On his last night in the city of Ürümqi, Abduhemit Abdukeyum didn’t have much time. He couldn’t say goodbye to his friends, his relatives, not even his own mother. All he could do was buy a plane ticket and leave.
It was April 2017. Abdukeyum, who is now the owner of the Dolan Uyghur restaurant in Washington, D.C., was dodging persecution by the Chinese government. He’d lived in the territory he knew as East Turkestan, called the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region by the Chinese state, for his entire life. Abdukeyum had worked in medical research before starting a business of his own, but by 2017, the government put his company “upside down,” as he put it one day in September. “So I had to flee to another country and then start over again,” he said, speaking through his translator, Sabit Jelil (who is also the restaurant’s manager), in his mother tongue of Uyghur.
He couldn’t say goodbye to his friends, his relatives, not even his own mother. All he could do was buy a plane ticket and leave.
As a Uyghur man, Abdukeyum belongs to a minority Turkic, primarily Muslim population that has faced a history of state-sponsored suppression and maltreatment within China. Xinjiang is home to at least 11 million Uyghurs, according to a figure from 2019. In recent years, an estimated 1 million of those Uyghurs have been subject to mass detention in re-education camps.
In recent years, an estimated 1 million of those Uyghurs have been subject to mass detention in re-education camps.
On that night three years ago, Abdukeyum drove to the airport and left his car there. The endgame was America, where he, his wife, and two children planned to seek asylum. He arrived in the United States later that April, settling in the Washington metropolitan area. But the transition wasn’t easy. “First 18 months in America, it was so hard for us — for me, also for my family,” Abdukeyum said. There was so much he didn’t know about his new home: the rules of its society, the language.
Abdukeyum spent his initial months in the United States learning English and studying all he could about life in this land. In 2018, he heard that the original owners of Dolan Uyghur, an acclaimed restaurant in D.C.’s Cleveland Park neighborhood, were looking to sell. The restaurant had opened in 2017 to positive notices from publications like The Washington Post. Abdukeyum didn’t hesitate. Taking over the restaurant made perfect sense to him; he’d operated businesses of his own back home, while his language skills also made the job a logical fit. Abdukeyum saw the restaurant as an opportunity to tell Washington, D.C., about his people.
Since assuming ownership of Dolan Uyghur in September 2018 (he retained some of the preexisting staff), Abdukeyum has acclimated to his adoptive home. With Dolan Uyghur, Abdukeyum and his team of six full-time employees have pushed a cuisine that is still largely underrepresented in America. The Uyghur diaspora in the Washington metropolitan area is tiny; a 2019 figure from the Uyghur American Association puts that number around the 1,500 mark. Today, Dolan Uyghur is one of a handful of Uyghur restaurants in the wider D.C. metropolitan area alongside Marco and Polo in Hyattsville, Maryland, and Eerkin’s Uyghur Cuisine and Kiroran, both in Fairfax, Virginia.
Dolan Uyghur spotlights a number of staples of Uyghur cuisine, such as hand-pulled lagman noodles, the long ribbons dressed in sesame oil and garlic sauce, served with diced cucumbers or meat. There are spiced lamb kebabs on skewers; samsa, or pockets of minced beef and onions capped with sesame; and oven-baked naan, fresh with the scent of butter.
Given the hardships that life has thrown Abdukeyum’s way, perhaps it’s no surprise that he accepted the difficulties of the Covid-19 pandemic with clear eyes. He described those early days in the spring when the pandemic began as “so scary.” Abdukeyum was worried about everything: his personal expenses, the mortgage on his home in Virginia, whether his business would even survive.
But Abdukeyum didn’t close the restaurant. Instead, Dolan Uyghur subsisted on carryout and delivery orders through UberEats, GrubHub, and DoorDash. This strategy could only accomplish so much — business dipped to a quarter of what it was pre-pandemic. “We had difficulty to support the rent with that income,” Abdukeyum said.
The fear was only temporary. In April, he applied for a grant through the Paycheck Protection Program. The restaurant received the grant in May, which helped the team find its footing again. “After I received that help, I began to feel more confident for the future,” Abdukeyum said.
‘After I received that help, I began to feel more confident for the future,’ Abdukeyum said.
In late May, the city’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, began to permit outdoor dining; the following month, Bowser announced the second phase of D.C.’s reopening plan, which would allow restaurants to seat patrons indoors at 50 percent capacity. By July, Dolan Uyghur opened up for both outdoor dining and half-capacity indoor seating following those stipulations.
Abdukeyum expresses gratitude to the surrounding community for keeping the business alive through those anxious months. “We get a lot of support from neighbors in the Cleveland Park area,” he said. Most patrons aren’t of Uyghur origin. Abdukeyum said these customers have a particular fondness for goshnan, a round and frisbee-flat pie stuffed with meat and onions, along with piter manta, steamed buns of spiced beef and onions.
Abdukeyum sees his mission as ambassadorial. So many in the United States may only understand Uyghur culture through the prism of oppression: camps, detainment, surveillance. Though Abdukeyum is quite forthcoming about the conditions that brought him to America, he also makes a point of educating diners about his heritage. “We explain the culture,” he said. “We explain the history as much as we can.”
Abdukeyum sees his mission as ambassadorial.
Operating Dolan Uyghur has also rekindled the memories Abdukeyum carried with him from Ürümqi to D.C.: memories of the fresh vegetables plucked from the garden at his home in the city of Ghulja, memories of the slaughter of lamb. Being in another country can’t erase those parts of his past. Abdukeyum is still, after all, most comfortable speaking in Uyghur.
Two years have passed since Abdukeyum assumed ownership of the restaurant. The pandemic posed a novel challenge for him, but with time, he developed a different outlook on the scenario than the one he had in March. He now has faith that the growing audience in his new city for Uyghur food, the food of his people, will see his business through. “I still have hope in my heart,” he said.
Mayukh Sen is a writer in New York. He won a James Beard Award and IACP Award for his food writing. He teaches food journalism at New York University. His first book, on immigration and food in America, will be published by W.W. Norton & Company in fall 2021.