The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Dispatch from Xinjiang: Returning to Kashgar

Note: Serik (still) does not exist. In order to protect the people who talked to me in Kashgar, I’ve created “Serik.” The quotes in this piece are real, but they are not from a single person and not all from Kashgar. Obviously, details have been changed, and the story altered, but it does hint at my very real experiences in Kashgar.

We should’ve known Serik’s good mood wouldn’t last when, instead of getting a beer, he ordered a small bottle of baijiu, a potent rice liquor, just for himself.

Earlier in the day, I went back to Serik’s workshop. Initially, Serik was in great spirits—he’d just met up with a friend from his old band, whom he hadn’t seen for six years. He decided that he’d take us outside the city where we’d relax, enjoy the nice weather and listen to his friend play the dutar, a two-stringed Uighur guitar. It was supposed to be a low-key night.

We were sitting on carpet laid out on the grass when Serik ordered the his baijiu. Throughout the world, dispossessed peoples have higher rates of drug and alcohol addiction than the general populace, and Xinjiang is no exception. An increasing number of alienated Uighur males have turned to the bottle. The problem is further exacerbated, because mäshräps—grass-roots, Islamic social groups designed to supply substitute activities for drinking—were banned by the Chinese government in July of 1995.

Government surveillance of that night confirmed for me China’s suspicion of Uighur gatherings. Across the street, a lone man on a scooter watched us for half an hour, left for a few minutes, and then returned to a different location to stare at us. I have no doubt that he was a member of the Public Security Bureau keeping tabs on which Uighurs were talking to foreigners.

By the time the gawker on a scooter had switched positions, Serik was drunk. He saw a friend of his mother’s, a wealthy businessman who did business in Afghanistan. Rich Man had a steely gaze and was constantly smirking. He refused my “foreigner beer” and was rude to Serik, accusing him (accurately) of being a poor alcoholic. Serik responded belligerently. I decided it was a good time to leave and, feeling responsible for Serik’s state, I took Serik with me.

We jumped in a taxi, but Serik told the cabdriver, who didn’t understand English or Chinese, to take us to a store. Serik “needed” me to buy him more baijiu. During the cab ride as I’m refusing to buy him more alcohol, he’s yelling, “My mind says ‘no,’ but my body says ‘yes.’” At the store, he storms out of the taxi, and I follow him outside to the curb. Distraught, he tells me if don’t buy him just one bottle of baijiu, he’ll break the store window and steal it.

After spending some time trying to calm him down, I tell Serik, referring to something we’d toasted to earlier, “I’m trying to help you. Remember the power of friendship?”

With that comment something in Serik clicked.

“You’re right! You could have kept going, but you got out.” At which point, I walked a happy Serik back to his shop. He was in a good mood again; he’d beat an urge to drink.

That night was Serik’s birthday.

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