June 5, 2016 by AK
Citizen Khan, the long article by Kathryn Schulz in The New Yorker, shrinks the embarrassing elephant at the center of the story to the size of a cuddly wee rabbit. In 1953, the 65- or 66-year-old Mr. Khan, whom the author strives to portray as an exemplary new American, traveled to his native region in Pakistan, married a 15-year-old bride (an arranged marriage according to the author), brought her back to the US and proceeded to have six children by her. All of which was undoubtedly very XX century American, especially the child/slave bride.
The article is well worth reading, whatever one might feel about the author’s reasoning. The story goes like this. Born around 1887 near the Khyber Pass, in the North-West of British India, Zarif Khan settled in Wyoming in 1909 and started making and selling tamales (“… in the Rocky Mountain West the tamale trade was dominated by men from Afghanistan”). His predecessors were nicknamed “Hot Tamale Louie.” Accordingly, Khan was soon known as Louie to his customers. In 1925, he applied for US citizenship.
The citizenship hearing was held on November 6, 1925… On February 2, 1926, the paperwork came through, and Louie became a citizen…
…[O]n August 12, 1926, U.S. Attorney Albert D. Walton… filed a suit alleging that Khan’s naturalization was “illegally procured”…
His citizenship was challenged at a time when the courts had consistently held that whiteness was a requisite quality in a new American, and one that Afghans lacked… On December 30, 1926, a judge declared him “forever restrained and enjoined from setting up or claiming any right, privilege, benefit, or advantage whatsoever” of U.S. citizenship… his naturalization was cancelled, and the form on file with the court was emended to read “member of the yellow race.”
“Only in America,” one is tempted to say: outside of the fascist decades, what other Western country has ever had its immigration laws unapologetically worded in such bluntly racial terms? What other country’s highest court has had to rule on who is white and who is not? The same ends could have been achieved by country quotas, which might also be racist in essence but less embarrassingly so in appearance.
After WWII, overt racism went out of fashion:
…[O]n May 4, 1954, the federal government conferred upon Khan the privileges and duties it had once forever enjoined him from claiming.
Did Zarif Khan have reasonable grounds to expect that he would soon regain citizenship when he married in 1953? This is how his life changed that year:
The year before [apparently 1953], he had travelled to Pakistan and returned home a married man. The marriage was an arranged one; the bride, Bibi Fatima Khan (no relation), was fifteen years old.
I know it still happens – anecdotes of subcontinental programmers bringing in their barely legal (if the passport age is correct) “brides” – but in 1953? During the triumph of modernity and the melting pot? And did Congress have the slightest idea that some citizenship applicants might engage in practices not merely un-American but unacceptable in any Western society at that time? For Zarif Khan, for all his contributions to Wyoming’s prosperity, remained a man from a different universe, an alien in the literal sense of the word. It also appears that the age of consent for women in Wyoming was 18 in the early 1950s, but enforcement was selective.
“[I]in the course of the next eleven years, the couple had six children.” Khan’s widow persevered and prospered, in an American way. But most of her children now want to see a mosque built in Gillette, WY, and are surprised at some locals’ hostility.
Are they happy with the Quranic teaching on underage marriage and its interpretation in Pakistan and Afghanistan?