The Reciter: A Uyghur family’s pride — and downfallMay 05, 2021
It took him three years, but finally, at the age of 14, Nurali recited the entire Quran. This, he remembers, was one of the happiest days of his mother’s life. Over the phone she told him how proud she was. How he had brought so much joy and honor to his family. He was a living Quran, his life itself part of a sacred tradition that had been passed on for centuries. Now he became Nurali Qari — Nurali the Reciter.
Nurali was living with his aunt in Cairo at the time . . .
He did not know that his pursuit of something that would make his mother so happy would result in an Interpol “red notice,” Chinese authorities deeming his family members “terrorists” — and, for his mother, a 16-and-a-half-year prison sentence.
The last time Nurali saw his mother Mehire was in 2015. She came with his father to Egypt after Nurali had been studying the Quran for one year. Mehire visited not only to see her son, but also her sister, Mewlude, who just had a baby.
The trouble began in mid-2016. The police started to call Mahire into the station and ask about Nurali. They told her to “make him come back” over and over again, Mewlude recalled. They said, “He is young and is required to still be in school.” They did not recognize that Nurali was still in school and that every year hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens send middle schoolers abroad to study.
From others in the Uyghur community in Egypt, Mewlude heard that returnees were disappearing upon arrival back in China, so she decided not to return, even though her family was being pressured by authorities back home. At this time, Nurali was nearly finished with his training as a qari. Mahire stopped sending money, hoping that Chinese authorities would give up.
But this was not the case. Sometime in 2017, just months after Nurali became a qari, Chinese authorities issued a “red alert” on Interpol — which at the time was led by the Chinese official Mèng Hóngwěi 孟宏伟 — for Mewlude and her husband, declaring them “fugitives” (táofàn 逃犯) wanted on “terrorism” charges. Civil servants pasted a “three evil forces family” label on the door of Mahire’s apartment in Urumqi. In one of her final messages that the family received, Mahire said, “Please don’t be surprised if I disappear. No matter how hard I try, I am going to be taken away. Horrible things are happening now. When I walk down the street the neighbors avoid me. They just turn away.”
One night in 2018, the Atush police came to Ürümqi to take her away. “We thought it was just like the other times where they kept her in the police station overnight, but this time it was different,” Mewlude said. “She just disappeared.”
Between that time and December 2019, no one in the family knew where Mahire was. Then someone spotted a notice posted by the Atush People’s Court that read: “On May 13, 2015, Mahire Nurmuhemmed used her bank card to remit 8,650 yuan in financial support to Mewlude Nurmuhemmed and Memet’eli Imam (fugitives suspected of endangering national security) in Egypt.” It said that Mahire had used the services of a Hui man who facilitated support for the Uyghur community in Egypt to send the money. The court document failed to note that, at the time when Mahire sent the money to her sister, she had no idea Mewlude would be deemed a terrorist — the term used over and over in the court document to describe her and other Uyghur students — two years later.
A few months later, another family friend contacted Mewlude and told her that Mahire had been sentenced to 16 and a half years in prison because she had financially supported her son’s studies in Egypt.
Mewlude and the family left Egypt for Turkey in April 2017, since there were signs that it was becoming dangerous to stay there and it became hard to find jobs. In Turkey, they had a bigger community and more opportunities. In July 2017, the police in Cairo began to round up and deport Uyghur students. The students who have returned to China have disappeared.
In Turkey, Nurali is preparing for his college entrance exam. He tries not to think about his mother too much. “It just makes me too sad. Sometimes it feels like more than I can bear.” He tries to cling to the memory of his mother’s happiness when she heard the news that he had become a qari, but bearing the weight of Islamic tradition and the honor of his family is a lot for a young reciter to carry.