The Khans Take Me Home to Coal Country

Watching Khizr and Ghazala Khan out-duel Donald Trump these last few days, I was, like everyone else, moved and impressed by this immigrant couple.

But, as I watched them in multiple interviews over the weekend, I couldn’t shake how familiar they seemed. Something inside me said, “I know you.” And something about them made me think of the small town I grew up in.

We didn’t have any Pakistanis in Crabtree, Pennsylvania in the 1970s. And, I doubt there are any there now. Or Muslims of any kind. But when I was a kid, we still had a fair amount of old people who were born in the 19th Century and immigrated to America in the early part of the 20th Century. I would see them around town, walking to get their mail at the post office or leaving the social club at the Volunteer Fire Department in late afternoon. They were contemporaries of my grandparents. Some of the men were veterans of the Great War. They mostly came from Italy and Eastern Europe and worked in the coal mines in Crabtree and nearby towns.

I hadn’t thought about these people in a long time. Watching the Khans brought them all back.

Like Ghazala most of the women wore head scarves. Different fabrics and colors and with none of the regrettable political context attached to a hajib. I don’t know why they wore them, perhaps out of modesty and old country tradition. Or perhaps because they were just old and didn’t have access to an array of L’Oréal products to make their hair look fuller and less gray.

Like the Khans, there was a formality to them. Probably because I most frequently encountered them in church, when people dressed up for church, and so I remember the men looking like Mr. Khan. In a sport coat. Reserved. Mostly bald, speaking clear, but what we used to call “broken,” English.

They were devout Catholics (though some of the men only went to church on Easter and Christmas). Some of them still observed the conservative practice of men and women sitting on opposite sides of the church during mass.

I was an altar boy for years and for one week each summer, each altar boy had to serve the weekday 7:00 a.m mass. No greater hardship for a twelve-year old boy than to wake up at 6:00 a.m on a summer morning, put on long pants, and walk to the un-air conditioned church for the early mass. Attendance was usually sparse, and the congregation was mostly these older immigrants.

Prior to mass, the priest sat in a pew with the congregants and led them in praying the rosary. If, as an altar boy, you arrived at church a little too early, you had to take your place next to the priest until the rosary was completed. As you kneeled in the pew, you checked Father Kieren’s rosary with great attention to see how far along he was.

I’ll never forget those immigrant voices. “Hail Mary, full of grace,” they said in voices from Italy, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia. In their new country where they were free to pray and work and prosper.

The Khans did America a great service by possibly preventing a deranged, dangerously unprepared man from becoming president. But, their bigger service may have been to introduce Islamic immigrants to people in America who have never met a Muslim, but whose own families came from Belarus, or Krakow, or Sant’ Agata Feltria, Italy. To allow a nation of immigrants to think, “you look familiar . . . I know you!”