The following interview with University of Haifa Professor Nimrod Baranovitch was conducted in Chinese by Tang Danhong on January 21, 2019, and translated to English by Anne Henochowicz. Dr. Baranovitch discusses his relationship with his former student, the Uyghur poet and scholar Ablet Abdurishit Berqi, also known by the pen name Tarim. Since 2017, Ablet Abdurishit Berqi has been one of hundreds of Uyghur intellectuals–themselves part of a group of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities as large as two million–currently detained in a series of internment camps in Xinjiang. See also three of Tarim’s poems, or an excerpt of Tang’s essay “Tarim, a Uyghur Poet,” translated by CDT.
From 2014 to 2016, the Uyghur poet and scholar Ablet Abdurishit Berqi, who goes by the Chinese pen name Tarim (塔里木), went to University of Haifa in Israel to pursue advanced study of 20th century Uyghur literature. His advisor was Professor Nimrod Baranovitch.  After his fellowship ended, Dr. Berqi returned to Urumqi. In 2017 he was arrested. The details of when this occurred and where he was taken are unclear. Dr. Berqi is one of at least 338 Uyghur intellectuals and elites who have been detained, arrested, or forcibly disappeared since April 2017. According to conservative estimates, over one million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and people of other Turkic minorities have been detained in Xinjiang’s “re-education camps.”
Tang Danhong: Professor Baranovitch, could you briefly introduce your field of research?
Dr. Baranovitch: I study China primarily from a cultural perspective: literature, poetry, pop songs, movies. For example, by looking at film in order to understand social and political issues. Twenty years ago, I started out studying Chinese pop music. My goal wasn’t to study pop music in and of itself, but to examine other social and political phenomena through pop. At that time I started to take interest in China’s ethnic minorities. Over the past two decades, most of my research has been related to ethnic minorities, mainly their artists and writers. For instance, I wrote several papers about the Mongolian musician Tenger, using his work to examine the situation of Mongolians in China. What are their experiences? Where does their ethnic identity stand? I’ve also written about “Red Poppies” (尘埃落定) by the Tibetan writer Alai. Lately I’ve started to study the relationship between peoples and the natural world. How does environmental degradation affect China’s ethnic minorities? I’ve mainly looked at how degradation of the grasslands has impacted the lifeways of Mongolians, as well as how it has impacted their ways of thinking. For example, in 2011 there was widespread protest in Inner Mongolia. I looked at the relationship between the degradation of the grasslands and the demonstrations. I’m also planning to research Tibet and environmental change, how it has affected Tibetans. Recently I published a paper about Xinjiang, “The Impact of Environmental Pollution on Ethnic Unrest in Xinjiang: A Uyghur Perspective” (“Modern China,” 2018). Right now Xinjiang has serious air pollution. Beijing’s air quality is much better than before, but most people don’t know that many of the sources of Beijing’s air pollution have moved to Xinjiang, [as] many industries have moved to Xinjiang. I‘m exploring how air and water pollution affect Uyghurs and Han Chinese, as well as the tense relationship between Uyghurs and the state. I’ve also started to study how China’s language policy in Xinjiang affects the Uyghurs. How does this policy change the way Uyghurs speak and act? How have Uyghurs responded to the policy? Do they accept it? Who supports it, and who doesn’t? How do elements of the language policy lead Uyghurs to resentment, to feel that their language is about to disappear?
Tang: Your field of study is quite sensitive in China. Have you had any difficulties doing your research? Have you ever encountered Chinese [state] interference?
Baranovitch: I haven’t had that much difficulty. There was just one time, in 2013, when I arrived in Urumqi, I knew someone was following me. I was with Dr. Berqi at the time, the second time I had met him. There was also a time when I stayed in a hotel for one night, and the next day the staff told me, “You can’t stay here anymore. Because you’re a foreigner. This is China’s policy. Foreigners can’t stay at just any hotel.” Aside from that, I haven’t really been bothered.
Tang: Could you talk about Dr. Berqi? How did you two meet? What did he work on while he was in Israel? What impression did he give you?
Baranovitch: A friend introduced me to Dr. Berqi in 2004. It was my first time in Xinjiang. I was in Urumqi for a few days, and Dr. Berqi and I were together every day. You could say he was the first person I got to know in Xinjiang. We became good friends and stayed in touch from that point on. He is a living encyclopedia. We talked about all sorts of things, we got each other thinking and talking. Dr. Berqi is a very serious, rational scholar, but at the same time he has a sense of humor. He has a mischievous wit. We laugh a lot together. I love talking to him. He has a robust personality. On the one hand he has a scholar’s rationality, rigor, and sober analysis, and one the other he has the soul of a poet, full of spirit and feeling.
In 2014 Dr. Berqi came to Israel, he stayed in Israel for two years. During his time here, he wrote a scholarly article titled “Abduhaliq Uyghur,” about the famous Uyghur poet of the 1930s of the same name. Abduhaliq Uyghur is one of the leading figures of contemporary Uyghur literature. In the 1920s and 30s he wrote several hugely influential poems. He also started and lead a revolutionary organization of Uyghur intellectuals. Because of this he was murdered by the Chinese warlord Sheng Shicai. It was an excellent paper. Dr. Berqi submitted it to a scholarly journal in China. I don’t think they published it. Aside from this, he also wrote a paper about the short story “The Mustache Dispute” by the famous contemporary Uyghur writer Memtimin Hoshur. Memtimin Hoshur is a hilarious writer. In “The Mustache Dispute” he makes fun of the government messing with Uyghur customs, and he makes fun of how Uyghurs react. Dr. Berqi analyzed this short story in his paper. I really enjoyed that paper, and I encouraged him to translate it into English for publication. There are only a handful of people researching contemporary Uyghur literature, and Dr. Berqi is among them. During his time in Israel he went back once. The relevant authorities asked him to “drink tea” and told him not to publish these papers.
During Dr. Berqi’s two years in Israel we met almost every week, and each time it was for three or four hours. In total we had several hundred hours of conversation. Our discussions were wide-ranging. Dr. Berqi is naturally curious. He’s like a sponge–he has an uncanny ability to suck up new information. Whenever he gets to a place his eyes and ears are open, soaking it all in and processing all that information. Not long after he arrived in Israel, he delved into Israeli history, society, and politics. He has an incredibly powerful memory. When we were talking about history, you could see that he knew perfectly the time, cause, details, and outcome of the event we were discussing. We often talked about Israel, as well as China, Turkey, etc., and debated Israel’s relations with Turkey and the U.S. He didn’t just have a broad knowledge, he was always adding to it. His analytical and critical skills left a big impression on me.
Before coming to Israel, Dr. Berqi had never traveled abroad. Israel was his first time out of the country. He was so excited. He said, “This is the first time I’ve felt free, truly free!” Since the 90s, because he had once criticized the authorities, Dr. Berqi was threatened and monitored, directly and indirectly, on numerous occasions. The pressure reached its height in 2006. He was told that if he didn’t compromise or cooperate, terrible things would happen to his family. When he was teaching, he knew that every class had a student informant who would report what he said, so he wasn’t free in the classroom. Some of his colleagues would also warn him, don’t say this, don’t say that. In Israel, he said, “This is surreal! No one’s following me, no one’s ratting on me!” The first time he felt completely free. I’d say that Dr. Berqi was excited and cheerful the whole two years he was in Israel.
This is why I think he must be suffering terribly in the “reeducation camp” right now. Maybe some people have an easier time adapting to life in prison, but it must be hard for Dr. Berqi to get used to it. He so adores and cherishes freedom, and now he’s completely lost it. For him, prison is the cruelest punishment.
Besides academic articles, Dr. Berqi also wrote quite a few essays and poems about Israel, I believe 18 in total. The first essay he wrote after he got to Israel is “The Cats of Haifa.” He hadn’t been in Haifa for long when he noticed that there were cats in the streets, on campus, everywhere. They didn’t have owners but they coexisted with humans. Outside the cats sat on the public benches and the humans stood. He liked that image, and he thought it signified something more profound.
Tang: It seems he wasn’t too fond of Arabs? I remember he said that there were a few Arab students in his dormitory at University of Haifa, and it seems he wasn’t too fond of them. Did he talk to you about that?
Baranovitch: No, Dr. Berqi’s not like that. He wouldn’t dislike a group of people, he just doesn’t like to look at people through the lens of nationalism. He told me that he wanted to get to know the Arab students in his dorm, but they thought a Muslim coming to Israel to study, that was just like collaborating with the Israeli government, so they didn’t want anything to do with him. They didn’t understand how Dr. Berqi, as a Muslim, could choose to study in Israel.
Tang: You are Jewish and Dr. Berqi is Muslim. The way things are today, the relationship you and he have is especially meaningful…
Baranovitch: I’d like to talk for a moment about this issue of religious background that you’ve brought up. Yes, Dr. Berqi is Muslim, and I am Jewish. Since we first met over ten years ago we’ve always stayed in touch. We’re good friends. Dr. Berqi is Muslim from birth, but he isn’t a believer. Just like me, I’m Jewish but I don’t believe in Judaism. In Israel and the Middle East, Jews and Muslims, Jews and Arabs seem to be the worst of enemies, but in China, it dawns on you that Judaism and Islam have a lot in common. Many stories in Islam, its history and philosophy, originated in Judaism, they’re influenced by Judaism. Of course there are differences between Islam and Judaism, but they also have a lot in common, including many historical figures, like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Muslims recognize the authority of these Jewish ancestors. Islam shares these ancestors and historical figures. The main difference is, just like Christianity, Islam has added some people, and Judaism doesn’t recognize these new prophets and people, but Christians and Muslims recognize the ancestors that came before, as well as their importance. Islam has also added its own ancestors. Muhammad is the last prophet. Jews don’t recognize him, but Muslims believe in Moussa (Moses) and other people. Of course, there’s also the concept of monotheism. The one God of Judaism and Islam is a shared God. From this perspective, the differences between Judaism and Islam are not so big. Compared to China, Muslims and Jews are really family, their philosophies are very close.
Dr. Berqi and I have laughed a lot together at extreme ideologies, he at the sickness of extremist Muslims, while I’ve ridiculed Jewish extremists. We agree on this point: no matter what the religion, it’s always bad when taken to the extreme. On this point we have never disagreed. Dr. Berqi is very open-minded. Our different religious backgrounds were never a problem. In fact, religion was for us a bridge, because we often found commonalities between our two faiths. And we both think it’s strange that Israel’s Jews and Muslims are always arguing with each other. It shouldn’t be this way.
Dr. Berqi reiterated to me that the majority of Uyghur intellectuals, while they are Muslim, aren’t believers. They don’t look at Israel and the Jews from a religious perspective, but from the perspective of history, and of an ethnic minority: The Jewish people have been oppressed for two thousand years. In that time they didn’t have their own land and country. Other peoples oppressed them. But in the end, the Jews succeeded in preserving their culture, preserving their identity… Many Uyghur intellectuals respect and admire the Jewish people. They see the Jews as an example of how an ethnic group can protect its culture, language, and customs. Of course, I also know that Dr. Berqi’s writings about Israel influenced many Uyghurs, it made them aware of Israel.
Actually, it’s not just Dr. Berqi. Many years ago, I heard the same ideas from many other Uyghur intellectuals. The Uyghurs who believe will look at Israel and the Jews from a religious perspective. They wouldn’t say these things. Uyghurs intellectuals, even though they’re Muslim, their viewpoint is more open and independent. They’re more inclined to look at Israel and the Jews from a national perspective, not a religious one. Also, many Uyghur intellectuals criticize Uyghur religious extremists. Dr. Berqi once said that Islam has lead some Uyghurs to become extreme. He often criticized this tendency. In fact, plenty of Uyghur intellectuals have spoken out against this kind of religious behavior among their own people.
Tang: I’ve noticed that some Israeli Jews think Israel should copy China and put Palestinians into camps. But in Europe and America we’ve also seen many Jews, scholars, also rabbis, speaking out about the suffering of the Uyghurs. Could you talk about your feelings on this?
Dr. Baranovitch: You’re thinking of something Oren Hazan said. He’s not worth your attention, really, he’s not important. I have some Uyghur friends living abroad, they also heard what Oren Hazan said. They asked me, “How could this be? How could the Knesset say that?” I told them, “It’s not the Knesset, it’s just one member who’s not worth bringing up. He’s said a lot of other idiotic things.” Don’t listen to him, and don’t assume that he represents Israel. I know there are some Israelis who think like Hazan. I’ve seen their responses to him, it’s undeniable. But I think the majority of Israelis, if they have sechel and enough information, wouldn’t buy into that. The average Israeli doesn’t know much about this, they really don’t even know, what is a Uyghur? Who are the Uyghurs? They don’t know exactly what’s going on, so most people don’t have anything to say about the situation in Xinjiang.
Tang: I haven’t met many Uyghurs. Dr. Berqi is the only Uyghur I’ve ever spoken to at length. He is willing to talk to Han people…
Dr. Baranovitch: I know there are Uyghurs who refuse to interact with or talk to Han people. But Dr. Berqi has more than a few Han friends. Even though he has a strong sense of his Uyghur identity, he doesn’t look at people through the lens of “nationality.” He goes beyond national consciousness and stays rooted in the “human” standpoint. He’ll talk about all kinds of issues with his Han friends. Sometimes he’ll criticize something head-on, like Han chauvinism, the government, etc., but he never cuts off contact with Han people. He’s friendly with many Han people. What he always emphasizes is the “human.” He respects everyone, including the Han. Dr. Berqi loves his own people and his mother tongue, but he never denies or belittles other cultures, he never denies or belittles other people, other languages. Since the 90s, he has occasionally written in Chinese. He looks for ways to vividly express himself, so when he has some inner feelings that are better suited to Chinese, he writes Chinese poetry. He has never advocated Xinjiang independence. He believes autonomy is the best and most realistic option. But he also believes that right now Xinjiang does not have true autonomy. Much of his criticism of the government focuses on this point. He has never supported violence or extreme methods.
It’s a shame to arrest someone like Dr. Berqi. It’s a big mistake. Now he’s lost his freedom and is getting “reeducated” somehow. Putting someone like him in prison defies all reason. I hope Dr. Berqi can get out of the “reeducation camp,” that he can continue his academic career. He deserves respect.
Tang: Besides Ablet, do you know any other Uyghur scholars or writers and artists who are in the “reeducation camps”?
Dr. Baranovitch: There are a few people who I know indirectly, for instance I know their family. It’s also possible that the people I know are already in the “reeducation camps,” but I don’t know that they are. Because so many people have already been arrested, and no one knows where they are.
Many of the people in my research have already been arrested. I’m not as close with them as I am with Dr. Berqi. For example there’s Professor Azat Sultan from Xinjiang Normal University. He’s one of the people I’ve studied. I think he’s being “reeducated”; there’s also a poet named Perhat Tursun, I’ve done research on his poetry. I think he’s there, too. And two famous singers: Abdurehim Heyit and Ablajan Awut Ayup, they’re in there. The latter has been hailed as Xinjiang’s Michael Jackson. He was sentenced to eight years. A lot of his songs are on YouTube. I haven’t been in direct contact with them, but because I’ve studied these people, I have their essays, poems, and songs. I know about what they’ve done and the work they’ve produced. There are just so many Uyghurs artists, writers, and intellectuals who are in the “reeducation camps” right now. [Chinese]
【1】Nimrod Baranovitch: Born in Jerusalem in 1965. In 1992 he earned his BA in East Asian studies and music from the Hebrew University. He earned his PhD in music at the University of Pittsburgh in 1997. He is one of the founders of the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Haifa. He studies contemporary Chinese culture, society, and politics, focusing on popular culture and cultural politics, collective memory and history, ethnic minorities (primarily Mongolians, Uyghurs, and Tibetans), and the relationship of those minorities to the Han Chinese and to the Chinese state. Major work: China’s New Voices: Popular Music, Ethnicity, Gender, and Politics, 1978-1997, University of California Press, 2003. His papers have been published in the Journal of Asian Studies, The China Quarterly, Modern China, and The China Journal.
【2】This interview was conducted in Chinese.