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Our Canvas: With Mirkamel and WTFkistan, a Rock Band Singing Uyghur Poetry

Mirkamel was born in Urumchi and lived there for half of his life. He came to France in 2005 to pursue his studies in digital filmmaking, with a focus on 3D animation. In 2008, during the filming of a documentary for Arte called "The Awakening of the Uyghurs" ("Le Réveil Des Ouïghours" by Éric Darbré) he was arrested in Kashgar with two French journalists. Facing the risk of imprisonment, he quickly fled before the documentary was aired, without his family knowing what had happened in Kashgar. It was just the beginning of a life where everything changed. Thanks to this documentary, he saw another reality of his people's lives that his parents had not divulged in him in order to protect him. He made the decision to embark on a one-way trip, no turning back - exile.

The poem “Longing” written by Fatimah Seyyah and translated by Munawwar Abdulla, is a reflective poem that interrogates and offers responses to the questions of homeland, with a specific focus on what it means to think of the homeland as an Uyghur in exile.


Since that day, alongside obtaining his degree, he continued to work under a pseudonym for reports, documentaries, or films on various Uyghur-related subjects in France or elsewhere. His intention was to protect his family, who had nothing to do with his work, but who still faced political pressure in various forms. He spent the rest of his life in a state of perplexity, torn between quietly engaging in the Uyghur cause and not putting his family at risk, and feeling useful for their cause and lacking the courage to go further. He closed himself off, and at the same time, he felt misunderstood by his family and those close to him.


In May of 2023, with the accumulation of political pressures and transnational repression from China, he reached a breaking point and found himself in a mental health hospital. In terms of treatment, he didn't receive much support. However, since that time, he started searching for solutions to regain his footing. With the help of caring friends in France, he made the decision to no longer hide and sought a solution to help free himself.

Photo courtesy of Ana Poala Leduc

A friend, Désiré, had already suggested working on a project together after their first Norouz concert with the European Uyghur Institute in 2022. As a professional musician, he assured Mirkamel that he would help him progress if he continued with his compositions. Haydar, the Franco-Turkish drummer with whom they had already formed WTFkistan, shared a passion for poetry. And so, like many Uyghurs, Mirkamel decided to lean in to that. When he read poems, he felt melodies behind them. His friends understood and supported him in creating a project collaborating with poets. He started reaching out to exiled poets like Tahir Hamut Izgil, Fatimah Seyyah, and Ehmetjan Osman, to share his upcoming projects and also to thank them for the significant role their works played in his life. He also contacted Joshua Freeman and Munawwar Abdulla, who translated many of these poems into English. He thought they were unreachable people, but in reality, they were generous and humble.

Their encouragement and trust in them gave them the idea to start an open project to welcome other artists and activists interested in this topic. Their goal is not only to hold concerts but also to promote poets and other individuals in this project. Mirkamel has been able to compose 14 songs in the past half year, and the band has been working on arranging the music. Désiré recorded them, and his friend François, a sound engineer, is helping them finalise the recordings. Recently, they welcomed Oscar and Ana-Paola to help film their rehearsals. Oscar expressed his intention to create a documentary about this project, planning to meet poets, translators, and conduct interviews. Mirkamel's friend Alex has also volunteered to assist them in managing social media. While they are at the beginning of their careers, they are already gaining support. They currently have a label interested in their project and a web designer ready to create a website for them if needed.

“Sitting in the Sun” by Tahir Hamut Izgil and translated by Joshua Freeman. Izgil is one of the foremost poets writing in Uyghur today, as well as a filmmaker who fled to the US in 2017 as China began to imprison intellectuals. In exile, he writes: “I’ve piled certainties beside me/ tossed probabilities down below / and closed myself completely / …Carry on your conversation and don’t block out my sun” 

Regardless of what happens, they want to remain simple as a bedroom rock band. They trust in their project, seeking positive vibes together. They have understood and learned that the more they open up to others, the more support they receive.


Personally, it's the most beautiful gift Mirkamel has ever received in his life. He found a solution to help him free himself and not be overwhelmed by stress or depression caused by politics. It was much more effective and healthy than the strong medications he used to take. If he has to thank someone, it's his friends, these poets, and the translators. And may his family forgive him; he is aware of what they will endure.

A performance during an online workshop in February 2024, organised by a collective of Uyghur artists in diaspora, the Uyghur Artists’ Alliance. The lyrics of the song is from another poem by Tahir Hamut, translated by Joshua L Freeman. 


Why WTFkistan?

The question that often comes up and creates confusion is why WTFkistan? It’s not an insult to the culture. It’s to highlight the world's ignorance of the Uyghur people. "Wtf" reflects the bewildered reactions received when Uyghurs explain their culture, history, and geography. "-stan" as a suffix refers to Central Asian countries.


The second question is, why are most songs in English? Mirkamel has worked a lot with survivors from the camps for documentaries, including Sayragul Sauytbay, whom he met during the release of her book in France. She told him that he must sing in English. It’s important that the world hears them at all costs. For him, re-reading poetry in English allows him to carefully digest each word in a foreign language, something he didn't pay as much attention to in his native language. He now better understands the importance of using each word thoughtfully.


Photo courtesy of Ana Poala Leduc

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