The Best Essay I Read This Month: “Citizen Khan” by Kathryn Schulz

Author: | Posted in Nonfiction, Reading, Series No comments


It is a good thing that Kathryn Schulz’s “Citizen Khan” was published in The New Yorker, because it is so eerily textbook perfect a piece of longform feature writing that had it come through a lesser fact-checking department, I might have worried some of the details were made up.

“Citizen Khan” is the lost-and-found tale of an Afghan immigrant who gained fame (sort of) and fortune (definitely) selling tamales in frontier Wyoming in the first half of the 20th Century. More broadly, it is the tale of Wyoming as a young state, of how immigrants are inextricable from the fabric of our nation’s history, and of how Muslims have long been helping shape our culture despite the current wave of Islamophobics mistakenly thinking they’re something new.

It is also, first and foremost, a feat of reporting, which is a pleasure to realize because it really didn’t have to be—there are so many interesting nuggets lying around on the surface, easily scooped up, that a good, fun story could have been written on the topic without going nearly as deep or doing nearly as much work as Schulz did. But she did, and so instead of being just good and fun, the resulting story is one of the best things I’ve read all year.

Seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, Khan began prepping at ten, opened the window at eleven, and served food until midnight or one or whenever the last of the bar crowd went home. It also helped that he would serve anyone. Sheridan in 1919 was still the kind of place where businesses posted signs saying “No Dogs or Indians Allowed,” but Native Americans were welcome at Louie’s. Some of them, in consequence, became strikingly loyal customers. Joe Medicine Crow, the scholar and Second World War hero, who died this past April, at a hundred and two, loved Khan’s burgers so much that, on his way home to Montana after the war, he hopped off the train during a thirty-minute stop in Sheridan and was still down at Louie’s eating when it pulled out again—much to the dismay of his mother, who had organized a town-wide celebration at his home station.

The attention to old newspapers and court records is crucial, because it allows Schulz to tell Khan’s story in full (as as close to it as we’re likely to get), and so do justice to the portrayal of Muslim-Americans as a cultural influence through one of their most colorful and well-loved (by his peers at the time) symbols. She teases out the life story of Khan (or Hot Tamale Louie, as he was known) slowly, interspersed with the relevant cultural and political events of the day, and with the climate of hostility Muslims face now, in our own time.

In reality, Khan never went to Mexico and was not taught his trade by anyone from Latin America. Instead, in becoming Louie Tamale, Zarif Khan also became part of a curious piece of culinary, labor, and immigration history: an entire network of Afghan tamale vendors who, from roughly 1900 to 1920, sold their wares on the streets of nearly every city in the West, from small-town Wyoming all the way up to Alaska.

Tamales are old, as food goes; they preceded Columbus, and possibly Christ. They originated in Mesoamerica, likely courtesy of the Maya, and were the carry-out food of their day, much prized by soldiers, hunters, and other hungry people on the go. By the time Europeans got to the New World, tamales could be found, at a minimum, in much of Central America and throughout Mexico. As late as 1884, however, they were sufficiently unfamiliar in the United States that the Associated Press felt compelled to refer to them thus: “A queer article of food, locally known as ‘tamales.’”

By the time you get to the reason Khan’s nearly forgotten name had resurfaced in the news last year—Islamophobic protests at a Sheridan, Wyoming mosque by those under the mistaken impression that Muslims were new to the area (plus bent on world-domination)—you’ve been taken through such an incredible narrative of the Khan family’s role in Sheridan Wyoming during the course of the entire 20th Century that Schulz doesn’t need to tell you how ignorant the final statement in this paragraph is:

Like the Khans, Colvin’s family has been in the West for a long time, though it represents a very different strain of the American character. “There’s been Colvins in Wyoming since the wagon-train days,” he told me. “My great-grandfather used to shoot Indians for the cavalry for five dollars a head.” That conduct—the effort by a group of newcomers to subdue or eradicate their predecessors through violence—is precisely what Colvin fears from Muslims. He believes that they are planning a violent invasion of America, and considers himself personally responsible for trying to stop it. That is why, he told me, he went to investigate the mosque after it opened. “I’m one of those people that just does stuff, O.K.?” he said. “I went down there and beat on the door and asked them who the hell they were and where they came from and what they were doing. They said, ‘We’re the Khan family.’ I said, ‘Well, that doesn’t mean anything to me.’

There’s even a tasteful Trump dig toward the end, about the danger of putting up walls. This essay is a portrait of a man that grows into a portrait of his family, his culture, his race, and finally the entire nation. It is a sweet story, both happy and sad. Like our current racial predicament, Schulz leaves Khan’s story unfinished: “History does not record who won.”