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Hats, heritage and Uyghur rights: Ensuring this threatened culture is never forgotten 

October 4, 2020 at 9:00 am

In frame: Nadir Nahdi & Subhi Bora, Location: Registan, 30 September 2020

A lot can be told through people’s sense of style, the outfits they wear and how they express themselves through fashion. But in many cultures it is not just the items worn but also the patterns displayed which tell a story.

Nadir Nahdi launched the Doppi Project to help people understand the Uyghur and Uzbek culture but getting better acquainted with the skullcap used in each country. In a three-part YouTube series, Nadir takes us on a journey to learn about Uyghur culture and the hidden gems of Uzbekistan. We see how every thread in each Doppi has a hidden story.

“The story,” he explains, “it’s about all of us, as a generation of children of migrants and diaspora trying to find themselves in an urban, multi-cultural and modern milieu.”

The 30-year-old content creator, who has recently been named one of the “Evening Standard’s Most Influential Londoners”, strives to form stories that focus on different cultures. To do this, he established BENI, a story-telling platform that explores stories of identity, culture and representation.

READ: Turkey urges China to allow Uyghurs to contribute to its prosperity

His work is ever more poignant as China stand accused of ethnic cleansing in the Xinjiang province in which the Muslim Uyghur community lives. Studies have found that Beijing has built nearly 400 camps in the region in its effort to “re-educate” the Muslim population in the province, a process it says is necessary to ensure its security.

“The Uyghur people are under threat, so by inviting people to learn about the culture and participate in wearing a cultural motif like a Doppi, we can show resistance against their oppression,” Nadir says.

His ambition to shed light on such stories has helped him to better understand the Uyghur community.  “Other than the comprehensive and extensive work being done by the Uyghur diaspora community, support was limited, there was very little social media awareness when the project started in early 2019.”

In the series, we find both Nadir and his friend Subhi Bora travel through in Uzbekistan, unable to make their way to East Turkistan; originally a part of central Asia and later occupied by China and the homeland of the Turkic speaking Uyghurs, Kazaks, Kyrgyz, Tartars, Uzbeks and Tajiks. Travelling to East Turkistan was a major concern for Subhi, given the very real risk of her being taken away at the border by Chinese authorities. In light of this, they decided to head to Uzbekistan, being the closest and safest option to explore more about Subhi’s heritage as a Uyghur.

“The Turkic culture of Uyghur and Uzbeks is incredibly similar, and Uzbekistan was the closest we could get to Turkic culture.”

Gulnara’, Courtesy of Nadir Nahdi

Gulnara’, Courtesy of Nadir Nahdi, 30 September 2020

During the course of history, hats were a big part of cultural identity, often identifying which tribe you came from or to which region and country you belonged. Handwoven and crafted to perfection, the Doppis remain a grand symbol of hope to many to the present day.

Before the passport ever existed, people had their clothes, textile and embroidery to identify each other.

To the people who wear them, the difference between Doppa and Doppi are symbolic, Nadir explains. The Uyghur Doppa is square in shape with embroidery which paints a picture of a rose garden with all its intricate details. “It symbolises resistance,” he adds and signifies the injustices taking place against Uyghurs and the community’s strength.

The Paranja’- Subhi Bora, wearing a traditional Central Asian robe and holding an Uyghur Doppa. (Captured by Nadir Nahdi)

The Paranja’- Subhi Bora, wearing a traditional Central Asian robe and holding an Uyghur Doppa. (Captured by Nadir Nahdi), 30 September 2020

While the Bukhara Doppi, symbolises the essence of the Silk Route. “Through the silk roads came many different cultures and influences, the Bukhara Doppa is the only one made of actual gold, and extremely unique to that region.”

READ: Disney’s Mulan boycotted for working with China security who are torturing Uyghur Muslims

Others, such as the Shahrisabz Doppi, were favoured by rulers throughout history because of their detailed embroidery and silk coloured threads.

'Invisible threads are the strongest ties.' Courtesy of Nadir Nahdi

‘Invisible threads are the strongest ties.’ Courtesy of Nadir Nahdi, 30 September 2020

“The Doppi Project means everything to me, investing a year into it, the people and its history. It’s been such a rewarding process. And even with the struggles Subhi and I have faced, we wouldn’t change it for the world,” Nadir adds.

“This generation is having to simultaneously navigate their spirituality, culture and identity in an alien environment…how do we invite others to participate in our heritage in a way that celebrates it with nuance and education. Conversation between cultures has been an interaction since the dawn of time and beautiful when done openly and with respect,” Nadir says.

He has chosen social media, his vast online following, and his newly launched project the Future Legacy Lab to provide platforms for children in the diaspora to discover their cultures and heritage.

READ: Uyghur rights activist Arslan Hidayet on the lack of international support and solidarity with Uyghur Muslims

“We wanted to be holistically beneficial, meaning adding value to our partners from communities of our heritage, but also provide a future value to the young generation of the diaspora. Benefitting our past, but also our future,” Nadir explains. “Social media is a tool to connect with our most authentic selves when telling stories, and there is a need for us to start using the power of social media in more powerful ways.”

“The more people that are invited onto the table for that conversation, the more people are educated and participating in the beauty of its culture. This will ensure that it’s never forgotten, but rather appreciated,” he explains.

Uyghur Doppa- Courtesy of Nadir Nahdi

Uyghur Doppa- Courtesy of Nadir Nahdi, 30 September 2020