Book Review | Waiting to be Arrested at Night by Tahir Hamut Izgil

Tahir Hamut Izgil, Photo Credit: Mattéo Deneux

In the spring of 2017 Uyghur men and women began disappearing in China’s far western region.

The largest ethno-religious internment of civilians by their own government since the Holocaust had begun in earnest. For those readers who want to go beyond the headlines of the genocide, they would be well served to read Tahir Hamut Izgil’s book, Waiting to Be Arrested at Night. The English-speaking world learned about the Uyghur poet Tahir Hamut Izgil through a lengthy 2021 article published by The Atlantic, entitled, “One by One, My Friends Were Sent to the Camps”. The article was accompanied by a companion podcast featuring his daughter Asena talking about her experience of being a Uyghur teenage immigrant.

The fine-grained detail with which he writes brings to mind the anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s concept of “thick description”.

Using an accessible storytelling narrative, Tahir takes us on a journey both inside his head and into the larger social context of an era that the world’s democracies are calling a genocide.

The son of dairy farmers, he published his first poem as a high school student and later received a scholarship to study in Beijing at the time of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. He was deeply impacted by one of his professors, Ilham Tohti, an economist and peacemaker who was passionate about human rights for Uyghurs and a peaceful dialog between his people and the majority Han ethnic group.

After several years of working, Tahir was accepted to study in Turkey, but was arrested on his journey out of China.

Under duress he confessed to non-existent “crimes” and spent three years at a labor camp before his release in 1998. His weight had dropped to under 100 lbs as he left prison to rebuild his life. He married Marhaba, a work colleague, and found his niche as a film director and a poet.

Tahir includes detailed descriptions of his interactions with Uyghur members of the police. Some of them were hostile towards Tahir and his family, but there were some, like Adile, who showed sympathy and did what was within their power to help the family’s application for passports.

In the chapter entitled “Uninvited Guests” Tahir describes the excitement of having a formal gathering of poets at a local Uyghur restaurant and then the chill of 7-8 policemen who arrived and occupied the room next to theirs. Partway through the evening, during a poetry reading, the waitress entered and, at the request of the police in the adjoining room, they handed over their ID cards. What a downer for the evening.

That was the last public gathering of this particular group of poets in Urumqi, the region’s capital.

Later in the narrative we read of the fate of several of these poets. They were arrested and “disappeared” into the region’s concentration camps. Their fate is still unknown.

As their daily existence is increasingly fraught with the anxiety of life in an oppressive police state, he details the years long agonizing decision, with his wife Marhaba, to leave their homeland with their two daughters and start a new life in the USA.

After their arrival in the United States, Tahir describes the pain of the immigrant journey through his dream interpretation. He first dreams repeatedly about police intimidation, and then, for several nights, about his mother. Tahir relates that when Uyghurs dream there is often a response. The dreamer has to do something. So he decides to make a call to his 70+ mother, and receives her blessing. The police response, however, is to arrive at his parents’ home 2 hours later and confiscate her phone and ID card. Only after signing an official document declaring they had disowned their son and would have no further contact with him was her phone and ID card returned.

The government’s repression of its Uyghur population includes the denial of an elderly couple to be in contact with their adult children and grandchildren.

As a grandparent myself, I am struck by the petty cruelty that the severing of communication inflicts at the heart of this three generational family.

Tahir closes his narrative with a reflection:

“We are finally free, but those we love the most are suffering still, left behind in that tortured land. Each time we think of them, we burn with guilt.”

“We will see those dear ones only in our dreams.”