According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are more than 35 million people living as refugees in around 125 countries of the world. These 35 million people left their homes to avoid being persecuted for their political, national, religious and cultural identities. UNHCR says that in their native countries these people were ‘faced with a grim choice - stay and die, or flee and risk imprisonment, rape, torture and forced recruitment by armed groups’. These refugees try to seek refuge in a foreign countries . The processes of emigration out of fear of persecution and seeking asylum in a foreign country are fraught with hardships and troubles. Today, we are going to hear the story of an asylum seeker who came to Europe from one of the Silk Road regions of Central Asia. His story tells us how refugees continue to miss their native culture in foreign lands.
Aziz Isa was born in Shayar county north of the Tarim River (Uyghur region or Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwestern China. The region is known for fruits, cotton, silk, minerals, oil and gas. In the past, the region played an important role in the trade on the Silk Road.
Today, it is populated by a number of ethnic groups such as Uyghur, Han, Kazakh, Mongol, Kyrgyz and Tajik. There exists ethnic unrest in the region between Han Chinese and Uyghur people.
Uyghur people think that political supremacy in their own land has been given to the ethnic Han Chinese. As a result of the cultural turmoil, many Uyghur people have fled their native land and settled in Asia, Europe and the USA.
Today, Uyghur people are dispersed in various countries of the world. They call their native place ‘East Turkistan’.
In order to escape this crisis, Aziz Isa, a Uyghur, emigrated 12 years back from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region or East Turkistan. He reached Europe and tried to settle there. His life groomed in anguish when he lost the sights and sounds of his native land. He says, ‘Since I left my country long ago, I have had a very strong sense of losing everything, including myself, my country, my language, my friends and my food’. After much struggle, he was able to get safe refuge in the UK. He married Rachel Harris there in 2004.
Comparing his life in Xinjiang or East Turkistan with his life in London, he says that ‘in East Turkistan (China) my life was meaningful in the sense that I was living with my own people. But, life was beset with everyday incidents of injustice, political hegemony, racial discrimination and lack of freedom. In London, I enjoy freedom, knowledge, respect, and justice (most of the time) but felt I was losing my Uyghur identity. I was always missing my people and country’.
Though he is a British today, people still regard him as a refugee. He says, 'Legally I am British citizen but always feel like a refugee because people sometime ask me “when are you going back to your country?”. Aziz can not give them a date of his return to his native land because things are beyond his control. As far as his personal life is concerned, Aziz is happy in London. He says, ‘I alway try to live for tomorrow but I can’t forget yesterday’. He gets upset when hearing bad and sad news about his native land from from Radio Free Asia Uyghur service.
When he restarted his life in the UK as a refugee, the English knew little about where he came from, though they had heard about the famous Silk Road. He says, ‘People in the UK generally don’t know about Uyghur people and their country, East Turkistan. When people ask me where I came from, I say “from East Turkistan”.
'They always reply “So you are from Eastern part of Turkey or from Turkmenistan?” People never get it right. So I decided to find a way to do something to introduce my people and country in the UK and to the world’. Aziz decided to tell people about his native culture through songs and music. He decided to integrate with the English people and familiarize them with the beauty of Uyghur music.
He says, ‘Music does not need an interpreter between people who speak different languages. I found that Uyghur music is unique and it can easily attract people of the UK even though they have never heard about Uyghur people. I am Uyghur British. Uyghur is what I am, and I am proud of that, and of course, Uyghur music is a very important part of Uyghurness. Whenever I listen to Uyghur ‘muqam’, I feel myself closer to my people though I am living thousands of miles away from my country. I love Uyghur music, and so I chose to introduce my people to the UK with our melancholy music'.
Aziz finds it difficult to separate his love for music and his concern for the problems of his homeland. He wants the world to listen to the melancholic Uyghur music and pay attention to the suffering of Uyghur people. He says, ‘since 1949, East Turkistan was occupied by China and Uyghur people have become politically part of China. There have been serious human rights violations going on for several decades. Uyghurs are being left out of China’s economic growth'.
He further says, 'So we wanted individuals here to care about Uyghur just like they care about Tibet. I think music may help us to build a cultural bridge around the world and finally get interest in the Uyghurs current political situation. In East Turkistan- China: Uyghurs are the owner of the officially established Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Uyghurs want the their autonomous cultural, political and economic rights to be respected, including linguistic and religious rights. In the Diaspora: We want China’s government to respect Uyghurs rights of self-determination or full independence from China. So he uses music to familiarize the world with Uyghur culture and its problems. He founded a music band, London Uyghur Ensemble.
As founder and administrator of the band, he has been organizing in London several Uyghur community events and cultural events to raise awareness of the Uyghurs amongst the British public. With his music he has travelled extensively in Europe and the USA. The band has performed in London , Ireland, Italy, Taiwan, Germany and Norway. The have made street performances in Norway.
Among other members of the band are: Rahima Mahmut, Nizamidin Sametov, Yalckun Abdurehim, Stephen Jones, Rachel Harris and Rustam Saliev.
London Uyghur Ensemble consists of Uyghur musicians as well as British musicians. About the British musicians in the band, Aziz says, ‘They are an important part of our band. They really enjoy being a part of our band'.
The band sings songs of love, separation, and mystical themes . The songs of the band are available on the site of the band. Aziz is aware of the power of music. He says people in the UK are curious about Uyghur music and culture. When his music band performs, he notices that ‘Uyghur music affects their souls very fast’.
The effects of Uyghur music can be imagined from the following Uyghur folk song ‘Mehman’ or ‘Guests’. The song appears to tell in soft and symbolic words the touching tale of how Uyghur people suffered at the hands of ‘guests’.
I invited guests to my home,
Let them sit on soft blanket,
But now I can´t enter,
The house built by myself.
I respected the guests,
Become homeless myself,
No place left for me in the garden,
I stray in the desert.
I changed the desert to oasis,
Planty guests come for the harvest,
They broke the branches of trees,
Took the fruits away.
I invited guests to my home,
Let them sit on soft blanket,
Now the hold on the important spot,
Become our boss.