SOAS University of London

Rachel Harris awarded British Academy grant to research Uyghur cultural heritage as part of programme to tackle UN Sustainable Development Goals

11 October 2018

SOAS University of London scholar Dr Rachel Harris, Reader in Ethnomusicology, has received a British Academy grant worth £300,000 to research and revitalise a form of community gathering known as meshrep, which are maintained by ethnic Uyghurs in southeast Kazakhstan.

The grants are part of the Sustainable Development Programme, supported by the UK Government’s £1.5bn Global Challenges Research Fund, which aims to respond to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The two year project ‘Towards an Alternative Model of Heritage as Sustainable Development: Uyghur meshrep in Kazakhstan’ works from the premise that intangible cultural heritage is a vital aspect of community identity, and can be harnessed as a tool for sustainable development through supporting community cohesion and mutual responsibility, and enabling collective action.

Dr Harris said: “I'm particularly happy that this project has been funded at a time when Uyghur language and culture is under severe threat, as Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China are subjected to mass incarceration and coercive re-education. This project allows us to make a small contribution to the Uyghur community's efforts to keep their vibrant culture flourishing in the diaspora.”

Meshrep involve music, dance, joking, readings, and an informal community court. They forge lasting bonds, support the transmission of language and expressive culture, and provide a forum for discussion, planning, and action.

The project aims to revitalise these community gatherings as a means to develop grass-roots expressive culture and indigenous language, strengthen community organisation, and create networks of micro-finance to support sustainable economic livelihoods.

Dr Harris will work with partners in Turan University and with Uyghur community leaders and organisations in Kazakhstan. The grant will enable a series of training sessions for meshrep groups to be implemented and will help to build research capacity in Kazakhstan by bringing researchers to the UK for training. It will also promote the transmission of Uyghur musical heritage through support for a local music school.