'We lost our paradise': The Uyghur Muslims keeping their culture and identity alive

Traditional Uyghur music
6 min read
20 April, 2022

Rahima Mahmut is a well-known London-based Uyghur singer who performs traditional songs in her native language. It’s just one of the meaningful activities she does to keep the Uyghur culture alive, despite being miles away from her home and family in China. 

She also runs the UK office of the World Uyghur Congress, an international advocacy office for Uyghur human rights.

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Rahima last saw her family more than 20 years ago in her home town of Ghulja, Xinjiang but hasn’t been able to have any contact with them since 2017.

Rahima Mahmut is a well-known London-based Uyghur singer and advocate for Uyghur rights

“My last conversation with my brother was in January 2017 but then I couldn’t get hold of anyone. The last words my brother said to me was ‘leave us in God’s hands and we leave you in God’s hands too,’” Rahima told The New Arab.

Due to the safety concerns of her family, she lives with the hope that although she cannot get through to any of her family members she prays they will one day be able to get in touch.

“Everyone (Uyghurs) that I have spoken to whether it’s their mum or dad or family members have told them not to call them or it could be a safety risk for their life."

China has been cracking down on the Uyghur community for years, repressing them from practising their religion, wearing Uyghur attire or speaking the Uyghur language. Many Uyghurs have been sent to concentration camps, suffer from torture, and abuse and are living under strict surveillance from the Chinese Communist Party.

“The Chinese government is trying to completely re-engineer Uyghurs to be in the Hans culture. We are Uyghurs, this is our identity and we want to keep it. There is no freedom for Uyghurs and no one is free to practice their religion or culture the way we want.”

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Remembering Ramadan

She has fond memories of being able to celebrate her religious festivals with her family in China. Growing up in a large family with 10 siblings, family gatherings played a pivotal role in her life, with traditional Uyghur cuisine always taking centre stage. 

"Keeping the Uyghur culture alive in our society and being able to pass it on to our next generation of our children is really important for us, especially with what is happening to us back home in China"

“In the ’80s after the revolution the Uyghurs were allowed to practice their religion and all religions were allowed at that time. My father became an Imam at the local mosque and I remember how Ramadan was the best time of the year. By the time my siblings came back from the mosque, the tables were beautifully set for us to feast together.”

Uyghur food
​Rahima's home cooked Uyghur delicacies for Ramadan

Thirty-eight-year-old Ayesha* also has fond memories of Ramadan back home in China with her Uyghur family. 

“Keeping the Uyghur culture alive in our society and being able to pass it on to our next generation of our children is really important for us, especially with what is happening to us back home in China,” Ayesha, who also lives in the UK, tells The New Arab. 

Ayesha has not seen her family in China since 2017 despite desperately longing to see them. Despite her children never being able to meet any of her family back in China, she keeps their memories alive at home by sharing stories of her childhood and imparting the values that she was once taught.

Her home is decorated with traditional décor during Ramadan and traditional Uyghur food is eaten.

Ramadan Uyghur
Ayesha’s homemade Uyghur décor for Ramadan

“It is important to get our community together to feel the culture and make it alive. That’s why we speak in the Uyghur language and have cultural gatherings to bring people together,” she adds. 

“When I was a child I remember how we would be woken up to the sounds of the Navra (the drum) during Ramadan. We used to share food with our neighbours and relatives, and invite friends over for Iftar. But now Uyghurs cannot do this there. Even people who teach the Uyghur language or promote the culture have the exact same destination (of being persecuted).”

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The magic of Maqam music

Living in the UK and being part of a London based group of musicians all from Central Asia brings comfort to Rahima and allows her to be proud of her authentic identity. She explains how Maqam music is the term used by Uyghurs to refer to folk songs and forms part of the Uyghurs' cultural heritage. 

“Maqam is an oral musical tradition to share stories about natural human feelings of pain, happiness and things that affect Uyghurs,” Rahima explains. 

"Most of the folk songs are about love, longing, pain and happiness. In fact, a lot of the songs I perform are about longing"

“The songs that I have been performing are Uyghur music, folk songs mainly from the region of Abuja and include songs from various different areas such as Kashgar. Uyghurs have a long history of Sufism. They (songs) have been passed from generation to generation from the Sufi style and is similar to making dhikr (remembrance of God).”

Uyghur music
Rahima performs traditional songs in her native language

Performing Uyghur songs or promoting any kind of Uyghur culture is repressed in China and those who do openly express their culture may even end up in prison or put into a concentration camp. 

“Most of the folk songs are about love, longing, pain and happiness. In fact, a lot of the songs I perform are about longing,” she says. 

"We found a place in the mountains and we lost our paradise in gardens..."

These are some of the lyrics that can be heard in Rahima's music. This particular song centres around her homeland, describing it as a beautiful garden where she is now living away from in an exiled life.

Rahima has toured internationally performing in countries such as Italy, Ireland, Munich, Berlin, Taiwan, Canada, Norway and Sweden and garnering interest from the wider society, many of whom were unaware of the struggles that the Uyghur community are facing in China. She believes that music is ‘powerful’ when it comes to using art to undertake activism.

“Whenever we have a concert we always give an explanation of the song and a background of where we come from as we want to preserve the Uyghur culture, art and music," she adds. 

Today's stories about the Uyghurs often focus on the harrowing revelations of persecution but behind that, there is a rich cultural heritage, all of which has been repressed in China but is kept alive by those who strive to preserve their identities. 

(* Full name not revealed for safety concerns)

Tasnim Nazeer is an award-winning journalist, author, and Universal Peace Federation Ambassador. She has written for Al Jazeera, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, Middle East Eye, CNN, BBC, and others. She was awarded the FIPP the global network of media Rising Stars in Media Award 2018.

Follow her on Twitter: @tasnimnazeer1