The Khans of Sheridan. (Courtesy of the Khan family)

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.

Kathryn Shulz who brought the remarkable story of Zarif Khan to light, won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. (Photo by InkWell Management Literary Agency)

“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.”

Kathryn Shulz’s remarkable story “Citizen Khan” began when the author looked into the flap over the newly established Queresha Mosque in Sheridan. Members of the Facebook group “Stop Islam in Gillette threatened to disrupt the mosque by throwing bacon at its walls. (Photo by Miles Bryan / Wyoming Public Media)

Rone Tempest

Rone Tempest was a longtime national and foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. In 2004 he was part of a team of reporters to win the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the massive wildfires in Southern...

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  1. Kathryn Schultz has written an excellent piece about Wyoming history that we all should know about. And anyone is fortunate to experience the pleasure of reading such excellent journalism.

    Thank you, Ms. Bergie, for reminding us of the high calling of respect for all life.

    And for those who can only see negativism and fear at any mention of Muslims, I’m sorry for you. Radical Islamists pose the same kind of threat (but lower probability) that radical right wing hate groups do to the safety and security of all Americans. Just as we do not condemn all Americans or all Christians for the McVeigh bombing in Oklahoma City or the mass murder of worshipers in Charleston, South Carolina, it makes no sense to assume that all Muslims or all people from certain countries are a danger to us. The loss of life in America from Muslim terrorist incidents is regrettable and terribly sad for everyone affected, but a death by violence doesn’t somehow become worse because of the religion of the perpetrator, nor does a murderer’s church suddenly become the cause of the murder. We miss some of the best experiences in life if we close ourselves off to new friends and new experiences and new knowledge out of exaggerated fear and suspicion. There are statistics kept by various agencies and research groups that tell us where the most common threats to our lives come from, and attack by a Muslim person is very near the bottom of that list, less likely than rattlesnake venom or falling off a horse. Myself, I’ve chosen to have an irrational fear of rattlesnakes even though they don’t actually pose a common threat. And I drive my car even though that is a realistic threat to my life. In Wyoming, an attack by a Muslim person has about the lowest probability there is without being totally impossible. So why bother being afraid?

  2. I;m commenting as a Native American Indian; my people have been here from time immemorial – meaning before the treaties which have been broken many times by the USA; and yet, we are still here residing on a small portion of our native country in WY. Having experienced the effects of xenophobia since childhood here in WY, the equality state, I am sympathetic with the Khans and laud their strength and fortitude to live where they have chosen.

    We, as people, have a responsibility to each other to respect all living beings on this earth. Not only to each other, as the two-legged beings, but also to the four-legged, the deer, bear, dog, and other animals, as well to the winged beings, the birds; scaled beings, the fish, whales; and insects, bees, etc., who rely on the earth, a living planet, a living earth as it creates fresh air, clean water, and a nurturing environment for its inhabitants.

  3. While the Khans represent immigrants who have become Americans, the legitimate threat todays Muslims immigrants represent cannot be discounted. The FBI and CIA both state they cannot vet them with certainty, and ISIS has publicly stated they will use immigration to target Americans.

  4. People who point out bad things in the Koran need to read the Tora and the Christian Bible a little closer and deal with the parts that are equally out of step with modernity. for example the son and the grandson can be killed for the sins of the father? Really? There is a justification for owning slaves and the subservience of women. I’m pretty sure gays and Jews are also condemned in the Christian Bible. After all if you want to be technical they are all three version of the same religion. (Children of Abraham) The real point is the Khans have been here long enough to embrace modernity. The problems in the middle east represent a clash between modern thinking and rights and old world ignorance where a king and a religion control people’s behavior and they have no “natural rights” as expressed by John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and the the Founder’s of this Nation.

  5. It lazy journalism to dismiss the legitimate apprehensions of concerned Wyomingites instead of addressing their concerns with Islam.

    From the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics to the attack last week in Virginia the damage done to peaceful Muslims in Wyoming is hardly the result of men like Bret Colvin speaking their mind – it is the virulent violent acts of Islam itself.

    Wyominites are little served in this recycled navel gazing anecdotal effort by Mr. Tempest, what would be interesting would be finding out what parts of the Koran and Sharia Aftab Khan find extreme.

    The part where women are relegated to wards of the men?
    The part where gays are sentenced to death?
    The part where Jews are sentenced to death?
    The part where non-believers have to pay a tax, convert, or be murdered?

    Where is the real journalism?

  6. This Colvin guy is a extremist idiot, used to run a Facebook gun site, I left because of his ultra extremist postings and rants

    1. This “Colvin guy” served our country, put his life at risk for it, and this is the way you speak of him? This guy’s actually seen more violence than most likely any of us have seen or will have to see (hopefully). Are you a veteran, Mr. Sodders? If so, is that how you speak of a comrade?

  7. The Kahn family has been an inspiration to show people that Muslims are American just as much as any other religion and tolerance is acceptable in allowing everyone religious and ideological freedom! While media focused on negative attributes such as islamaphobia, racism, and all this negativity, the Kahn’s were focused on informing people of the truths behind there beliefs while showing patriotism towards our country! It allowed me personally to have a broader view! I thank them for there bravery and perserverance as ignorant people become informed citizens!

  8. It embarrasses me to have people like Brett Calvin in my community. I is one miserable person all the way around. I can not help but laugh with thinking he is actually serious about running for a commissioner seat. He is No one I would ever vote for.
    While I understand the fears many have it does not excuse them from using a little common sense and showing some human decency. I do not personally know the Khan family, but I have done business with them a few times and found them to be really decent people. It is a shame that this family have to deal with this.

  9. I have had business with Aftab and his family for a long time, and enjoyed working with them. They are very good people that care about their family, their communities, and are great to work with. They have worked hard to have the success they have had, and I wish them nothing but for that to continue! success!

  10. I went to school with Zarif and Fatima. Nice kids that put up with a lot of red neck ignorance but prospered none the less. All the best to them.

  11. I accidentally came across and loved the Zarif Khan story in the New Yorker. The losers not favoring equality should read it or perhaps better yet, just leave the Equality State.

    Khan is now a real piece of history. Another Pulitzer in the making for Schulz. Thanks to WyoFile for the followup. PS, someone should figure out his recipes.

  12. I grew up in Sheridan and “Louie’s” was always a favorite place for lunch, snack, or dinner, or a burger after the movies at night. His were always the best and he used a curved butcher knife to flatten them with. Watching him slice onions and pickles was a work of art he did it so fast; I was always amazed he did get a finger. In all the years that I was able to go down town by my self around 7, I never heard any one speak ill of Louie as every one knew him. Most people in our town didn’t know what a Muslim was about or didn’t care. During Rodeo time there would be cowboys lined up down the block waiting their turn to order. He and his family have been a main stay for the community. He was always great to the kids; he always asked; ‘what you want keed’? I’m sure many people remember good things about him and his family.

    1. I also remember Louie and going with my dad to get hamburgers. We loved he and his family and never even considered their religion. They were good, honest, hard working folks who gave a lot to our community. That is what America is all about.

  13. This was a great story about a lovely man I remember as working at a very fast pace, talking, joking-all the while: I was, maybe, 10; but he was so much fun, he was the best part of a trip to Sheridan.