Juan Castillo: In Khizr Khan’s story, a mighty river flows

Maybe sometimes it takes a stranger to remind us of greatness and of the things we hold dear as a nation, but which we take for granted. Maybe it takes someone like Khizr Khan, a Pakistani immigrant who chased his American dream and is living it.

You remember Khan. At the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in 2016, the Gold Star father of a Muslim U.S. soldier killed in combat in Iraq fixed a stern gaze at the television camera as if it were a portal into the American consciousness.

With his wife, Ghazala, beside him, Khan pulled a copy of the U.S. Constitution from his jacket and ripped then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump for his proposed Muslim travel ban and his rhetoric on immigrants. Then Khan famously asked if Trump had even read the founding document.

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“I will gladly lend you my copy,” he said as the audience roared. “In this document, look for the words liberty and equal protection of the law.”

An electric moment, it rocketed Khan to national prominence.

As we now know is his standard impulse, Trump took to Twitter to fire back. Never mind that attacking the grieving parents of a U.S. Army captain who had given his life for his country seemed outrageously undignified.

Khan wasn’t surprised, he told me before an appearance last Saturday at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Austin: “We had known (Trump’s) caliber and his mentality and his lack of empathy, his lack of compassion.”

Today, Trump is the president of the United States. Khan isn’t shrinking from the spotlight. He is traveling across the country with a new book, “An American Family: A Memoir of Hope and Sacrifice.” The event at St. Andrew’s, where he spoke to a few hundred people about the book and about his life, was his 175th event since that fateful, life-changing night in Philadelphia.

“I’d rather be with my grandkids,” Khan told me with a warm smile. “But it’s for a good purpose — to share a message of unity and hope. We are lacking that now.”

But not Khan. His faith in America remains resolute. “The book,” he said, “is a tribute from (our family) to the goodness of America. We are expressing our gratitude.”

Later inside the school auditorium, Khan, wearing a dark suit and a Gold Star lapel pin, deftly wove his life story before a rapt, diverse audience. A Harvard-educated lawyer he spoke in a low, soothing timbre, and reminded us that among the things Americans cherish most are the rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.

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“Human dignities,” he called them. “The founding document gave me these dignities. In Pakistan, I did not have freedom of religion, freedom of press, freedom to address my grievances in a court of law and due process.”

His life led from his rural Pakistani home with no electricity to his current home of Charlottesville – yes, that Charlottesville in Virginia, where a rally of white supremacists exploded in deadly violence August 12.

In the moonlit darkness of his Pakistani home, Khan’s grandfather offered the young boy wise counsel, paraphrasing one of Rumi’s seven advices. “He told me, ‘So what if you are thirsty. Be a river for others,’” Khan said.

In Charlottesville three days after the ugly violence, the Khans joined other families in walking the same route the neo-Nazis had taken. Like his grandfather, Khizr Khan had his own lesson to impart.

“We showed our children that these were not American values,” he said. “We stood together to show them that this is the real America.”

The Khans didn’t intend to accept the Democratic convention’s invitation to speak. Confidantes had warned them there would be backlash, and they were right. Khan receives much hate mail and he must travel with great precaution.

But they could not ignore the concerns of their Muslim neighbors’ children, who with Trump’s talk about banning Muslims from entering the U.S., were reluctant to attend school because they feared their parents would be gone — deported – when they returned.

Khan’s talk at St. Andrews bore some of the hallmarks of both a celebrity appearance and an inspirational seminar for people thirsty for hope. A long line of people waited to have their photo taken with Khan, who exuded a quiet and gracious humility.

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At times, audience members fought back tears. At others, they rollicked with laughter. The idea of holding up the Constitution had been an afterthought, conceived in a taxi on the way to the Democratic convention. Khan described a comical scene: in rehearsing pulling the pocket-size Constitution from his jacket, he displayed the back cover, ruining the intended dramatic effect.

“Practice,” Ghazala scolded him.

In Austin and across the country, at a time when political civility has gone missing, at a time when some in America vilify those who don’t look like them, Khan might be the unlikeliest of rock stars, spinning a love poem to democratic ideals.

If he is thirsty, he is not letting on. Instead, he is a river to others.

Castillo is the American-Statesman’s editorial page editor. Contact him at jcastillo@statesman.com

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