose by a little kid who was still wearing his blue school jumpsuit even though it was the weekend and seemed to have no fear of cold slush.
After he kicked one tree he giggled, shook himself off and crunched on to the next.
It was another kilometre to his Grandfather's place and there were little pines all the way.
Here's the thing about Xinjiang. I don't know what the answer is out there, but if it involves so much as a hair on any of those kids being put out of place it's the wrong one.
Nothing else matters.