Creative non-fiction / July 2011 (Issue 14)

How Bright We Are

by Madeleine Marie Slavick, with accompanying images by the author


Xinjiang. Days so bright, so long, we never find the night moon. We find guitar, road, sand, Urümqi and Turpan, Kashgar and Amanisa.

Every day, handmade noodles and handsome eyes, long skirts and headscarves, rose and pomegranate, Allah and palm.

We walk slopes of hot noon sand, hear our breath, hear our breath. How we long to round these mountains of sand, one hundred miles long, ten miles wide. Will one of us collapse?

Hear a river. Pink flowers and willow. Oasis as fresh as its word.

The first time we meet, he does not take the hand, does not meet the eye. He greets every man among us, but I, does he think I beautifully belong to someone else?

Uyghur means together, I want to say, hand on heart, where he has placed his.

Twelve little seats, one little aisle, and bright air. One tall camel passes, and how many gatherings of sheep.

The road follows rows of poplar, six deep on either side. Silver backs of leaves, handfuls of miirage. And the saplings, single rods, odd wands.

A lake appears, pine, snow on high. He says there is another lake, salty, hundreds of miles north, too cold for the body.

Then silence, confidence, in that land and water and man, and I hardly speak to the Uyghur with even farther, larger eyes.

It is dusk. He touches my shoulder to say dunes have arrived. See the curves.

The home. Warm weavings on walls, warm reds and golds, warm flowers. Brother and guitar, father and dutar, daughter and dancer.

We sit at tables low to the floor, huge beds of kind food. Guests eat, families serve. Noodles, apricot, watermelon, mulberry, jujube. Dishes on crystal, raisins on rice, stews and sweets, tea and scent.

If we turn on the television: toothpaste, mango juice, energy drink, all sold to the sound of drum.

We take a plane, meet a man who sells oil. At a noodle stand, meet a roadside child, no money for school.

In the county seat, officials ask us to fill out forms at a specific building. Only some of us can meet certain people, only some can enter certain parts of town. I am to stay at the official location, am followed to where I write some of these words.

What can we do but sing in a bright room? All night long, in a yellow room, maybe no alcohol, maybe freedom.

Left leg folded over right, he plays the drum there, while a twelve-year-old man dances, ready, no fear. How bright we are, everyone at their center.

We hear it in our little seats all across Xinjiang. We hear it on TV. If we hear it all at once, we hear twenty-four hours of poem, four thousand four hundred and ninety-two lines long. The muqam.

We visit Amanisa, the woman who gathered all the words. There is a poem and a child at her side, their royal tombs soft for five hundred years, covered cloth.

Midnight orchard, we enter an orchard. Trellis and tendril, apple and shine. More poem and muqam How bright we are.

One night on our moonless road, she tells a story of love. Another tells a story of loss. Let us cherish one who is vulnerable.

I try to sleep, but in the next room, dutar. I want to dress, join with sound, I want to stay. How we live longer in poem and song.

She has lived longer than any of us. As we farewell, she gives us blessing after blessing. Alike, we hold what we love, and weep.

I return south, balmy, rainy, need no sleep. Do not want to wash my long skirt that holds sand, sky, perfume, drum, muqam.

I smell mutton on my street. Eyes see farther, deeper.


Slavick traveled to Xinjiang with the band JAM, which sings versions of the muqam poems, recorded by Amanisa (1526-1560). 

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