Who are the UYGHURS and what is the PEN?

History resurrects when it is imminently brought back to mind. The moment you go back to that far away pasttime in history or call it to the modernity, the time becomes relatively meaningless; everything comes to belong to the inner universe and prophecy.

Uyghur. Although this word sounds familiar and close to our hearts, we do not speculate and investigate further. But this time the incentive to remember the times of Uyghurs came to me, meeting so may Uyghur writers at the “International Conference of Ural Altaic speakers”, organized by the PEN Uyghur Center.

About twenty years ago, I and poet Myagmarsuren.L stopped by the town of Hutugh-Ondor in Bulgan province to pay homage to our teacher and renowned scholar Dashdorj.D on our way to Huvsgul. After delighting us with food and drink, he led us up a valley to the west of the town and showed an ancient ruin which was the Uyghur period Baibulag or Baibalik city, recorded in historic sources as a major center of trade, culture and intellect in the 8th century. “Since Sogdian and Uyghur scholars reportedly translated books there [in Baibalik], we could have borrowed the modern Mongolian script from the Sogdians at the same time as Uyghurs. The adoption of the script by the powerful Mongol state proves the extensive cultural influence of Sogdians and Uyghurs in Central Asia at the time. Unfortunately, no archealogical excavation has been carried out on the Baibalik ruin so far” our teacher Dashdorj said.

But there is a relatively well studied site which is the Ordubalik city or the Uyghur’s Black Ruins as we call it, located in the Orkhon Valley. This capital city of the Uyghur State, ruled about a hundred years between the 8th and 9th centuries, was a metropolis with a Royal palace, ministral buildings, religious churches, trade and handicraft districts and a garden. The city spanned over a 25 area. A petroscript was found near the ruin by Myagmarjav, a schoolteacher of Khotont, Arkhangai province. The Ancient Turkic writings on rock meant the following, as Shinekhuu.M interpreted it:

I have liked and supported the East
I have despised and toppled the West….
The lines were the regrets of General Bukha.

One of the major advances of the Uyghurs was their literacy which enabled book and letter writings and translation of books from other languages. The Uyghurs initially used the Turkic script and then adopted the Sogdian which was modifed for their language. This latter script became known as the Uyghur script of which the remains are found in Mongolia today, like the Doloodoi Monument I saw in a museum in Uvs province. The subject Mongolic and Turkic tribes of the Uyghur confederation might have also used this script which could explain why it became the official state script of the Mongol empire in the 13th century. Thus, this so called “Uyghuric” Mongol script has transcribed the Mongolian language and recorded the culture and heritage of the Mongolian people for more than 800 years.

At the beginning of the last century, German explorers discovered a rich collection of manuscripts and books in Uyghur, Mongolian, Tibetan and Sanskrit from Turfan, Xinjiang-Uyghur province. Zava Damdin, the renowned Mongolian historian recorded that in his book “Altan Devter”, as follows: “Since the three idols and temples that Uyghurs of Ereen Khavirga built were still standing, German and Russian scholars came there and excavated inside a cave where recluses meditated in the past to discover numerous volumes of the Kanjur and Tanjur along with drawings of Buddha. Most of them were written in Uyghur language and the ancient Uyghur script and the legends of Uyghur lamas became a popular topic throughout the earthly world. The sacred sutras of Kanjur and Tanjur which have been buried for more than a millennium are being eagerly and enthusiastically studied by all those with knowledge, both from far and near.

The presence of many poems in Mongolian, written by Choiji-Odser Pandita and “the Story of Sulkharnai”, a popular Mongolian tale about Alexander the Great (of Macedonia) in the Turfan collection, indicates the close and long-standing cultural relations between the Uyghur and Mongolian peoples.

Uyghur writers were the most numerous in this conference of Ural Altaic speaker’s PEN Centers. The Uyghurs seem to have settled all around the world today as those writers came from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Sweden, Canada and Australia but no one from [ the Eastern Turkestan or ] Xinjiang-Uyghur province [of the People’s Republic of China], maybe due to the political circumstances of the region at the time.

The PEN Uyghur Center, operating from Sweden, has become an infleuntial force in the PEN International since its foundation of National PEN Center three years ago.

They managed to organize the World Uyghur Conference in 2006 and founded the International Uyghur Human Rights and Democracy Foundation and the Uyghur American Association. This time they announced their launching of the PEN Central Asia Center.

“United Network for Freedom of Speech” was the theme of this conference organized by Kayser Ozkhun, painter, anthropologist and leader of the “PEN Uyghur Center”, who is currently residing in Sweden. Many Central Asian ethnic groups like Uyghur, Kazakh, Turkmen, Kyrgyz, and Tatar etc share a common challenge. Due to shades of powerful neighbours, they can not fully express themselves to the world with their books and publications. Challenges include language barrier, financial difficulties, and technological limitations of foreign relations. Kayser saw a way out of this situation through an effort united by linguistic and geographic closeness. 

Now all the major [Altaic] nations except Mongolia has joined the International PEN and started their own PEN centers. Eugene Shoulgin, General Secretary of the International PEN, Frank Geary, International Programs Director of the International PEN, Takeaki Hori, Executive Director of the PEN Japan Center and Louisa Greve, Program Director for East Asia at the National Endowment for Democracy were giving seminars on PEN center projects and finances.

What surprised me was their clear knowledge about the division in Mongolian writer’s unions and the reason why Mongolia has not still joined the International PEN. It is a long and complicated story about the PEN Mongolia. During the 1989 Democratic Movement, the Mongolian Writer’s Union gave birth to two separate PEN clubs, one headed by Purevdorj.D and other by Enkhbayar.N. Unfortunately, the International PEN rejected both, saying that the two clubs need to compromise. Soon, the Writer’s Union itself split, putting an end to the PEN clubs. Later in the mid 90’s, a group of writers including Lkhagvasuren.B and Natsagdorj.Ts came up with a proposal to renew the structure of the Writer’s Union and turn into “Mongolian Writer’s PEN Center”. But it was turned down as most writers wanted to “sleep the old way”. Once again about ten years ago, Uriankhai.D, Dashnyam.L and Batbayar.Da founded a NGO called “Mongolian PEN club” whose whereabouts are totally unknown now. Two years ago, Ming Holden, a poetess from the USA who came to work for the Mongolian Writer’s Union on Asia Foundation grant, worked tirelessly to launch the Mongolian PEN center in accordance witht the international regulations and register it to the London head office. Her efforts were again futile. Also, her grantship period ended and returned home leaving a published essay which was very critical of Mongolian writers.

[Thus, ] Mongolia attracted the attention of the International PEN leadership at some degree and they learned the previous events from various sources. Their discussion on bringing Mongolia into the network concluded that it would be better to be mentored by the Japanese PEN center in the first place. Then Mr.Hori, the Executive Director of the Japanese PEN center paid a 3 day visit to Mongolia last summer and invited Ganbat.R and 4 other persons to participate their conference this fall.

So, it is evident that the International PEN leadership is committed to bringing Mongolia in.

The Ural Altaic PEN conference will be held in Kyrgyzstan next time, and an another country after that and maybe in Mongolia some time in the future. I have witnessed Uyghur writers, scattered all over the world but united by their pens, organizing major International PEN events. Following such examples of our Uyghur relatives who are excited to see their Mongolian counterpart write in their ancient Uyghur script, we could unite at least within our national teritory if not across continents and make sensations in the world by our PENs. The opportunity is within reachable distance.

Sep 15th, 2009
Published in Undesnii Shuudan /National Post/
daily newspaper of Mongolia
translated by S Soyolbold