Mother Tongue


HEBAH: Our story today takes place in Turkey, by way of China. But we’re going to start here, in a quiet, residential district of Istanbul called Zeytinburnu.

DURRIE: The neighborhood is probably one of the more diverse I mean Istanbul is pretty diverse, but Zeytinburnu might be one of the most diverse because it's a neighborhood that a lot of people go to when they first move here. 

HEBAH: This is reporter Durrie Bouscaren.

DURRIE: So you've got a lot of Syrian refugee families, you've got people who are coming from Southeast Asia or different countries in Africa, and there is one kind of street or a couple streets that are predominantly Uyghur families.

HEBAH: Uyghurs are a largely Muslim minority in China, in a part of China called Xinjiang, which is to the far north west of the country. In Istanbul, the Uyghur community is made up of roughly between 30-50,000 people. And in this part of Zeytinburnu specifically, if you walked along its streets, you’d notice a lot of Uyghur-owned shops.

DURRIE: And so you've got this bookshop and publishing houses, a construction company that's owned by a Uyghur gentlemen. You have a Halal butcher where the guy behind the counter speaks Uyghur and also sells traditional vinegars and noodles and t’s really a community, I mean people are able to feel a little bit like they're at home.

HEBAH: Durrie, who’s based in Istanbul, was working on a story about the Uyghur community locally when she met this guy, Abduweli Ayup – 

ABDUWELI: I’m Abduweli, and I’m a writer.

HEBAH: He’s also a linguist, a translator, and kind of a pillar of the Uyghur community in Istanbul.

DURRIE: I met Abduweli the way you meet any translator in Istanbul; through a friend of a friend. And we were early, we were walking to an interview and we passed by this bookstore and he was kind of like, oh, hey like let's go see my friend, I'm publishing a book here.

ABDUWELI: This is a publishing house in Zeytinburnu. Teklimikan Neshriyati. And they have a bookstore here. Can we take a look?

DURRIE (ON TAPE): Of course, yeah. 

DURRIE: And so we walked in.

DURRIE (ON TAPE): Is that a Uyghur translation of 1984? 

ABDUWELI: Yeah! That one!

DURRIE: And when you walk in, it's really just one hallway. There's a line of bookshelves on one side and they are all either Uyghur or translations of popular books or they are written by Uyghur novelists, written by Uyghurs in Xinjiang or elsewhere in the diaspora. 

DURRIE: Abduweli points out a book he recently published here; a collection of essays.

ABDUWELI: These are from Uyghur scholars, Uyghur history, Uyghur ideology. Ideology of central Asia, history of silk road. 

DURRIE: And we were looking at these books and he was introducing me to the different authors, and we realized that the majority of these authors that have books on these shelves, they've been detained.

ABDUWELI: For example, look look, this one. I love this author. Halide Israil. This lady arrested. More than 70 years old. This lady arrested. She wrote a love story, and through this way she told what happened to Uyghurs in the last 100 years.

HEBAH: Now, this publishing house slash bookshop in Istanbul that’s filled with all these books written by Uyghur authors, it’s kind of like the bookshop is a capsule, holding on to an identity, a culture under threat. Because, many of of these books wouldn’t be published in China, where a targeted campaign of censorship by the Chinese Communist Party has been going on since the 1990s. And then, in 2014, the Chinese state began cracking down on Uyghur – and specifically Uyghur Muslim – culture in Xinjiang in a much more serious way.

Officially, the crackdown is to combat what the Chinese Communist Party think of as the three pillars of evil: extremism, seperatism and terrorism. But it’s become clear in the last few years that Muslims in Xinjiang are almost exclusively the people being targeted. 

More than a million Uyghurs and Kazakhs – their neighbours – have been forcibly detained in what the Chinese government calls  “re-education centers”. We’ll call them “re-education centers” in this story, because it’s currently the most common phrasing. But Human Rights Watch and the experts we spoke to for this story call them “mass arbitrary detention” or concentration camps.

TIMOTHY: There are different iterations of reeducation and depending on how much of a threat the authorities think you are, your experience is going to be different. 

HEBAH: This is Timothy Grose. He’s assistant professor of Chinese studies at Rose Hulman Institute of Technology in the US. We called him to ask what happens at these camps.

TIMOTHY: But what seems to be uniform is that your days follow a very strict routine. You wake up early in the morning, you’re required to study Mandarin Chinese, or what’s now being called China’s national language. You are required to march in place and sing patriotic cadences, sing patriotic songs, go through various forms of education in terms of learning about Chinese law, more specifically learning about what is deemed illegal religious activities, sometimes these are in the forms of videos, sometimes they’re in the form of skits.

HEBAH: A daily routine where Uyghurs aren’t not allowed to speak their mother tongue. Instead, they’re learning Mandarin. And with that, becoming more Chinese.

Outside of China, though, there’s Teklimikan Neshriyati, this publishing house, in Istanbul. And it continues to publish books in Uyghur, by Uyghur authors – there’s fiction, books written by scholars, documenting Uyghur history. Abduweli tells us, it’s a way of keeping the language alive.

ABDUWELI: It’s their voice from our homeland. We need to cherish it, we need to keep it alive outside.  

DURRIE (ON TAPE): In your opinion, what makes the Uyghur language so beautiful?

HEBAH: That’s reporter Durrie, again.

ABDUWELI: Because we have a long poetic tradition that – that makes it beautiful, like short and very meaningful. It's like fun. It's kind of entertainment.

HEBAH: For example, when you’re serving tea to a guest at your home.

ABDUWELI: You need to say something in a poetic way. [Speaking Uyghur]. This is like boys and girls, when the present tea like –– just like this, it means I want to be a moon on your dark night and I want to see wherever you are. And I want to be a tea in this cup. I want to touch your lips just the tea inside yeah.

HEBAH: This week on Kerning Cultures, we’re following Abduweli’s story – it’s a story about trying to maintain a language that’s coming under increasing threat of being lost. I’m Hebah Fisher, and you’re listening to Kerning Cultures, stories from the Middle East, and the spaces in between.


HEBAH: Abduweli, who is 46 now, grew up in Kashgar, a city in Xinjiang, in the far west of China.

ABDUWELI: Kashgar is very old, ancient city. It’s more than 2000 years, ancient city in central Asia. 

DURRIE: It’s an oasis city near the Taklamakan desert, so it's very Central Asian, but also has this historical connection to the rest of the world.

ABDUWELI: And it’s the symbol of Uyghur culture and Uyghur traditional culture.

DURRIE: It was on the Silk road. Kinda near, today it's near the border of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan.

ABDUWELI: So it’s not only a cultural melting pot. It’s also a racial melting pot. And it keeps its own language for example, the Uyghur, and it’s own literature, Uyghur literature. So that’s why I say that Kashgar is the heart of Uyghur culture because it’s the heart of Uyghur literature, it’s the heart of Uyghur education, and it’s the heart of Uyghur, we can say, resistance to oppression.

DURRIE: And Abduweli, he grew up, both of his parents were teachers – his dad taught high school, his Mom taught elementary school. He had three brothers, two sisters, so it was a big house of just learning and kids and – he was very close to his siblings. 

ABDUWELI: When I grew up, we have a – we don’t have electricity, in our village we didn’t have electricity. But we have many books. 

HEBAH: This was during the 1970’s.

ABDUWELI: My father and mother loved books, so every night we’d listen to the books my father read to us.

DURRIE: His father, who was a teacher, had saved books – boxes of books that were forbidden during the cultural revolution in China. So they were books that were by Uyghur authors, they were historical books, and he had to hide them in the house.

ABDUWELI: My father always keep it very safe place, they give us one by one. We had a line. First my brother read it, because he’s old. And then my older sister read it, so I need to wait for a long time, because I’m number 5th! All books are Uyghur and restricted because of that yellow and red issue.

DURRIE: Abduweli says that in the house they had red books and they had yellow books.

ABDUWELI: Revolutionary and anti-revolutionary.

DURRIE: It wasn't the actual color of the book jacket, but it was referring to the content. So if a book was a red book, red kind of represents the communist party and so those were the books that were okay to have. 

ABDUWELI: Yeah, red books we can read any time.

DURRIE: Those were the ones that you could read openly, those were the ones that you could buy in a bookstore nearby. The yellow books, those are the books that his father had hidden away. Those were the ones that were by Uyghur authors, they were poetry, they were scholarly accounts of things that had happened. And those were the ones that they kept safe.

ABDUWELI: But they didn’t, like, tell anybody, just keep it. And like we have some boxes, big boxes – we cannot touch those boxes. Those are my fathers’ treasure – books inside.

DURRIE: When Abduweli was five though, he got a hold of one of the yellow books. I mean, he was like making like paper planes and stuff, with like newspapers and things but, one day he picked up a book that happened to be this historic like out of print poetry book, that was a yellow book – it was one of the forbidden books and he had ripped out the pages and made a boat.

ABDUWELI: [Laughing] I turned it into paper boat! So I still remember my father was very angry, very disappointed. He didn’t talk to me for a week. He said, what! If you want this, I have enough red books for you!

DURRIE: He was like, you know, look we have we have all these other books that like, why did you pick this one? [laughs]

ABDUWELI: Every time I think this I feel very, like, upset. Because it’s disappeared, after that, it disappeared because my father keep it during the hard time.

HEBAH: His father loved these books, because they were a testament to Uyghur history. A history, Abduweli told us, that the Chinese Communist Party was wary about.

ABDUWELI: I think the main issue is like, mistrust. They don’t trust Uyghur, they feel unsafe in front of Uyghur culture, in front of Uyghur identity. And they’re afraid of this kind of history. They’re afraid of this kind of historical memory of people. They want everything from the beginning. In their mind, we need to have a new culture. A new, like, ideology. They treat our history as backward, old and like, in-civilised, something like that. They want to create a new culture for us.

TIMOTHY: Yeah, I think there’s certainly elements of Uyghur culture that the CCP uses views as backwards.

HEBAH: This is Timothy Grose again. By the way, when he says CCP, he’s talking about the Chinese Communist Party.

TIMOTHY: And in addition, you know, because it’s backwards, this incompatibility with modern Chinese culture, they’re trying to weaken these elements and then outright eliminate them.

HEBAH: He told us that there are some, he called superficial, elements of Uyghur culture that are more accepted by the Chinese Communist Party. Things like food, music, non-religious clothing. But the parts of Uyghur culture that they view as incompatibile – like language, religion and physical spaces, like mosques – these are what they’re cracking down on.

TIMOTHY: I think that those are the elements of Uyghur culture that the CCP views as incompatible with developing a quote unquote modern Chinese society. They also need to have ways of celebrating cultural diversity, and they also need ways of luring tourists to the region. Otherwise there’s nothing that makes Xinjiang and Uyghur culture different from Han culture right? But the really kind of substantial, important parts of Uyghur culture and Uyghur identity are the ones that the CCP is trying to remove.

HEBAH: The substantial parts of the culture, like the language.

TIMOTHY: It’s unmistakably being replaced by Mandarin in almost all capacities of society right now. So again, these are really – you know, you think about religion, you think about language, those are the elements of identity that really are the pillars of identity – those are what make people think of themselves as belonging to a collective.

HEBAH: When it was time for Abduweli to go to university, he decided to go to Beijing. And when he graduated, he took a post as a government-sponsored teacher in the countryside near Kashgar, where he grew up. He said his job was to teach Communist Party ideology to Uyghur farmers – who were very much uninterested. After some time, he went back to school to study Uyghur literature at Xinjiang University, and that’s what led to his interest in linguistics. Eventually, in 2009, he was offered a scholarship to study at the University of Kansas, in the US. So he went.

ABDUWELI: But I mainly studied cultural linguistics – linguistics in anthropology.

DURRIE: What does that mean?

ABDUWELI:  Like we study the relationship between the culture and the language. And the language and the politics. Language and identity.

HEBAH: As he was studying, a lot was happening back home. 

In the summer of 2009, a group of  Uyghur toy factory workers in Urumqi, the largest city in Xinjiang, had been accused of raping a Han woman – Han is China’s majority ethnic group. The accusations led to a fight, and two Uyghurs died. A group of Uyghurs began protesting, calling for an investigation into their deaths. And the protests turned into a riot, where some 200 people were killed, thousands wounded.

But Abduweli was on the other side of the world, in Kansas. His family were in Kashgar but he had friends in Urumqi, so he was following the news and calling them in the middle of the night to check that they were safe.

ABDUWELI: At that time I watched. I didn't sleep. I just watched what's happening there. 

HEBAH: Until suddenly, he couldn’t.

ABDUWELI: about 6 o'clock, maybe 7, internet connection stopped, phone calling stopped.

HEBAH: The Chinese government had cut off the Internet. Afterwards, the government increased its surveillance of Uyghur citizens. Within a year, they had installed 40,000 high definition CCTV cameras around Urumqi, which made everyday life harder for Uyghurs,  – a simple thing like speaking Uyghur in public became even harder, because it would attract attention.

So Abduweli decided he'd move back to China and open language centers in Xinjiang for older kids, and a chain of kindergartens where younger kids could learn Uyghur, their mother tongue. Public schools are taught in Mandarin, so his language centers, Abduweli thought, would give them a strong foundation of Uyghur. He called it the mother language movement.

ABDUWELI: This is the time to do this. I have a plan, I need to start it.

DURRIE: So, he launched the schools about a month after he arrived and they did really well, I mean they were expanding to not just to Uyghur but also other, other ethnic minorities in China like Kazakhs. It was great, I mean they got really popular.

HEBAH: And then on August 20th, 2013.

ABDUWELI: I was at my new kindergarten. It's very big, about 50 classrooms, very big yard. It's very traditional Uyghur neighbourhood, And then when I'm decorating in that school.

DURRIE: He was like decorating for an event

ABDUWELI: the three police came.

DURRIE: these police showed up, and they arrested him.

HEBAH: At the time, they didn’t really give him a reason. But eventually, they would accuse him of illegally soliciting donations for his kindergartens.

ABDUWELI: They took me to the detention center in Uyghur we call the [Yan Bulach, Yan Bulach] Detention Center, it's very big. 

DURRIE: It's in this big industrial center or industrial area, and he says that the cell he was kept in was about 16 meter square. So it's tiny, and there's a window on the roof, a small one in the door, and the toilet’s in there too. And he's alone for a really long time. There's not a lot of food. It smells bad. It's dark.

ABDUWELI: Oh, the condition is very bad. And when I came in, it's very dirty and when I came in first thing, I cried because of that smell like of like toilet. And in that place, you have to stay. In the morning, they gave me one Chinese steamed bread in the morning and it's smelly, but I finished it.

DURRIE: And he was also questioned over and over, he was accused of being a terrorist, he was accused of being a separatist. He was transferred to three different detention centers and he says that in some of the detention centers when he was in a group of people, it was – the prisons were crowded and within the prison cell you, certain people within the prison cell would abuse other prisoners, he was sexually assaulted, he was terrified constantly that he would get sick. He would get skin infections.

ABDUWELI: And like because of we don't have enough space on the bed, there's a long bed, big. And we sleep on the floor, yeah, because of people very crowded like skin diseases, infectious diseases. Like I tortured with itching problem, infectious skin diseases for six months. like bleeding because of you know everyday like this, like itching everyday.

ARIENNE: Yeah I mean he disappeared. 

HEBAH: That’s Arienne Dwyer, his former professor at the University of Kansas.

ARIENNE: he was the first person that I had known well that was incarcerated. He was actually an early sign of what was to come, and now dozens and dozens of my teachers and colleagues are imprisoned. It's been shocking and devastating. And these are people I should say – including Abduweli – who did everything to live within not only the laws but within the unspoken cultural rules and I think Abduweli was doing everything right but he was just a little too enthusiastic for them. 

HEBAH: Abdulweli’s former classmates started a petition, calling for his release. His case was written up in the New York Times. Finally, after 17 months in detention, Abduweli was let go on November 14th, 2014.

ABDUWELI: They asked me to come to the hall and there is a one man and one woman and they told me that you are released. I said, are you kidding? We don't have time to kid with you and you are released. I said, are you kidding? We don’t have time to kid with you. You are released.

HEBAH: While Abduweli was in prison, and for a few years thereafter, the Chinese government was preparing dozens of huge cement buildings in Xinjiang that would become internment camps – buildings were converted from schools and prisons.

DURRIE: They also started a series of increasingly restrictive rules – there was a ban on veils and abnormal quote-unquote beards in 2017.

HEBAH: Those are 2 of the “75 behavioral indicators of religious extremism” – that’s what the government calls it. And these indicators are listed as part of a formal campaign they call the Strike Hard Campaign, against “violent terrorism”. 

What we’re told is that this is about national security. And, it’s about ethnic unity, too. There’s this idea Xi Jinping, China’s president, talks about - called Sinicizing, or aligning all Chinese societies with Han Chinese culture.

DURRIE: And you also start to see increased surveillance of Uyghurs, so there would be checkpoints where you have to basically identify yourself before you leave your neighborhood, people were told to turn in their passports.

ABDUWELI: And they arrested the people who had been in prison or who had participated in like July 5th, that demonstration or any other dissident, any other political like differences, any other idea, any other like feeling to like communist ideology.

DURRIE: And, as this is happening, Uyghurs are also forbidden from speaking to people outside of China. And so you hear from the diaspora, I mean people here in Turkey would have relatives and would be talking to them constantly on WeChat or WhatsApp, and they would realize that their relatives had deleted them or would tell them or would outright tell them – please don't contact me again, it's dangerous.

That's when he knew he needed to leave the country, I mean by 2016 he had – his close friends were getting arrested, his wife's cousin was accused of being a separatist. He was noticing that website owners, bloggers were getting arrested. But he just – he knew he wasn't safe anymore, you know, his family wasn't safe anymore.

HEBAH: So three years ago, he decided to move to Turkey, and to take his family with him. And he chose Turkey because he already spoke some Turkish, there’s a big Uyghur diaspora in Istanbul and so it’d be easier for him to find work there.

DURRIE: And he says that, I mean he's on this plane and just kind of watched the screen, where they have the map, to see when he was finally off of Chinese soil.

ABDUWELI: And when I am at the Kazakhstan soil on the flight, I said, oh, good. 

DURRIE: And I mean, even when he got two flew into the airport in Istanbul, I mean, he was terrified he would somehow be arrested or turned back.

ABDUWELI: Maybe the immigration will stop me, the Turkish immigration, something like that.

DURRIE: When he finally passed through immigration and was in the airport, he was like –

ABDUWELI: Ooff, yeah, I am free.

DURRIE: So, in Istanbul, I mean he built a life here. He was really well known. He's the kind of guy that if you're hanging out with him and Zeytinburnu like you will get stopped by people just to say hi. And he was really kind of a mouthpiece for the community, people trusted him to you know, keep their identities private if he, they trusted him to speak for them and a lot of cases. And, you know he was sending his daughters, who are now 12 and 6, and so they were going to Turkish schools. Both kids speak like five languages because of all the places they've lived.

DURRIE (ON TAPE): Are you still able to talk to your family in Xinjiang?

ABDUWELI: No, no, I can't because like three of them are arrested and like my one cousin and two nieces are arrested and my wife's cousin also, yeah, my two cousins are arrested.

DURRIE: He started, one of the things he started doing when he got here was just writing, like finding the names of people who had been detained. 

ABDUWELI: Xinjiang University, president arrested. Kashgar University, president arrested. Xinjiang Normal University, president arrested, Xinjiang Medical University, president arrested and Hotan Teachers College, president arrested. They are Uyghurs.

DURRIE: And he then sent those names to the Uyghur human rights project in DC and they've started listing, and they put out reports of like the number of Uyghur intellectuals and activists and academics who have been detained, just to kind of, it's like figuring out who's who, I mean because there's no official list anywhere. 

HEBAH: During his two years in Istanbul, Abduweli has stepped into this role as an activist for his people, through the language itself. He doesn’t teach kindergarten anymore, but he writes -- like the collection of essays he showed Durrie at the Taklimakan bookshop – he translates the stories of the Zeytinburnu neighbourhood for global media outlets, and over the three years he’s been there, he’s become an important figure in the Uyghur community in Istanbul – he was somebody who knew everybody. And, while Durrie was reporting this story, he was applying for fellowships and PhDs around the world. Then, in May 2019, he was accepted as a visiting scholar at an institution called EHESS in Paris.

DURRIE: So, I mean within two weeks the family is told that you have a job in Paris, and you have to leave in two weeks. So it's going to be a new life, a new language and he's really looking forward to it because it also means that he's close to a lot of seats of power and may have a chance to be a – might have a chance to be an activist on an international level now.

HEBAH: Right before he left -- as the family were packing up their apartment -- Durrie visited them at his home.

DURRIE: Abduweli! All good?


DURRIE: Congratulations! How does it feel?


DURRIE: And so we just sat and you know, we talked about his plans and what he's looking forward to, you know, the first things they're going to do when they go to France

ABDUWELI: First thing? First thing I’m gonna do – learn French! Because the first thing, I got off the plane and the French immigration officer will say that - “welcome to the French” – but I need to learn that word. And then I will say something!

DURRIE: Bienvenue

ABDUWELI: Bienvenue?

DURRIE: Bienvenue. He’ll say bienvenue and you’ll say “merci”. 

ABDUWELI: Merci! Oh yeah!

DURRIE: Or at least that’s my terribly accented French for you

DURRIE: Can I ask you a weird question because we worked together?

ABDUWELI: Yeah, it’s okay.

DURRIE: What was it like for you moving into this new role as a translator, moving into interpreting this incredibly traumatic thing for people with no context. I mean, I know I asked really dumb questions.

ABDUWELI: No, no, I don’t think so.

DURRIE: And I know it’s traumatic when you’re going through these interviews over and over. I mean, what was that like for you?

ABDUWELI: Umm, Like, for me, sometimes I think that like I am not only translating their words, I am interpreting the oppression, and arresting and like, torture and – because it’s hard to interpret something because, it’s hard, it’s unbelievable, we, as a human being, we cannot imagine that thing. So it’s hard to translate, yeah. So when I translate the stories, it, for me, those jail memories are revitalised, or recovered, they come back. My old jail memories will come back. So it’s very hard, for me it’s personal

DURRIE: Abduweli’s family arrived as we were talking. 

ABDUWELI: Ahh, my noisy daughters came! They have a competition all the time – who will be the first to hug their father? Hiiiiii!!!!

DURRIE: And I started to talk to them about how they were feeling about the move. 

DURRIE: His kids have already had a hard time adjusting in Turkey and so his twelve year old daughter – like that’s already a tough time just in life, and now she’s going to a new school, she nervous about making new friends.

ABDUWELI’S DAUGHTER: I’m kinda nervous, because it wasn’t easy to – I’m not really an extrovert person, I’m kinda like – I can’t socialise really good. So it’s kinda hard for me to get friends, everyone is like, really close to each other, so if I go to France I’m just really nervous that I can’t make friends, and I don’t know French. It will be difficult.

DURRIE: And do you tell your daughters about what's going on in Xinjiang

ABDUWELI: No, I don't do this because I don't want to hurt her. Like she loves her aunts and uncles, yeah. I didn't, but I want her to understand this as a communist party and the system issue, not the issue between Han Chinese and Uyghur. And I don't want to grow ethnic hatred to my daughter and to my daughter's heart. I want her to respect any kind of cultures, any kind of belief system, any kind of identity. I want her to love this world.

HEBAH: This episode was produced by Durrie Bouscaren and Alex Atack, with editorial support from Dana Ballout and myself, Hebah Fisher. Fact checking by Zeina Dowidar. Sound design by Mohamed Khreizat and special thanks to Abduweli and his family for sharing their story, and to Arienne Dwyer and Tim Grose. Bella Ibrahim is KC’s marketing manager.

Thank you too to our new Patrons this week; Huda and Sara. You’re making the production of stories like this possible. If you’d like to support our work, it’s We’ll put a link in the show description.

Next time on Kerning Cultures, a story from the UAE about a group of volunteer undertakers who help repatriate the bodies of foreign workers back to their home countries.

That’s in two weeks. Thanks for listening, until next time.



Interested in hearing more stories like this one? Support our work by becoming a patron for as little as $5 a month on Patreon (yes, perks included).