KEEPING IN STEP WITH THE SHANGHAI BEAT
Although he was born in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, HamutMehmut has become a fixture on the national arts scene, as Cui Jia reports from Shanghai.
As someone who speaks the Shanghai dialect fluently and has lived in the city for more than 55 years, Hamut Mehmut calls himself Shanghainese. “At the same time, my identity as a Uygur has always motivated me to excel, because I don’t want people to say Uygurs can’t do well,” the former head of the Shanghai Ballet said.
The 69-year-old was both angered and saddened when he heard that police in theXinjiang Uygur autonomous region had shot and killed six people suspected of attempting to detonate explosives in a commercial district of Shule county, Kashgar prefecture, on Monday.
He reacts the same way whenever incidents of this kind occur in the region, which has a largeMuslim population, some of whom have been radicalized. “I really hate religious extremism. It’s like an evil cult. I feel sad for people, especially young people, who fall for it and lose their lives. Most of them are poorly educated.”
Hamut said attacks, most of the violent which have been linked with extremism, have changed the public’s perception of Uygurs. “Before, people cared for and respected people fromXinjiang, from the far west of China. Now we’re often seen as thieves and terrorists,” he said. “People ignore the 99 percent ofXinjiang people who are friendly, and only focus on the 1 percent who are the common enemy of all Chinese people. That hurts.”
People need to unite in the face of a common danger, he said, and tarring all Xinjiang people with the same brush will simply create unnecessary conflicts. “I understand why tight security is imposed on people from Xinjiang at airports, but it shouldn’t be done with a bad attitude. I was once questioned aggressively for more than 10 minutes in front of dozens of ballet dancers when I was leading the team on an overseas tour,” he said. “Whycouldn’t the customs guy be polite to me in front of the troupe?”
Although Hamut’s ethnic identity never makes him feel different from others, incidents like the one at the airport are a constant reminder that he’s from Xinjiang, and and science with teachers from the SovietUnion. He later became one of the first science teachers in Xinjiang — at the time schools in the region only taught the Quran — and was headmaster of a primary school in Hami prefecture.
AfterShengShicai, a warlord who ruled Xinjiang between 1933 and 1944, turned against the Soviet Union in 1942, Mehmut, who was believed to be close to the USSR, was frequently questioned and harassed by the police.
One day, he fled on a horse, carrying only a large sack of raisins, and headed for Shanghai, which was under the control of the Communist Party of China. He had to leave his wife, whowaspregnant withHamut, but she andHamutmanagedto join him when the boy was 6.
Mehmut’s deep knowledge of Islam led to his appointment as a member of Shanghai’s Ethnic Affairs Committee in 1953. Hamut still proudly holds the “family jewels”, the letters of appointment signed by premier Zhou Enlai.
“My father has become an influential figure in ethnic issues, and is respected by the Xinjiang people because he stoodupfor them,” Hamutsaid.
During a time of extreme food shortages, Mehmut persuaded the Shanghai government to allow Xinjiang people to use markets that were usually only open to expats, and also suggested the construction of acemetery forMuslims.
Hamut originally wanted to be a pilot, but a fine singing voice led to him becoming a student at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in 1965. He headed the Shanghai Ballet for 16 years, and now dreams of Xinjianghaving itsowncompany. “Xinjiang people sing and dance from the heart, so they could be the best ballet dancers in China,” he said, motioning to a video on his cellphone showing Uygur children dancing at a wedding inXinjiang.
Nowretired, helikes tospend time with a new generation of Xinjiang people in Shanghai who’ve received higher educationandearned respectby their achievements. “Gradually, they will help to change people’s views, andbecomethe newface ofXinjiang.” Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org
Hamut Mehmut, former head of the Shanghai Ballet, wants to do everything he can to help Xinjiang people settle in Shanghai.