Writer, Editor, Author, Teacher. New York based. Fiction and nonfiction. Refining the written word since 2017.

Ürümqi revealed its true byzantine character while we searched for dinner. We hacked through the streets as if trying to solve some elaborate, accidental maze, making sudden rights and lefts, coming to abrupt stops, scratching our heads, then switching our direction with jolting three-point reversals and U-turns—every abrupt movement admonished by Aziz’s exasperated groans.

Ensconced in our luxury ride, it was all set to music.

Even during the day, charting yourself on a grid was next to impossible. You needed specifics: landmarks, odors, a uniquely shaped bank of rising smoke, a specific arrangement of coal trucks. Even in the heart of the city, you needed a rural sense of direction. Your travel guidebook couldn’t help you, neither could your mental map. Alleys became sudden thoroughfares that could arrive at a dead end or spill out into a congested plaza. The usual signs of road rage—cutting someone off or tailgating—didn’t raise a hackle, they were the norm. Yet no one lost their temper or screamed.

When these folks got behind their wheels, the polite masks I had seen at restaurants or in homes dissolved, revealing the nervy faces of fierce, apparent crabs thrown out of their bucket and into a maze, crawling and pinching and pulling at one another with red-handed derring-do. We weren’t alone. We were part of the communal lost. Everyone we passed seemed caught in the lostness at different depths: behind their wheels, pushing their carts; crowding around a fight, a fortune-teller, or a street merchant; skulking out alone or in gangs, hard looks in their eyes, a blur of worn humanity spinning against another blur of hot coals, smoke, steam, soot, blood, flame, animal flesh, and the grim angles of crumbling walls. And as soon as I thought we had oriented ourselves or discovered a way out, we were dragged right back in by the other crabs.

Fences everywhere channeled pedestrians and traffic along the streets, roads, medians, parks, sidewalks, and pathways, dissuading free movement and, God forbid, jaywalking.

Breaks in the fences allowed you to step out and cross the street without going blocks out of your way. Checkpoints appeared without warning, without reason, at all hours of the day. Military and police security, undercover vehicles, and every devising of personnel carriers coursed the streets, blinking with lights and blaring repetitive, soothing music and slogans appealing for social harmony from banks of loudspeakers. Areas designated as “troublezones”—that is, Uyghur neighborhoods—were assaulted by the strobes of an absurd number of motion-triggered cameras, clinging like bunches of mushrooms to the sides of utility poles and yearning to capture any sign of ethnic trouble. Constant surveillance badgered the citizenry and kept them on the move. It was unnerving.

A few days after our arrival, Rihangül’s younger brother, Rakipjan—a charismatic Bruce Lee meets Bugs Bunny sort of young man—and I had entertained ourselves amid the boredom of an afternoon traffic jam by punkishly raising our middle fingers at the cameras when the strobes went off. Our thrill seeking before the eyes of the authorities was more of a risk for him than for me. With China’s reputation for paranoid surveillance, I had to ask whether some Central Party someone, walled off in a cramped Central Party cubicle, was really scanning every image and tracing my wayward finger back to me.

In the windows of the passing security vehicles, at least a third of the occupants were asleep, their foreheads bouncing off the butts

of their rifles, or snoring at the tips of their batons, caught between the People and the Party.

We closed in on a restaurant called King’s Palace. Aziz informed us he could park anywhere he pleased because of his military plates. We parked at the base of the observation tower next to Erdaoqiao, a place where every spring Uyghur tightrope walker and national hero Adil Hoxur, the “King of the Sky” as he is known far and wide, takes his annual walk on-high above the square, to the delight of everyone. Once he was to perform in Kashgar near the Id Kha Mosque, and so many people arrived from all the towns and villages across Xinjiang that the Party cancelled his performance, fearing it would spark a revolt, and it just might have. Hoxur is a hero to Uyghurs and an attraction to Han Chinese and the rest of China’s minorities. Many tightrope walkers in these parts are orphans and were trained to walk the rope at a young age in what is regarded as an honorable tradition.

Aziz killed the engine and we got out. We walked a short distance past a Kentucky Fried Chicken, where the smug Colonel’s Kentucky charm had once sold me on the worst cup of coffee I had ever drunk. There weren’t many options in town besides Ciber Coffee.

Rounding a corner, we passed a favorite pomegranate juice stand where—even though it was an inconvenient distance from Rihangül’s apartment block—I had been coming to fill up at least three times daily. Rihangül and I scurried to keep up with Ahmat’s upbeat, athletic lope and Aziz’s rhythmic, energetic limp.

We walked under an archway and ascended the grand, banistered staircase into King’s Palace, one of Ürümqi’s top Uyghur restaurants.

It was a tony place, lush with ferns, vines, and potted trees, and furnished with rosewood booths, intricate carved walls, chandeliers, and kaleidoscopic, traditional ikat tablecloths. The polite host greeted us, hands clasped behind his back, surrounded by a coterie of male and female waiters, each dressed in a traditional Uyghur white, gold, and green tunic with a matching dopa, the square-faceted traditional Uyghur cap. He seated us in a booth on the far side of a large aquarium—a majestic, glowing blue spectacle heralding the center of the dining room. In it cruised a trio of small sharks—some dogfish or other squaliform—swimming back and forth, circling around and through one another, unblinking, mouths open, teeth bared, both beautiful and menacing.

The sharks' ceaseless, balletic flying about in the water was mesmerizing, choreographed by nature itself. If you could imagine them without teeth, they might have registered as “cute,” considering their size. But these sharks displayed waiting regiments of serrated teeth. And despite the deadness in their black eyes, they were alive to the last nerve. They loved and hated one another, rubbing against each other’s sandpapery skin, bonding and afraid to part, but quite willing to tear at each other’s flesh.

I had once reasoned if an animal was willing to eat one of its own or to eat you if the opportunity arose, it was quite acceptable to eat them first. But how detestable it seemed now to deprive a shark of its means of grace—its fins—and therefore, its life, in order to sate an extravagant lust for shark-fin soup. And these poor sharks were far from home: landlocked Ürümqi was known as “the farthest place from any sea.”

Our booth orbited at the edge of the sharkarium’s atmosphere.

Rihangül and I sat on the flank with a view of the streamlined beasts, leaving a gap between us so as not to rub signs of our relationship in our hosts’ faces. Ahmat and Aziz sat across from us. A dizzying Uyghur conversation erupted, and in the midst of it we perused the menu, made our choices, paid the bill, and waited for the food. That’s the way you do it in Xinjiang: you pay first . . .

Aziz' Land Cruiser was a superior ride—a Shangri-La on wheels. Outside it was as tough as a tank, but once inside it gave you the impression of being in a high-tech marshmallow. It was a welcome relief from the tiny, unsafe-at-any-speed, street-scraping tin can Rihangül’s family and I had been careening around in over the last few weeks—the music cranked, seven people distracted by song, not one eye on the road, no airbags (too expensive), not one seat belt fastened (bad luck), fueled by propane (the tank was bolted down right behind me), chance, and prayers, playing chicken with the hordes of offensive drivers jamming the city’s network of roads and uncontrolled intersections, and dodging everything in sight from coal trucks, buses, taxis, bicycles, bean readers (Xinjiang-style fortune-tellers), schoolchildren, police, and the swarms of rickety tuk-tuk contraptions carting loads of jiggling, unsuspecting, deliciously fat-assed sheep to their demise.

Our current vehicle was not that ride, and it turned the usual unhinged experience of driving in Ürümqi into a pleasure: quiet, powerful, pampering you in its slick leather interior with buttery, body-gripping seats, and protecting you with multiple airbags and a bump-eating suspension (as opposed to a bone-on-bone, nonexistent one) behind tinted—I assumed—bulletproof glass.

The SUV’s state-of-the-art surround sound system pumped out Uyghur Pop. The ubiquitous local genre juxtaposed ancient instruments with cutting-edge electronic ones and had its own Vegas-like star system replete with flashy, ’70s Elvis-inspired silk and polyester stage costumes. U-pop blasted from every cd shop, and it had grown on me—an unrepentant pop-hater—with its frenetic mix of earthy tradition and synthesized modernity. Dramatic, heartfelt, unaware of its own nostalgia, the music was kitsch but not old-fashioned, and its lyrics writhed with love or sadness, seldom stewed with anger or revenge, never spoke of revolution, and throbbed with arresting beats below the soulful, tight-lipped cries of its singers. It was what remained after more traditional forms, often viewed as rebellious, were consumed and digested by the Party’s censors. Buoyed by U-pop, the four of us floated untouchable across Ürümqi’s cutthroat traffic in our low-altitude Kevlar blimp.

I glanced around at the telling faces of my hosts. Ahmat, Aziz, and Rihangül were Uyghurs, the indigenous people of the Tarim Basin and Dzungaria, a people with deep, centuries-old, Buddhist-then-Muslim roots in the Turkic soils of the region, alongside other Central Asian peoples—Kazakhs, Tatars, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Kyrgyz.

The Uyghurs had unified under the pressures of history, military campaigns, territorial feuds, and more recently, land grabs, demolitions of their homes, disparate hiring practices, racial profiling, and disappearances—among sundry other oppressions perpetrated by the Han-dominated Communist Party and its Beijing-controlled police state. They tolerated the encroachment of the modern Han hordes from the east on their own ancient land, as it was renamed and reinvented out from under them by Beijing as Xinjiang, the “New Dominion.”

I sensed Aziz, Ahmat, and Rihangül had in one way or another suffered under the weight of that jagged, bloody history. It was the fiber holding the Xinjiang Uyghurs together, and I already felt it winding around my hubristic sense of individuality. An evocative breath captured the essence of this suffering: a deep, resolved exhalation I had in recent days dubbed “the Uyghur sigh.” I heard Uyghur sighs everywhere.

What I represented to them, I didn’t know. Aziz and Ahmat had never been to the United States or anywhere outside China. I had no idea what Beijing’s propagandists taught them about my nation’s history, culture, or people. It was all a flash in the pan compared to theirs.

Ahmat startled me by asking in careful English, “Ar yu hun gree?”

“He’e,” I said. “Yes. Siz chu? ”

“He’e,” Rihangül said and leaned toward Aziz. “Maqul. It is agreed,” she said. “Andrew guy is hungry, you are hungry, I am hungry. We are all hungry. Let’s go.”

Aziz and Ahmat nodded. I nodded back. I hadn’t met an Uyghur

yet without an enthusiastic appetite.

“Andrew guy, he can use chopsticks with he left or he right hand, andah he will eat or drink anything you put in front of him,” Rihangül said.

Her proclamations brought on more of Aziz and Ahmat’s admiring nods. I didn’t burn with my usual self-consciousness at being put center stage. Rihangül positioned me so the two men in the front could appraise me as I reposed in the external expression of my Greek–Norwegian ancestry.

“Andrew guy he, ah, looks Uyghur, he’e?” she said.

“He’e,” they said, nodding. “He looks Uyghur.” Their eyes flashed, their faces lifted with pride. Three flattering mirrors had surrounded me. “He even walks like an Uyghur,” said Ahmat.

They laughed. My wide, ready for anything, urban gait had, apparently, already impressed them. To be pulled into the embrace of the Uyghur fold in this way was a compliment. It had happened before and had puzzled me because from what I could conclude after padding around with the Uyghur Ürümqiliks, there was no uniform Uyghur look. Except for having an enthusiastic appetite in common—in that respect, I was Uyghur—their compliment was a crown I wasn’t sure how to wear.

Ahmat sat large, official, and incandescent in his seat, the constellation of high-tech dashboard instruments setting his dashing face and perfect white teeth aglow: he had been promoted. According to Rihangül, I was staring at the new Xinjiang Provincial Postmaster General. She had told me Ahmat had always done things by the book, was uptight even. Perhaps that was necessary to rise in the Party ranks, but tonight Ahmat was in a high, relaxed mood. How could he not be? The Party’s media apparatus was spinning him into fame. He had been making the rounds in a tailored three-piece suit, starched shirt, and silk tie, impressing everyone with his compliant nature and winning smile. It was big news for an member of the Uyghur minority to be promoted into a higher echelon of the Party. His eyes sparkled, and he had a good sweat going—whether from being baked under studio lights, from exhilaration or relief, I didn’t know, but he was excited to meet us and eager to celebrate. His good spirits were infectious, and I liked him.

Our driver, Aziz, from Ürümqi, sat coiled behind the wheel. He had spent his entire adult life in China’s army—the People’s Liberation Army—and it showed. His sharp,uneven jaw laid the groundwork for dark, even sharper eyes, eyes that couldn’t help but track you. His attention riveted to the task at hand, no matter how small, and he rarely smiled. He looked scrappy, but maintained a dead affect. Had he ever killed anyone? I didn’t dare ask him—and I couldn’t, given my anemic Uyghur. I assumed he was of rank, and that his deluxe vehicle was a PLA perk, one I was enjoying.

Both men were of significant accomplishments. Ahmat and Aziz would have had to have either risen above or sold out to find their place in the “New Dominion” of Xinjiang. Aziz bullied through traffic—scaring every driver out of his way—and sped us toward the grand Erdaoqiao bazaar, the epicenter of Uyghur Ürümqi.

Through the U-pop delirium, Rihangül and Ahmat informed

me Aziz was an ex-champion boxer in the Red Army—information followed by Aziz himself cracking a smirk in the rearview mirror.

“Impressive,” I said.

The jabs and uppercuts of the Uyghur tongue already knocked me punch drunk, and then they knocked me flat to the canvas, at the mercy of my too vivid imagination . . .

. . . I filled with dread as we suddenly skipped dinner (unheard of in Xinjiang), diverted, and found some hidden, back-alley den of trouble. Aziz got in my face as soon as we got there. He didn’t want to celebrate his friend’s success, he didn’t care; he wanted an English lesson. “You me English teach,” he said, brandishing stiff index fingers. Across the trouble den, now in each other’s arms, Ahmat and Rihangül smiled, threw their heads back, laughed, and embarked on a pleasing conversational journey back in time, clinking their glasses of French wine.

“You me English teach!” Aziz bawled.

I froze.

The sad tale of Aziz’s dream to learn English, a dream killed by his own father, boiled inside him. Such a dream would only invite the heavy-handed scrutiny of the authorities—the kind that doesn’t knock first—and visit shame, misery, and punishment upon his family. Instead of encouraging him, Aziz’s father banished him into the red-and-olive-drab belly of the Party beast—the army—where he was still stuck, a career Communist dead ender.

“I can’t teach you,” I said.

“What?” he huffed.

“I can’t teach you English. Understand? Can’t.”

“Can’t? What is this can’t ? Okay, okay. You me drink, we


We passed an entire bottle of liquor between us until it

was empty. The tension peaked.

“Well?” said Aziz.

“I already told you I can’t!” I said with a ruinous slur—I was so drunk I could barely speak English myself. “I’m sorry. Sa-ree,” I said.

“You me English no teach?!”


At that, he pounded his fists on the table and erupted with a life’s worth of frustration. He shoved me and, knuckles dragging, charged over and broke up Ahmat and Rihangül’s tête-à-tête, clocked his best friend in the jaw and insulted Rihangül for inviting me there to shame him. He collared the empty bottle, broke it against the wall, and marched me out. In the alley, I had no choice—I lost, spectacularly.

Back to reality.

Rihangül glanced over and noticed I had become glazed, mute, and sullen.“Woy! Andrew guy! What happened?”

“I lost.”


“I lost.”

“Lost? Lost what? Wake up yourself Andrew guy.” She poked me in the ribs. “Aziz and Ahmat want to take us out forah wonderful dinner. They admire you. They brought along something very special to celebrate Ahmat’s amazing promotion. They found it forah this occasion forah all of us to enjoy. They have to find the perfect environment. We cannot enjoy ourselves everywhere. Ürümqi has eyes maybe watching because of my friends’ respectable positions. I am a woman. They want me to enjoy myself too. That is another problem. We have to find a private room later. Okay?” Rihangül smiled.

“Okay,” I said. “Maqul.”

“Maqul, maqul,” she said.

I enjoyed Uyghur cuisine—from the staples naan and hand-pulled laghman noodles, to the outré sheep-lung-and-offal soup, to the palate-numbing da pan ji (big plate chicken) where an entire rather resplendent two-toned chicken is slaughtered, chopped to pieces, and stir-fried—feet, gizzards, and all—with several types of scorching hot peppers, and then combined with long, steaming flat noodles to conclude the meal. The Uyghurs I had met were skeptical of the idea of machines preparing their food, so Uyghur cuisine is usually prepared—and, if necessary, killed by hand within eyeshot of diners—using fresh local ingredients and served without fanfare . . .


up there

beyond sky

before rising sun


darker tides

along the sur

platinum dust

cerulean waves

tattoo soul

one then two then four then three

name it then

beautiful being

pushing wine

blood over table's edge

blue in a white room

the shade of fuzz

a simple name

echoing breath


companion on a train

black cups of coffee

clouded by milk

and flecks of gold

minutes to go

in the park

before it rains

salt in your caffeine

crumbs of dreams

beyond the peak

of sunsets

now we are calm

curl and flex


we count five









desperate breaths

yearn for dreams

in tempered strength

of lost embrace

trusted hands

grope damp and deep

'cross fields

and forests of hair

painted toes

fold and crease

pained prettified petite

newly plump

ridges of lips

soft as baby fingers

upward arcs

steal the corners

of luminous distant eyes



transcribes laughter

chasing radiance

contrails of ghosts

never smile

feel a thrill

found you

found me

we happened

smile upon

gaze upon

lie upon

shards and shades

strange ecstatic

found love

story speaks

versus mantra of love

echoing name

never cease


now come to be

what do you hear

Ürümqi— whose chantlike pronunciation “ur-um-chee” I found irresistible—was the capital of western China’s Xinjiang Province and sat in the tangled northern capillaries of the ancient Silk Road. It was the site, in 1870, of the Battle of Ürümqi, where Uyghur hero Yakub Beg, a Tajik by birth, seeking to expand his Turkic kingdom of Kashgaria, warred against the rebelling Chinese Muslims, the Dungans. In modern times, the city bloated with Han migrants from the east and pulsed as another chamber in the heart of China’s vast industrialization.

Rihangül’s evocative descriptions signaled she missed Ürümqi—they were captivating and had me missing Ürümqi too. She said I reminded her of the Uyghurs she knew there, she felt at ease with me, and she assured me I would make a wonderful guest. She didn’t remind me of anyone I knew, she made me nervous, and I wasn’t so sure about the guest part, as I typically traveled alone. A perfect match.

To my surprise, she urged me to fly to Ürümqi to meet her friends and family. I was easily convinced—leaving for unknown areas of the world thrills me. Rihangül’s invitation thrilled me so much that as soon as I got home from our evening out, I saddled up to my iMac and straightaway booked a ticket to her remote city. And now here we were.

We followed Ahmat’s directives along a now familiar stretch of Ürümqi street, searching for a pearl-white SUV trying to veer its way out of the wicked currents of Ürümqi traffic. Before long, the two of us were jogging toward the gleaming four-wheel-drive juggernaut as it idled on the sidewalk near a main intersection. In Ürümqi you can park as well as drive on the sidewalk, even during rush hour.

Once the vehicle’s occupants caught sight of us, it zoomed off the sidewalk and headed straight at us, led by retina-searing ultraviolet halogen lights. The handsome Land Cruiser bearing military plates— bold red Chinese hanzi characters, numerals, and a trail of red stars descending like tears alongside the last digit—rolled past and screeched to a stop near a huddle of suspended, bleeding sheep carcasses, a common, if initially jarring, sight in the city. We were about to be swallowed up into a vehicle belonging to the Red Army.

We approached and climbed into the rear seats, sharing energized but polite greetings with the evening’s hosts: Ahmat and his friend, the surly driver of the vehicle, Aziz. Rihangül gripped the back of the seats, elated to be in the company of her Uyghur peers. The three of them exploded into a dizzying conversation, laying bare the sonic delights of the Uyghur language.

I might as well have been wearing earplugs against their clamor (at my sharpest I caught, maybe, every twentieth word), but—over and over again—I conveyed my enthusiasm and appreciation, greeting them and introducing myself: “Yahkshimusiz! Americadin! New Yorklik! Ismingiz nimu? Mening ismim Andrew!” I wanted to test out a “Rahmat, Ahmat!” because I enjoyed the rhyme but restrained myself. Rahmat is the Uyghur word for “thank you.”

Ahmat beamed at Rihangül across the back of his seat, stupefied by her presence. The strapping guy was immediately comfortable to be around and a study in breadth with his broad smile, broad shoulders, big white teeth, giant hands, and the wide-open, slightly vapid charisma of a motivational guru. His monumental head grazed the ceiling, yet not a single hair was out of place.

As for Aziz—a roughly handsome wolverine of a man—if he weren’t hosting us, I would have avoided him on the street with his feathered hair parted in the middle, lopsided crag for a mouth, grotesque scar mangling the lower lid of one eye, and a second scar thwarted by his cheekbone—and thank God, because otherwise it would have connected his far eye to the corner of his mouth. Still, he wasn’t ugly. His generally homicidal demeanor obscured a peculiar charm. He studied us in the mirror, his head cocked at a painful-looking angle. He and Ahmat made an eccentric duo.

Rihangül whipped around to me. “Andrew guy my friends so excited to meet you. They never met an American before. You are they first. They said a friend of mine is a friend of theys. You can be they brother because I am like they sister!”

She spoke with a pleasant, quick, rolling cadence, even in broken English.

“Okay. Please tell them rahmat,” I said.

“You tell them from your side, Andrew guy. You speak

Uyghur very well.”

Rihangül had started calling me “Andrew guy” as soon as we arrived. “Rahmat,” I said.

“Rahmat,” they repeated, smiling politely and pressing their palms to their chests. Aziz thrust his hand into the back to shake mine. A pipe wrench would have had a friendlier grip . . .

An unusually warm and clear evening soothed riot-scarred Ürümqi, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the far northwestern province of the People’s Republic of China, a place known to some as East Turkestan.

It was October, and Rihangül and I were to meet an old friend of hers from college and go out on the town. Rihangül, whose name translated as “fragrant flower,” appeared from her room, fresh, sultry, an edge over thirty, and put together in a flamboyant silk blouse and tapered jeans between sleek black boots, storms of hair, and striking Egyptian eyes that stared right into you.

I paced around in her wake, disorderly in my jacket, shaven, travel-worn, caffeine deprived, a few lines traversing my face, some fat peeking over my belt—otherwise able bodied, but completely unfit for middle age. Rihangül was exuberant and decked out for good reason: her first time back in two years. She was home. I was also excited: it was my first time in Ürümqi.

Since arriving weeks earlier, I had learned that going out on the town in Ürümqi could mean almost anything. Rarely was I informed of any plans before getting stuck in the middle of them. Someone would fetch me—usually Rihangül’s precocious nephew, Abdul—from Rihangül’s apartment and whatever happened, happened. I knew my place as a guest. I handed over my trust and prepared for what came.

Already that week I had dined on boiled sheep’s feet drenched in black vinegar, attended a grisly but moving sheep slaughter at an Uyghur abattoir, survived an Uyghur-style dry shave with a straight-edged razor, enjoyed banana ice cream in an Uyghur creamery sutured into a bombed-out alley, and met the most famous face in Xinjiang: the renowned comedian/actor Abdukerim Abliz—funny at first sight and larger than life, a chain-smoker, and fully present with his bountiful moustache and hilarious wagging finger. We met Mr. Abliz at Ciber Coffee, with its charcoal-fired brew, opulent private rooms, and white piano rotating atop a mirrored pedestal. No-internet-access Ciber Coffee had become my favorite local haunt because it was my one and only reliable source of coffee.

Other outings included convening with Rihangül and her family as they wept over a relative’s death around a table piled high with lamb chops in a parkside Uyghur eatery, haggling at the bazaar with Rihangül and her Uyghur sistahs, and, to soothe the lingering effects of jet lag, visiting a gargantuan Han-owned twenty-four-hour spa with Rihangül’s sinewy teenage brother. There I donned diaphanous underwear—a hairnet for the groin—and enjoyed a hot bath in a subterranean pool populated by black fish who nibbled a subliminal fungus from between my toes while I polished off cans of insipid Chinese beer. I had also opted for a massage—more of a manhandling, really—by two Han Chinese masseurs, who attempted to charge me by the limb as they giggled in their own sheer panties at my attempts to negotiate with them.

Rihangül hadn’t seen her friend, Ahmat, in ten years. Ahmat came from Aksu, a smaller city 669 kilometers to the southwest, half the distance to Kashgar. He had attended the famed and exalted,

glorified and celestial Postal Service University in Beijing, graduated at the top of his class, and was now on the rise in the Escher-like

ranks of China Post, the moniker used by the State Post Bureau of the Postal Service of the People’s Republic of China. I didn’t suspect China Post was a front company for a prison. If it was, it certainly had a less sinister ring to it than the Western Xinjiang Brick Manufacturing Corps or the Eastern Xinjiang Raisin Processing Center.

Rihangül and Ahmat anticipated their reunion with hours of frantic texting and calling back and forth, which had us running all over Rihangül’s flat, then running around on the dark road outside the steel gate to her apartment block. The gate had once served as a barrier between a clash of knives and iron pipes during the bloody Han Chinese and Uyghur riots of July 2009. I didn’t know what their relationship had entailed, but Rihangül had his admiration and, it was rather obvious, his wonder. Ahmat was keen to see her because she had gotten out—out of the Chinese Communist Party and its

all-consuming bureaucracy, out of her cultural mold, out of China. She had become a liberated woman of the world.

Her exit had serendipitously become my entrance, and I couldn’t shake off the suspiciously prosaic way we had met a few months previously in a Manhattan bagel shop where, before I had interrupted her, she had been enjoying a bagel and writing backward, right to left, in flowing Arabic script, creating perfect stanzas—a yin to my yang of desperate scrawls that dwindle out toward the bottom in a torrent of black ink.

I wasn’t looking to add more plaits to my knotty life, but she looked interesting, both severe and ethereal, and was engrossed in another interesting activity: whispering forth in an unknown, rhyming language. And as it turned out, she was tangled in her own knotty life: she had lost both her grandmother and a brother in the same year and was still embroiled in an unhappy arranged marriage. She hoped to pick up the pieces in my hometown and move on.

One evening in the West Village, I recalled, we had attended a screening of Charlie Chaplin’s silent classic, Modern Times. In the film there is a scene where Chaplin, having become mechanized, extricates himself from his conveyor belt to take lunch, his arms still twitching with the mindless tics of an assembly-line hex-wrencher. Contorting along the street, he passes a buxom woman in a tight wool dress, hexagonal buttons deviously placed at the areolas. Your transgressive mind fills in the blanks.

The hilarious scene had put us both in a good mood. After the screening, as we wandered the Village, Rihangül lit a piquant Chinese cigarette and reminisced about the night markets, the mountains and rivers, the grand bazaar, the hospitality, and the delicious foods of her hometown, a place I had never heard of: Ürümqi . . .