By: Munawwar Abdulla
The word Uyghur was always met with a blank face. Every Uyghur person growing up in the West can attest to their little speech for the inevitable “where are you from?” question. Some skip it altogether and say they are Turkish, or Uzbek, or even Chinese. When I felt up to it, I would take it as an opportunity give a brief overview of the history and current political situation of my people. It was easier if they already knew Tibet, after which I’d say we had the same political situation – occupied by China – but we were culturally and linguistically Turkic like most of our neighbouring Central Asian -stans, and used the name East Turkistan to refer to our region. For Uyghurs, the fight wasn’t for better representation in the media or against harmful stereotypes, it was letting people know we existed. Somehow, we were always the first Uyghur someone had met. Moreover, many Uyghurs barely know their history; Western schools tend to skip over Central Asia, and the Chinese government provides in incredibly biased history to their students. I suppose if we ourselves didn’t know who we were, then how were we to expect anyone else to?
I started uyghurtumblr during a fit of what I like to call productive procrastination, in an attempt to change the aesthetic landscape of Instagram’s “Uyghur” and “East Turkistan” hashtags. I realized if anyone searched for us on google or other social media platforms, all you would get were the same grainy pictures of dancing Uyghur women or the violent horrors of being an oppressed people. I wanted to see high quality images of Uyghur history, of how Uyghurs in our homeland and in the diaspora merged our culture with modernity, of how the Uyghur identity had evolved with the rest of the world. I wanted to see Uyghur literature and science and well-researched history void of propaganda or conspiracy theories. I wanted these images and artwork to be credited so that people could find more if they wanted to, and so that Uyghur artists or businesses could be supported.
When I started the account, I did not expect anyone to actually follow – I just really needed and wanted to see a better representation of Uyghurs on this social media app. If anything, I hoped that people who came across it would see that something called Uyghur existed and we were pretty cool and aesthetically pleasing.
It was the food that attracted the first influx of likes. Unsurprisingly, food was something we could all agree on. Once we shared food, we shared stories. We shared memories and struggles. I began to receive more messages of support from Uyghurs and interest from non-Uyghurs. At the same time, I was scouring the internet for images and found so much more than I expected, but it wasn’t easily accessible – so I decided to make it accessible to the people those images would mean something to. As I learned about our history and culture, I shared it, and in turn the people following taught me what they knew, in comments, in questions, in sending me information they, too, came across.
Personally, it was thrilling. I was finding so many interesting facts and fascinating Uyghur people doing things I never thought Uyghurs were out there doing; it made me realise that I wasn’t alone in thinking that we needed to be putting ourselves out there like this. I realized a lot of Uyghurs had been just as isolated as I had, thinking Uyghurs didn’t really exist outside our bubbles. Our diaspora was so fragmented we all thought we were the only ones trying to make something of ourselves. So, uyghurtumblr became something I used to show ourselves that we were not so alone, that we were part of this world, and we could share ideas with each other.
I was speaking to Uyghurs everywhere who were often disenchanted by their communities or simply did not have one. Together with a few of those people, we decided to create a platform where Uyghur youth could inspire, network, and learn with each other – and so the Tarim Network was launched in May, 2019. I believe this is one of the most important things I have accomplished with this account, and I hope I can do more using both platforms.
The other issue we can never leave out is the political situation. Before Instragram was blocked by China, I was following many Instagrammers from East Turkistan, too. Unfortunately, all those accounts were deleted. The only images coming out from the Uyghur region now are those posted by Chinese tourists or other foreigners who can leave the region or use a VPN.
I had always been openly political on the account, and when the concentration camps began I only increased the amount of activism I did. Sure, there was always the fear that those associated with me would get into trouble, but I decided that was something people could decide for themselves.
On the other hand, now more than ever, I wanted uyghurtumblr to be a safe space for Uyghurs – somewhere we could still find joy in being Uyghur during a time when being who we were was being seen as a crime. A place where we were not faced with a daily barrage of horrifying images of terrorized Uyghur bodies and bad news about loved ones. I try to only share informative posts about what is happening and updates on the world’s reaction. I like to spread a positive message so that everyone stays strong during these times, and I try to uplift the voices and work of those who are affecting change and creating solutions for the dire issues we are facing. I decided it was much more comforting to give people concrete actions they could do to help Uyghur people, and drive home the fact that we are all in this together.
You see, when everyone you meet questions the existence of your people, you believe you’re the only one left, so I helped create the Tarim Network.
When a powerful government denies your existence, disappears those you love whilst gaslighting you, and the world stays skeptical or blasé, you can lose your mind. I needed something that balanced the goodness of having this identity with the reality of its struggles; a place where we could commiserate with each other but also to act, and do something about it.
It’s just an Instagram account, but I hope it sheds a little light and comfort to everyone who comes across it.
Munawwar is the administrator of uyghurtumblr, moonlighting as a scientist and dabbling in poetry, translation, and art. She has been involved in Uyghur community work and activism for many years, and hopes to continue to do something about the Uyghur situation in East Turkistan while also helping the global diaspora with the Tarim Network. She holds an MSc in Physiology & Pharmacology.
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