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The Legacy of the Uyghur Rock Icon Ekhmetjan

People still remember where they were the day Ekhmetjan[1] died. It was Thursday, June 13, 1991. He was only 22 years old.

As is common with the death of an icon, many people refused to believe he was gone. Instead rumors spread that thugs from a rival disco had knifed him in a back alley or that he had faked his death and gone abroad to marry a princess.

Ekhmetjan had been in Ürümchi preparing for a concert across the then (relatively) open border with Kazakhstan when he died. Back in those days before the train reached Kashgar and the highway stretched across the desert to Hotan, it was difficult to carry bodies home for burial. There were no freezer trucks. After a long and bumpy ride around the desert Ekhmetjan arrived in his hometown of Qarakash (near Hotan) covered in celery and ice against the smell of rot. People remember when he arrived.

As his official biography puts it, Ekhmetjan died of “an illness.” Although everyone knows he died of a heroin overdose, no one says this because he was first Uyghur superstar. It would be too disrespectful to point out the faults of a hero. That would be agreeing with the local officials in Hotan that sentenced him to two years “without rights”—posthumously—and banned the performance of his music in order to drive home the point that his legacy should not be emulated.

But mythical figures cannot be regulated. Twenty-three years later he is still revered, mimicked, and evoked on stages throughout Uyghur society. There were other popular Uyghur singers in the 1980s, but none of them performed on the stage in the same way as Ekhmetjan. He had moves.

Ekhmetjan started learning classical Uyghur instruments such as the rawap, tanbur, dutar at the age of four. By the age of 15 he was admitted to music classes in Hotan,Teachers’ College and joined the New Jade Ensemble—the official song and dance troupe of Hotan. In 1986, when he was 17 he joined the provincial level Xinjiang Song and Dance Troupe sponsored by the Xinjiang Ministry of Culture. It was there that he learned how to play guitar.

After his move to Ürümchi, Ekhmetjan picked up on many influences. He developed his Turkish folk rock style that you hear in the rhythms of his guitar playing. He transformed the most sacred of Uyghur performances, the Muqam, into a rock opera by transposing one of the 12 epic songs of Uyghur tradition for electric guitar. It was here that he picked up the accoutrements of the rock star: glamorous clothes, sexy dance moves, and “the devil’s drug.”

As a writer put it in 2010: “Unfortunately this star died in the hands of the devil’s drug. If he was alive today wouldn’t he bring acclaim to Uyghur people by performing on the world stage.”

But before he died, Ekhmetjan produced a legacy. Many young Uyghur singers such as Ablajan and Six City acknowledge the influence of Ekhmetjan in their attitude toward Uyghur music. He turned folk poetry from rural poets such as Rozi Sayit into love songs that shook stages and audiences. He was loved by everyone. In the song featured above “Moon-Shaped Face” he takes Sufi sentiment and turns it toward a sensuality that is provocative and inflammatory in its intensity.

Moon-shaped face
Moon-shaped face, flower-like body,
Never leave my thoughts,
You bound my heart with intense feelings,
Oh, you king[2] of beauty, flower goddess.
Since then you have disturbed my peace,
You deprived me of my sleep.
Searching for your beautiful body every morning.
I am looking up and down your road,
Oh, you my flower garden.
La, la, la, la, la, la…..

Ekhmetjan’s legacy continues in tribute concerts complete with the Exmetjan shimmy. In a recent performance (below) by Memetjan Rozi Sayit, the son of Exmetjan’s poetic influence Rozi Sayit, he and a group of guitarists bring his legacy back to life. As they play “Moon-shaped Face,” the song featured above, Ekhmetjan comes alive, guitars dueling in harmony and bodies swiveling in synchrony. The medley of Ekhmetjan songs is subtitled in Turkish, Uyghur and English, the audiences to whom he paid his greatest tribute. Watching this video with a Uyghur friend, he said “Wow they’re really rocking out.” Ekhmetjan died too young; but his memory continues outside of the march of time.

Thanks as always to M.E. for his help with the translation and understanding the importance Exmetjan’s influence.

This essay was first published on March 27, 2014.

[1] The “kh” in Ekhmetjan is a back “h” sound; as in the “ch” sound in Bach.
[2] In the Uyghur lexicon the word “king” is used for descriptions of superlative phenomena.

Why Xinjiang is an internal settler colony

The transformation of the Uyghur-majority lands of Southern Xinjiang known as Alte Sheher, or the Six Cities, came in waves, first in the 1950s when systematic political changes to Uyghur and Kazakh social life began, and then in the 1990s when resource extraction infrastructure, industrial farming, Han settlers, and the Chinese market changed all aspects of Uyghur life. An elderly Uyghur farmer in Khotan I interviewed in 2015 illustrated this process using the lives of trees as an example. He said that, in the Uyghur homeland, there were three generations of trees:

First, there were the trees that still remained from before the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. These trees were quite rare and viewed as sacred.

Then there were trees that were planted in the villages organized as work brigades (大队 dàduì) during the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s. During this period, Uyghur farms were consolidated into communes and farmers were moved from standalone farming homesteads into villages, where most houses were the same height, and for at least some periods of time they shared communal meals. The trees that were planted in these new villages were quite tall in 2015, but many of them had been replaced by a third generation of trees.

These new trees, planted in the 1990s and 2000s, were the “Open Up the Northwest” (西北大开发 xīběi dà kāifā) and “Open Up the West” trees (西部大开发 xībù dà kāifā). The people I interviewed also called them “investment” (Uy: kapital) trees. In many cases, the work brigades, which are still the most common form of rural government in Xinjiang, sold the rights to these young trees to villagers. At a certain point, decades from now, they will be permitted to cut down the trees and enjoy the profits of their lumber.

The old man sighed at this point. “What those people who are buying and selling trees are forgetting is that the trees hold the spirits of our ancestors within them. We have always used wood to build the thresholds of our houses, but we did so out of respect for the trees and as a way of guarding our home from evil spirits. Now that respect is lost.” When Uyghurs begin to treat sacred landscapes like sources of capital — the actual word Uyghurs use to describe “investment trees” — their relationship with the deep history of the land is severed.

In Xinjiang, dispossession is not just about a lack of compensation, it is about a process of illegalizing traditions and turning sacred land into property.

The material transformation of the value of trees in the minds of Uyghur farmers was representative of broader structural adjustments and transformations of Uyghur social reproduction. These broad transformations were signaled first by the consolidation of homesteads into communal villages in the 1950s and 1960s, and then by the arrival of highways and railways in the 1990s and 2000s throughout Southern Xinjiang. This second wave of hard infrastructure transformations targeted oil and natural gas reserves in order to fuel the growing industrial economy in Eastern China.

It is important to emphasize that in a frontier space like Xinjiang, acts of expropriation — legalized land grabs, the takeover of banks and schools, coerced labor, and so on — are not simply a neutral function of state capital in service to the economy. It is not quite the same as state seizure of farmers’ lands in other parts of the country, which is more a function of social inequality and profit maximization. Because they occur on the ancestral lands of Uyghurs and Kazakhs, these processes of dispossession are what establish a relationship of domination over people who are marked as different because of the language, faith, and ethno-racial phenotypes.

In Xinjiang, dispossession is not just about a lack of compensation, it is about a process of illegalizing traditions and turning sacred land into property. Oil and gas pipelines, the railroads, the industrial farms put in motion a new service sector and market that placed settler populations from other parts of China at the center of local politics and economy.

These three elements — material dispossession, institutional domination, and settler occupation — are what established Xinjiang as a contemporary settler colony that was internal to the Chinese state.

Open up the Northwest

In the 1990s, the displacement of Uyghur and Kazakh lifeways became more acute. Many Uyghurs refer to the decade prior, the 1980s, as a Golden Era when possibilities seemed wide open. The relative economic, political, and religious freedom that accompanied the Reform and Opening Period seemed to promise a brighter future. Many Han settlers who had come to the northern part of the region during the Maoist campaigns — corresponding with Stalin’s suggestion to Liú Shǎoqí 刘少奇 that Chinese settlers should “occupy” Xinjiang and prevent the Muslims from being “activated” — returned to their hometowns in Eastern China. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 and the independence of the Central Asian republics, China’s state authorities were suddenly faced with rising tensions regarding Uyghur desires for greater self-determination. At the same time, the fracturing of the Soviet Union — China’s long-term colonial rival — offered new zones for building Chinese influence. Even more importantly, it created opportunities to access energy resources.

A chief concern among state authorities in the Uyghur region was that the freedoms Uyghurs enjoyed in the 1980s threatened to flower into a full-throated movement for self-determination. As Uyghur trade relationships increased in emerging markets in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and cultural and religious exchange with Uzbekistan was rekindled, Chinese authorities became increasingly concerned that Uyghurs would begin to demand the autonomy they had been promised in the 1950s. As a result, an underlying goal of the Chinese state’s attempts to control Central Asian markets and buy access to its natural resources turned toward an intentional isolation of Uyghurs from Turkic peoples across the border. At the same time, in June 1992 Chinese leaders announced a new policy position that would turn the Uyghur homeland into a center of trade, capitalist infrastructure, and agricultural development capable of further serving the needs of the national economy.

One of the main emphases in the new proposal was the need to establish Xinjiang as one of China’s primary cotton-producing regions. Given the exponential growth in commodity clothing production in Eastern China in the 1980s, state authorities and market-oriented state-owned textile companies were determined to find a cheap source of domestic cotton to meet the accelerating demand for Chinese-produced t-shirts and jeans around the world. Infrastructure investment in Chinese Central Asia expanded from only 7.3 billion yuan in 1991 to 16.5 billion in 1994. Over the same period, the gross domestic product of the region nearly doubled, reaching a new high of 15.5 billion yuan.

Much of this new investment was spent on infrastructure projects that connected the Uyghur homeland to the Chinese cities to the north. As Qiang Ren and Yuan Xin note, over this time Xinjiang became the fourth largest receiver of Han migrants in the country, ranking just behind Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangdong when it came to new construction workers. By 1995 the Taklamakan Highway had been completed across the desert, connecting the oasis town of Khotan to Ürümchi, cutting travel time in half. By 1999 the railroad had been expanded from Korla to Aqsu and Kashgar, opening the Uyghur heartland to direct Han migration and Chinese commerce. During this time, the capacity of the railways leading from Ürümchi to Eastern China doubled, allowing for a dramatic increase in natural resource and agricultural exports from the Uyghur region to factories in Eastern China.

As infrastructure was built, new settlement policies were also put in place. Like the settler policies from the socialist period, these new projects were intended to both alleviate overcrowding in Eastern China and centralize control over the political frontier. But unlike those earlier population transfers, this new settler movement was driven by capitalist expansion as well.

For the first time, Han settlers in Xinjiang were promised upward mobility through profit in the lucrative natural resource economy and capital investment. Initially, this enterprise — formally labeled “Open Up the Northwest” — was centered around industrial-scale cotton production. State authorities put financial incentives in place to transform steppe and desert areas for water-intensive cotton cultivation by both Uyghur farmers and increasing numbers of Han settlers. They introduced incentive programs for Han farmers to move to Xinjiang to grow and process cotton for use in Chinese factories.

By 1997, the area of cotton production in Xinjiang had doubled relative to the amount of land used in 1990. Most of this expansion occurred in what had been Uyghur lands between Aksu and Kashgar. In less than a decade, Chinese Central Asia had become China’s largest source of domestic cotton, producing 25 percent of all cotton consumed in the nation — a proportion that increased over the following decades. By 2020, 85 percent of Chinese cotton was produced in the Uyghur region.

Expropriation and domination

Yet despite this apparent success, important concerns began to emerge. Chief among these was the way the new shift in production and settlement was affecting the Uyghur population.

Many Han settlers profited from their work in the Xinjiang cotton industry as short-term seasonal workers who received relatively high wages, as settlers who were given subsidized housing and land, and as managers of larger-scale farms. But many of the Uyghurs who were affected by the shift in production did not benefit to the same degree.

Using threats of land seizures and detention — a type of legalized theft or expropriation — local authorities often forced farmers to convert their existing multi-crop farms to cotton in order to meet buyer-imposed quotas. In the same manner, in their capacity as brokers with state enterprise buyers, local officials forced farmers to sell their cotton only to these buyers. These corporations in turn sold the cotton at full market price to factories in Eastern China.

Many Uyghur farmers were pulled into downward spirals of poverty and dependence, while many (though not all) Han settlers continued to benefit from the shifting economic trends (see Tom Cliff’s work for a nuanced account of Han experience of this). Labor exploitation coupled with land seizures gave rise to an intensifying relationship of state domination and occupation, as the need for cheap sources of energy and raw materials increased in the rapidly developing cities of Eastern China.

As the historian James Millward notes, although the economy has grown at exponential rates across China, Uyghur rural incomes have grown at declining rates as people have been pushed into tenant-farming positions. Building on the pioneering work of the Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti, Millward shows that systematic blockage of Uyghurs from lines of credit, business credentialing, and freedom of movement — while incentivizing Han settlement and capital accumulation — has caused economic development in the region to be centered around ethnic affiliation. This has resulted in what anthropologists Ildikó Bellér-Hann and Chris Hann have termed “the great dispossession” of the Uyghurs — an overwhelming threshold movement within the broad sweep of the colonial history of the region.

By the early 2000s, the Uyghur homeland had come to resemble a classic peripheral colony.

For Tohti, the most important factors associated with Uyghur dispossession were “blatant ethnic discrimination in hiring, a rural labor surplus, overconcentration of economic resources in Han Chinese-dominated urban areas, ‘stability maintenance policies’ that restrict population mobility and exacerbate rural unemployment, and severe underinvestment in basic education.” Millward argues that “what Tohti described — without using the word — is a colonial system of settlement and extraction in Xinjiang.”

This process has been fostered by state capital, which subsidized the development of natural resource and industrial agriculture sectors by injecting billions of yuan into the region. As the sociologist Ching Kwan Lee has shown, Chinese state capital often acts as a subsidy in securing long-term economic interests even if they are not immediately profitable. By investing in the Han settlement of Xinjiang, putting settlers to work in natural resource extraction and overseer positions on industrial farming plantations, and fostering a service sector that supported this development, the state was assured of a permanent reserve of domestic energy and raw materials essential to economic growth.

By the early 2000s, the Uyghur homeland had come to resemble a classic peripheral colony. In the context of the nation as a whole, the primary function of the province was to supply the metropoles of Beijing, Shanghai, and the Pearl River Delta to the east with raw resources and industrial supplies. Cotton production continued as it had in the 1990s, but by the early 2000s, industrial tomato production had also been introduced. As of 2020 the region accounted for approximately 35 percent of the world’s tomato exports.

At the same time, as in most peripheral colonies, the vast majority of manufactured products consumed in Xinjiang came from factories in Eastern China. The clothes manufactured using Xinjiang cotton were purchased by consumers in Eastern China at inflated prices. The same was true of the natural gas and oil that began to flow to Eastern China from Xinjiang after the completion of pipeline infrastructure in the early 2000s. In 2014, Uyghur protests against these obvious forms of west-east wealth transfer were officially outlawed as one of 75 signs of religious extremism or violent terrorism.

In the 2000s, the buildout of infrastructure for natural resource extraction that followed behind the new road and rail projects of the mid- to late-1990s again began to shift the center of Xinjiang’s economy. Within a few short years, oil and gas sales came to represent nearly half of the region’s revenues. At the same time, given the push to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign cotton, oil, and gas — and to accelerate the settler colonization of the Uyghur homeland — the central government continued to provide nearly two-thirds of the region’s budget in the form of state capital investment.

Open Up the West

In the early 2000s, the Hú Jǐntāo 胡锦涛 administration took the regional project “Open Up the Northwest” to a new level, rebranding it as “Open Up the West.” Now all of peripheral China, including Inner Mongolia and Tibet, became the target of settlement and development projects, though Chinese Central Asia continued to receive a greater number of new settlers relative to other regions.

The “Open Up the Northwest” project had resulted in rapid and sustained economic growth of over 10 percent per year since 1992, so state authorities were eager to take the development projects further, opening new markets and new sites for industrial production. By the early 2000s, the Uyghur homeland had become the country’s fourth largest oil-producing area, with a capacity of 20 million tons per year. Given that the area had proven reserves of petroleum of over 2.5 billion tons and 700 billion cubic meters of natural gas, there is little doubt that the region is thought of as one of China’s primary future sources of energy, even though extracting Xinjiang oil has proven to be logistically difficult. Still, as of 2016, the average cost of oil in the region was approximately $45 per barrel, considerably cheaper than oil produced in the Canadian tar sands.

Between 1990 and 2000, the population of Han settlers grew at twice the rate of the Uyghur population. By the late-2000s, it was almost the same size as the Uyghur population, though many areas in Southern Xinjiang still had a high majority of Uyghurs. As Tom Cliff and Emily Yeh have demonstrated, the development of state capital investments and industrial agriculture export production that accompanied the “Open Up the West” campaign had the effect of rapidly increasing the rate of Han settlement in Uyghur and Tibetan areas. New infrastructure — railroads, pipelines, and real estate — have disproportionately benefited the millions of new Han settlers and produced exponential increases in costs of living and widespread disempowerment of Uyghurs from land and housing.

Uyghur migrants to the city told me that, over this period, the costs of basic staples such as rice, flour, oil, and meat more than doubled. Urban housing prices doubled or tripled, while projects to urbanize the Uyghur countryside placed Uyghurs in new housing complexes that were dependent on regular payments for centralized heat and power. The land-based means of production in small-scale Uyghur mixed-crop farming with small herds of sheep and garden plots were also often enclosed and turned into corporate farming. Underemployment was further exacerbated by the widespread consolidation of Uyghur land into industrial farms and, more recently, restrictions on labor migration. All these public and private economic interventions produced a new kind of Uyghur farmer.

These three elements — material dispossession, institutional domination, and settler occupation — are what established Xinjiang as a contemporary settler colony that was internal to the Chinese state.

One of the primary goals of the state development campaigns were to increase the production of commodity goods — such as rape seed, tomatoes, cotton, and other commodity crops — on an industrial scale. Based on my interviews with farmers and their relatives, within just a few short years, many Uyghur farmers were forced to sign debt-inducing contracts that did not meet their basic living expenses or their seed and farming equipment expenses. Farming itself was turned into a form of tenant farming in which farmers could not decide for themselves what they were to grow, as centralized industrial farming took over their land. Millward notes, “Under the system of the ‘five unifieds,’ plowing, sowing, management, irrigation and harvest were all centralized under county and township control. Uyghur farmers had to buy seeds, fertilizer, pesticide, and plastic film (for water retention) from the local government, which determined the price for these inputs; the government also set prices for the harvest it purchased.”

As the Uyghur scholar Bakhtiyar Tursun, a social scientist based at Xinjiang University, notes in a systematic study of farming economy in the Uyghur heartland of Khotan, Kashgar, and Aksu, rural farmers were nearly always forced to pay a percentage of their profits to work brigades that signed contracts with state and private buyers. As one local official in Khotan Prefecture described it to him, “If a farmer grows 10 acres of wheat, according to the local standards for harvest yield and grain sales price, the farmer should receive an income of 4500–5000 yuan. However, the farmland fee, planting fee, water fee, fertilization fee, management fee, land tax, township and village fund payment, public welfare payments and other expenditures will total around 4000 yuan. After deducting these expenses, the farmer will only receive around 500–1000 yuan.”

As a result, by the mid 2000s, in many counties in Southern Xinjiang, the rights to a high percentage of arable land were owned by a few powerful individuals within local party institutions. This meant, in effect, that the majority of Uyghurs in these counties were living as sharecroppers: their land and work were largely owned by local officials. Many Uyghur farmers, or their children, were forced to look for work either as migrant agricultural workers or small-scale traders and hired hands in local towns or, at times, the big city of Ürümchi.

The shift to re-education

In trying to escape rural dispossession, Uyghur migrants found themselves trapped. As the geographer Sam Tynen argues in a 2022 essay called “Triple Dispossession in Northwestern China” in a new book titled Xinjiang Year Zero, as early as 2013, “Xinjiang authorities believed that ethnic minority migrants in Xinjiang needed to be targeted and ‘transformed’ (转变 zhuǎnbiàn) through a range of legal education and training measures.” Drawing on a state report, and their own ethnographic research in Xinjiang in 2016, they show that “Uyghur migrants in the city were seen as a threat to the safety and security of the city and Han populations, and therefore had to be detained and re-educated for their extremist beliefs.”

As the system tightened first around the land — specifically the removal of Uyghurs and Kazakhs from it — and then on their remaining social institutions — the banking system, the education system, the religious system, the health system, and eventually their family and household structure — dispossession, the taking of their material world, was joined by a relationship of domination that threatened their ability to reproduce themselves as a people. This threat to the practice and teaching of their traditions is what calls their future into question.

Even the trees appeared to become the domain of settler society.

In Xinjiang, there is a common saying regarding the ancient poplar trees from the Uyghur oases. It goes roughly like this: “They stand erect for a thousand years, live on for a thousand years after falling, and remain alive after they die for another thousand years.” Because these phrases are plastered on signs and billboards by Chinese tourism companies throughout the region, I assumed that it must be a proverb from Journey to the West or some other historical Chinese text. But when I mentioned this to a Uyghur friend, he laughed.

“This is a Uyghur proverb regarding our most sacred trees,” he told me. “It’s just another thing that they have stolen from us.”

This essay first appeared in the journal SupChina on September 1, 2021. It is adapted from, Terror Capitalism: Uyghur Dispossession and Masculinity in a Chinese City, published by Duke University Press (February 2022).

‘Ethnic extinction’ in northwest China

“That’s right. Since I’m from Southern Xinjiang I know that I’ll never be able to find a job,” Kaiser told the Han taxi driver in Mandarin. “If you don’t have connections, you won’t even be considered for jobs. This country doesn’t serve the needs of the ‘common people.’” Kaiser used the term “lǎobǎixìng 老百姓” — or “old 100 names” — to refer to the predicament of the common people. Of course, the surnames that belong to these “old 100” — Wang, Li, Xi and so on — do not include the names of Uyghurs. Turkic Muslim Uyghurs don’t use family names as surnames; instead, the given names of their fathers become their surname.

Nonetheless, the Han driver accepted Kaiser’s claim to “laobaixing” identity without batting an eye. The middle-aged man with a crew-cut replied, “That’s right. The other day, when I was at this intersection here at Solidarity Road” — he gestured out the window — “there was some sort of motorcade up to the governor’s residence. We just had to sit here waiting for 30 minutes until they passed. That’s the kind of country we live in. This country is just for the leaders and their friends. It is the sort of thing where if they say ‘one,’ you can’t say ‘two.’” He shook his head in disgust.

At this point in the conversation, I laughed a bit, which made the driver laugh a bit too, in a bitter kind of way. He was surprised to find out that the person scribbling notes in the backseat was an American anthropologist. I told him I had been doing research in Ürümchi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, for most of 2014, that is why I spoke Chinese and Uyghur. He laughed. He had thought he was just venting to two Uyghur college students in the back seat of his unauthorized taxi. When we got out, it felt as though we were old friends.

As I walked with Kaiser, we talked about the ride. “That was what it sounds like when a Han guy says what he really thinks,” he said. “Here at school in our political education classes, the teachers just talk about how just and fair the country is and how much everything is improving and developing, but none of us Uyghurs believe this. It doesn’t feel real to us, so how could we believe it? That guy knows this too.”

The next day I brought up this conversation with a couple of Uyghurs who I had gotten to know over the past months. I said that it felt like we had experienced a kind of “ethnic solidarity” (民族团结 mínzú tuánjié) — the euphemism that was so commonly used to describe the way Uyghurs should welcome Chinese colonial Xinjiang policy. Both of them visibly grimaced.

“I hate the term solidarity,” one of them told me. “You know they use other terms too, like ‘harmony’ (和谐 héxié) or ‘fusion’ (融合 rónghé). I like those terms better because we can at least argue that it means that we are different. Like if you think about strings on a dutar (a traditional Uyghur two-stringed lute), it sounds better when the different strings are played together. I know this isn’t really what they mean, but I like to imagine that this is what harmony might mean. Mutual respect, not shared identity.” For them, “solidarity” in achieving the revolution Máo Zédōng 毛泽东 called for or a vague China Dream as Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 imagined felt like giving up too much.

Looking back at all that has transpired in Xinjiang since these 2014 conversations, it is clear that neither “ethnic solidarity” nor “harmony” is considered a possibility. In 2018, the former governor of Ürümchi, Nur Bekri, the same man that the taxi driver had complained about, was arrested along with hundreds of other Uyghur cultural leaders, and sentenced to life in prison. One of the young men who told me they hated the term “solidarity” disappeared into a camp. Kaiser’s brother was sent to a reeducation camp because he had listened to Islamic teachings with a friend outside of the mosque. In Xinjiang, ethnic solidarity appears to be giving way to ethnic extinction.

“Ethnic extinction”

As the Chinese political theory scholar David Tobin has shown in a recent book, the term “ethnic extinction” — or mínzú xiāowáng 民族消亡 — first appeared as a state-promoted social project following large-scale violence in 2009 in the Uyghur region. In the summer nearly exactly 12 years ago in a factory in eastern China, around a half-dozen Uyghur migrant workers were bludgeoned to death by Han migrant workers in front of jeering crowds and smartphones. Uyghur protesters demanded justice and protections for Uyghur workers, who the government had recruited in a project to proletarianize rural farmers. Lynch mobs formed on the streets of Ürümchi. Many Han and Uyghur citizens were killed with knives, clubs, and paving bricks, but some witnesses indicate that state authorities supported Han vigilantes who hunted Uyghurs and that the military police used automatic weapons to target Uyghur protesters. One Han participant told Tobin proudly, “We battered the Uyghurs.”

Tobin shows that following the 2009 violence, a plan to erase ethnic difference through a program of cultural elimination began to emerge. This forcible campaign stood in contrast to an older incentive-based “ethnic assimilation” policy that held that a combination of Han settlement and economic development would gradually erode Uyghur ethnic distinctiveness. Now the Xinjiang Education Bureau called for the “transcendent ethnicity” of the Han to fuse with the “backward” Uyghur identity, pulling it into the “highest stage” of its development: “extinction.” And replacing it with a new “higher level” identification with the Chinese nation and a Chinese ethnicity. In fact, they were calling for an identity that was dominated by Han norms and Chinese language.

This rhetoric did not stay in Xinjiang policy documents. Instead, it was taken up by a so-called second generation of Beijing-based ethnic studies scholars and policymakers, who were Han, who envisioned a strong Chinese identity centered around a Han ethno-nation. While they advocated the continued limited use of minority languages in the Chinese education system in the short-term, over time they envisioned a “modern” Chinese identity, figured as inevitable and value-neutral, that would eliminate minority ethnicity language use. This, they thought, would help to build the universal value of Mandarin Chinese as a spoken language of global power.

One of these scholars, Mǎ Róng 马 戎, who received his PhD in sociology from Brown University before returning to China, advocated that minority ethnicities should be stripped of formal political recognition and their schools become monolingual (with the possibility of an additional single minority language and literature class — which allowed state authorities to refer to such schools as “bilingual”). Instead schools would become more like the education system of the United States. He did not appear to really recognize that the lack of educational autonomy protections for Native Americans, the social position that most closely resembles the Uyghurs, especially the “residential school” system, contributed to the erasure of Native American identities. Instead, as the anthropologist Timothy Grose has shown in another recent book, Ma and others advocated for a school system that closely resembled the colonial education system used in the United States and Canada.

The “reeducation camps” and associated factories that were built by the Xinjiang Public Security Bureaus across the region beginning in 2015 should be seen as a direct result of this education policy. Like reform schools and workhouses that incarcerated Native Americans and other ethnic and racial minorities in the U.S., the ostensible goals of the camps are to teach detainees language skills, belief systems, and industrial discipline.

The education policy of inevitable “ethnic extinction” moved beyond the camps, factories, and prisons into the Uyghur villages and homes themselves. In March of 2019, Kaiser began to observe that his sister, who was just about to enter high school, started to add Chinese words into their Uyghur conversations. When he asked her about this, she said that it was the only language she spoke every day, so it was hard to switch back to Uyghur. When she was 12 she had been forced to leave home and live in a boarding school around an hour from their village. Since her parents did not have a car or permission to travel, it was impossible for her to see them except on planned visits, when she was allowed to take the bus home for a day or two on the weekend.

Kaiser’s sister, like Uyghur children across the region, was immersed in a “bilingual” education system that sets out to eliminate local native languages and traditions, with focused teaching of Mandarin.

This part of the “ethnic extinction” process was enforced by removing children from their homes. First, nearly all schools above eighth grade became residential schools, where students are held behind walls except on weekend home visits. Then, beginning in 2017, many elementary schools and nurseries also became residential schools. In this way, Uyghur children of all ages were increasingly separated from their parents. At the same time, as documented in thousands of job advertisements posted by Social Security Bureaus across Xinjiang, the teachers in Uyghur schools were replaced with newly hired Han elementary school teachers and daycare workers from other parts of China. The basic requirements for these jobs, aside from Mandarin fluency, was “support for the Party’s line, guidelines, and policies, conscientiously safeguarding the unity of the motherland, ethnic solidarity and social stability, while adamantly opposing ethnic separatism and illegal religious activities, and not believing in religion or participating in religious activities.”

A group of nearly 90,000 newly hired avowedly non-Muslim educators pushed existing state-employed Uyghur educators to the side. In a 2020 conversation, a Uyghur woman now living in North America told me she asked her mother, a former school teacher, about the conditions of the elementary school near Kaiser’s village. “She told me, ‘None of our people are teachers anymore. Those that are older, like me, have retired. The younger ones now work as cleaners in the school.’” In order to remain in teaching positions, Uyghurs had to prove they could speak and teach Chinese language with near-native fluency and have spotless family backgrounds. For most Uyghur educators, this was simply impossible.

Uyghur children across the region are now effectively raised in a non-Muslim, Mandarin-speaking environment. Beginning on September 1, 2017, primary schools across the region began to change their “bilingual” curriculum to a Chinese-only “mode 2” program. An announcement published by the education department of Bortala County, a county in a prefecture near Kaiser’s home, noted, “In the end, only Chinese will be taught.”

The comfort of state rule

For Uyghurs and Kazakhs on watchlists, primarily those who are the relatives of prisoners and detainees, the reeducation campaign is even more intensive. The Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs has assigned civil servants to serve as monitors for this targeted population. These 1.1 million civil servants are instructed to describe themselves as “relatives” of the Muslim families to which they are assigned. The manuals they use tell them to make sure that the families are not practicing Islam, that they profess their loyalty to the government, and that their children are learning Chinese. They also tell them to “comfort” the families during the difficulty of the campaign. But often these exercises in comfort amount to sessions where Uyghurs are told what to think and feel. They appear to be efforts to reaffirm Party doctrine and make Han people feel good about all they have done to “save” Muslims.

On July 8, 2020, the “relatives” assigned to Uyghur families in a southern precinct of Ürümchi took their Muslim neighbors on a tour of the newly renovated museum located at the former residence of Mao Zedong’s younger brother, Máo Zémín 毛泽民. The most famous Communist Party martyr in Xinjiang, Mao Zemin was executed in 1943 by the Chinese Nationalist governor of the region, Shèng Shìcái 盛世才, before Sheng fled to Taiwan. The younger Mao had come to Xinjiang in hopes of seeking medical treatment for a chronic illness in the Soviet Union, and stayed on in the borderland to serve as the eyes and ears of the Communist Party.

In the museum, the tour guides showed Uyghur “relatives” how Mao Zemin strove to achieve the “liberation of the people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang.” As they moved through the exhibition, they came across a section that presented in ghoulish detail the way Mao was tortured on a “tiger chair” — his hands and feet strapped down — while he was beaten in ways that exacted the greatest amount of pain without passing out. The dark cavernous space is a scene of horror.

A reconstructed torture chamber in the Mao Zemin museum.

It is hard not to imagine that for the Uyghur relatives of detainees, the exhibition must have evoked an unintended personalized fear. Among Uyghurs, most know that detainees — the family members and friends of the Uyghurs at the museum that day — have also been tortured in “tiger chairs” since the mass internment and state comfort campaign began. Nevertheless, the Uyghurs knew the right things to tell state media. One of them said that the exhibition showed him “our beautiful life was achieved through the sacrifice of countless revolutionary martyrs. I want to tell everyone what I have seen and heard today. My family and friends will listen and tell everyone to cherish the good life we have now and resolutely fight those who try to destroy our good life to the end.” By saying “our beautiful life,” he strove to show that he identified with Mao Zemin’s pain, as a member of “the common people,” even while he was not permitted to grieve what had happened to his own friends and family.

The exhibition also featured an entire section on the way Mao Zemin “established rules and regulations to comfort ‘the people’” prior to his death. The museum now stands as a monument to the “blood and soil” sacrifices made by Chinese authorities in colonizing Uyghur lands. As the Turkic Muslim gender studies scholar, who writes under the pseudonym Yi Xiaocuo puts it, a principle of “blood lineage is a powerful symbol used by the Party-state to envision and sometimes cleanse its political and national body.”

The museum, as a centerpiece of current Xinjiang policy, asks Uyghurs to be grateful for the Han blood that was spilled in their colonization and to reimagine it as their own blood. And, in the rhetoric of the exhibition, the Xinjiang mandate of the Chinese Communist Party appears not to have changed over nearly 80 years. The state workers are still supposed to be “comforting” Uyghurs by teaching them the rules that apply to “the people,” even as they take their children and family members away from them.

Yet as much as Han control has always been a central element of the People’s Republic of China, the unabashed push for Han dominance has become much more explicit under the Xi Jinping administration. As Tobin shows in his book, during Mao Zemin’s time, “ethnic extinction” was a solely negative project associated with the Chinese Nationalists who would later flee to Taiwan and Western imperial colonial projects. Mao Zemin’s older brother, Mao Zedong, warned against Han ethnocentrism, something he referred to as Han chauvinism. As he put it in a 1953 Party directive, “We must go to the root and criticize the Han chauvinist ideas which exist to a serious degree among many Party members and cadres.” Instead, the Chinese Communists must strive, he argued, to help other nationalities achieve their own communist autonomy.

A Chinese ethno-state

The multiethnic stance of the early period of the PRC has now been openly reversed. In December 2020, a Han official was placed in charge of the National Ethnic Affairs Commission for the first time in 66 years. This legal body was set up explicitly to defend the rights of minorities. In 2019, the State Council Information Office issued a white paper on Uyghur history that stated directly that Uyghurs are not a Turkic people, that Islam is not their “natural” religion, and that maintaining normative halal standards was anti-civilization. It appears now as though an unapologetically Chinese ethno-state is here to stay.

It is also clear that proclamations of the “foreignness” of non-Han indigenous identities in China are not limited to the Uyghurs. In 2020 national education administrators outlawed the bilingual education policy that allowed Mongols to study primarily in their own language. Instead, they are now forced to study in Mandarin. There are also strong indications that state authorities will institute a similar policy at a national level regarding Tibetan language education. In summary, all ethnic minorities who speak their own language as their first language appear to be on the verge of being subsumed by Han-centric Chinese language education.

The harms of Chinese ethnonationalism are most sharply felt in Xinjiang. Not only has the new Han chauvinism produced mass imprisonment of as many as 1 in 10 Uyghur men, family separation that results from internment and residential boarding schools has become endemic. Back in Uyghur villages the education policy combined with the broader “de-extremification” campaign has targeted the basic material forms of Uyghur history. In a 2020 article, Grose shows how local officials have demanded that Uyghurs redesign their housing interiors to reflect “modern” Chinese norms. This requires them to eliminate communal platforms and replace them with cheap sofas. They have also plastered over Islamic architectural features on their walls. In another article, he shows how Uyghur marriages and funerals are now officiated by state workers. A historian of Uyghur material culture, Rian Thum, has also shown that the Chinese government has bulldozed over 100 graveyards across the region as part of a state project to “standardize” burial practices. Thum argues that “the desecration of shrines, the forced reordering of household space, and the demolition of cities in the name of modernity, civilization, and development have all been common tactics of conquering empires and, especially, settler colonial projects around the world.”

For Uyghurs, ethnic identity is built from the place where they are born and their ancestors are buried. The priorness of being rooted in a place, and all of the claims to self-determination that such a position entails, is what makes it a primary target of elimination by the “reeducation” system in the Uyghur region. Drawing on examples ranging from North America to Australia, the historian Patrick Wolfe notes that “settler colonialism destroys to replace.” Ethnic extinction is not just about desecration, it is also about making something new. Through this process, Uyghur land is remade into Chinese property, and Uyghur behavior is controlled and ordered by the state. The standardization of Uyghur funeral practices is a way of reclaiming Uyghur cemetery space for real estate development, “happiness” park construction, and parking lots, and, in some cases, simply blank space. Bulldozed graveyards are a physical manifestation of ethnic extinction.

In a 2018 interview, a Han government official told a reporter that what is happening to the Uyghurs was specific to them. “They just don’t have human rights,” he said. Ethnic extinction is often framed as a kind of dissipation, a disappearance of a minority into the majority group. But, because Uyghurs like Kaiser have now been marked as undeserving of the protections of the common people — the laobaixing — ethnic extinction, at least for many, is a process of demolition. This in turn is destroying the space of class-based solidarity between Han and Uyghurs. The space of dissonant fusion where ethnic difference is recognized and protected is likewise on the brink of extinction.

This article first appeared in the journal SupChina on July 7, 2021, it is republished here with permission.

*February 15, 2022: Edited to clarify Ma Rong’s position on monolingual schools with a Uyghur supplemental component.

The Reciter: A Uyghur family’s pride — and downfall

It took him three years, but finally, at the age of 14, Nurali recited the entire Quran. This, he remembers, was one of the happiest days of his mother’s life. Over the phone she told him how proud she was. How he had brought so much joy and honor to his family. He was a living Quran, his life itself part of a sacred tradition that had been passed on for centuries. Now he became Nurali Qari — Nurali the Reciter.

Nurali was living with his aunt in Cairo at the time, far away from his Uyghur classmates — whom he had last seen at his 10th birthday party at the fanciest restaurant in Ürümqi. The restaurant, Herembagh, was famous for upscale Turkish-style Uyghur cuisine. The waiters wore white gloves and everyone drank tea out of tiny tulip-shaped glasses. But that isn’t what Nurali remembers. Instead, he recalls the toys that the other kids showered on him and how he was the apple of his mother’s eye. He was a young boy on the cusp of a massive adventure, preparing to embark to Cairo, a city he knew only from his imagination. He was going to become a reciter near the center of the world. Everyone was proud of him.

He did not know that his pursuit of something that would make his mother so happy would result in an Interpol “red notice,” Chinese authorities deeming his family members “terrorists” — and, for his mother, a 16-and-a-half-year prison sentence.

Among Uyghurs, Quranic recitation is a centuries-old tradition. The honorific title “qari”is added to the name of young men who learn to recite, or whose parents aspire for them to become a reciter. In fact, in some areas of Southern Xinjiang, many boys are referred to as qari whether or not they actually have that formal training. The primary reason Uyghur families sent their children to study the Quran was to strengthen their faith, but it also signaled respectability. As the Uyghur intellectual Abduweli Ayup told me in a recent interview, “If your son or daughter could recite the Quran, people thought that they would be able to find them a better marriage partner. It was something that gave people status.”

Ayup spent time in a detention center near Kashgar in 2015 at the start of the People’s War on Terror. “Even in the detention center, a person would be treated better than others by the Uyghur guards if they were a qari,” Ayup said, laughing at the incongruity. “Because the person had become kind of sacred, it offered them some protection.” Mistreating a qari was tantamount to mistreating the Quran itself.

As a reciter became older, others would often add more honorifics, such as qarihajim, or “reciter of the Quran and pilgrim to Mecca.” They did this regardless of whether or not the person had actually gone on the Hajj — something that was tightly controlled by the government. The sacredness of the knowledge the person carried meant that it was as if they had walked in the footsteps of the Prophet.

Most Uyghurs know someone who is a qari or is said to be one, but fewer and fewer born in or after the 1990s receive formal training from a master of recitation. This is because, after the state violence in Ghulja in 1997 and the subsequent banning of informal instruction in Quranic education, recitation training is often done in secret or with the aid of a recording.

During the early 2010s, devices called qelim qari, or “pen reciters” — devices that allow students to listen to and practice particular surah or verses of the Quran — were manufactured and sold by Chinese-based companies via Alibaba. Others bought MP3 recordings that carefully laid out the correct intonations, or tajwid. These self-instruction devices cost only 200 or 300 yuan ($31 to $46) and were available in nearly every large market, promising a way of continuing the recitation tradition without having to depend on underground schools. Although these devices continue to be sold in China, particularly within the Hui community outside of Xinjiang, among Uyghurs and Kazakhs in Xinjiang, possession of such devices is frequently criminalized as a sign of “pre-terrorism.”

A pen reciter that offers Uyghur language instruction made by a Shenzhen-based company. The device is currently available on Alibaba, though possession of such devices can be deemed a sign of extremism for Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Yet in Muslim communities around the world, this tradition continues unabated. As University of California Davis doctoral researcher Muneeza Rizvi told me, “In the United States, every practicing Muslim probably knows of someone who is a qari or hafiz of the Quran.” Among pious Muslims in North America and Europe, “it is a marker of dedicated parenting for a child to have completed a recitation program alongside his or her conventional education.” In some cases, Muslim Americans shape their life path to provide this type of training to their children. “For example, a friend of mine, a Black American convert to Islam, actually moved to Senegal just to give her child access to a Quran school in the region,” Rizvi said. “She was very proud to learn about how West African qari safeguarded the Islamic tradition through the horrors of the Middle Passage and among Muslim captives in the Americas.”

Like Muslims around the world, Nurali’s parents and extended family framed Nurali’s learning of the Quran as part of a vital standard-bearing of Islamic traditions. “Generally speaking, Muslims often use language like ‘protect’ and ‘safeguard’ to describe Quran memorization, celebrating the idea that, even if there was a total absence of written copies of the Quran, it would be impossible to eradicate the tradition,” Rizvi said. “I can imagine this would feel especially inspiring and meaningful to Uyghur Muslims experiencing cultural genocide.”

The last time Nurali saw his mother Mehire was in 2015. She came with his father to Egypt after Nurali had been studying the Quran for one year. Mehire visited not only to see her son, but also her sister, Mewlude, who just had a baby.

Mehire was one of four children in her family. She was 15 and her sister, Mewlude, was seven when their father died. Soon after, they moved from Atush, a town near Kashgar, to Ürümqi, where they had a wealthy uncle who had made it big as a trader after market reforms of the 1980s. Mehire went to a university in the city and graduated in 2001. The next year she found a job in the Civil Affairs Ministry neighborhood watch unit (社区 shèqū) in a northern district of Ürümqi. Nurali was born in 2003.

When the protests and violence of 2009 broke out across the city, Mehire began to feel a great deal more pressure to perform her loyalty to the state. Most of the time she was permitted to work in the office, while her coworkers were sent to inspect Uyghur apartments for signs of support for the protests and riots. Their work turned from providing social services to surveillance and grassroots policing. Her boss also began to enforce policies that prohibited religious practice among state workers. This quickly became a problem for Mehire since she wore a headcovering — so she stopped wearing it in the office, but continued wearing it when she was not on the job. (One of Nurali’s earliest memories is of his mom taking off and putting on her scarf. “She could do it so quickly,” he recalled.)

But this was not good enough. People in the community still saw her wearing her headscarf elsewhere. Her boss at the Civil Affairs Ministry pulled her to the side and warned her to stop wearing it. Not only that, they wanted her to renounce Islam altogether. As a result of this pressure, Mehire began to develop excruciating headaches. Eventually a doctor diagnosed her with an anxiety disorder and she resigned from her position. After 10 years in the unit, she finally felt free to live again.

As the anthropologist Cindy Huang writes in her dissertation on the rise of pious Islamic practice among Uyghur women during this period, many women saw wearing a veil as a way of claiming ownership of their religious practice. The veil was read metonymically as a sign of piety and self-respect. There was dignity in veiling. Many Uyghurs had read the prison diaries of the Muslim feminist organizer Zaynab Al-Ghazali, who was imprisoned by the political regime of President Nasser in 1965 due to the way she organized Muslim women to participate in democratic change — one of the roots of the movement that led to the Arab Spring. The diaries — which were first translated into Chinese in the late 1990s and then into Uyghur sometime later — show how faith and religious practice offer a source of strength in the midst of oppression. More importantly, they, and other texts, showed how vibrant the religious community was in Cairo and at Al-Azhar University, where Al-Ghazali remains an important influence. For Uyghurs and Muslims around the world, Al-Azhar is one of the most prestigious centers of Islamic learning in the world.

Mewlude said that she and Mahire didn’t read these texts from the Egyptian Muslim community themselves, but they were turned onto Egypt by Uyghur friends who had read the texts and who helped them understand the importance of Islamic learning. At the same time as the hard-strike campaigns grew in force in the early 2010s, they, like many Uyghurs, began to look to places like Turkey and Egypt as spaces where they could live in greater freedom.

Mewlede went to Egypt first. She dreamed of studying in Al-Azhar and living in the thrall of the great city of Cairo. She also knew that Egypt was a great place to study. “It cost only a little to live there, so you can really focus on studying and not worry about money,” she recalled. When she first arrived, there were around 2,000 Uyghurs living there and many more Hui. These Chinese Muslims from across China actually paved the way for Uyghurs to enter the community, helping them transfer money, find apartments, and register for classes.

Then in late 2015 and early 2016, for the first time in nearly two decades, the government in China allowed Uyghurs to get passports even if their households were not registered in Urumqi. “All of the sudden Egypt looked like a mini Atush,” Mewlede laughed. “Some of them came just so they could go on the Hajj” — which was still highly regulated. Back in Xinjiang, pilgrimages which were not organized by the government were regarded as a sign of extremism, but that didn’t stop people, especially from Atush and Kashgar.

Mahire made the decision to send her son to live with Mewlede in 2014. Because Egypt was so cheap, relatives abroad did not need to send much money. In order to support Nurali’s studies, Mahire wired around $1,000 every six months. “Even with just $100 to $200, anyone would have enough for a month,” she recalled. “It was so cheap that with one Egyptian pound in your pocket you could buy 10 naan. With just one dollar you had bread for a week. So we didn’t struggle.”

Nurali’s tuition was $100 per month, including room and board. At first he talked with his mom every week. Then, as he became more acclimated and started to pick up conversational Arabic, it became every two weeks, and then once a month. The teachers did not speak Uyghur at the school, so he had to learn quickly. “I didn’t go to that school so that I could become an imam or something like that,” he remembered. “I hoped to go to Europe or the United States after I studied the Quran. My grades were not very good in math, so I thought studying Quran and Arabic seemed like something that would really help me.”

When Nurali started he was only 11 and didn’t really feel like he had much choice. He knew that becoming a qari was something that would bring honor to his family. And that was what was most important.

Mehire and her 11 year-old son Nurali during her visit to Egypt in 2015.

The trouble began in mid-2016. The police started to call Mahire into the station and ask about Nurali. They told her to “make him come back” over and over again, Mewlude recalled. They said, “He is young and is required to still be in school.” They did not recognize that Nurali was still in school and that every year hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens send middle schoolers abroad to study.

From others in the Uyghur community in Egypt, Mewlude heard that returnees were disappearing upon arrival back in China, so she decided not to return, even though her family was being pressured by authorities back home. At this time, Nurali was nearly finished with his training as a qari. Mahire stopped sending money, hoping that Chinese authorities would give up.

But this was not the case. Sometime in 2017, just months after Nurali became a qari, Chinese authorities issued a “red alert” on Interpol — which at the time was led by the Chinese official Mèng Hóngwěi 孟宏伟 — for Mewlude and her husband, declaring them “fugitives” (táofàn 逃犯) wanted on “terrorism” charges. Civil servants pasted a “three evil forces family” label on the door of Mahire’s apartment in Urumqi. In one of her final messages that the family received, Mahire said, “Please don’t be surprised if I disappear. No matter how hard I try, I am going to be taken away. Horrible things are happening now. When I walk down the street the neighbors avoid me. They just turn away.”

One night in 2018, the Atush police came to Ürümqi to take her away. “We thought it was just like the other times where they kept her in the police station overnight, but this time it was different,” Mewlude said. “She just disappeared.”

Between that time and December 2019, no one in the family knew where Mahire was. Then someone spotted a notice posted by the Atush People’s Court that read: “On May 13, 2015, Mahire Nurmuhemmed used her bank card to remit 8,650 yuan in financial support to Mewlude Nurmuhemmed and Memet’eli Imam (fugitives suspected of endangering national security) in Egypt.” It said that Mahire had used the services of a Hui man who facilitated support for the Uyghur community in Egypt to send the money. The court document failed to note that, at the time when Mahire sent the money to her sister, she had no idea Mewlude would be deemed a terrorist — the term used over and over in the court document to describe her and other Uyghur students — two years later.

A few months later, another family friend contacted Mewlude and told her that Mahire had been sentenced to 16 and a half years in prison because she had financially supported her son’s studies in Egypt.

Mewlude and the family left Egypt for Turkey in April 2017, since there were signs that it was becoming dangerous to stay there and it became hard to find jobs. In Turkey, they had a bigger community and more opportunities. In July 2017, the police in Cairo began to round up and deport Uyghur students. The students who have returned to China have disappeared.

In Turkey, Nurali is preparing for his college entrance exam. He tries not to think about his mother too much. “It just makes me too sad. Sometimes it feels like more than I can bear.” He tries to cling to the memory of his mother’s happiness when she heard the news that he had become a qari, but bearing the weight of Islamic tradition and the honor of his family is a lot for a young reciter to carry.

When I asked him if he would like to recite a surah for his mother, he chose Surah Ad-Dhuha, the passage of the Quran recited to give comfort to orphans. It says that Allah will protect the orphans and that the community around them will not oppress them or drive them away.

By the morning hours
And by the night when it is stillest,
Thy Lord hath not forsaken thee nor doth He hate thee,
And verily the latter portion will be better for thee than the former,
And verily thy Lord will give unto thee so that thou wilt be content.

This essay first appeared in the journal SupChina on May 5, 2021.