I note two conspicuous, inevitable absences from the recent Shanghai festival of films on music ethnography.
One is the work of Liu Xiangchen, a Han-Chinese director who has long documented the cultures of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. Only three years ago, the Centre for Ritual Music at Shanghai was able to hold an event at which his film Ashiq: the last troubadour was screened in full; and in 2017 he attended a screening at SOAS. Yet in this short time the climate has changed radically.
Infinitely more distressing is the case of the distinguished Uyghur anthropologist and film-maker Rahilä Dawut, who (along with countless others in Xinjiang) was “disappeared” in 2017 amidst the escalation of the tragic, all-pervading war that the Chinese state is now waging on Uyghur culture; her whereabouts remain unknown.
As with most if not all other detained academics and artists, this is not a question of engaging in some kind of “subversive” activity: as Darren Byler notes in his fine tribute, Dawut’s work has long been celebrated within the Chinese academic and political system.
Here’s a compelling appeal from her daughter Akida Pulat:
Among Rahilä Dawut’s writings in English are:
- Rachel Harris and Rahilä Dawut, “Mazar festivals of the Uyghurs: music, Islam and the Chinese state”, British Journal of Ethnomusicology 11.1 (Red ritual: ritual music and Communism, 2002)
- Rahile Dawut, Lisa Ross, Beth R. Citron and Alexander Papas, Living shrines of Uyghur China (2013)
- Rahile Dawut, “Ordam mazar: a meeting place for different practices and belief systems in culturally diverse Xinjiang” [sic], in Ildikó Bellér-Hann, Birgit N. Schlyter and Jun Sugawara (eds) Kashgar revisited: Uyghur studies in memory of Ambassador Gunnar Jarring (2016)
- Rahile Dawut, “Mazar pilgrimage among the Uyghurs”, in Rahile Dawut and Jun Sugawara (eds), Mazar: studies on Islamic sacred sites in Central Eurasia (2016).
- Rahile Dawut and Aynur Kadir, “Music of the Ordam shrine festival” (here, part of a useful site).
- Rian Thum, The sacred routes of Uyghur history (2014), and this recent article.
In her conscientious research, Dawut documented at least two hundred local Sufi mazar festivals throughout Xinjiang. As in festivals everywhere (see also Calendrical rituals), a diverse cast of performers attends the mazar: alongside dastan story‐telling, muqam, and zikr rituals (with separate groups of male and büwi female ritual specialists), bakhshi ritual healers also play naghra-sunay drums and shawm.
“Mazar and political authority”, the final section of “Mazar festivals of the Uyghurs” (2002), now looks both prophetic and dated. The authors note that state authorities have long taken a suspicious attitude to such cults, but under the PRC they were rarely a target of systematic attack until recently.
The uneven situation across Xinjiang suggests that local decisions, rather than consistent state intervention, control the mazar. […]
In contexts less visible to the outside world, particularly in the case of the large-scale mazar festivals, policy has become more hard-line in recent years. The Ordam festival was first banned under the PRC in 1958 following the national Anti-Rightist campaign, a time when traditional cultural activities across the country but especially in Xinjiang began to be strongly circumscribed. The festival was revived after the end of the Cultural Revolution in the early 1980s, and at its high point in the mid-1980s it was attracting some 20,000 people each day. However, as Xinjiang’s political situation became increasingly tense during the 1990s, policy towards the mazar festivals became caught up in fears of the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and Uyghur separatism, which are regularly equated in government terminology with violence and terrorism. This problem was undoubtedly instrumental in the new ban on the Ordam imposed in 1997.
In other parts of Xinjiang local authorities have preferred to implement policies of regulation and support, ensuring a degree of government control over the festivals.
Discussing official opposition to the mazar, they write:
It is less any real political threat that the mazar festivals may pose, and more the “disorderly” nature of their sights and sounds, which prove so alarming to the authorities. A few Uyghur scholars have recently dared to suggest that the banning of the mazar festivals fuels popular resentment against the authorities and have called for a redrawing of the line between “illegal religious activities” and the “folk customs” of the Uyghurs. There is currently little space for debate of such issues in Xinjiang and, sadly, it appears increasingly likely in the international climate at the time of writing, following America’s declaration of a “global war against terrorism”, that the space for such debate will become yet more limited.
Despite this sensitive background, the mazar pilgrimages, and Uyghur culture generally, managed to continued activity over the following years, and scholars like Rahilä Dawut were still able to pursue their research. Here, for instance, you can find a series of videos of dastan story-tellers that she and her students filmed in 2009 and 2010. The Imam Asim shrine was still attracting pilgrims too, but it was among many shrines and mosques razed since 2016, and as the brutal recent clampdown has intensified the fate of Uyghur culture—and Uyghurs who study it—looks bleak.
Imam Asim shrine festival, 2010. Photo: Rian Thum.