The poetry of hope — Colm Keena on the Irish Uyghur Cultural Association

Uyghurs living in Ireland live with a level of trauma and fear that is hard to imagine

Recently I had the privilege of attending the launch of the Irish Uyghur Cultural Association, held in a restaurant close to the Ha’penny Bridge in Dublin. Although the Uyghur people of Central Asia are suffering a campaign of almost unimaginable cruelty at the hands of the Chinese government, there was an unmistakably festive air at the event, with many of the attendees wearing traditional costume and the tables groaning with plates of Uyghur food, including cakes, that people had prepared and brought along for the occasion.

There are approximately 200 Uyghurs living in Ireland, many of them for more than a decade, some have Irish citizenship, and some have children born here (who may never see their grandparents, or the land of their forebears). The United Nations has said the campaign being waged against the Uyghur people in China may constitute a crime against humanity, and others have described it as an attempt at cultural genocide. The campaign includes letting Uyghurs in the West know that if they speak publicly about what is happening back home, they risk having family members in China punished as a result, including disappearing into a camp and not being heard from again. Because of this transnational oppression, Uyghurs living in Ireland are understandably slow to speak to the media about what is happening. They live with a level of trauma and fear that is hard to imagine. And yet it was precisely because of this, it seemed, that the public launch of the new association had such a positive air. It was a celebration of a people, their culture, and their determination not to be cowed.

Among those at the launch was London-based Uyghur poet and scholar Aziz Isa Elkun, whose new anthology of Uyghur poetry, published by Everyman’s Library, was on sale.

The volume is the first English-language anthology of Uyghur poetry and includes a foreword by Aziz that serves as a brief introduction to Uyghur history and the history of Uyghur poetry over the centuries.


Uyghur poetry, he writes, reflects the magnificent landscape of Central Asia, its endless steppes, soaring mountain ranges, and mysterious deserts, the place where his people have lived for two millennia, at the heart of the famous Silk Road.

The Uyghurs (Uyghur means federation or union) are a Turkic people. The history of their religious beliefs includes Tengrism (sky worship), Shamanism, Manichaeism, Nestorian Christianity, Buddhism and, from about the 10th century, Islam, which is now the predominant religion. Their last independent rulers were overthrown by the Qing dynasty in the mid-18th century, after which the Chinese gave the name Xinjiang – it means new frontier - to the vast territory that has for centuries been home to the Uyghur and other Turkic groups.

There were brief periods of Uyghur independence in the 20th century, but the region was brought back under Chinese control in 1949, when it was seized by the People’s Republic of China, with help from the Soviet Union. Uyghurs, of which there are approximately 12 million in Xinjiang, and a further two million outside China, call their homeland East Turkistan.

The first poem in Aziz’s anthology is a translation by him of a work by Mahmud Kashgari, who died in 1102, and the last is a translation by him of one of his own poems, Roses, which he wrote on October 10th, 2021. It is heartbreaking to read about the long history of the Uyghur people, the waves of literary and historical influences that shaped the works that Aziz has translated and gathered, the century after century of poets writing about mythology and landscape and love, and then to be confronted, in the latter part of the volume, with poems about the savagery of what is happening to the Uyghur people now.

More than a million people, and possibly two million people, including children taken from their parents, have disappeared into a system of “re-education” camps. Aziz’s poem, Roses, written in exile in London, is dedicated to “my beloved mother, with whom I lost contact in 2017. My greatest hope is that she is alive and well.” In it he is sitting in his garden, thinking of how he planted his first rose bush three years earlier to mark the destruction of his father’s grave, the second to mark Mother’s Day, the third for the unknown Uyghurs who are inside the camps. The final lines read:

My roses are blossoming with hope

Singing a song of freedom

Without waiting for the spring

They remind us

How beautiful it is to be alive

To live in peace in our beautiful world

Uyghur Poems, edited by Aziz Isa Elkun, is published by Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets Series