Saturday, 30 July 2011

Yemen - Allah, al-Watan, ath-Thawrah, al-Wahdah!

It's more than 3,000 miles from Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang/Uyghuristan to Sana'a, the capital of  الجمهورية اليمنية (Al Jumhūriyyah al Yamaniyyah - ie. the Republic of Yemen), the next place on my list!

The basics

At around 204,000 square miles (or 555,000 square kilometres), Yemen is slightly larger than Spain, more than six times bigger than Scotland and slightly smaller than the Canadian province of Manitoba.  It has an estimated population of 24 million people and 43% of the population is less than 14 years old (CIA World Factbook). The capital city, Sana'a, located in the country's highlands, is about 90 miles from the Red Sea and 185 miles north of Aden, a port city which will probably be more well-known to my British and European readers.

A bridge between the Arab world and East Africa
Young girl in Sana'a by kebnekaise

I think I know as little about Yemen, at this point, as most people in Europe.  I did touch on Yemeni culture and the diaspora in the Gulf states, when I was researching my blog posts for Saudi Arabia. One thing I learned about Yemen during this research is how different it is to the other states in Arabia.  Yemen is much poorer than Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates and lots of Yemeni men travel to the Gulf states for work.  The local economy, as in many poor countries, depends on the remittances being sent home by these workers.  Interestingly, whilst Yemen's relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states has been pretty tense in the past, Yemen has had a much closer relationship with Egypt and countries like Somalia and Ethiopia, that are culturally linked (putting Yemen at the centre of a Semitic cultural sphere, rather than at the edge of the Arab world).

A tale of two Yemens

It can't be nice, being looked upon as some kind of poor relation and I'm beginning to sense the complexity of the Yemeni identity.  Steeped in history, with a capital city that is a UNESCO world heritage site and such amazing potential for tourism, Yemen's recent history, unfortunately, has left most Westerners with the impression that it's a haven for kidnappers, pirates, revolutionaries and Islamic extremists.  An additional factor in researching the history and culture of Yemen is trying to get my head around the two Yemens, North and South.

The North -  الشمال

First, there is the culturally and politically dominant northern part of Yemen, containing the capital and a large chunk of the country's population, this is the Yemen that was part of the Ottoman Empire, gaining independence after the First World war, as the Kingdom of Yemen and in the 60's, after an Egyptian-style revolution, the Yemen Arab Republic.

The South -  الجنوب

Then there is the South, with its capital at Aden, which came under British influence, as a convenient stopping point on the route to India.  When the north gained its independence in 1918, Britain continued to govern the southern part of Yemen, as part of British India, until 1937, when the status of Aden was changed to 'Crown Colony'.  British rule in Aden became increasingly unpopular and the short-lived Federation of South Arabia in the 60's was quickly replaced by the socialist People's Democratic Republic of Yemen.

Unity - الوحدة
Sana'a by kebnekaise

Despite numerous attempts to reunite the two parts of Yemen, it wasn't until the 22nd of May 1990 that North and South Yemen were finally reunited to form the modern-day Republic of Yemen.  I must hold my hand up at this point and admit that I have no recollection whatsoever of the re-unification of Yemen.  Germany, yes, Yemen . . .uhm, I guess I was busy studying for my Inter Cert (an Irish exam, that comes halfways through secondary school, sort of like GCSE's in the UK).  Mind you, I don't remember other important things that happened on May 22nd 1990, like the launch of Windows 3.0, although possibly the significance of this (digital) revolution wasn't recognised by most of us at the time! 

Yemen's flag is typical of flags in the Middle East and North Africa, ie. with red, white and black stripes, it looks very similar to the flags of Egypt and Syria.  The former flags of North and South Yemen included symbols that represented the political nature of each of these countries, whereas the flag adopted after 1990, leaves the white stripe, rather neutrally, blank. 

Motto of the Republic of Yemen

In the opening title of this blog post, I've given a transcription in Roman letters of the country's motto:

لله، الوطن، الثورة، الوحدة
I was struck by how simple and direct the motto is and it seems to capture the essence of Yemeni political life very well!
The skyscrapers of Shibam by kebnekaise

لله، 'Allah' 
الوطن، 'al-Watan' (home/country)
الثورة، 'ath-Thawrah' (revolution)
الوحدة  'al-Wahdah' (unity)

Yemeni themes

I've just started researching possible themes for Yemen and I've already come up with some areas that I would like to look into further, such as the Queen of Sheba, the use of qat, the history of the coffee trade, the trade in frankincense and the island of Socotra.  I've bought some classical Yemeni music, Mohammad al-Harithi's L'Heure de Salomon recorded on CD for the Institut du Monde Arab.  I've been listening to this all morning and it's very transcendental, like the Indian Bhajan (devotional music) I blogged about in May 2010.  I'm also going to try my hand at the Yemeni national dish, Saltah and I've got a few books lined up, including a well-known Yemeni novel.
The peasant of Hadramawt by kebnekaise

I hope you'll join me, as I learn about Yemen.  Comments etc are much appreciated, as long as they aren't intentionally offensive to Yemeni people or culture.  

Image credits:

It's always exciting finding images on that illustrate the places I'm blogging about.  My research for Yemen has brought me to the work of kebnekaise aka Davide, who is from Trento in the north of Italy.  He seems to have travelled a lot in the north of Europe, Svalbard, Iceland etc., but the photos I've used to illustrate this blog post come from a trip he did to Yemen in 2000.  

I couldn't put all of the photos here, but you can see the rest of the Yemeni set on his photostream.  You can also see his images on his website.   

Thanks Davide for sharing these images with us using the Creative Commons License. 

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Xinjiang - saying goodbye to the Music of Central Asia

Xinjiang is approximately 7 times the size of Britain and almost 4 times the size of California.  It has one sixth of China's land area but, with over 20 million people, barely a sixtieth of China's population.  As usual, when I'm writing my final blog post, I feel that there is so much more I could learn about this region of the world, but the time has come to say goodbye!

A summary of the topics

My learning experience about Xinjiang has given me an opportunity to learn about the history of the region and the politics of Xinjiang versus East Turkestan.  I've also learned a lot about the geography of the region and the diversity of its landscape.  Not just deserts and mountains, but the Turfan Depression, the Dzungarian steppe and the fertile Ili Valley.  I learned how to cook Dà pán jī and how to make my own noodles.  I learned about Khoja Iparhan, the Fragrant concubine and how the Occident represented adventure and exoticism to the Chinese, similar to the way that the Orient was perceived by 19th century Europeans.  I learned about the magical qualities of Jade, how important this stone has been in the development of Chinese history and China's relationship with the people on its Western borders.  I learned about the Uyghur language and where it sits in the Turkic language family.  The Indo-European mummies of Tarim gave me an opportunity to explore the origins of race and the specific nature of racism in China.

Other areas of interest

Again, there are many other things I've learned during the past month or so, but not had time to write a blog post about.  I'll try to summarise these below so, if you're interested in finding out more, I'd encourage you to do some research into topics that I have only had a chance to scratch the surface of.  These include:

Uyghur demonstration in Helsinki, July 2011
- the history of Islam in China, including the Chinese muslims, the Hui people.
- K2, the second highest mountain in the world, which is situated on Xinjiang's southern border.
- Nuclear testing in the Taklamakan desert
- the Tocharians, their language and culture.
- the Parthians and the origin of the phrase 'a Parthian (or parting) shot'
- the story of the Chinese princess who gave away the secret of silk
- the Legend of Prester John
- Wuer Kaixi, a Uyghur who was one of the student leaders during the Tiananmen rebellion
- the role of Eunuchs in the Chinese Imperial court
- the symbolism of oleaster
- the Taiping rebellion (hopefully I'll be able to come back to this one!)
- the story of Yakub Beg and his independent Kashgaria in the 1860's
- George Hunter and the China Inland Mission
- the Xinjiang Military Region Production and Construction Corps "August First" Field Army Swearing to Defend the Thought of Mao Zedong to the Death - probably the longest name ever for a military regiment (I wonder if they used an acronym?)
- the claim that there were (or even are) gulags in Xinjiang
The Jiayuguan Gate by Richard Towell
- the Jiayuguan Gate in the Great Wall of China, often the last sight of China for exiles heading West.
- the Manchus of the Ili Valley
- the development of the Han Chinese city of Shihezi, just north of the capital Urumqi.
- the Uyghur diaspora and the challenges faced by the East Turkestan 'government in exile'
- the cause of goitre, attributed to the lime and magnesia salts of the southern Taklamakan
- the lake monster of Kanas
- the story of Tutuqash and the Mangqys

As you can imagine, I could have gone on blogging about Xinjiang for some time to come!

The sound of Central Asia

One topic I do want to draw your attention to is the rich musical traditions of Xinjiang and Central Asia, in general.  When I was preparing to go to Uzbekistan, I bought a CD of classical Uzbek and Tajik music, which I played over and over again, as I was packing my bags and getting ready for my 'big adverture' on the other side of the world!  Whilst the musical traditions of Central Asia have a lot in common with music throughout the Islamic world, I couldn't help noticing the influence of, what I perceived to be, Chinese music, on the music of Uzbekistan.  I think it was the sound of wind instruments, like the surnay (known as in shawm English, an ancestor of the oboe) that made me think Central Asian music sounded slightly Chinese.
Two shawms or surnay by tomfbh

The chanting that is so common in the Central Asian classical tradition sounds very much like chanting throughout the Arab world - but the solo singing, especially that of female artists, has a pitch that wouldn't sound out of place in a Chinese Opera.  As with everything else in Xinjiang, I think the music is an end result of centuries of cultural interaction.  Whether or not the wind instruments came from China, or the drums came from India or Arabia, Central Asian music has a sound that is pretty unique - it can sound both Western and Eastern, Islamic and Oriental.

The most popular form of traditional music in Xinjiang is a style called Muqam, a set of 12 musical suites, which is usually grouped into three parts; the muqaddime or introduction, the dastan or narrative songs, usually with a set text and the meshrep which is a faster beat and gets people dancing at weddings!  It's a shame I've not had time to delve deeper into the music of Xinjiang but, if you're interested in finding out more, the website of the London Uyghur Ensemble has more information about Uyghur music than I could ever give you.  As well as links to recordings of various instruments, their website also has great research documents by Rachel Harris, who is a Lecturer in Ethnomusicology at London's School of Oriental and African studies

I'm going to leave you with a video from YouTube, which features a performance by the London Uyghur Ensemble.  It's a recording of the Penjigah Muqam, which is popular in the Ili Valley.  The picture quality isn't great, but the most important thing is to sit back, listen and enjoy!

On Learning about the World next month, Y . . .

Image credits:

The photo of the Uyghur demonstrators in Helsinki was posted by Amnesty International Finland - you can find out more about this demonstration on their flickr stream and see a news report on the situation in Xinjiang at their website

The photo of the Jiayuguan Gate (aka Jiayu Pass) was shared with the world by flickruser Richard Towell - you can see more information about Richard at his profile page on Flickr

The image of the surnay/shawms was posted on flickr by tomfbh - you can see more of Tom's photos at his flickr photostream

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Xinjiang - Separate Tables and the History of Race

As part of my research on Xinjiang, I've read two books that were incredibly useful.  The first of these, Wild West China: The Taming of Xinjiang by Christian Tyler was a great overview of the history of this region, right up until 2003, when the book was published.  Of course, the period since 2003 has been incredibly important for Xinjiang, but a lot happened in the region in the 80's and 90's, which we don't often hear about it.  The second book I read was Racism: A very short Introduction by Ali Rattansi, part of the Oxford University Press (OUP) series I've mentioned in previous blog posts. 

Skeletons in the Desert

In Christian Tyler's words 'The climate of Xinjiang may be hostile to the living, but it is unusually kind to the dead'.  The early 20th-century craze for archaeology brought a number of (generally European) explorers and archaeologists to the Taklamakan desert and the Tarim basin, where they found mummified bodies dating back as far as 1900 BCE.  In modern Xinjiang, the topic of race is a controversial one.  Most people outside China might see the Uyghurs as the native inhabitants of Xinjiang, whereas the Chinese claim to have occupied this region, even before the Uyghurs came along. 

Genetic analysis of the Tarim mummies suggests that they are both wrong.  In fact, it's believed that the original inhabitants of Xinjiang were an Indo-European tribe called the Tocharians.  Red-haired skeletons wearing tartan seems somewhat out of place in Western China and I'm sure the evidence must be somewhat discomforting for modern inhabitants of the region, both the Uyghurs and the Chinese!

What is race?
Young girl at Chinese New Year by Yewenyi

When we think of race in the West, often the first thing that comes to mind is Black African versus White European.  In an effort to understand the concept of race, I wanted to read about it in a wider context, so I've chosen Xinjiang as my reference point to relate everything back to.  Of course, racial differences go beyond white/black and, in the case of Xinjiang, there is a very obvious clash of cultures that is, more often than not, given a racial context which pits the Turkic Uyghurs against the Han Chinese. 

One of the most important things I learned from Racism: A very short Introduction is that there is no such thing as race.  There are different colours of skin, different shapes of the eye or mouth, different genetic features that determine everything from what height we are, to whether our hair is frizzy or straight - but none of this constitutes complete identification with a racial category and, genetically at least, there is very little difference between someone who is perceived to be Chinese, than someone who is perceived to be Black African or White European.  When we talk about different races, often we're really talking about different cultures

So where did race come from?

The development of science from the 17th-century onwards, led to an obsession in the Victorian Age (19th century) with classification and 'putting things into boxes/categories'.  As Europeans started colonising the rest of the world and wiping out whole indigenous populations, (eg as the Spanish did in Central America, or the British in places like Tasmania), there was a real need to justify the expansion of European power.  Science, as much as religion, provided European conquerors with the moral argument they needed to colonise the rest of the world.

It was convenient to state that the people Europeans encountered in the New World were not really human at all, but somehow racially inferior.  Likewise, the people of sub-Saharan Africa, with whom Europeans had long-standing contact, were categorised as sub-human, a convenient justification, backed up by the new sciences, for the wholesale export of West African tribesmen and women to the cotton plantations of the Caribbean and the United States.

So what about racism?

Although I believe that there is no such thing as race, unfortunately, racism is a concept that is all too real for most societies in the early 21st century.  The term was first coined relatively recently (in the 1930's), to describe the Nazis' anti-Semitic policy of Judenrein, an early 20th-century form of ethnic cleansing.  Whilst in Ancient History, the colour of someones skin seems to have had little relevance, as to whether or not they would become a Roman Emperor (eg Septemus Severus) or an Egyptian Pharaoh (eg. the Pharaohs of Kush), xenophobia, ie. the hatred of strangers or foreigners, seems to have been around for a long time. 
Anti-Nazi League badge by Leo Reynolds

Although the Jews don't constitute a separate race, they are a minority group that has suffered incredible hatred and discrimination, particularly in Western Europe, since the time of Chaucer and the Spanish Reconquista (see my previous blogpost about the Sephardi philosopher, Baruch de Spinoza).  Likewise, being Irish, I always feel a bit strange ticking a separate box in equality monitoring forms, as I certainly don't feel racially different to other people who are white and living in Britain!  Irish people have also suffered incredible 'racism', being depicted as monkeys in 19th-century British and American propaganda and with British ethnologists, such as John Beddoe, claiming that Irish skulls were africanoid (and he didn't mean it as a compliment!)

Can only white people be racist?

Being born into a very 'white' society, I didn't have any friends growing up who identified as black or Asian, or anything other than Irish!  Luckily, being born into an culturally homogeneous community was no barrier to understanding other cultures, I think it depends on how you, as an individual, approach different cultures, and the idea that someone from a totally white background (or totally anything background) will somehow be racist, by default, is complete nonsense.  When I started travelling around the world, I was lucky enough to have the chance to become friends with people who were from different cultural backgrounds than me.

It wasn't until much later that I realised that it's not only white people who can be racist.  I think my first experiences of this were in Uzbekistan, where the local people had completely ostracised a young man who was of mixed Uzbek-African heritage, and in Thailand, where I was really shocked by the racism of my Thai students towards others in their society from Cambodian, Burmese or Lao backgrounds. 

Are the Chinese racist?

In answer to the question, Are the Chinese racist? or Are the Uzbeks racist? or Are the Thais racist? then the simplest answer is yes.  Yes, in the sense that, culturally, the Chinese (Uzbeks/Thais) have a very strong idea of what it means, and doesn't mean, to be Chinese (Uzbek/Thai).  Of course, it's a lot more complex than that and the question itself assumes that there is such a thing as a Chinese (Uzbek/Thai) race in the first place.

Whilst each one of us can approach the question of race from a very personal perspective, there are definitely collective attitudes in a lot of countries that could be considered to be inherently racist. Working with Slovak colleagues in my first teaching job in Bratislava, I was impressed by the fact that they genuinely welcomed me, an openly gay man, as well as my Jewish and Black American colleagues.  However, when the conversation turned to Roma communities in Slovakia, my erstwhile tolerant colleagues suddenly seemed a lot less so and I was surprised that a group of people who were so intelligent and reasonable, could have attitudes towards the Roma that appeared to be incredibly narrow-minded and stupid.  I guess we're all culturally brain-washed in one way or another and this is the challenge that faces many people in the modern world. 

Separate Tables
Chinese Feast by Wootang01

The evidence from Xinjiang is pretty damning and Tyler uses the concept of 'separate tables' to describe the cultural divide between the Han Chinese and the Uyghurs.  Until 1979, Chinese law forbade intermarriage between Han Chinese and Uyghurs.  Although many individuals on both sides have made efforts to bridge the cultural divide, forming friendships and doing business together, intermarriage between Han Chinese and Uyghurs is still something of a taboo.  Tyler catalogues some of the terrible incidents of repression of the Uyghurs by Chinese authorities in recent years, everything from job discrimination to language restrictions to imposed birth control.  Uyghurs, on their part, use terms like 'the fourteenth nationality' as a slur against those Uyghurs who've learned Chinese and begun to assimilate with Han culture.

I can't hope to do any justice to a discussion on race in a short blog post like this, but it's an area I would like to come back to again, through another cultural or national lens.  As to whether or not the original inhabitants of Xinjiang were Uyghur, Chinese or Indo-European - it hardly seems relevant to two cultures, Chinese and Turkic, that have had centuries of contact, love, hate and (mis)understanding.

Image credits:

The photo of the young Chinese girl is by flickruser yewenyi aka Brian Yap who is an Engineer from Marrickville in New South Wales, Australia.  You can see more of Brian's work on his website.  

The image of the Anti-Nazi League badge is by flickruser Leo Reynolds who is from Norwich in England.  You can learn more about Leo at his website

The photo of the Chinese-style feast is by flickruser Wootang01 aka David Woo, who is a teacher, originally from New Jersey, but now living in Hong Kong - he also has a website which deals with his experiences teaching and living in Hong Kong. 

Thanks to Brian, Leo and David for sharing these images with us using the Creative Commons License.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Xinjiang - siz Uyghurcha bilamsiz?

Uyghur is a Turkic language, one of the many spoken in a crossbow starting in Western China and finishing in European Turkey.  An estimated 180 million people are native speakers of a Turkic language.  Not surprisingly, Turkish is the most widely spoken Turkic language, with around 83 million native speakers.  Uyghur has between 8 and 10 million speakers, mostly in Western China, but also in other parts of Central Asia and parts of the world where the Uyghur diaspora has settled. 

The Uzbek connection

It really surprised me to learn that, according to modern Linguists, Uyghur is more closely related to Uzbek than it is to Kazakh and Kyrgyz.  When I lived in Uzbekistan, I had a choice of three languages to learn (Uzbek, Tajik or Russian) and I chose Russian, the safest and easiest option.  I did pick up the odd word of Uzbek and certainly got used to hearing the language spoken, in official meetings, at the University in Samarkand and on TV (although not usually at my friends' homes, where people spoke Tajik).  I also read a lot about Stalin's linguists and how they defined the Turkic languages of Central Asia in a way that gave a separate linguistic identity to the ethnic peoples of their newly-created Socialist republics.  I was left with the impression that Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Karakalpak and others were really a common language, superficially differentiated by Stalinist linguists.  I did feel that Uzbek sounded a bit different that the others, but put that down to the fact that my ear was more attuned to the intricacies of Uzbek phonetics.
Sign in Uzbek by Ole Rousing

Looking at the classifications of other 'western' linguists, I find Uzbek is included in a branch of Turkic languages called Chagatai or Southeastern Common Turkic.  Granted, Uzbek is in another separate branch within this grouping, but it still surprises me that Uzbek, despite the geographical distance from Western China, would be closer to Uyghur than Kazakh or Kyrgyz, which are right beside Uyghuristan in the geographical continuum. 

How languages are classified

Perhaps trying to decide whether Uyghur is closer to Uzbek than it is to Kazakh is splitting hairs somewhat and there are lots of other factors that come into play (historical, economic, political etc) when looking at how languages have influenced each other.  It would seem as though the Turkic group is very well-defined and the methods of classifying languages, eg. by vocabulary comparison, provide linguists with consistent and satisfying results.

A very obvious principle of historical linguistics is that the basic words for human existence, such as 'head', 'man', 'family', 'sun' should be similar in languages that share a common ancestor - whereas words for new technological developments, ie. things which might not have existed in the original culture but were introduced by other cultures, through trade or invasion, will generally result in a word that is borrowed from another language family.

Bilingual sign by Toasterhead
English is full of words that have been borrowed from French and Latin and you can imagine the English sitting on the floor eating pig with their fingers before the Norman invasion and sitting on chairs consuming pork with cutlery, after the Normans invaded!  In modern times, languages like Icelandic, German, Irish and Welsh have gone to great lengths to find more 'indigenous' ways of describing modern technological developments such as computers, television and radio.  

An analysis of Turkic vocabulary

As an experiment, I want to compare a range of words across some of the Turkic languages, to see how similar they really are.  I have included Chinese, Tajik and Mongolian to see what influence, if any, non-Turkic neighbours have had on Uyghur.  I've used Google Translate for Turkish and Chinese and there's a great website called which provided me with the translations to Uyghur that I needed.

English Turkish Uzbek Uyghur Tajik Mongolian Chinese
Man adam/erkek adam er/insan odam/inson erkin Nánzǐ
Mother Anne acha ana modar ech Mǔqīn
Sun güneş kun quayash/aptap oftob nar Yángguāng
Water su suv su ob oos Shuǐ
Finger parmak barmoq barmaq angusht khooroo Shǒuzhǐ
Dog köpek it it sag nokhoi Gǒu
Camel deve tuja töge shootoor teme Luòtuo
Rice pirinç plov gürüch birinch tutarga Shuǐdào
Arrow ok uq oq/tir tir soom Jiàntóu
Train tren poyezd poyuz poyezd galt tereg Huǒchē
Television televizyon televizor téléwiziye televizor televiziin gazar Diànshì
Computer bilgisayar kompyuter kompyutér kompyuter kompyuter Jìsuànjī
electricity elektrik svet éléktir/tok barkh tsakheelgan Diànlì
Airport havaalanı aeroport ayriport furudgokh niisekh ongotsni buudal Jīchǎng
election seçim saylov saylam intikhob songool' Xuǎnjǔ

It's obvious from this comparison that there are fundamental links between Uyghur and the other Turkic languages.  There are a few similarities with Tajik but Chinese influence isn't very apparent from this list, except perhaps with the 'w' sound in téléwiziye, which seems more like Chinese than Russian.

Interestingly, modern Turkish tends to look for more Turkic-sounding words for modern inventions, like the Turkish words for airport and computer.  The influence of Mongolian seems to have been negligible, although one of the most interesting comparisons was the word for 'water', which seems to be similar in the Turkic languages, Mongolian and even Chinese.

If you want to hear what Uyghur sounds like, I'm pasting in a video from YouTube.  The best thing I could find is a video by Christian missionaries, which is a telling insight into the extent of Western interest in modern Uyghur language. 

Image credits and references:

I have a few reference books on Linguistics, that I use when I'm researching for this blog.  One of them is  Kenneth Katzner's The Languages of the World, which is my 'bible' of language classification.

The sign written in Uzbek, warning drivers to beware of oncoming trains, is from flickuser olerousing who is from Oslo in Norway.  You can find out more about Ole on his blog

The sign showing a bilingual sign in Uyghur and Chinese is by flickruser toasterhead who is originally from Long Island but now lives in Arlington, Virginia.  You can see more on his blog: