Why I Risked Prison to Keep the Uyghur Culture Alive

One man’s journey from China to the U.S. and back again

Beds are placed outdoors by Uyghur tour guides at Jiaohe Ancient City, due to the extreme summer heat. Turpan County, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. 2002. Photograph by Lisa Ross.

This piece is published in collaboration with Coda Story as part of the Complicating Colonialism issue.

I knew Ramadan would start on June 28 because someone in the cell before us had carved a calendar into the wall with their fingernail. Late at night, after the task of watching over the other prisoners was assigned, someone else in our cell was selected to scratch off the old day. Everyone would bicker among themselves for the chance to erase another day of their sentence, but since I believed that I would be in there for life, the calendar didn’t interest me much. I’d often forget to mark it when it was my turn.

On the eve of Ramadan, my shift as watchman began at 1 a.m. This time, I remembered to update the calendar and saw that someone had added a small drawing of a crescent and star just above the date. My heart pounded—I worried that I’d been spotted. I took a quick glance around the room. No one who’d already spent a year labeled “dangerous”—and tortured for it, as I had been—would have dared to draw this. Only someone rounded up after May 2014 could have been so bold. With my heart pounding in my chest and the buzzing eyes of the video cameras aimed at me, no matter where in the cell I was, I rarely had the chance to formulate any thoughts, let alone write them on the wall.

I was arrested on August 19, 2013, in Kashgar, more than two thousand miles west of Beijing. I was born in the capital of Uyghur culture, and I was shaped by it. The city taught me to love books, knowledge, and righteousness, and it was there that I stood proudly behind the lectern of a Chinese university as an instructor. But now, this city had become my prison. That August, officers from the Chinese security forces came to interrogate me. They accused me of opposing the spread of the state language by teaching Uyghur preschoolers their mother tongue. Apparently, I was indoctrinating children in the spirit of separatism. During the interrogation, I was informed that the preschool I’d founded amounted to preparation for an Uyghur state, and that the lectures I’d given on linguistics in different Uyghur cities were incitement to terrorism. According to the officers, my crime was having studied in the United States under a Ford scholarship between 2009 and 2011. I was told that I was a CIA agent sent to break up “Xinjiang.” 

In the 1980s and ’90s, it seemed as if Uyghurs—a long-oppressed, predominantly Muslim ethnic minority group—were on their way to greater freedom within the Chinese system. It had become easier to use our own language to publish books, produce movies, and practice Islam. But the fist closed again, and the protests calling for an end to our persecution were harshly punished. Our fear returned. 

I left to study linguistics in the United States so that I could learn how to keep our language and culture alive. In the past, it had been natural: young people learned from elders in mosques, during traditional communal gatherings called meshrep, and in our large, multigenerational homes. But then meshrep was banned, and in many places minors were forbidden by the Chinese Communist Party to enter religious buildings. Meanwhile, poverty in the countryside was taking its toll on families. Young adults migrated for work in bigger cities where the Han money was, and children were forcibly sent to assimilationist, Mandarin-language boarding schools.

I worried that life in the United States was turning her into an American, no longer an Uyghur.

By the time I was locked away, it had become clear that the reform and opening that had transformed Uyghur society in the ’90s would not be returning. I was lucky enough to be let out because international academic and human rights organizations demanded my release. But there are not many like me. In 2017, convinced that all Uyghurs were terror threats, China rounded up more than a million of us—including Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Turkic people native to the region—and put us into prison camps. In these camps, prisoners are “reeducated,” forced to denounce their identities and declare themselves Chinese. Torture and rape are rampant. Forced labor in factories and cotton fields is systematic. Death by deliberate neglect is common.

Since 2019, China’s claimed the camps have been closed. Many have been, but only because the Xinjiang government arranged a wave of mass sentencing to take their place. Today, Uyghurs receive sentences of five, fifteen, or twenty years—and sometimes even life—for such “crimes” as owning a Qur’an, speaking to family members living abroad, or refusing to drink alcohol. A lost generation of children has been functionally orphaned and now lives in state residential schools, where physical abuse is the norm and the Uyghur language is strictly forbidden. 

I could not have known how bad things would become when I chose to leave the United States and return home. 

My arrest was a foretaste of the crackdown of 2017, when the mass disappearances started, but I had no illusions about the risk of going back. No, I found myself staring at the scratched-out calendar in that prison cell because I had felt a calling to return to Kashgar, the city I loved. I had a calling to go back with my wife and daughter and build a language school and cultural center for Uyghur people, a place where we could practice our faith and speak our language. 



On the plane from Chicago to Beijing, my daughter hit it off with the other passengers. The trip took more than twenty hours, but for Mesude, who had been living in America for years, it was like a game. She spoke English with confidence and had the mannerisms and ease of an American. When we finally got to Beijing, a student was supposed to meet us at the airport. But I’d forgotten where we were supposed to meet. I opened up my laptop to check, but it was dead. I couldn’t find an outlet anywhere in the stately airport, and the employees at the information desk were of no use. 

Eventually, I summoned the courage to ask airport security if there was a place I could charge my laptop. Instead of answering, they demanded to see my ID. “Dad, why does this man hate you so much?” Mesude asked me in English. 

The cop could tell from looking at our faces and listening to our accents that we were Uyghur. “Since when do people from Xinjiang speak Human?” he asked, sneering. “And he’s even taught his kid English!” I took Mesude’s hand and left. I’d lived in Beijing ten years earlier, and every time I saw such ugly expressions of contempt, I wanted to reject their “glorious” civilization. I’d long since learned I couldn’t defend myself against them, and so I chose to stay quiet. 

An Uyghur like me could not get basic human respect in Beijing. Not as a student, as I’d been years before, and not now, with a family and two graduate degrees. If we had been in America, I’d have taken the cop to court for racial discrimination. But in China, it wasn’t worth the time or trouble to try to report him. The law here didn’t recognize the value of a person’s dignity. My daughter stared at me, the question still written on her face. I lowered my gaze and changed the subject. 

A 20 meter high hand made shrine marks the burial site of an important Sufi Saint, at Sultanim Mazar (holy site). Yarkand county, Uyghur Autonomous Region of Western China. 2004. Photograph by Lisa Ross.

Mesude had spent most of her life in America, where everyone was from somewhere else. But even in China, we Uyghurs are treated like foreigners. And until recently, we were. China calls our homeland Xinjiang—“New Frontier.” Our language is a sister to Uzbek and cousin to Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Turkish. For centuries, our land was located on the eastern edge of Turkestan, known today as Central Asia—not on the western end of China. We were conquered in the 1700s by the Qing, an expansionist dynasty that had seized control of Beijing. In the northern reaches of our homeland, a Mongol people called the Junghars resisted Qing expansion, so the Qing annihilated them. In their old pastures, the Qing founded a capital for the domain, naming it Dihua—“Civilization.” On the advice of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, his Chinese counterpart Mao Zedong conquered the young East Turkestan Republic in 1949 to secure access to the region’s oil reserves and created special incentives for Han settlers to move in. In the beginning, the communists decried “Han chauvinism,” and even restored Dihua’s original name: Urumqi. But Han chauvinism endured. On the “mainland,” people guard their wallets and pinch their noses when we pass by. To them, we’re pickpockets and terrorists, kebab sellers and drug dealers. If there’s anything good about us, it’s how much we love to sing and dance. 

Once we were out of the airport, we couldn’t get a hotel room. Some hotels told us there were vacancies over the phone, then changed their minds when they saw our faces. Others said yes once they’d seen us, but when they looked at our IDs, told us there was an order from the higher-ups not to let in people from Xinjiang. Our Beijing-quality clothes, our English, and our smooth Mandarin could hide what we were at first, but the 65 at the start of our ID numbers would give us away. I’d gotten used to this treatment, but I couldn’t stand to see the exhaustion on my wife’s face or the confusion in my daughter’s eyes as we carried her on our backs from hotel to hotel, answering her unending questions. I was humiliated. Relief finally came late in the afternoon, when we found a room close to the rear gate of the University where I’d once studied. 

As we lay in bed, the kids from the elementary school next door left to go home. In front of the building, women were selling freshly hatched chicks, shouting “One yuan! One yuan!” Children gathered around, waving coins in the air. As they came to pick them up, some of their parents bought them chicks. My daughter looked at the students for a moment, then asked, “Daddy, do all those kids know how to take care of them?” 

To them, we’re pickpockets and terrorists, kebab sellers and drug dealers.

Her confusion was justified. They were children, they couldn’t take care of themselves, let alone chicks. In America, Mesude had been disappointed when we wouldn’t let her have a cat. There were so many formalities: to get a pet, you had to fill out an application with a shelter so they could make sure that you weren’t on the list of known abusers, that you knew how to take care of the animal, and that you could pay for the insurance. My daughter had been too young to look after a pet, and neither I nor my wife had had any experience with animals, so it wasn’t an option. My daughter was surprised at this “business” of irresponsibly and mercilessly selling fragile baby animals. She couldn’t stand to see kids her own age treating terrified, defenseless chicks like stones they’d picked up on the road. 

When, at last, we made it back to Urumqi and its Uyghur neighborhood, I was surprised to see a blue police booth in front of our building. Inside it sat a dark-skinned Uyghur officer ready to inspect anyone trying to enter. She hadn’t been there when I’d left. The differences between Uyghur and Han regions had grown in the two years I’d been gone. In the places where the Han live, skyscrapers had sprung up. The streets were lined with ads showing stylish Chinese women wearing Zara, Nike, Adidas, Levis, and other foreign brands. But on those streets and in the malls and markets of Han areas, any Uyghur who tried to get past the iron-barred gates was pulled aside to have their bags searched. 

The first friend I caught up with met me in a restaurant on Consulate Street. He seemed on edge, routinely glancing around as though looking for someone. There was no clear connection between any sentence he said and the next, but I understood what he was really telling me when he suggested that I return to America after the summer and stay there for my doctorate or something else, as long as I didn’t stay here. I spent the next few days catching up with other acquaintances and looking around Urumqi for the right place to open up my school. I’d already posted online about my plan, and word traveled fast, so I didn’t have to explain much. They all said it was pure fantasy, and they were certain that nothing would come of it. 

I sped through the week looking for funders, collaborators, and people to help me handle the bureaucracy. Instead of offering support, my friends reacted with shock and stern warnings. Everyone said the same thing: “There’s nowhere left in Urumqi.” The Old City, where Uyghurs had lived for hundreds of years, was now nicknamed “Gaza.” Anyone who managed to escape this prison was considered a hero. And here I was coming back. 



I had been in the United States during the worst riots of July 2009. But my wife and daughter were still in Urumqi. I watched from Kansas as two Uyghurs from my hometown were beaten to death. Han workers at a toy factory in the southeastern Chinese city of Shaoguan had accused them of raping a Han woman, and a lynch mob assembled against the factory’s Uyghur employees. Videos of the violence spread quickly online, and on July 5, protests erupted in Urumqi. Uyghur students demonstrated with Chinese flags, demanding justice from the government. When the protest was violently suppressed, it turned into a riot. Uyghurs attacked Han and destroyed the shops they’d opened in our neighborhoods. Then the army came in and stood by for days as Han attacked Uyghurs. No one knows for sure how many died—at least over a hundred—and thousands of Uyghurs were disappeared by the police. 

“Don’t go outside,” I said to my wife over the phone. “Just stay at home.” For a few days, she did. Our daughter fell asleep to the sound of gunfire. That call was the last time I’d speak to her for nine months. The government shut off the internet, and international calls couldn’t get through. After I lost contact with my wife, I began to panic. Luckily, one of the other Chinese Ford Scholars at Kansas University was a former People’s Liberation Army officer. We’d already grown close, and when I told him what had happened, he promised to help. A week later, he put me in touch with army contacts who’d been deployed to Urumqi. Each time, I was given a different number to call. The people on the other end arranged to make sure my wife was safe and have food delivered to her apartment.

For days, my wife and daughter were trapped at home. Once, Mesude heard the sound of army helicopters circling the city, then a man’s voice down by the door to the building. She jumped up and ran to look outside, thinking her father had come back from America to save her. She opened the window and waved, shouting for me. The soldier she’d heard whirled around to aim his rifle at her. 

It was worse on the streets. One day, when they finally ventured outside with Mesude’s grandmother, they were spotted by Han rioters, who chased after them. Another time, Mesude and her mother fled onto a bus, and the mob surrounded them, banging on the windows. Mesude crawled under a seat, sobbing.  The bus driver sped to the police station, but the rioters followed behind. In full view of the police, they boarded the bus and began to beat the passengers. My wife was hit on the head and lost consciousness. She woke up in a hospital. It was overcrowded with people who were gravely injured, and she received no attention. The patients were kept inside by guards, but she snuck past them and returned home. 

Because of the communications blackout, I didn’t hear of any of this as it was happening. I was wracked with fear. One afternoon, hardly knowing what I was doing, I tried to walk to Walmart for groceries, but quickly lost my way. The streets of the suburban neighborhood confused me, and after a couple wrong turns I ended up wandering around in a cul-de-sac. I think I walked back and forth several times. Finally, a man called out to me. “What’s up?” he said from behind the truck he was working on in his driveway,  “Can I do something for you?” He was strong-looking, with bright red hair and a Midwestern accent. “I’ve lost my way,” I said.

“Okay, no worries. I can help. Where are you from?”

“The northwest part of China.”

“Ah.” The man paused. “I heard about that. Isn’t something happening there? I read about it in The New York Times.”

“Yeah,” I said. “That’s my city.”

“He gave me a hug, introduced himself, and invited me in for coffee. His name was David. We talked for a bit more, then he asked if I was hungry. It had been a while since I’d set out for food. “Yes,” I said. He heated us up a pizza and we ate together on his porch. I told him about my family, what I knew about the riots, what Ürümchi was like.

Eventually, I mentioned that I’d been on my way to Wal-mart. He immediately offered to drive me. I remember I bought some apples. After I was done, he told me that it wasn’t good to be without a car in America – he’d let me have his bike so I could get around.

“Pain is like an infectious disease,” he told me before we parted. “If you stay sad, it’ll affect people around you. Besides, it’s not good to hold onto it. If you feel alone, you can always call me.” 

For a full year, I didn’t know what had become of my family. I wasn’t able to talk to them. It would be more than a year before I could get them safely to Kansas to join me. And then another three years before I decided to return to Urumqi.



Now that I was back in Urumqi, I heard the terrible stories of people rounded up for questioning during the riots. It was almost as if they were competing with each other to offer up the bloodiest tale. I saw such suffering in people’s eyes, felt such hopelessness in their words that it became hard to breathe. After the July riots, the feeling of tragedy stuck around and Urumqi never again felt safe. Uyghurs there understood that whatever had protected them until that day could no longer be trusted. As we took the elevator down to leave our apartment, everyone kept glancing up at the camera in the corner, standing as far away from me as they could. I realized they thought I was under watch. That was the day I decided to leave the city. 

Besides, the only people in Urumqi willing to hear me out about my school were just interested in setting up English classes or making some money and putting up ads in Uyghur. I was constantly asked how to make it to America, how to get European residency, or how to become a Turkish citizen. People had stopped bragging about where their homes were, instead boasting about the foreign countries to which their kids had fled. Anyone who said, “My son’s living abroad,” really meant, “My son’s in a place where he won’t be beaten down.” I kept thinking of a proverb I’d heard old people say: “If you’re safe in your own place, you’ll see color in your face.” Everyone around me looked sick.  

People had gotten sick of their realities and were desperate to get out. Some left so that their children would grow up Western, without the defect of Uyghurness. Some who thought Uyghurs had no future in China left to find foreign countries that might agree to take them. Some people believed that China’s supposedly high-quality and “bilingual” education was actually just a way to turn Uyghurs into obedient good-for-nothings, and so they yearned for the developed education systems of the West. They chose to become refugees rather than live without the freedom to raise their children fully in Uyghur culture. In 2011, more than twenty Uyghurs left for Kansas. Until that year, I never knew of more than four in the whole state. A wave of more than a thousand others ended up in European refugee camps and eventually were granted asylum—more than the number who’d fled there after the communists conquered East Turkestan in 1949. Others equated their journey out of China to the pilgrimage of the Prophet Muhammad, who’d left his own home in Mecca for freedom in Medina. 

If you managed to get out, people called you a winner. Once, when I was talking with a friend, I brought up a merchant we’d known whose business had failed. But when I mentioned that he’d gone on to settle in Turkey, my friend was amazed. “Wow,” he said. “He really made it in the end.”

So I decided to leave Urumqi and return to my hometown of Kashgar. I was excited to take a semester or two off to spend more time with Mesude and teach her to speak Uyghur. Going back to Kashgar was like reuniting with an old friend who I’d not seen in years. The covered, snaking streets. The neighborhoods crammed with old two-story houses. The ancient mosques—although now, they were unlocked only during prayer time. The sprawling markets in the shade of willows that teemed with men’s doppas—our traditional skullcaps—and women’s headscarves. You could see the seasons change by the front steps of the Heytgah Mosque, where people sold cold yogurt drinks or tea from a steaming samovar. 

Nearby were restaurants and pottery shops that old Kashgar families had run for generations. The sound of the city was music. The dumpling makers sang as they counted out orders: “Oh! One manta! Two manta! Three manta!” The bowl makers and blacksmiths kept the beat with their hammers as the call to prayer echoed down narrow alleys where each craft had its own market. In the coat bazaar, the instrument bazaar, or the hat bazaar, there were hundreds of the same item for sale, handmade in every color imaginable. Even after the government evicted Kashgaris from the Old City to tear down the ancient buildings and replace them with replicas for tourists, the soul of my hometown survived. In Kashgar, you never heard the gunshots or screams that kept people in Urumqi on edge. Urumqi was a gray city of security fences, where cops set up surveillance stations on your street, and you could get carried off with a black sack pulled over your head. I thought Kashgar could never become like that.

Handmade wood and fabric markers at Qarbagh Mazar. For centuries, Uyghurs have made pilgrimage to the tombs of Sufi Saints. Believed to be in a state of eternal sleep, the saints help those who have passed cross smoothly over into the afterlife. Moralbishi County, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in Western China. 2007. Photograph by Lisa Ross.

But even Kashgar had changed. Before I left, I’d barely heard the word hijrah, or sacred migration, outside Qur’an readings at the mosque. But now, back home, it was constantly coming up in conversation, and people there meant something different by it than in cosmopolitan Urumqi. During Friday prayers one week, the imam denounced a book that called for Uyghurs to live abroad. It said they should move to Muslim countries where they could practice their faith freely and raise their children in it, and that God would reward them for living in the lands of the caliphate. None of this was true, the imam said, because after the Prophet liberated Mecca, he announced the end of migration as a religious duty. In 2004, I’d heard words like these on the virtue of migration from an Uyghur who helped students find schools in Malaysia. He’d get excited and say, “Going to Malaysia to study is just like going on hijrah” He collected payments from many students and ran visa scams with Han-owned language schools. I was furious with him. 

The imam went on about those who thought that sending their children abroad to countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt was hijrah. He said that if a child hasn’t grown up in a family and society that provides him with an Islamic education, sending him to study even in Mecca won’t ensure he lives a moral life. I wondered what could drive someone to call even the most rudimentary work abroad hijrah and indebt themselves to Han smugglers to get there. 

He said that just leaving for another country wasn’t hijrah and that besides, it was wrong to recommend it either way. He spoke of the Uyghurs who’d been duped by smugglers and left to die in the forests of Vietnam and the rice paddies of Thailand. But since the imam devoted an entire sermon to this, people’s desire to leave must’ve truly been strong.

Back when it seemed that China would keep granting freedom to the Uyghurs, we began to reconnect with the rest of the Islamic world. Young Uyghurs went to study at Al-Azhar in Cairo, traders split time between Kashgar and Uzbekistan, and businessmen set up shop in Istanbul. They brought back the Turkish language, Bollywood, and a new, stricter vision of Islam. When the Chinese government began to tighten the leash, suddenly fearful of what it had allowed us, many saw piety as a way to fight back. Some women traded the traditional Uyghur headscarf for full veils, and mullahs denounced our traditional music and dance as un-Islamic. The Chinese Communist Party called this “Talibanization” and tried to stamp it out. 

Now, after the bloodshed on the streets of Urumqi, the Uyghur masses were in deep shock and terrified for their safety. Intellectuals who knew where things were headed fell into despair. Those who could leave, did. Choosing to stay meant I had more in common with those who took refuge in religion or even with the naive who told themselves things would go back to normal. 

Why would I choose to return, knowing about the surveillance, detentions, and slander that awaited me? Let my daughter push me away if it meant she’d stay Uyghur. Let my daughter shine, as I had, thriving in Uyghur misfortune. Only in this way could she become Uyghur. What worried me most was my daughter calmly analyzing our disaster from a distance. Even if my daughter spoke Uyghur, as long as she didn’t know what was happening to our people, she wouldn’t really be Uyghur. I reminded myself that as horrible as life was in Kashgar, having her grow up in America would cut her off from who she was. I chose to raise her in the same conditions that had made me Uyghur. 



But things in Kashgar didn’t go as I hoped. Within two weeks, I started to regret coming back. It wasn’t just hearing so much hopelessness, nihilism, and apathy from the people around me. On the first phone call I made, the sound began to echo. I tried buying phones from a couple other brands, but no matter whom I called, I heard my own voice played back to me. People told me that it sounded like my voice was coming from another room and that they’d also hear their own voice bounce back at them. Not only that, but all the people opening language schools who I’d been hoping to collaborate with in Kashgar believed I had been blacklisted and even that I was being followed. In the end, I couldn’t find anyone who’d agree to work with me. Meanwhile, my daughter could barely speak Uyghur and struggled having anyone to talk to in English besides my wife and me. 

Despite it all, I managed to open the school. We quickly reached full enrollment, and others started similar programs in other cities. For a short time, it seemed that the government might leave me alone—the state-run local news even began filming a profile on me. But it couldn’t last. Strangers called to deliver vague threats and warnings. I began to prepare for the worst. No one was surprised when the police showed up at my house and invited me back to the station. 

I was in prison from August 19, 2013 to November 27, 2014, though for all I knew, it would be forever. In a quick show trial, I—along with two friends who helped run the school—was convicted of “fraudulent fundraising.” There was never any doubt about the real reason we were targeted—I was forced to wear the yellow vest of a political prisoner at all times. 

In Chinese prisons, society follows its own rules. Strength keeps you safe, and violent criminals sit at the top of the hierarchy. Political prisoners, set apart by their special uniforms, lie at the bottom. But every prison was different. In some, the guards were a constant presence, always threatening a beating. Köktagh prison was run mostly by the inmates. Each cell had a boss and underlings picked out by the guards—the second-in-command in mine was a Hui named Hai Xiaoyang. He was cruel, though in ways I was used to by that point. For no reason, he made other prisoners sleep on the floor. I bided my time, waiting for a chance to change him. One day, I interpreted between him and an Uyghur prisoner. Xiayang was surprised by my Chinese proficiency and asked me who I was. When I mentioned my time in Beijing, America, and Turkey, the sneer on his face was replaced by curiosity. 

I began to teach English to Xiaoyang. Instead of spending all day, every day, sitting cross-legged in my cell, I got to move my arms and legs a bit. He’d already known a bit of the language, and since he was still young, he picked it up easily. To start, I prepared some short texts for him to memorize. Once I’d taught him sentences about daily life in the cell and the names of the objects within it, I wouldn’t let him speak to me in Chinese. Within a month or two, he could read and understand English texts up to a half a page long. Since I was such a devoted and approachable teacher, he stopped saying “no” to me in other matters. Gradually, his insults and curses toward the other Uyghur prisoners stopped too. I passed him readings on the importance of compassion, equality, respect, freedom, and justice. 

One day, he said to me, “I admit it, I was wrong. I won’t do anything to hurt Uyghurs. I’ll never be that evil.” He fell silent. “Not just us,” I said. “Anyone.” Xiaoyang was the grandson of a mullah, but his mother was Han. He’d spent his childhood feeling ashamed in front of adults and learned to keep his distance from other people.

For over a year, I grew close with people like Xiaoyang. It’s possible, I discovered, to be friends with someone who beats you. Many of the common criminals I got to know were young Uyghurs already hardened by the cruelty of life in Xinjiang. There was Memetyüsüp, the Uyghur orphan who’d killed the Han pedophile given custody of his sister. Gheyret, the heroin addict, had been brought in at eighteen for stealing a piece of jade. He’d found God, and I was tortured for teaching him how to pray during Ramadan. Yaqupjan came in clutching the amulet his mother had made for him. On his first day in prison, our cellmates tore it from his hands. 

They let me go as abruptly as they’d arrested me. One evening, I was rushed out from prison and driven to the Urumqi municipal court. With the invisible motions I’d picked up in prison—a slight bend in my back and a flick of my hand—I prayed for the patience and health of friends who I was now leaving behind. But I also forgave our oppressors. They were victims of a broken system. Even the man who’d arrested me in Kashgar, the one who’d torn off my clothes. Even the cops who forced me to dance like a monkey and crawl on all fours like a donkey in front of dozens of people. Inside the car as we drove away, one of the officers asked the others, “If these people ever get us, won’t they do the same things?” Everything they’d subjected me to melted away. Well done, I thought. God forbid that our legacy ever be sinking to the level of you and your government. If we did what you’ve done, would we be any different from you? This is how animals behave. What human being would ever bite back at the animal who’d bitten his leg? I still remember how, in my evening prayer after I was released, I threw away my anger alongside my filthy prison slippers. 



A few weeks before I left America, I’d debated my decision on the phone with a trusted Uyghur scholar. He advised me to stay. I began to defend my choice, but the conversation was cut short. I’d been counting on his support. Without it, I felt much less sure of what I was about to do. After that, I stopped asking people I knew in America what they thought, and many of them didn’t even realize that I was going to leave. Some even offered to help me find a job. Uyghurs who’d made it to America would never think of going back. I worried that if I mentioned my plan to them, they’d talk me out of it, so I never brought it up. 

Going back was my wife’s idea. One day, when she went to see some Turkish friends of ours, the conversation turned to the parts of life in the United States they found frustrating. Mesude couldn’t take it. “Why are you saying bad things about America? I love America!” she said. Everyone was shocked. Not long after, she announced, “I’m going to marry Jason.” I laughed so hard I couldn’t speak. Jason was a Black boy from her preschool.  

Mesude was four years old and beginning to learn how people were different. In her understanding, there were parents and kids, girls and boys, men and women, small and big. There were also, she said, American and Uyghur. Within all of these, she thought of herself as a kid, a girl, small, and American. My daughter had first learned she was Uyghur when she was trapped during the riots at home, when she was chased in the streets, when the bus she boarded with her mother was surrounded by men,  armed and grinning, when she saw those Han grown-ups coming to hurt her. 

When she first arrived in America, she was still terrified of riding the bus. But life in America helped her forget she was Uyghur. Within a year, she even forgot how to pronounce the word. America was hers, and she wouldn’t have us criticizing it. I thought of her growing up in America, becoming foreign to her own people. I knew that if I returned, I could be surveilled, detained, or worse, but these were risks I took for my daughter. 

Beds made by local iron workers are placed for sleeping in the open air by Uyghur farmers due to the extreme heat of summer. Turpan County, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. 2002. Photograph by Lisa Ross.

The first person I had to tell about my decision was my thesis advisor. She’d spent two years guiding me in my research and had helped me secure a stipend to support myself through the completion of a PhD. “Are you sure?” she replied over email. Afterward, I spent a long time handwriting a letter explaining myself and, to thank her for the untiring kindness she’d shown me, delivered it along with five or six books I’d brought from East Turkestan. I never got a response. 

My wife and I spent the final days of that May packing everything we wanted to bring back. But the preparations were easy compared to the conversations. My friends joked about my new life in America, and I wouldn’t correct them. Yet I couldn’t refuse when a childhood friend called me up as we were emptying our apartment and invited us to visit his new house in Nebraska. We stayed for two days. He and I spoke late into the night. He tried to talk me out of leaving, and as I listened to what he had to say, I couldn’t bear to disagree. I agreed to stay. In the morning, we woke up to perfect weather. “It’s such a beautiful day,” I said as I opened up his windows. “Yeah,” my friend replied. “Because you’re not going back.” My heart sank as I remembered what I’d told him. I kept up the lie until the day before our flight, but he must have been able to tell that I’d made up my mind. “In case you’re still thinking about leaving,” he said, “if you try, I’ll come to the airport to arrest you myself. I’ll lock you up in my basement for so long your visa will expire and you’ll have to just stay there.”

Sometimes, when I had second thoughts, it strengthened my resolve to remember that Mesude had forgotten how to pronounce the word Uyghur. For our first six months in America, we spoke in Uyghurche, but later, even if we pushed her, she’d only reply to us in English. She used to love long phone calls with her grandparents, but as her ability in the language weakened, she’d refuse to join in our conversations. Once, when we were calling people back home, she threw a fit over something small and wouldn’t talk to us. 

I bit back my anger and asked what was wrong. “Why do you keep talking about things I can’t understand?” she asked. And she was right. The world we spoke about in our long conversations with people back home was an Uyghur one, built on the Uyghur language. But what my American daughter saw, learned, and felt took shape in her mind in English. Even though we lived in the same house, Mesude was in her own English world. Our daughter loved us and wanted to share a world with us, but she knew that the one inside her head was beautiful, and she wouldn’t allow it to be conquered. Still, staying in America would mean losing her. 

I felt that an Uyghur who couldn’t stand with her father at Eid prayers in the mosque wasn’t really an Uyghur. Neither was one whose heart stood still at the service’s seven takbirs. If my daughter couldn’t go with her mother in matching black headscarves on Laylat al-Qadr and Eid al-Fitr to weep among relatives at her grandfather’s grave, if the sound of the Qur’an’s surahs and ayats couldn’t set her trembling, then I couldn’t make her Uyghur. If she didn’t stop me on my way home from the mosque and ask, “Daddy, what do they say there? What does it mean?” then I couldn’t make her Uyghur. Life in Kashgar would be harder for all of us, but I owed it to my daughter. Returning was my hope, my right, my pleasure, and my good fortune.


Abduweli Ayup

Abduweli Ayup is a linguist and author of fifteen books. He was imprisoned in 2013 for running Uyghur-language kindergartens in his homeland and his memoir from jail, The Black Land, has been published in Uyghur, Turkish and English. Since 2019, Abduweli has lived with his family in Bergen, Norway, where he runs the human rights nonprofit Uyghur Hjelp and teaches Uyghur to the children of the diaspora.

Lisa Ross

Lisa Ross is a photographer, video artist and educator living in New York City.

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