“I’m an American. I love America”
September 21, 2001
By Alex Tizon
SHERIDAN, Wyoming — You know just by looking at his face that the past ten days have been much different for him than for most of us. He has brown skin, thick eyebrows, a handsomely aquiline nose over a dark mustache that curls around the corners of his mouth. His name is Zarif Khan Jr., a Pakistani-American and the head of the only Muslim family in town.
He has a lot on his mind. You get the impression he’s a gabber anyway, but now his gabbing has new purpose, not to mention that he’s the kind of guy who must begin every story from the very beginning, in pre-history. For context. So if you have three or four hours to hear, as war looms with Muslim extremists, what it’s like to be Muslim in a town that’s 98 percent white, conservative and Christian, he’ll tell you in a long, elliptical way that the town has been kind.
“These are my friends. This is my town. I’m an American. I love America,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”
Not that he isn’t nervous, or that the past week-and-a-half hasn’t been a wrecking ball to his gut. There have been a few minor incidents, which Khan shrugs off. A few nights ago, someone called the house and asked if he had Osama bin Laden’s e-mail address. There was laughter on the other end. It sounded like a group of youngsters huddled around a phone. No, Khan said. How about his cell-phone number? Khan hung up.
In the past few days, an old pickup has been seen chugging though town with a message made up of masking tape on the back fender: “Nuke the Diaper Heads.” It took a lot of strips of tape. Someone worked at it. Later, I found the truck parked outside an electronics store but couldn’t find the driver. Was it an adolescent trying to be patriotic or a patriot with anger to vent?
The biggest employer in town is the Veterans Affairs hospital. A lot of retired military live in the area. But it could easily have been someone nonmilitary, a rancher or miner, of which there are plenty in town, or just someone with lots of time and tape on his hands.
Sheridan lies on the eastern foothills of the Bighorn Mountains in the state’s northeast corner. It was named after a fearsome U.S. general named Phil Sheridan, whose most famous quote was “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” That was 140 years ago. The general long ago retired to the big Quonset hut in the sky, and the town, like much of the American West, has moved well beyond its wildness to something approaching tolerant, even enlightened, civility.
My skin is as brown as mocha and most everybody I met here over two days was friendly and helpful. But part of the ethos of the wide-open West is a tolerance for the maverick, which is the friendly cousin to the rogue. There’s room to veer from the politically correct path, space for the unconventional and weird. Ideas can ferment in isolation behind foothills and mountains or in the inner sanctums of a thousand-acre ranch. Some of those ideas may not be very nice.
You can be creative and eccentric, and say what you want. You can drink a half-pint of Jack Daniels and shoot marmots till you’re cross-eyed. You could say out loud, as someone did in a tavern here the other day, “the little faggot” Matthew Shepard — killed a few hundred miles south of here, outside Laramie, three years ago — got what he deserved, and no one will protest. Encountering a rogue and his buddies is what concerns Khan.
“It only takes one wacko to get drunk and do something stupid,” he says.
He’s noted, since Sept. 11, the only two suspected fatal hate crimes against Muslims or people who look Muslim have happened in the West and Southwest: A Sikh was killed in Mesa, Ariz., and an Arabic man was shot in Dallas.
But it would be an exaggeration to say Khan lived in fear. He’s been a wrestling coach for half his life and knows how to take a big man down, even at age 45 and with a belly that smothers his belt buckle. He worries more for his four kids and extended family. The family numbers around 80 in the region. They own a dozen roadside motels, with a 13th — a Motel 6 — being built.
The family is prosperous, the family name, one of the best-known in town. He heads the second generation of Khans in Sheridan County. His father, an uneducated laborer, left Pakistan in 1908, wandered by ship and rail into Sheridan, sold hamburgers, first from a cart, then out of his own restaurant, saved his money, did well in the stock market and fulfilled the American Dream that the present-day Khans continue to build on. It’s a mini-empire built on beef patties and top-secret sauce. Khan’s father, though nearly illiterate, knew that living well wasn’t only the best revenge but also the best defense against small-minded people.
The Khans have lived well and made a lot of friends. After the terror attacks, Khan’s phone line was jammed with townspeople calling to offer support and protection. One was a town councilman. Another came from the family’s Jewish pediatrician. The principal where his two teenage boys attend school told them if anybody as much as said anything mocking, he would take care of it.
Next door to his Sundown Motel, where he and his family live, sits the new headquarters of the Sheridan police department; some of the officers were once teenage drinking buddies of Khan’s.
Nevertheless, the past week-and-a-half have been emotional for the Khan family. He’s been riveted to the TV like the rest of us, but no doubt his experience has been more complex, if not more painful because it has cut in two directions. Along with his grief for the victims came a sinking realization that strangers would be looking at him and his family and all Muslims differently for a long time.
He refers to the terrorists as “sickos,” and yet skittering around in his private thoughts is a fraternal sympathy for the plight of Muslims around the world, and a nagging question that, once squeezed out, is expressed like this: “If America is the policeman of the world, why can’t it be a policeman for Muslims, too?”
Given the opportunity with the right person, he would ask this question plaintively, with no rage, and with the expectation that a good answer, or a good change, would come. He believes in America, he says: the idea, and the wide, sweeping, democratic mass of it. Last week, he took out an old flag, climbed to the top of his motel and stuck it where it could be plainly seen, above the front entrance. It was no Iwo Jima moment or anything, and it’s a droopy, wrinkled flag that’s seen better days, but it’s his flag, and every day since the attacks, walking out into the parking lot, he’s glanced up to make sure the wind hadn’t knocked it down.
As I left him, he was waving and scratching his belly. President Bush made the dead-or-alive comment and was winding up the machine for battle. War was creeping close, and I feared that harder times lay ahead for the Khans of our country.