Sultan's Song

Far Eastern Economic Review
Sept. 30, 2004 (p. 69)

By Erling Hoh

Issue cover-dated September 30, 2004

"DON'T SELL YOUR LAND!" Sultan Kurash's voice is so powerful you can hear it echoing from one end of the Taklamakan Desert to the other. The sound has even reached Beijing: China has banned Kurash's music, confiscated his sound equipment, annulled his business licence, placed him under house arrest and driven him out of his own land. All to no avail: His songs live on. "For 50 years, nobody was allowed to sing what we Uyghurs have in our hearts," says Kurash. "I am the first."

Kurash is sitting in his apartment in the quiet town of Eskilstuna in Sweden, which granted him asylum in 1999. His road from the deserts of Central Asia to this former steel town has been long and tortuous. In 1996, he left China for Turkey on a fake passport. A year later, he arrived in the Central Asian country of Kirgyzstan carrying 10,000 cassette tapes of his music that he hoped to smuggle into Xinjiang. There the police arrested him and threw him into jail. They offered no explanation; Kurash blames Beijing. Nine months later he was suddenly released, and given 20 days to leave Kirgyzstan. The local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees arranged for his passage to Sweden.

The son of a farmer, Kurash trained in Uyghur folk music at the Academy of Performing Arts in Urumqi, capital of the traditional Uyghur homeland of Xinjiang in northwest China. After graduating in 1988, he spent the next five years touring the length and breadth of Xinjiang, or East Turkistan as he calls it, singing and playing the dutar, a long-necked lute.

That experience, says Kurash, opened his eyes to Beijing's oppression of the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs. "We became deeply aware that the life of the common Uyghur was very bitter," the singer says. "Before then, we hadn't left the big cities. We had only watched TV, and we had believed what we had seen."

Kurash was particularly struck by the situation of Uyghur cotton farmers. While the world market price for cotton was about $1,000 a tonne, he says, the Uyghur farmers were being forced to sell their produce to the state for just $70 a tonne. The need to fill state quotas left many Uyghur farmers teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

When land-hungry Han Chinese from the overpopulated coastal provinces offered to buy their land, many Uyghurs decided to call it quits and sell. Official Chinese figures show that between 1949 and 1992, the Uyghur population of Xinjiang fell from 8.5 million Uyghurs to 7.3 million (the 2000 census showed 8.4 million Uyghurs living in China). In the same period, the Han Chinese population in Xinjiang grew from 290,000 to 5 million. It's no surprise that Don't Sell Your Land, Kurash's best-known political song, struck such a chord in the hearts of his fellow Uyghurs.

In 1993, the authorities decided that Sultan Kurash had become a political agitator, and attempted to silence him. His equipment was confiscated, his music was banned and he was placed under constant surveillance. But unlike Rebiya Kadeer, the prominent Uyghur businesswoman who in 2001 was jailed for eight years--later reduced to seven--for mailing two local newspapers to her husband abroad, Kurash managed to outsmart his shadows and leave the country.

In the years since, Kurash has gone on fighting to highlight the Uyghurs' plight. Earlier this year, he was elected to a post in the newly formed World Uyghur Congress, which united the two main exile organizations. Its chairman is Erkin Alptekin, who has condemned sporadic acts of violence by Uyghur extremists since the 1990s.

But it is music that remains Kurash's main calling. In Eskilstuna, where he lives with his wife, his son and his mother, he keeps close contact with other Uyghur dissidents living in the country while developing ties with Sweden's folk-music community. In May, he was appointed as a salaried "national composer" by the Swedish government. His new home town has sponsored a CD with his own music, and he has performed his people's music at folk-music festivals around Europe. As one Uyghur refugee says of Kurash, "In our eyes, he is invaluable."

Copyright 2004 Review Publishing Company Limited, Hong Kong.