Felicia R. Lee is a former New York Times reporter.
It took about two minutes in 2016 for Khizr Khan to become a celebrity and a national symbol. He was a grieving Gold Star father whose son died for his country in Iraq. He was an unstintingly patriotic Muslim American immigrant. He was a Hillary Clinton supporter who managed a live-TV beatdown of Donald Trump by whipping out a pocket-size U.S. Constitution and defiantly inviting Trump to read it.
The past is prologue: Khan was back in the news recently when Trump became involved in yet another imbroglio with a Gold Star family. This time, an African American widow accused the president of insensitivity because he did not seem to know her husband’s name during a condolence call.
Khan, a Harvard-trained lawyer, was simply another Gold Star father before delivering a short but electrifying speech during the Democratic National Convention. With his wife, Ghazala Khan, standing silently by his side, he spoke of losing his middle son, Humayun Khan, 27, in 2004. The younger Khan was an Army captain killed by a car bomb as he tried to save others.
“You have sacrificed nothing and no one,” Khizr Khan told the man who would become president and go on to impose a travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries. Khan’s acclaim only intensified after Trump seemed to bully his family, suggesting, for instance, that Ghazala Khan had not been allowed to speak at the convention and that Clinton’s staff had written Khan’s speech.
Now, in his book “An American Family: A Memoir of Hope and Sacrifice,” Khan gets the chance to quietly tell his story, away from the klieg lights and easy (if sometimes misguided) symbolism.
If the Khan depicted in his memoir is as guileless as he seems, then he is far from the hero of partisan politics some want him to be. Nor does he offer a prescription for what ails us here across the fruited plains. Rather, appalled by Trump’s divisive rhetoric, Khan asked himself, “What would Humayun do?” as he and Ghazala and friends carefully weighed the possible downsides of speaking at the convention. The deal was sealed after Khan received a letter asking for his help in stopping the deportation of a fifth-grader named Maria; the letter was written in a child’s hand by a friend of Maria’s.
One wishes that Khan drilled deeper to help us understand how a brown-skinned Muslim son of Pakistani parents could remain so ardently idealistic in the face of the searing contradictions in the American experiment. Still, his story is moving, and his voice is needed in these fractious times.
As the Atlantic reported this summer, American Muslims see themselves as widespread objects of hostility, based on polling data from the Pew Research Center. Seventy percent said there is “a lot” of discrimination against Muslims in the United States. The article notes that half the U.S. population says Islam is not part of “mainstream American society.” Researchers found that 65 percent of Republicans and 72 percent of white evangelicals perceived a natural conflict between Islam and democracy.
Khan, born in 1950, came to the United States in 1979, before 9/11 and the national debate over Islam. The forces that shaped his attitudes about this country began long before he set foot on U.S. soil. At the beginning of his memoir, he recalls a night with his grandfather, a wise and kind man who gave him words and a philosophy to live by.
Khan grew up poor on a farm in Pakistan. “One sweltering summer night when I was eight or nine years old, he sat on the edge of my cot and paraphrased some Rumi: ‘So what if you are thirsty? Always be a river for everyone.’ ”
By his telling, that is pretty much what Khan did with his life.
He became the first in his family in many generations to go to college, navigating law school at home and then a master of laws program at Harvard. He writes of taking into his family home lost souls from various backgrounds. His family life with his stay-at-home wife and three sons is placid and uneventful, focused on hard work and good deeds.
The United States, though, is the real star of this memoir. The first American Khan ever met, in his first professional job (as a legal director for an offshore drilling company in Dubai), set him up in an apartment with three pillows on the bed (“more than I’d ever slept with”) and a tub in the bathroom, which he had never had before.
“Were all Americans like this? Is this what that country, with its freedoms wrought from rebellion, produced? Did a nation of laws, of equal dignity for all, instill in its people a basic goodness?” Khan writes.
“The American experiment is the ideal to which all people aspire,” he writes near the end of his tale. He adds later: “Perhaps not in the particulars of policy or politics, but . . . in the elegance of the original ideals.”
Khan’s love affair with America and the Constitution began when he was a student in Pakistan. His description of the phrase “Declaration of Independence” is almost erotic: “Those were curious words, the way they were arranged into an aggressive noun,” he writes. “I rolled them around in my head. To declare your independence. I declare my independence. My spine tingled, straightened, a quick involuntary spasm. I’d grasped, in that moment, a remarkable insight, a great and improbable truth I’d never conceived to be possible.”
The very idea that Americans possessed “unalienable rights” — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — was likewise astonishing to the young Khan.
“The thing is, those truths were not remotely self-evident,” he writes. “Not to a young man in Pakistan and not to most people in the whole of human existence. It did not matter if men were created equal.”
Khan writes with economic grace and clarity. The story of his courtship of Ghazala, who is several notches above him on the social ladder, is sweet; it offers a peek into the constraints of Pakistani society that existed without the benefit of the sexual revolution.
Later in the memoir, the family’s loss of Humayun is starkly rendered and gripping. Ghazala was swallowed by grief, while Khan spent days convincing himself that the Army had made a mistake about their child’s death.
Then: “My son was in a coffin. I saw him, looked at him, stared at him. He was my son. My beautiful boy.”
As is their way, Khan and Ghazala ended up attending the services of other fallen soldiers and began inviting service men and women into their home for meals.
Certainly, Khan will unforturnately serve as an example of a kind of “model minority” that too many Americans require. That is not his problem. The term “model minority” is the majority’s finger-wagging way of saying how minority-group members need to behave to win majority approval. The condescending term is often used to beat up on minority groups that fall short.
Khan’s story matters because Americans need to listen hard to one another, especially as questions of inequality have gained renewed visibility. Stereotypes and worn tropes (about every group) resonate for too many and bounce too easily across biased social media. Khan offers a valuable perspective as we continue to debate what kind of country we want to be.
By Khizr Khan
Random House. 271 pp.