In the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the area of China where most Uyghur people and other Muslim ethnic minorities live, state campaigns ostensibly against terrorism and religious extremism have expanded surveillance into every aspect of life. Tahir Hamut Izgil’s beautifully written memoir, Waiting to Be Arrested at Night, describes how he carved out a life writing, making films and participating in a remarkable community of Uyghur poets and intellectuals while enduring systematic repression, as well as the circumstances that led to his family’s flight from China in 2017.
Waiting to Be Arrested at Night is one of the only firsthand accounts available of the ongoing genocide of Uyghur people by the Chinese government. In clear and relentless detail, Izgil recounts how state suppression of Uyghur religious and cultural practices escalated from lists of banned names, to Qurans collected by the government and burned, to police checkpoints on every corner and boarded-up shops abandoned by the disappeared.
In one of the book’s most profoundly terrifying scenes, Izgil and his wife, Marhaba, receive a call asking them to report to the police station to get their fingerprints taken. At the station, they are directed into the basement where, in a hallway across from blood-stained interrogation chambers, they form a line with hundreds of other Uyghurs from their neighborhood. One by one, they are required to give not only their fingerprints but also blood samples, recordings of their voices and elaborate facial scans, all of which will presumably be added to a vast surveillance database. Well-founded rumors suggested that the selection of who would be arrested and disappeared next was performed by an algorithm using this database.
Izgil’s writing is vivid, made even more so by the inclusion of a few of his haunting, startling poems, each expanding on a moment from the previous chapter. Although the level of detail in the narrative sections can be disorienting, that disorientation effectively conveys the difficulty of navigating constantly changing laws and contradictory bureaucratic processes. Readers can also rely on translator Joshua L. Freeman’s introduction to provide context both for Izgil’s life and for the situation of Uyghur people in China.
Throughout the memoir, Izgil’s stories about his friends, family and community are suffused with love. This palpable love makes it beyond heartbreaking how little could be communicated about his plans to leave China with Marhaba and his daughters without putting those he would leave behind in danger. Although he would almost certainly never see them again, he left without saying goodbye even to his parents.
That is the violence of disappearance and displacement: millions of people removed from their communities, families abruptly and permanently broken apart. Knowing that there are so many stories we will not ever hear, it feels essential to pay attention to the words of those like Izgil who manage to make it out.