For the 22 Uygurs currently imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay (discussed in my preceding post), the question of repatriation is particularly problematic precisely because the very notion of a homeland has, for them, been brought into question. The prisoners hail from China’s “Xinjiang Uigur autonomous region,” and are accused of being affiliated with militant separatist groups. Therefore, they are currently caught in a somewhat paradoxical bind wherein Beijing is demanding that they be repatriated to a county (China) whose legal jurisdiction over them they themselves renounce.
These intersecting issues of homeland and political sovereignty are also reflected in the twentieth century orthographic history of Uygur (also spelled “Uighur,” “Uigur,” “Uighuir,” “Uighuir,” “Uiguir,” Weiwuer,” 维吾尔, and ئۇيغۇر; ). Between the 10th and the 15th centuries, the ancestors of present-day Uygurs and related ethnic groups gradually adopted an Arabic script, which then remained standard until the mid-twentieth century. As Arienne Dwyer discusses, Cyrillic was then officially adopted in Xinjing in 1956 , abandoned in February1957, and readopted a year later. In the 1960s, however, some Xinjiang schools started to experiment with a script using the Roman alphabet, which was then formally adopted in August 1976. In the 1980s, however, there was a return back to an Arabic script, with significant modifications (to accommodate Uygur’s Turkic phonemes) in both 1983 and 1987. As a result of these shifts in language policy, therefore, it would be quite possible for each generation in a contemporary family of Xinjiang Uygurs to have each been schooled in a different script (Arabic, Cyrillic, Roman, and modified Arabic).
A similar intersection of orthographic orthodoxies and generation gaps, meanwhile, is explored in Doug Atchison’s recent film, Akeelah and the Bee.