A poet captures the terror of life in an authoritarian state
By Tiffany May
Tahir Hamut Izgil watched as parks emptied of people, naan bakeries boarded up their windows and, one after another, his friends were taken away.
The Chinese government’s repression of Uyghurs, the predominantly Muslim ethnic minority to which he belonged, had gone on for years in Xinjiang, the group’s ancestral homeland in China’s northwest. But in 2017, it morphed into something more terrifying: a mass internment system into which hundreds of thousands of people were disappearing. Millions lived under intense and growing surveillance.
Izgil, a prominent poet and film director, feared that one day soon, authorities would come for him. So, he did what few have managed — in the summer of 2017, he escaped with his family, and once settled in a Virginia suburb, he wrote about the experience.
In his memoir, “Waiting to Be Arrested at Night,” published recently by Penguin Press, Izgil brings his discerning eye for detail to describe the impact of China’s policies on the people who live under them.
Scholars and journalists have detailed the architecture of the surveillance system against Uyghurs. There have also been memoirs by Uyghur authors and intellectuals in exile. But few possess Izgil’s firsthand knowledge and analytical acuity, said Darren Byler, a leading scholar on Uyghur culture and Chinese surveillance and a professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada.
“This is the defining account of what it’s like to live through this moment,” Byler said. “This will be the book that, in 10 years or 20 years, people will turn to if they want to understand that moment.”
At a time when the prospect of overseas travel was closing for most Uyghurs, Izgil managed to secure passports for his family after navigating months of excruciating bureaucracy and exploiting a rare loophole. Once he was out, he wrote the memoir quickly, he said, because the memories were still vivid and the trauma recent. “Tears fell as I wrote,” he said. “The pain is still raw.”
Joshua Freeman, a historian and the translator of Izgil’s poetry and of the memoir, said Izgil had brought great nuance to his narrative.
The book, he said, revealed “the paradoxes and impossible choices and ambiguities and shades of gray that are encountered by both the people crushed by that system and the people who are part of that system.”
In a manner evoking Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, Izgil made intricate character studies of the low-level Uyghur officials enforcing China’s policies.
There was Güljan, a young woman who aspired to become a civil servant, but lacking other opportunities, she kept tabs on residents in Izgil’s apartment complex for meager pay. Izgil and his wife watched her with pity as she came in and out of people’s apartments, clasping a binder, but felt a chill when she adopted the painstaking tone of a communist bureaucrat. (He used pseudonyms and altered identifying details of most characters in an effort to protect them from retribution in China.)
There were also Ekber and Mijit, the two police officers who surveilled Izgil and his friends, repeatedly badgering them to meet over meals and drinks and expecting them to pick up the tab.
In the summer of 2017, the repression worsened. Izgil received news of friend after friend being carted off to internment camps, often in their pajamas. Izgil began laying out warm clothes at night, after his daughters went to sleep, then waiting hours for the sound of knocking. He wanted to be prepared in case his turn came.
“If someone knocked at my door in the middle of the night, I planned to put on these warm clothes and autumn shoes before answering,” he wrote in the memoir.
Izgil’s perspective was informed in part by his upbringing in hyperpolitical environments, he said. Born at the height of China’s Cultural Revolution in a village outside the city of Kashgar, Izgil attended college in Beijing and threw himself into activism when the student-led pro-democracy movement took off in Tiananmen Square. After the movement was snuffed out, he was recruited upon graduation as a Uyghur language instructor at the Central Party School in Beijing, which educated future bureaucrats. The position left him feeling stifled, and he soon left.
He planned to study in Turkey, away from China’s censorship, but was detained at the border in 1996. Even then, Uyghurs leaving the country were viewed with suspicion. Accused of trying to smuggle state secrets out of the country, he was sentenced to 18 months of detention and 18 months of hard labor — an experience that he said helped him anticipate aspects of the crackdown to come.
In 2017, when the state’s repression became more advanced with the aid of digital technology, he tried to subvert some of the control mechanisms: When his face was scanned and his voice recorded as part of a DNA database to track down activists, he adopted a radio presenter’s clear enunciation in an attempt to thwart the authorities. But afterward, he and his wife realized it was time to find a way out of the country.
Byler, an anthropologist and author of “In the Camps” and “Terror Capitalism,” which describe the surveillance and mass detention of Uyghurs in China, said Izgil had an uncanny ability to recognize the parameters and navigate a highly opaque system.
“He’s one of the best people I know at figuring out how the system works and how you get what you have to get in order to survive,” Byler said.
Once he arrived in the United States, Izgil drove an Uber for nine months; now, he works as a part-time video editor. Most of his time is focused on writing poetry and prose, including a memoir about his time in a Chinese labor camp.
Izgil said he saw the importance of providing testimony about the predicament of Uyghurs, especially when their lives are so heavily policed and their culture and stories systematically erased. His testimony helped researchers and journalists verify facets of the repression campaign as they were trying to piece it together.
But the process of recounting traumatic experiences took a toll, he said. Doing so often made him feel like a victim.
“I don’t want to talk about these things so that people will pity me,” he said. “Those things really hurt me. But if I don’t speak out for these reasons, then no one would know about these stories.”
News of family and friends being rounded up and taken to internment camps filled Izgil with grief and guilt. For months, he could not shake nightmares of being hunted. “Though we live in safety in America, I cannot say we have broken free,” he said.
Many readers may feel removed from the stories he tells in the memoir, he said, seeing them as the lot of people living in authoritarian countries. But he has learned that there is no such thing as absolute safety, he said.
“The world is small and the fate of people are increasingly intertwined,” he said. “I hope readers don’t forget that these misfortunes can come without warning.”