One Uighur Man’s Journey in Two Cultures

Over the past two months, the relationship between China’s estimated 10 million Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking people, most of whom follow some form of Sunni Islam, and the majority Han population has deteriorated after a series of violent incidents allegedly involving knife-wielding Uighurs in inland China. The bloodiest incident was the March 1 attack in southern Yunnan province, where four assailants killed 29 and injured more than 140 at a crowded train station. Many Han living in large cities, who may have previously regarded Uighurs around them either as peddlers on streets or singers on television, have now taken a darker and more fearful view.

Kurbanjan Samat is a 32-year-old ethnic Uighur photographer working for CCTV, China’s state-owned television station. He is a native of Hotan, a predominantly Uighur oasis town in the south of China’s Xinjiang autonomous region that has an urban population of 360,000, according to official data.

Kurbanjan settled in Beijing, which lies more than 2,600 miles to the east of Hotan. In part to reach out to Han who might want to gain more insight into what is happening in Xinjiang, he spoke with journalist Zhang Chi in a lengthy first-person narrative article that was published in the April 30 issue of Phoenix Weekly, a Hong Kong-based news magazine.

Because of Kurbanjan’s inter-cultural fluency, the Phoenix Weekly article has received wide attention from China’s mostly Han readers on social media. Zhang said a friend told her that shortly after her article’s publication in Phoenix Weekly, President Xi Jinping had referred to it at a meeting, asking Communist Party cadres in Xinjiang to study the issues raised.

Kurbanjan’s story is fascinating but by no means typical for Uighurs. By his own admission, he is a rarity in his native Hotan. Not only does he hold a job at one of China’s best known state-owned enterprises (some would say propaganda machine), he can speak and write nearly flawless Chinese and has good personal relationships with Han friends and colleagues. While Kurbanjan does not shy away from discussions of the ethnic discrimination he and his family have experienced, he is also critical of what he sees as increasing religious extremism among Uighurs that he says is pulling the region “backwards.”

Foreign Policy has translated selected passages from the Phoenix Weekly article below, with permission. The original Chinese version can be found here.

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Hotan is a very traditional Uighur area in Xinjiang, but our family is a bit different from others. Of the four children in my generation, three do not live in Xinjiang. One of my younger brothers runs the family jade shop in Shenzhen, a metropolis in southern China, and the other also works in Shenzhen at a wedding photography company as a photo processor. My sister is the only one living in Hotan; she works as a Mandarin teacher.

In southern Xinjiang, it would be nearly impossible to find another family like ours. I attribute that to my parents, especially my father. He loves talking to strangers, respects educated people, and is always learning something new. My father is originally from Artux near Kashgar [a city in Xinjiang], and his business philosophy and approach to life are quite different from other jade traders.

Around 1984, not long after economic reforms began in China, my father began a jade trading business and frequently traveled to inland China, and his worldview was significantly expanded. He often talked to us about his trips, the things he had seen, and the people he had met. He told us, “You are boys, you have to go out and see the world.” He often told our family and friends that “I will get all three of my sons out of Hotan.” Now, he has indeed achieved that goal. Our family and our religious views, as a result, are different from other Uighur families in Hotan.

When I was little, my siblings and I could not recite the Quran. During school breaks in the winter and summer, my mother wanted to send us to Quranic schools, but our father did not support it. They had many fights over this issue. My father thought that we were young and could choose for ourselves when we grew up and had our own understandings of the world. My mother was worried that if we didn’t study the Quran, we would be kuffar, or infidels, in the eyes of other Uighurs and become outcasts in the local community. My father told her that he alone would shoulder all the responsibility. When I was little, I didn’t know why my father thought that way, but gradually, especially in the past few years, as Hotan has become even more conservative and hostile in terms of religious beliefs, I have come to think of him as a great man.

In order to give us a better education, my parents moved several times in Hotan until they found a neighborhood that had studious children. In Hotan, it was really hard to learn Chinese (because about 96.4 percent of the population is Uighur). Until I went to middle school in 1998, I only knew a few Chinese characters, like “me,” “you,” “him,” and “love.” In 10th grade, I had a crush on a neighbor Uighur girl who was also learning Chinese, and I wrote “I love you” to her. That was my first time writing Chinese characters.

Because none of my siblings went to Quranic school, to this day my mother’s brothers and sisters won’t even talk to her. Even when they run into her occasionally, they say things like, “We need a translator to talk to your children,” implying that her children are quasi-Han, even though all of us can speak perfect Uighur. My siblings and I are also ostracized by our relatives. We have more than 30 cousins on my mother’s side but none of them would play with us when we were little. They called us kuffar. This has caused my parents a great deal of anguish and pain.

In fact, my parents are both devout Muslims. They pray five times a day, fast during Ramadan, and help those around them to the best of their abilities. As I was born into a Muslim family, faith is in my blood, but only after I grew up did I understand what my father wanted from us: Only after learning knowledge and seeing the world could we understand religion, and turn the religious passages that we had memorized into wisdom.

Now my mother’s greatest wish is to go on the hajj to Mecca. Because Saudi Arabia gives China a quota on the number of people allowed to go on the hajj and Xinjiang, especially Hotan, has too many applicants, she put her name on the list four years ago. However, now the party cadre in our village told her that she may never be able to go. [Ed: Approximately 11,000 to 13,000 Muslims from China attend the hajj each year, depending on the quota determined by the Saudi authorities.]

The hajj is the most important religious duty in a Muslim’s life. My siblings and I want to do everything in our ability to fulfill my mother’s wish. In fact, in 2013 a village cadre had told my mother that it was her turn. She was full of hope but heard nothing more. My mother only found out later, after other pilgrims had returned from Mecca, that her spot was given away because she did not pay a bribe.

My parents did not want to bribe anyone in order to join the hajj because that would have been sacrilegious. But in Hotan, one cannot get anything done without bribery, and the need to pay for hajj spots was well known. I was irritated but still wanted to pay the bribe behind my mother’s back. I found a local official but he made more excuses, saying my mother could not go because she was over 60 years old, and also because my sister worked as a teacher in a public school.

I did not understand how my married sister’s having a teaching job could affect my mother’s spot in the hajj quota, but upon hearing this, my sister even offered to resign her position. I called the official back; he still said no, because my sister’s husband is also employed as a teacher.

In southern Xinjiang, it is hard for Uighurs to find jobs. Many work as police assistants or teachers because other government or party organizations are nearly impossible to get into. I once went to a remote village in Hotan prefecture. There were nine people on the local party propaganda team, and the only Uighur among them was a driver. I asked them, “You are all Han and do not speak the Uighur language, how can you do your job and reach out to the villagers?” Their answer? “It is what it is.” These local party cadres are completely out of touch with the Uighur community. How can there not be any resentment?

Regarding the issue of my mother going on the hajj, I think some of these Hotan local officials are wrong. What they are carrying out is not China’s official ethnic policy nor Xinjiang autonomous region’s stated policy. If it stays like this for the long term, there will be serious problems with the local community. It’s a good thing that my siblings and I are educated and will not go overboard in our reactions.

A few years ago, my youngest brother did not do well in high school and became our family’s biggest headache. In 2007, he dropped out in ninth grade and started mixing with other young delinquents. My father asked me to get him out of Hotan. I asked my brother if he wanted to come to Beijing, but he absolutely refused to leave Hotan.

Fortunately by the end of 2007, a Han friend of mine from Sichuan opened a photography company in Hotan and I asked my brother to go help out. My brother became interested in photo processing and could sit doing that for eight or nine hours straight.

But after the ethnic riots in Urumqi in July 2009, there were some tiffs among the employees at my brother’s workplace. At the photography company, everyone other than my brother was a Han. The most serious incident started with the tiniest spark. One Han man was listening to a song by Taiwanese rap star Jay Chou but my brother preferred the Hong Kong rock band Beyond, so he changed the music to Beyond. The Han man called my brother an ethnic slur and my brother threw a water glass at him. Such a small thing had escalated into ethnic conflict.

My friend, who owned the business, fired the Han and scolded my brother. The Han thought the treatment was unfair and wanted to smash up the place. The Han had gathered more than 20 fellow migrant workers hankering to beat up my brother, but my brother had called up about 40 or 50 Uighur friends to come over as well. This was quite a dangerous situation given the ethnic riots that had just happened in Urumqi. My friend did not know what was going on and gave me a call. I was extremely nervous and told him to call the police immediately. The police came and took everyone away, averting bloodshed.

After that incident, I could not let my brother stay in Hotan lest something were to happen. I bought him a plane ticket to Shenzhen the next day and arranged a job for him at a photography shop there. After he arrived in Shenzhen, I told his new employer that I would bear full responsibility for his conduct and found friends at the local police station to vouch for him.

When he first went to Shenzhen, my brother had trouble fitting in. However, after only six months, he returned to Hotan for three days and already felt out of place. He told me himself that he had “wasted almost 20 years in Hotan. Shenzhen is better and I will go back there.”

Now my brother works for a chain wedding photography company in Shenzhen and he is a popular guy. I spoke to his supervisors and they all liked him. He works hard and has a special touch with colors. In Hotan, we didn’t have much green but a lot of warm yellow, like the color of a sandstorm. My brother is a master of the warm color palette.

My brother now gets along well with Han people around him. Out of more than a thousand employees in his company, he is the only ethnic minority and the only one from Xinjiang. Many of his co-workers had never had any contact with people from Xinjiang, but after working with him they now think well of people from there.

By now my brother has developed a good reputation at the company and has earned people’s appreciation through his hard work. I asked him, “Do you still want to go back to Hotan?” He replied, “No, I really like Shenzhen and want to settle here.” He thinks Shenzhen is a very tolerant place, and his talent can be appreciated there. Nowadays, my brother is a totally different person from his friends in Hotan, in everything from manner of dress to lifestyle. My father no longer worries about him.

In Hotan, many Uighurs do not welcome Han in their homes. If they hosted Hans, the Uighurs would throw away the plates, chopsticks, and bowls that the Han used. But our family was different, and I didn’t feel the ethnic divide as much growing up. We played with a lot of Han children when we were young. They also came to our home and ate the pilaf rice that my mother made. My best friend in Hotan is a Han who was born and raised there. He speaks fluent Uighur and often visits my parents on holidays. He told them, “When Kurbanjan is not here, I’m your eldest,” and gave them a goat.

As a Uighur living in inland China, there are inconveniences from time to time, but I’ve gotten used to it. After the terrorist attack on Tiananmen Square in October 2013, I was driving toward Tiananmen Square when a police officer stopped me to check my car. I pulled over and politely obliged. I can understand this type of profiling; it was an unusual occasion.

Every time I have tried to check into a hotel in China, there would be all sorts of security checks or just flat-out rejections, and I can understand that as well. My Han colleagues who travel with me sometimes do not, and they ask the hotel staff, “Why check him but not us?” One time at the airport, my colleague almost got into a fight with the security guard because he had asked me to take off my shoes but not my colleague. I told my colleague that the security guard was only doing his job. Whenever I try to visit a foreign country, I also receive a very lengthy check.

My supervisors and colleagues at CCTV all like me a lot. I work hard and no one treats me differently because I’m a Uighur. When I first began working, however, there were some inconveniences, but people around me all accommodated me. On business trips with more than a dozen people, they’d search for a halal restaurant for me. I’d tell them that I’m fine with a Han restaurant but they would insist on finding a halal one just for me. If we ended up going to a Han restaurant, they’d ask the waitress to get me tomato with fried eggs and rice (which are acceptable to Muslims). My colleagues and I are all used to it now.

I’m not interested in politics. When I went to the United States and Turkey, some of my friends were quite worried about the contact I might have with foreigners. [Ed: Uighurs share much linguistic, cultural, and religious affinity with Turks. There is a large Uighur community in Turkey, where many have been able to obtain political asylum and Turkish citizenship.] But my father has taught me not to do anything that would destabilize society or come into contact with anyone with extremist tendencies. After I went to Beijing for work, I had many opportunities to travel abroad. My father said not to talk to strangers outside the country because they don’t understand what’s going on in China and Xinjiang, especially. Even Chinese don’t have a good understanding of Xinjiang; how could foreigners? Many foreigners have made up stories or hyped up small matters into big ones, and use those lies as a way to make a living for themselves. “Don’t have any contact with them, just do your job,” my father said.

It’s hard for me to get a passport in China. I can understand that as well. If other Uighurs like me had gone abroad with honest intentions to study or do business and returned to China with no incidents, there wouldn’t be such issues, but some Uighurs have told many lies after they had gone abroad, and I have gotten angry at them for doing that.

In 2009, I traveled to the northeastern city of Shenyang and the hotel I booked refused to let me stay. The police came to resolve this issue. I told them that I’m a hotel club member and made a reservation, and there is absolutely no reason not to let me stay the night. The police talked to me for more than two hours, finally letting me sleep at 3 a.m. The next day I went to an Internet café, and the guy at the café glanced at my ID card and, without even looking at me, told me that “Your ethnicity is not allowed to access the Internet.”

Later I wrote an essay about these stories with the sarcastic title “Xinjiangers are Welcome Everywhere in China,” but found out two weeks later that the essay was posted on the Internet and had gone viral. I opened my email inbox to find more than 300 messages, a lot of them requests from foreign media to interview me. I was dumbfounded and a little scared. I called a close Han friend and mentor and told him that I wanted to argue with them and set the record straight, but he said that they could twist every one of my words into a hundred.

Other messages told me I could go to Hong Kong, France, or Germany for interviews and they could somehow make me into a German citizen even if I didn’t have a passport. I deleted all those messages and did not go on the Internet for two days. Six months later, a friend in the U.S. came back to China and told me that he had read the essay overseas, but the title was changed to “Sorry, Your Ethnicity is Not Allowed to Access the Internet.”

A lot of people from Xinjiang have an incomplete understanding of Turkey. Many who have visited Turkey don’t present the whole truth when they return to Xinjiang, but rather only what is useful to them. Many have over-emphasized the Islamic elements in Turkey and put it on a pedestal. But they have not considered why Turkey is able to achieve its level of development. Turkey has relied heavily on secularization and the convergence of all types of cultures. Turkish culture is very tolerant. Because the country stands at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, it has taken on both cultures. Its Islam is quite secularized and absorbs what’s good.

I think Turkey is a good place for tourism and business, but I wouldn’t be able to live there. Turkish people treat Uighurs as their brethren, but not real brothers. I think it’s an unequal relationship with Turks on top, like telling us that “I’m your big brother, you can depend on me” but they don’t help us in any real way. I’m not used to that.

Nowadays, the understanding and interpretation of Islam of many people in Xinjiang are quite different from what is actually in the Quran—they have become narrower and more hostile. Many friends have told me that the photos I took on my recent trip to Urumqi and Hotan are over-Photoshopped and way too dark. I tell them, “That is the color that I see and I feel. A normal black and white photo should have a transitional gray color that balances out the black and white, but now that balance is lost.”

That is what I want to say: Most people in Xinjiang have lost this balance and turned toward a darker side. Xinjiang now has large swaths of black and small specks of white, which is unbalanced and depressive.

The religious understanding of many people in Xinjiang has become problematic. We should be moving forward, but instead Xinjiang is now regressing. That is a scary thing. They say they want to “return to the Quran” but they do not really understand what that means. The government has not given them good guidance either. These factors have put the squeeze on the balance between religion and secularism, and extremism is on the rise.

In early 2014, I helped host a concert with some of Turkey’s pop stars in Xinjiang. Quite a few Uighurs were angry with me, because they believed that we were kuffar for singing and dancing. These people have begun to reject Turkish culture, which is really scary. Just a few years ago, young people in Xinjiang felt a lot of solidarity with Turkey, but people have become increasingly narrow-minded and cannot even tolerate Turkey’s secular culture. They want Xinjiang to become another Afghanistan.

Translated by Rachel Lu and Bethany Allen.