In ‘Waiting to be Arrested at Night,’ Tahir Hamut Izgil mourns a world of loved ones and letters lost
Review by Dan Keane
The Washington Post
August 2, 2023 at 10:00 a.m. EDT
Tahir Hamut Izgil in Fairfax, Va., on July 31. He and his family fled China in 2017. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
When mass detentions swept China’s Xinjiang province in 2017, Tahir Hamut Izgil was one of the rising Uyghur writers of his generation. Now safely settled with his family in Washington, he’s one of the few who escaped.
It seems fitting, then, that Izgil’s lucid and quietly terrifying memoir, “Waiting to Be Arrested at Night,” while alive with heartbreaking tributes to writer friends now vanished into the camps, repeatedly returns to moments of eerie silence.
Names of the disappeared are whispered on the street. Conversations end abruptly, and children vanish from school. Izgil, a groundbreaking poet and filmmaker whose work blends a love of Uyghur traditions with “that murky abstract stuff,” in the words of a Chinese police officer, cuts dangerous lines from his own verse. In a neighborhood police station, a tortured man screams, and a policeman hurries to shut the basement door.
That stifled cry, which Izgil hears while waiting to complete yet another form, haunts the book. Through its years-long crackdown, China has sent 1 million or more Uyghurs and Turkic minorities to a sprawling network of reeducation centers while subjecting them to sterilization, forced labor and torture. Outside the camps officials have razed mosques and bulldozed cemeteries. How does one surviving poet tell the story of a campaign to erase his entire culture?
Izgil is, of course, not the only Uyghur author to tackle the question. Gulbahar Haitiwaji takes us inside the walls in “How I Survived a Chinese ‘Reeducation’ Camp,” while recent memoirs from exiled activists Gulchehra Hoja and Nury Turkel blend personal stories with broader accounts of the long Uyghur struggle. Izgil, who had long published both poems and criticism but released his first collection of poetry just as the roundups began, cuts a different path.
He could certainly have written a big-picture view if he chose. As a young scholar, Izgil wrote the first broad Uyghur-language survey of Western modernist literature. He might have also dwelled on the three years he spent in labor camps in the 1990s, but those dark days are barely mentioned here. Instead, the poet keeps his head down, narratively speaking, and blends contemporary stories of family, friends and even the police officers who harass him into a ground-level account of the collapse of Uyghur society.
The result, translated by Joshua Freeman, is a lived-in page-turner with the slow, grim boil of a Le Carré novel (no shooting, but no hope of justice either, with plenty of code words and offstage violence), threaded with a few of Izgil’s short, striking poems. Together they tell a story immediately accessible to anyone who’s ever found themselves tied up in red tape — and capture, in harrowing miniature, a portrait of horrors we can scarcely imagine.
The story opens in 2009 with a police interrogation, all too routine for many Uyghurs. Izgil clings to normalcy (“In my experience, reacting too strongly was unhelpful in these situations”) but soon is forced to surrender his email and social media passwords. Things unravel from there: Censors order Izgil to erase the greeting “assalamu alaikum”(“Peace be upon you”) from his film scripts; all Uyghurs soon learn to skip the phrase in public. Radios and youth soccer leagues are banned, as are ordinary household objects such as matches. Anything remotely religious is forbidden; Izgil’s neighbors take turns throwing Qurans down a manhole at midnight, while others take out newspaper ads announcing that they’ve changed their own names.
The newspapers have plenty of room. The crackdown’s official announcements are few, and a near-total information blackout leaves Uyghurs living “like frogs at the bottom of a well.” I learned to dread the words “We had heard…,” which Izgil uses to introduce each new turn of the screw. Some gossip comes coded: To be sent to the camps is to “study,” the wider crackdown is a “storm.” Other whispers are all too exact, as when police summon Izgil and his wife to sign what they understand to be their final papers before the camps: “I had heard about this form.” Driving home through Urumqi one evening in June 2017, Izgil spots truckloads of armed military police raiding a Uyghur neighborhood, accompanied by neighborhood committee officials with “blue clipboards in their hands.” The terror has become real.
Izgil writes of his experiences during China’s crackdown on Uyghurs in Xinjiang province. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
Personal experience and rumor have their narrative limits; those seeking a deep dive on, say, Xinjiang’s 2009 Uyghur-Han riots must look elsewhere. But we don’t turn to poets like Izgil for crunchy history. Instead, read “Waiting to Be Arrested at Night” for its many human-scale moments of sorrow and grace.
As the crackdown rages outside, Izgil takes us inside the smoke-filled Urumqi convenience store where his writer friends gather in the evenings. Business is slow. Almas the shopkeeper translates Bertrand Russell just to keep busy, one arm pinned with the red armband that police require all merchants to wear. Eli the ponytailed bookseller has run out of Uyghur books to sell. The novelist Perhat Tursun is there, wearily chain-smoking, his passport forever revoked. Foreign countries, he grumbles, are like “a woman I was in love with but couldn’t marry.” Izgil, working on his own plans to flee, holds back a final farewell. Anyone who knew would be in even greater danger.
After a long-shot bureaucratic prayer releases their confiscated passports, Izgil and his family flee China in August 2017 to seek asylum in Washington, home to one of the United States’ largest Uyghur communities. The Urumqi convenience store is shuttered now; friends report that Almas and Eli have been arrested and sent to “study.” Pain and survivor’s guilt smolder beneath Izgil’s calm and careful prose, bursting into flame in his poems: “These days / are crowded with shattered horizons / shattered!” He now lives trapped in “the runaway season / when surrender hides deep in the suitcase / when noble doubts run over the weight limit.”
In 2020, Izgil learns that Tursun has been sentenced to 16 years in prison. Desperate for news, he calls the novelist’s office. The woman who answers listens silently as he pleads for news, then hangs up without a word. Only then, Izgil writes, did he understand he’d truly lost his friend forever: “We will see these dear ones only in our dreams.”
Dan Keane is a freelance writer based in New Zealand and a former senior lecturer at NYU Shanghai.