Strangers at Home: Uyghers in the land of the Hui

This story includes many disguised details to protect the identity of the characters, my friends, in the story. 

One of the themes of this trip is understanding identity in-light of different culture. For me personally, home is one of the most difficult things to define. I’ve always thought that I find home in my faith, but honestly I know that’s probably the most obnoxious thing I could say aside from the applying that response to the “where are you from?” question. But, I think the family of Mohammad and Fatima taught me what it really means to have faith your home. This is the first part of two parts of this family’s story.

Xi'an famous muslim quarter street

Xi’an famous Muslim Quarter street

Another entry to the Muslim quarters area

Another entry to the Muslim Quarter area

I met Fatima over email as I was planning the China leg of my trip. When she found out about my project, she was thrilled. “We rarely get to meet Muslim visitors here!” she said.

Although she calls the Xinjiang region home, Fatima has been living away in Xi’an for the past few years. Upon my arrival to Xinjiang region, she wasted no time in introducing me to her friends who graciously invited me out to dinner. Fatima’s friends expressed open regret that they couldn’t invite me over to their homes to experience traditional Uygher hospitality. Due to strict state-sponsored surveillance, interacting with foreigners is highly scrutinized (and often flagrantly penalized) in the region. So instead, they invited me out to Iftar at a local restaurant.

Sophia and Mohammad watching the water fountain show

Fatima and Ahmad watching the water fountain show

And Fatima’s kindness didn’t stop there. After I had parted ways with her friends she reached out again – this time to invite me to visit she and her husband in Xi’an, a 3-hour flight from Urumqi and not a part of my China itinerary. But if I’d learned anything on my travels so far, it was to recognize hospitality and kindness at face value, so I accepted Fatima’s generous willingness to host me. Putting aside any lingering reservations, I bought a last-minute ticket to Xi’an and called to let my hosts know I was coming to visit.

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A father plays with his two children

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With a mother-like tendency to worry, Fatima texted me instructions, frequent status checks, and detailed directions to guide me from the airport to a hotel where her husband was to meet me. When I arrived at the place where I was to meet my host, I saw Fatima’s husband Mohammad walk toward me pushing a rented bicycle (Xi’an has bike sharing programs) and wearing a great and heartwarming smile. After a few brief words of welcome, Mohammad led the way to his home.

Mohammad is a computer programmer. He works for an American company that has outsourced some of its work to China. He relocated to Xi’an after graduating college with ambitions of furthering his education, finding increasingly better jobs, and eventually moving to America. However what had most motivated his move to Xi’an was the opportunity to practice his faith freely. While many of his dreams remained at the forefront of our conversation, some of his short-terms goals changed after he was married.

Sophia cooked delicious food for a late night meal

Fatima cooked delicious food for a late night meal

The minute I arrived at their apartment I was welcomed by Fatima and Mohammad’s children: Ali and Ahmad, 2 years old and 7-months respectively. Ali, a cute ball of energy, welcomed me with an adorable demonstration of his ability to count from 1 to 10 in heavily-accented British English. Without fail, raising my index finger to Ali would signal a rapid succession of proud counting.

“I am so happy that you are able to join us here. I kept telling my husband that this is a rare opportunity to gain the reward of hosting and welcome a traveler,” Fatima said after my arrival.

“Oh. Thanks. That means a lot to hear. I just hate to thinking that I’m being a burden for y’all,” I replied.

“When Mohammad went to the US a few years ago during Ramadan, I was worried about him. But the community there welcomed and took care of him. And so I have to pay it forward,” she explained.

On the second day, Sophia had to go to the hospital for a doctor appointment.

On the second day, Fatima had to go to the hospital for a medical appointment

Waiting in-line to check-in for the doctor appointment

Waiting in-line to check-in for the appointment with her doctor

Rushing up to make the appointment.

People rushing to make their medical appointments.

After a couple of hours (during which I enjoyed a quick nap), we all got ready to visit the Big (Wild) Goose Pagoda. Mohammad and Fatima had their hands full getting the kids ready. “It is really difficult raising kids in this city alone,” Fatima said while Ali was trying to wiggle out of his shirt. Because both of their extended families are in the Xinjian region, they face the challenges of raising children with a loyal, but small support network of friends in the community.

I learned that while Fatima and her husband Mohammad are from the same city in the Xinjian region, they had actually met in Xi’an when she moved there several years earlier to take classes. It emerged that Fatima’s move had been compelled in no small part by the lack of religious freedom she had found in Xinjian. In fact, cultural and political prejudice was so pronounced that Fatima’s family discouraged her from wearing the hijab or more observant religious practices so she wouldn’t damage professional opportunities. As a woman who identified as strong and independent, this religious oppression had felt smothering.

Quran translation to Uygher language

The Quran translated into the Uygher language

“I’ve got a tough one,” Mohammad whispered to me, gesturing at Fatima admiringly as he rolled his eyes. We were watching the fountain show near the Pagoda, discussing female adornment of the hijab. Fatima was giving me a hard time by adamantly rejecting  my views regarding a woman’s hijab. “It’s a must. It is obligatory. Muslim woman must do it. You are sinful if you accept your wife or female family members not wearing the hijab,” she told me. “That may be so, but it is not right to force anyone to do anything. I also respect people’s choices,” I tried to explain. “I am just trying to lay out the facts,” Fatima said – concluding the conversation with a tone of finality.

When I asked Mohammad about his dreams he replied looking content. “When you get married, a lot of things change. I have to put my family first.”

“It is not all lost, Mohammad. You can still figure out a way to make it to the US!” I tried to incite an ember of hope in my host, although I myself was not sure how my assurances could be realized.

“I can. I have a passport. But, Fatima and the kids can’t. They don’t have a passport, and they can’t get a passport,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone.

“Wait – what do you mean” I was intrigued, and more than a little baffled.

“It is very difficult for anyone from the Xinjian region to receive a passport to travel abroad. I was lucky to have received one myself. But Fatima and the kids were not so lucky. The only way we can become eligible for passports is to buy a house in Xi’an, That would make us residents of Xi’an.”

I could only shake my head in wonder at the implications of what Mohammad was suggesting.

Sophia showed me her notes from the islamic school she attended

Fatima showed me her notes from the Islamic school she attended

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Mohammad is saving aggressively to buy a house. So that they can move away and find better opportunities for the family and future of the children, Mohammad and Fatima are saving aggressively to buy a home in the near-by region. As unfortunate as it is, and as alien as Xi’an feels for both Mohammad and Fatima, they don’t see another way.

As the day wound down, we were getting tired and ready to go to the mosque for iftar. But after waving over the first taxi, Mohammad walked away and gestured for the driver to continue.

“What’s wrong? Why didn’t we take that Taxi?” I asked Mohammad.

“He jacked up the price on me, thinking I was a tourist,” he told me.

“But Mohammad, you speak perfect Mandarin – you’re from China!” I exclaimed.

“Unfortunately, that doesn’t matter. I look different. And no matter how perfectly I speak the language here, I’ll be treated as a foreigner,” he explained unabashedly.

Fatima remembers one of the moments that inspired and motivated her to learn more about her faith more. It was as a Christian preacher was asking questions about her faith and proselytizing Christianity that Fatima felt the need to learn more about Islam. Not long after, she and Mohammad were married. As they were adjusting to married life, Fatima decided to enroll full-time in a local Islamic school in a city several hours from Xi’an.

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At the park, Mohammad shared news of an increase in child kidnapping in the area. After news of the kidnappings spread, Fatima now rarely takes her children outdoors on her own.

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Only after arriving at the mosque for iftar did I realize that both my hosts and I stood out. As an Uygher couple, Mohammad and Fatima don’t feel as connected and welcomed by the community as they might like. It feels as there is a divide between them, which makes practicing their faith considerably harder. When I asked how such a cultural divide could exist in the midst of religious unity, they explained, “it’s both cultural and historical”. Though they do have friends and join community activities when they can, “we just don’t feel like we fit,” they often repeated.

By the time we made it home, it had been a long and exhausting day. After Fatima put their children to bed, she returned with questions about my experiences visiting Muslim communities.

“Where do you think is the best place for a Muslim to practice their faith?” she asked eagerly.

“I don’t know if there is an answer to that question,” I said. But as I looked over, I was surprised to see her attention apparently distracted as she texted while nodding to my reply.

“She teaches English to women here in Xi’an, as well as back in Xinjian using WeChat,” Mohammad told me.

Over my stay, Fatima’s strong will and definitive opinions left a lingering impression. She wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, even (and especially!) when I genuinely didn’t have an answer.

“Ammar, through all of your travel, what is the best country to freely and truly raise our kids in accordance with Islam?” Fatima asked repeatedly during my stay.

“I don’t know, Fatima. There are good communities everywhere. You just have to find your community,” I tried to convince her with little luck.

Mohammad would ask me about America, the opportunities there, and the jobs that might be available for a computer programmer like himself. A couple of years ago, he was working for a company that sent him to the US for three weeks. It coincided with Ramadan. During that time he was both impressed and humbled by the hospitality of the community, their acceptance of him, and their diversity. Mingled with those memories Mohammad acknowledged the challenges it represented for his wife, who had been left to care for their newborn child alone in Xi’an. After he returned, Mohammad changed his job to require less travel.

Kittens have the same appeal even in China.

Kittens have the same appeal, even in China.

When I asked Mohammad about his favorite teaching in Islam, he referenced the Quranic verse “Say, ‘Indeed my prayer and my worship, my life and my death are for the sake of Allah, the Lord of all the worlds.” He identified his faith as the driving force behind his motivation to excel and succeed. That, he explained, was the reason he had migrated to Xi’an. And that is why he finds it more rewarding to think that everything he does and pursue is for Allah and his faith. When I then asked Mohammad what it meant to be an Uyghur Muslim, he explained that the Uygher culture is so heavily influenced by Islam that he doesn’t like to differentiate between the two.

When I asked Fatima how she identified with her faith, she said that after she studied Islam she realized that she was too focused on materialistic matters. She found that Islam represented strength and independence that empowered her to take care of her family and serve others.

After everything I’d experienced with this incredible couple, it wasn’t surprising that both Mohammad and Fatima identified hospitality as their favorite aspect of the Uyghur culture.

In Western media we hear the labor force of China described as working in dire conditions to build what we take as everyday luxuries. However, Fatima and Mohammad reflected a new kind of story, one that I hadn’t been familiar with before my journey to China. They showed me a life of a middle class, Chinese family whose home was not free and whose freedom of worship was restricted. And while they found home in their faith, because of their ethnicity their faith didn’t find home where they live.

Ammar is on a journey to explore Islam in different countries around the world. He wants to show that Islam is a faith not exclusive to a single ethnicity. He hopes that these stories become part of the conversation about tolerance and acceptance in America.

For more information, visit our page about this journey.