Religious Repression and a Sudden Crack

by Casey_Michel on 9/10/2012

Old Kashgar (Cai Yang/ZUMA Press/Newscom)

I know writings on Xinjiang aren’t exactly Registan’s raison d’etre — we’re all about post-Soviet space, y’all — but I thought I’d be remiss to not toss a link up to a bit of post-hijack analysis. I hoped to shine some light on Uyghurs via The Tuqay, and I trust our intelligent audience will be able to place the piece in context. But if you’re still unsure as to this excerpt’s placement on Registan, hopefully the lede — involving Almaty, bazaars, and a shout-out to barsak — will convince you otherwise

On the lowest level of the largest bazaar in Almaty sits a small, unassuming restaurant. A square window and a lone door are the only things marking the business from the rows of nut vendors and thrift marts flanking the eatery. The interior’s not much more memorable: white-washed walls, a handful of tables, and a humming vending machine cramp the space. A woman in her twenties, wearing a cerulean frock and matching hat — staples of Kazakhstani restaurateurs — greets you as you enter, waving you in as her quiet coworkers scuttle between latticed chairs and a brushed-steel serving counter.

Soft chatter is all you hear, and muted decor is all you see. As you scan the place, you realize that you could be anywhere in Kazakhstan. This could be any restaurant in the country.

But as you sit down, and the waitress, all half-smile and almond eyes, hands you a teal menu, and it’s then that you realize this is no anonymous Kazakh eatery, no simple restaurant offering barsak and pelmini and nothing else worth pronouncing. Chinese characters dominate the menu. A glance confirms that the prices are still tenge, not renminbi; a quick eavesdrop confirms the hostess still speaks in Russian, not Mandarin.

And yet these people not Kazakh, or Uzbek, or Kyrgyz, or any of the ethnicities comprising those eponymous Central Asian states. These are Uyghurs. Those Turkic, Muslim Chinese that you’d long heard of, hailing from that sealed land, that Second Tibet that had been ground and quashed just like its prominent, immolating neighbors in Lhasa.

East Turkestan, they call it. Xinjiang, as the rest of us do.

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This post was written by...

– author of 29 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Casey Michel is a graduate student at Columbia University's Harriman Institute, focusing on Eurasian political and social development, and he has worked with both International Crisis Group (Bishkek) and as a Peace Corps Kazakhstan volunteer. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, RFE/RL, Al Jazeera, The Moscow Times, The Diplomat, and Slate. You can follow him on Twitter at @cjcmichel.

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