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Elmira Kakabayeva

Interview with Guzel Zakir

26 May 2024

Elmira Kakabayeva

Interview with
Guzel Zakir

26 May 2024

I first met Guzel in my course “Family Ethnography, Or How to Decolonize Creative Writing,” which I teach online to women from Central Asia. It was in February 2023. The Zoom session was full of amazing women, some of whom were artists from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Guzel was also there, a bit quiet and shy but somehow emanating confidence. I don’t know where she sources that, but her inner confident core was always present in our further conversations. Guzel aimed to write a text about her recent project called ILI, after a river that runs from North-Western China through South-East Kazakhstan. In this project, which includes video, installation, and research work, Guzel reflects not only on her family’s story but also a bigger historical process of Uyghur people’s migration in her (and my) home region.

Still from ‘Ili’ (courtesy of the artist)

Still from ‘Ili’ (courtesy of the artist)

Still from ‘Ili’ (courtesy of the artist)

Elmira: …But let's start from the beginning. How did you come up with the idea for your project? 

Guzel: I always knew the time would come for this research; the question was when. I remember my childhood. My dad and mom always talked about their move from China to Kazakhstan. I learned all these stories as a child; they were my everyday stories. 

Then, in 2012, my dad was diagnosed with cancer. However, even before that, he was saying something like, “I am approaching the end, and my dream is to dip my feet in the Ili River, where my whole story has started.” So, I decided to arrange this trip for my parents, and when we got there, I was amazed by their emotions. Always reserved, suddenly they became so happy, laughed, and hugged each other. I never saw my parents hugging each other! My father was very content; he opened up, smiled all the time, and told us stories about all those places where he grew up. He asked me to take his pictures here and there. The first time I saw my parents in love with each other. I was joking that that was their honeymoon. There, I realized how important that river and region were to my family. 

Still from ‘Ili’ (courtesy of the artist)

There is also a novel by the Uyghur author Jamaldin Bosqaqov, “Köch-Köch”, and he specifically describes famous historical events of how Uyghurs moved on the Ili River at the end of the 19th century. So, when we talk about the Ili in Uyghurs culture, we always talk about the Köch-Köch events–the great migration–which is a part of us, our beginning. 

For my project, I interviewed a lot of women in the older generation who remembered this move. I've selected the most beautiful stories, but there were tragic ones, too, full of loss and deaths. For example, there was one story that I didn’t include in my project, but it triggered a hypnotic image. One old woman remembered being on a ferry, tearing the photos from her album and drowning them in the river. Imagine how much more is hidden in those waters. For one, this move was about grief; for the other–the new beginning. For me, this process was a transfer of people and memory–an important part of my identity. 

Also, did you know that the Ili was a navigable river? People traveled on ferries; can you imagine! Today, she is shrinking due to China's economic policy and hundreds of dams and industrial water reservoirs. It also affects local Uyghurs who live in Kazakhstan and use the river for agriculture. They say that every year, the waters of the Ili get lower and lower. 

Elmira: What about ferries? Did you see any during your field research? 

Guzel: Unfortunately, no. The last one was in Zharkent, but it has already decomposed. However, I did fieldwork in the Chulukay village (Sholaqai in Kazakh). After talking to elders, I discovered that it was founded by seven families of ferrymen. They showed me old official letters from the late 19th century that asked authorities for permission to establish a village. It was a very exciting feeling that here you are in a place without a river that was founded by ferrymen. It made the whole story of the ‘ferry Köch’ even more tangible.

Elmira: I wanted to go back to the stories you've collected. As far as I remember, it all started with your grandmother's story. What was it about? Did you interview her directly or through relatives? 

Guzel: My mom told me; her mom told her. I didn't see my paternal and maternal grandmothers; both had already passed away when I was born. It’s interesting, but they also came on the same ferry back then. My maternal grandmother was a young woman with a baby (my mom). When her family decided to move to the Soviet Union, she was told not to take too many things. She took only two boshuk (baby cribs). In one of them, she put my mom, and in another, her nephew. My grandmother was responsible only for those two kids. She also said that the move was very difficult; my grandmother was constantly sick and dizzy. The Ili is not a sea, of course, but people still suffered from the sea disease. 

Her story is, in general, very interesting. There was an earlier wave of Uyghur’s migration to South-Eastern Kazakhstan, Yettisu (Zhetysu in Kazakh). It happened due to the first Russian occupation of this region. The Russian army occupied Kulja and resettled Uyghurs in Zhetysu. My grandmother–the only daughter among five sons–was born in 1908 in contemporary Talgar, today’s Almaty province. As the story goes, her family had a feud with another family. Eventually, their son kidnapped her when she was 12 years old. Chased by the five brothers, he fled with her to China, where my grandmother’s relatives could not enter.  She and the rival’s son got married there and had three children, but then he died, and she re-married my grandfather. Later, in the 1950s, they moved back to the Soviet Union, first to Jalalabad, from where her brothers took her back home. So, she met her family again in 30 years. 

There are so many different stories about how people ended up in China. In my interviews, I asked people if they knew where their ancestors came from and what year they moved to Kazakhstan. Some of the respondents were surprised and said that they had lived in Kazakhstan all the time. Then I realized that those were all the descendants of the first wave. 

Elmira: Interesting. Some part of the community seems to have an understanding of their historical homeland in South-Eastern Kazakhstan. However, there is still this leitmotif of saying goodbye to the Chinese part. In other words, this is a dual feeling of homeland. I think this point proves again that all the borders are formal and political. Where is the border between South-Eastern Kazakhstan and North-Eastern China? People don't have borders in their heads. They are more like bearers of history. This is how we come to the notion of imaginary geography, an imaginary homeland that generally works differently than what it does now.  


Guzel: Yes, exactly. The local Yettisu Uyghurs of the first wave migration (late 19th century) call themselves Yerlik (local). They come from Kulja or the Ili region, and their historical name is Taranchi (derivative from tara – millet). However, during the second wave in the 1950s, Uyghurs were moving from different places, and thus, they were Kashgarlik (my paternal grandfather is Kashgarlik), Atushluk, and Hotanlik. The Yarlik Uyghurs have a particular pride in being local. For example, my mother’s side is Yarlik, and my father’s is Kashgarlik, which they always emphasize when they quarrel about something. 

Elmira: I think another interesting question is, how does it affect you when you're faced with such a big history? What do you think about discovering those stories? What does it mean? Because it all happened long ago, that world doesn’t belong to us.  For example, as you say, you were seen as a Soviet Uyghur. You feel like a representative of an independent country, Kazakhstan, right? So, you probably already feel different. 

Guzel: I call myself an Almaty Uyghur. This is a new title, and I really like it. 

Elmira: Yes, right! So, how does this big historical layer you've dug up influence your work and your statement as an artist? Of course, it is difficult to absorb all this history, but again, this message probably comes from your inner feeling of being a part of it. 

Guzel: When I started digging into this, I understood that this is a responsibility. Our history is full of lies, and it's always someone else who usually talks about you. However, here I am as a Uyghur. I feel that I should talk about it, and whatever my subjective opinion or feeling is, it is still appropriate. Of course, there is imposter syndrome if I’m enough to tell this story. But also, after your course, I realized that there is no ‘one truth.’ And it is not ‘truth’ that I want to tell, but ‘honesty’ and ‘justice’. Whatever I find, I want it to be fair. 

Through my artistic practice, I want to tell the stories of ordinary people whose voices are not heard at all against the backdrop of all these gigantic historical and political events. We usually read some numbers and statistics when reaing about any migration, but we don’t know what each person on these lists experienced. These are separate destinies; these stories are important; they will help restore memory. The stories of five women who inspired my art film are an important result of my research. We paid attention to every detail in our work. Even the dress that we sewed for our heroines has value. For example, on the dress of the heroine who plays my grandmother, we printed photographs of my maternal relatives. All stories help us better understand and sympathize with people, nations, and the world.

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