The New Yorker magazine writer Kathryn Schulz’s remarkable story, “Citizen Khan” (June 6), about Wyoming’s one-hundred-year-old Muslim community began modestly as reporting on a tawdry flap over a new mosque in Gillette.
Unemployed oil field mechanic and Wyomingite Bret Colvin, 49, had raised an ill-informed stink — mostly through social media tirades — about the Queresha mosque near the Gillette golf course.
“I don’t want Jihadis in my neighborhood,” he told Wyoming Public Radio reporter Miles Bryan in December.
Colvin, a Roman Catholic and ex-Marine, created the Facebook group “Stop Islam in Gillette” that recently listed 389 members. Some of his followers posted attacks on Islam and threatened to disrupt the mosque by — among other defiling acts — throwing bacon at the mosque walls.
Some in Wyoming’s Muslim community calmly responded, notably Aftab Khan, a University of Wyoming molecular biology graduate and regional hotel chain operator who was born in Sheridan. Aftab Khan attempted to engage the xenophobes, noting that his family had been in Wyoming almost as long as Colvin’s and were solid citizens.
“My entire family participated in some kind of sport or debate team; school councils; public boards,” Aftab Khan, 41, said in a recent interview. “We’ve participated in a lot of different arenas. This one particular guy (Colvin) is just stirring up a lot of crap.”
Acting to defuse the situation, Gillette Mayor Louise Carter-King earlier this year called in the FBI to investigate the “Stop Islam” movement and things have calmed down since.
“I’ve been asked what are you going to do about the mosque and the Muslims,” Carter-King told WPR. “Well, I feel we are here to protect them just as we do anyone else.”
Using the mosque controversy as the entry point into her story, Schulz dug deeply into the early Muslim presence in Wyoming and found the astonishing, exhilarating yet often troubling tale of Afghan immigrant Zarif Khan. Others had touched on this story, notably Montana radio reporter Clay Scott, a former foreign correspondent who captured a piece of this history in an April 2012 report, “The Legacy of Zarif Khan” for his series Voices of the Mountain West.
While acknowledging Scott’s contribution and that of the Sheridan Press newspaper, which reported key points in the Khan saga, Schulz took the tale to an entirely different level. Given the rising pitch of Islamophobia in Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric, her story has special resonance today.
“I assure you I was surprised as any reader about what the story turned out being,” said Schulz, who won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for “The Really Big One,” an earlier New Yorker article about Pacific Northwest’s Cascadia fault line.
Zarif Khan, a Sunni Muslim born in what is now the Northwest Territories of Pakistan near the Khyber Pass, arrived in Sheridan in 1909 as an itinerant “hot tamale” vendor. He went on to become one of Sheridan’s most popular and recognizable citizens — “Louie Tamale” —until his tragic stabbing death on a return trip to South Asia in 1964.
Khan and his Afghan-born wife Fatima had six children, all but one of whom were born in the United States.
Their daughter Zarina, now 57 years old, had six children of her own, all of whom attended Sheridan High School. Several were outstanding athletes for the Sheridan Broncs football and boys and girls basketball teams. One son is now a wide receiver coach for the University of Utah. Another trains NFL athletes in Houston. A daughter is a physician’s assistant with ambitions to attend medical school. Four of the children graduated college and the youngest boy will be a Sheridan College freshman in the fall with hopes of following his sister into medicine. Zarina and her husband own and operate the Holiday Lodge Motel in Sheridan. It would be hard to find a more successful Wyoming family than the Khans of Sheridan.
Meanwhile, more than 30 Khans, mostly relatives of Fatima Khan, now live in Gillette and were instrumental in establishing the Queresha Mosque in a converted house last fall.
In addition to documenting one of Wyoming’s earliest Muslim families, Schulz was also able to portray what may have been a more tolerant time in our Wyoming community, at least with regard to Muslims. Zarif Khan was a beloved figure. His small café, famous for its hamburgers and tamales, was a gathering place for all strata of the community.
When times were tough, Zarif Khan was good for a free meal. He gave one of his customers money to buy a wedding ring. In his more playful moments, Zarif stripped off his shoes and raced Sheridan cowboys barefoot down Main Street. “At the moment I first heard that story I loved it and was very struck by it for all kinds of reasons,” said Schulz. “In a life characterized by very, very hard work and selflessness, is this moment of real play and joy.”
There were terribly rough moments for Zarif Khan. In 1926, he was stripped of his American citizenship under the racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which federal courts had determined to include South Asians like Zarif Khan. Enduring one of the cruelest eras of American immigration law, Khan did not win back his US citizenship until 1954.
“One of my purposes as a writer,” said Schulz, “was to show how remarkable it was that this man’s life intersected directly with this terrible era in American history, where we were denaturalizing citizens.”
Generally, however, Schulz presents Khan’s experience, at least in the small town of Sheridan, as one of acceptance by the local population with no or little concern over his Muslim faith and heritage. Would a Zarif Khan find the same level acceptance in Wyoming today?
“I think it is unquestionably true that Sheridan Wyoming in 1909 was a shockingly cosmopolitan place and certainly in many ways as diverse and accepting of its diversity as it is today,” Schulz said . “There was a Chinese community, there was a Polish community, and there was an Italian community. You had at that time the railroad coming through, and the mines. There were actually a lot of very different people meeting and mingling in Sheridan. And some older residents will tell you that it was a more diverse and welcoming place 50-60 years ago than it is today, which is not to cast aspersions on it today. I didn’t have a sense of it being a particularly difficult place today.
“But I think we are fooling ourselves if we look back on the era as some kind of idyll and our era as exceptionally bigoted and vicious,” Schulz said. “You know, I resist in both directions. I don’t really believe in progress-narrative history. I don’t think that everything is inevitably getting better all the time and that we are so much more enlightened than we were 100 years ago when Zarif Khan first showed up in Wyoming.
“But while I don’t buy into this kind of nostalgia, I would be remiss if I did not say that yes, absolutely, I think we are living right now through a moment of deliberate and conscious stirring-up of conniption impulses toward mistrust and fear, a lot of it in the form of racism and Islamophobia.
“The Khan family members and others who I spoke with in Wyoming were very explicit that this has gotten worse since Trump. We have a national rhetoric right now that is legitimating Islamophobia, legitimating hatred, that is making long-standing, multi-generation American citizens the target of fear and suspicion and hatred.”