My favorite home castle was in Cairo, where I grew up as a little girl. I imagined myself as an Ottoman princess from centuries ago, in veils, dancing with dervishes, riding horses in the sands, listening to the singing of hodzas. Childhood lasted for years, and my castle life was not a dream. Years later I read about a virtual castle, in the novel Holy Fire, which happened to be written by Bruce Sterling, my husband. Decades ago, he speculated about future virtual life in a “memory palace,” owned by an old woman, Maya, who extends her lifespan and then takes on a new existence as a young European woman. After we were living as a couple, my husband and I happened to spend some time in the castle-like garden villa of the Savoy Duchess, Madama Cristina. She called this massive retreat her “Royal Vineyard.” This towering brick and marble edifice was long abandoned by royalty, but the thick walls oozed history, with old paintings, frescos, wooden statuary, and a surrounding park with giant trees, a pond, and dry fountains.
When pandemic hit the world, every home became a castle under siege from the new virus, or else it became a prison of sorts, or maybe a virtual palace, if you had enough connectivity. Historic events had favored the virtual empires. The analog real castles of the past seemed more archaic than ever, empty tombs when human life, our culture and our business and our government, were all immaterial data flows.
Real castles are decaying anyway, every UNESCO World Heritage monument all over the world. Nobody can afford them, maintain them, they lack daily function and purpose. The old owners are impoverished or dead, while our new aristocrats build modern extravaganzas like the Apple Headquarters or supertall skyscrapers. The new castle lovers build online metaverses, with electronic artsy means of robot blocks and voxels… Thus they fulfill the architectural dreams of the ages, and a screen and a wall is somehow enough to inhabit, and to furnish your dwelling place, to pass from technological daydreams into a profound sleep where consciousness reigns no more, and the fantasy layers of the hindbrain take command of slumberland. That’s how we survived the other plagues and the other unthinkable disasters. With technical means, with poetry, with art, with dreams, with tech art. For a few years, my husband and I had a dream home, “Casa Jasmina,” our self-declared “house of the future,” where speculations could be realized, in an abandoned building. Casa Jasmina was in an empty car factory instead of an empty baroque palace, but Torino has plenty of both of those. We had only battered concrete walls, flocks of pigeons and some internet, but once we inhabited that space, but we managed to make soirees and parties, so as to confront what was to come. Our theme was open-source connectivity, and in a couple of years, with the enthusiasms of local and international geeks artists and friends, we had a a testbed of a different way of life. The Casa Jasmina project ended, but after our experiences with connected objects and their affordances, we found it easier to endure the involuntary experiment of a pandemic quarantine. We had the privilege to be among the first to live in a housed network instead of a “networked house.” We also had some well-founded notions about life in epidemics, since our castle sponsor, Madama Cristina, had survived the Black Death. To read about plague is not to live it, and this Covid epidemic was ours to survive, or else not. No two mass disasters are ever the same, and the activists, artists, writers, creators with no place to create but the living room couch, we made the most of what we had left to us. We learned a lot through having less, the petty fears of daily living are eroded by the body-counts… We made new alliances and friends, by cutting the bullshit and finding new priorities. Every day was bucket list of new ideas. Every morning we woke up in a different skin. “Every day was a gift, every night was an orgy.” We imagined and lived our virtual splendid castle of epidemic isolation. We have learned that material objects, our furniture and gadgets, our tools and toys, must have emotional value for us. They have to efficiently perform their function and they have to be beautiful: using that criteria, we rid ourselves of our house in Belgrade. Our Zemum apartment was a castle of sorts, too; it was four stories up in the air, lined with classic writerly books and had a swell view, but we got rid of almost everything in it except what we loved most: my piano and his lamp. “The elephant, the heel, and the key,” as we say in Serbia. The necessities of the body one can find anywhere, but the luxuries of the soul are precious rarities. A global traveller, as I have been since childhood, has some practical commonality with the homeless on the streets of the world. I never yet joined them, but for years I felt that the homeless ought to be virtually mapped, like urban monuments, and that I ought to mingle with them and do that. That was the art therapy of beatnik hobos, a statement of freedom from the material world and its politics and policies, which put the homeless there in the first place. Our material world is never entirely material, for, as the art world knows, context, history and provenance give things great value. The myths, the dynamic, the aura of a thing. Capital flows, which are immaterial, drift from the real to the virtual and back again at the speed of light, and every manmade good, from the Mona Lisa to a bottle opener, was a concept first. Concepts become material through acts of implementation, through design actualized by the forge, the lathe, the injection mold, the laser cutter and the 3DPrinter. The material values derive from a market’s opinion of their worth. It’s the modern reversal of what we used to believe in the past, that castles of iron and stone were true strongholds, while our castles in air were merely our clouds and bubbles. Fantasia al potere; beneath the pavement, the beach; all power to the imagination.
While I’m living in pandemic quarantine, my outlook has become virtualized and elementary… a life observed from my screen or my balcony.
Less is more. Details are the big picture. Art is life. As the pandemic rules over humankind, confining us in a high-tech worldwide prison, my time as an online early-adopter has ironically become the norm. Beware what you wish for, you may get it.
Adversity is revealing of character. Obstacles stimulate creativity…or maybe misery makes you crueler, so that obstacles seem weaker. What did I see from my Turinese balcony? The backdrop of the beautiful Alps in purple-tinted twilight snow, while ambulance sirens moaned in my street.
Picture one: my little window toys, solar-powered rainbow makers, cast vivid colors through my window as a grim red-and-white ambulance stops across the street. Three unearthly creatures, medical techs fully-shrouded in plague-resistant transparent plastic, debark in haste from their medical conveyance, with oxygen bottles, chromed drip-feeds, snarled tubing.
They don’t enter my own building, but the one across the street. The solemn double doors yawn open, and a stretcher-bed is quickly ushered inside…
From my private balcony, where I can stand without a mask, I can see that my neighbours are watching also breathlessly, in a state of total silence in the crowded quarter of a big city.
A few minutes pass. Then the wheeled medical pallet emerges, dragged toward the ambulance with a much-practiced ballet of those faceless emergency creatures in their airtight red and white shrouds.
Beeps and squeaks, the sounds of the new normal; and my thought is, today it is not me, bumpily hauled downstairs from my balcony, but who knows tomorrow?
Denying the virus, pledging one’s faith in God’s will, these mental efforts are not helpful, for the coronavirus plays no favorites, it strikes everyone alike and kills those who succumb. Class, ethnicity, gender, nationality, the virus transcends these lame distinctions, and the biggest difference is between those who have it and those who don’t have it yet. The biggest difference aalways among people is between healthy and sick.
Downstairs in the street, the three creatures in their red plastic gear, as sudden as flapping swans, open, unveil, remove layers, with care, with gloves and tongs, disposing of tainted material into red bags and packing the red bags into larger red containers.
Out of those sterilized cosmonaut suits three young Turinese women emerge, neatly-dressed nurses with long, beautiful tresses like mermaids or sirens.
These young veterans of calamity exchange a few words among one another, with no time to fritter away… They don’t seem to touch their ambulance of doom, or even the asphalt of the street; they almost levitate. They smile, undaunted by the latest casualty — they even laugh!
While the Alpine light strikes and blurs their shining suits for a moment, they turn into street-angels, as seen from my balcony point of view.
Who is saving the world? Of course it’s women. Faceless, shrouded, underpaid women, risking their lives in grave dangerous so as to nurse and nurture. Like post-war “rubble women,” collecting the garbage of a stricken humanity, restoring order to a cosmos of chaos.
I know some nurses personally, young women with young children, some are single mothers, and not even in good health themselves… They labor, day after day, through 15-hour shifts in coronavirus hospitals.
One Italian nurse in particular, has achieved a kind of meme status, due to an iconic photograph of her falling asleep at her desk while working in full decontamination gear. Her heavy mask marked her tender face as if it were tattooed.
These women are encased in plastic because of the contagion, so they wear diapers. They don’t get tearful bathroom breaks in the ladies’ room, for even those private moments would risk their lives.
Women often wear diaper-like garments because of their reproductive cycles, because a woman’s body gives new life, but now they wear diapers to preserve the living… And though many die, they save many more, and they smile or even laugh.
Picture number two: a few days later, from my same balcony, and at sunset again. Red twilight falls from the beautiful white and red Alps , and a long shiny black hearse arrives at the same building.
Three men in black suits, with masked faces, open the doors that had once admitted the medical stretcher. This time, they roll in a big, dark, ornamented, wooden coffin.
The men wear cravats and black pointed shoes. Soon they emerge out with their same coffin, complete with occupant, with a host of funereal flowers on top.
They replace the festooned casket into the fancy hearse. They take a break to smoke a cigarette and chat among themselves, for their client is no longer an emergency; no diapers required to convey these last honors.
Having retrieved the inert corpse of my respected neighbor, these functionaries slowly drove away to the last resort. My living neighbors observed this last farewell rituals from their respective balconies. Not me today but tomorrow who knows!
Surveillance and Repression of Muslim Minorities: Xinjiang and Beyond
Introduction by Rachel Harris and Sophia Woodman
In this Forum we seek to show how the repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang is one iteration of what might be termed a global assemblage of repression. Such global assemblages inevitably take different forms in their varying contexts, but draw on common elements: ideological, technical and related to international processes and institutions.
ince 2016, an estimated 1.5 million Turkic Muslims in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China (East Turkistan) have been detained in internment camps, while the wider population is subject to invasive systems of surveillance, severe restriction of freedoms, disciplinary regimes of political re-education, and coercive population planning policies. This systematic and targeted set of policies is underpinned by state violence; they harness the latest advances in surveillance technologies; they are related to transnational flows of ideology and capital; and they present a major challenge to regimes of international law.
International responses to the situation have typically been subordinated to strategic concerns. Many Muslim majority countries – entangled in China’s Belt and Road Initiative – have supported China’s actions in Xinjiang, while the European and US Left have shown a noticeable reluctance to engage with the plight of the Uyghurs. Meanwhile, the US administration’s display of support for Uyghur rights has been fatally undermined by revelations about Trump’s private expression of approval of the camps in conversations with Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2019. This is a crucial moment to re-assess the mechanisms and the geographies of China’s oppression of the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, by situating their plight alongside that of other marginalized and oppressed Muslim minorities worldwide.
In this Forum we seek to show how the repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang is one iteration of what might be termed a global assemblage of repression. Such global assemblages inevitably take different forms in their varying contexts, but draw on common elements: ideological, technical and related to international processes and institutions. The articles examine such global assemblages by exploring the continuities, parallels, and direct links between the repression of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang and the experience of other Muslim minorities across the globe. We thus aim to identify the ways in which the Chinese state’s policies in Xinjiang connect to regional and global trends, and how these measures are justified in relation to the broader climate of rising Islamophobia emerging from the context of two decades of the “War on Terror.”
Our contributors include activists and regional specialists on China, India, Myanmar and Bosnia, and experts in surveillance technologies, Islam and the state, and international law. Together they explore four interlocking themes: Islamophobia and the “Global War on Terror”; surveillance, capital and state power; state violence; and cultural genocide. Most of the contributions arose from a one-day international conference in March 2020 held at SOAS, University of London.
On the links to global Islamophobia, since the events of 9/11, China has consistently used the rhetoric of Islamic extremism to explain its actions in Xinjiang. We ask: How do these rhetorical tropes of Islamic violence and terror flow around the world, and how do they play out in different locales, from Europe and the United States to Palestine, Kashmir and Xinjiang? Claims that Islamic religiosity is linked to a propensity to commit acts of violence have been central in the logics of the “War on Terror,” as Rachel Harris shows in relation to Xinjiang, and Nitasha Kaul elaborates in relation to the growing intolerance and suppression of Muslim populations in India under Hindu majoritarianism.
Questions around surveillance, and the interplay of states and capital in the technologies and practices it involves, have only intensified since the Covid pandemic. The case of how these technologies are used in Xinjiang raises the following questions: what are the long-term implications of the extraordinary array of high-tech surveillance equipment deployed against Muslims in Xinjiang, serving as a pilot scheme for wider roll-out within China, and as an advertisement for worldwide marketing of these technologies? How are they implicated in the production of docile subjects, easily exploited in regimes of forced labour? Darren Byler’s article reveals the importance to global technology companies well beyond China of the extraction of data from a whole population in developing new products based on facial recognition, for example. Nisha Kapoor shows how the entwined character of technology firms and the state security and military sectors is a common feature across the alleged divide between “democratic” and “authoritarian” states.
On the question of state violence, in Xinjiang we have seen a raft of assimilatory policies including the destruction of religious sites, restrictions on the Uyghur language, gender-based violence and enforced sterilization, mass detention and systematic human rights violations in the internment camps. What are the links and parallels with the treatment of Muslim minorities in other parts of the world? Jasmina Tesanovic reminds us of the struggle of women in Bosnia to make gender violence an intrinsic aspect of what constituted “war crimes” there, pointing to the importance of solidarity among women in taking the painful step of exposing such violations. Such solidarity is undoubtedly crucial in supporting Uyghurs and other victims of state repression in speaking out about their experiences, as Rahima Mahmut’s account of interpreting for camp survivors describes. Mahmut’s account of evidence gathering in Uyghur exile communities reveals these transnational spaces as the locus of traumatic memory and fear. Equally, the accounts of these survivors are enabled only through the limited opportunities for mobility afforded to the few.
Finally we raise the question of whether international law provides any recourse in the case of such extensive state repression and violence. Here we look to past iterations of such repressive assemblages and consider the extent to which international law has or could provide remedies. Specifically, we ask: Do the Chinese government’s policies fit the definition of genocide or crimes against humanity, and – drawing on the experience of other cases such as the Rohingya and Bosnian Muslims – do such determinations actually make a difference? Joanne Smith Finley and Ondrej Klimes examine the details of the extensive and purposeful erasure of Uyghur culture and language that is occurring alongside the detention and surveillance, assessing this in the light of accepted definitions of genocide. Drawing on her work with the Rohingya, Penny Green argues that the international law provisions on genocide provide little or no protection to populations facing erasure through staged processes of genocidal violence. While civil society actors can play a critical role in raising the alarm, they too are often entangled in national and transnational geopolitics in ways that mean they are unwilling to put forward claims that genocide is occurring.
Documenting the kind of atrocities our authors describe is essential in refusing a key aim of genocide: the erasure and disappearance of groups that states have stigmatized and dehumanized. This involves not only documenting trends, numbers, and accumulated evidence, but also memorializing individual stories, grief, trauma and loss as a way of acknowledging our shared humanity and struggles. At times, art helps to bring us into these moments: as we share Aziz Isa Elkun’s story of watching from afar his father’s passing and the subsequent destruction of his burial place, along with many other Uyghur graveyards, we may ask, if the dead cannot be allowed to rest, should we?
This Forum is edited by Rachel Harris (SOAS, University of London) and Sophia Woodman (University of Edinburgh). We are grateful for editorial assistance from Derek Morris, a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, to the co-organizers of the conference from which it arises: Matthieu Burney, Joanne Smith Finley, Jude Howell, Eva Pils, Tim Pringle, and to the SOAS China Institute for its generous support.
Sophia Woodman is a senior lecturer in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on local citizenship, human rights and transnational social movements in China and beyond.
Rachel Harris teaches ethnomusicology at SOAS, University of London. Her research focuses on the politics of culture and heritage in China, and the ethnography of religious life among the Uyghurs. Her latest book Soundscapes of Uyghur Islam is published by Indiana University Press.
What we need to understand is how and why these incidents were used to justify such massive, invasive and violent methods of control over the Muslim peoples of Xinjiang. After all, violent incidents involving pre-meditated attacks on civilians also occur regularly in other parts of China. So why was Islam framed as the root cause of violence in Xinjiang? Why, for example, did policy makers not discuss whether reigning in police harassment of civilians might be a good way to stop violent responses? Why did they need to mobilize a Peoples War on Terror in Xinjiang?
Islamophobia in India works to enable violence, subjugate, and intimidate Muslims as a threat to the nation, in several different registers — Indian Muslims as suspect citizens; Kashmiri Muslims as emphatically problematic always already terrorist Muslims; Muslim refugees such as Rohingyas as “invasive pests”; and the collective neighboring Muslim nation-state of Pakistan as an existential enemy.
What makes the case in Northwest China unique is that the digital enclosure of Uyghur and Kazakh space also harnesses state power and private textile manufacturers to hold them in place in factories—producing a permanent underclass of ethno-racial minority industrial workers. Rather than banishing populations to human warehousing spaces such as peripheral ghettos or prisons, in this context terror capitalism works to explicitly “reeducate” the population as industrial workers and implement a forced labor regime.
We might think of Google as the East India Company of the twenty-first century, but where Google is both the corporation of frontier digital capitalism and the missionary endeavoring to convert the masses to digital literacy, activity and ideology.
“There was a full moon, my baby was sleeping calm and beautiful in the moonlight and I was adoring her, then all of a sudden I recognized in her face the rapist, and finally I knew who her father was. This baby is the thing I love best and hate most in the world. I just can’t go on.”
The implementation of policies to forcibly Sinicize Uyghurs will eradicate their means of ethnic identification. Extra-judicial killings carried out in response to popular protest, conscious neglect of detainees in internment camps, and policies that prevent births and separate husbands and wives seem intended to bring about the physical disappearance of Uyghurs as an autonomous ethnic group with a distinct identity and worldview.
This article addresses aspects of Myanmar’s genocide of the Rohingya people in the hope of contributing a) to a conceptual understanding of China’s genocidal persecution of its Uyghur Muslim minority, and b) to a civil society strategy for combatting genocide.
The Chinese government said this was done in order to modernize us, but their true aim was to destroy Uyghur ethnic, cultural and religious identities. I felt as if my father’s body had been brutally torn out of its resting place in our ancestors’ land.