It was Feb. 22, 2017. I was teaching mathematics at Bronx C. College in New York City. In the middle of class, I saw a message from my wife on my phone: “Zakir Khan was stabbed to death by his landlord.” I turned off the phone and tried to focus on teaching graphing polynomials. However, I struggled to write anything on the chalkboard. “Professor, is everything OK?” one of my students asked. “Yes, everything is fine,” I responded. However, it turned out that everything was not fine, and I had to dismiss class early. “I have a family emergency, guys. See you Thursday.”
When everyone left, I asked myself, “Why did I say I have a family emergency?” Khan is not my family member. He is not even my friend. In fact, I never met him personally. He was simply my Facebook friend. I have 5,000 Facebook friends, and I don’t know many of them. So why should I shed tears for Khan? Well, the story goes back to February 2009. I was not professor back then; in fact, I was a security guard.
I was desperately looking to rent a room (not an apartment) for my family, my wife and son, Albert, (Isaac was not born then) who had recently arrived in America from Bangladesh. (I never had any home before the arrival of my wife and son because I used to work as a security guard at night and attend school during the day.) However, every landlord turned me down when they learned about my income. Nobody seemed to understand that security guards don’t make much money. On top of it, I had to pay my tuition. So I had to keep my wife and son in my relative’s house for days. I reached out to many people but realized that nobody had the time for a poor security guard. Around this time, I read a news article about Khan from a mainstream newspaper:
“Parkchester real estate King Zakir Khan lives the American Dream. He has a thriving business, a growing family and owns a home in Throgs Neck adjacent to the future site of a Donald Trump championship golf course.”
I immediately sent him a friend request on Facebook. I had no idea why he would accept a friend request from a security guard, but he did. I decided to wait a few days (a few days was like a month for me) before asking his help to rent a room. Meanwhile, I visited his Facebook page and realized that he was not only a successful businessman but also a loving husband to Nancy Khan and a very caring father to their three beautiful children, Ramin, Taiba and Eklel.
A week later, I sent him the request for help on Facebook. It was February 2009. I did not expect any response. To my surprise, he asked me how much I could afford. I informed him that I could pay only $400 a month. The next morning, I received three phone calls from three landlords, all of whom wanted to rent me a room.
I chose one in Gleason Avenue, a few feet away from the Parkchester Jame Mosque. Finally, we were able to live together under one rooftop three weeks after the arrival of my wife and son from Bangladesh. Since then, we as a family fell in love with Khan. Numerous times I brought Bengali newspapers just to read his stories.
We left that room in 2010, but we will always love it. It was like a magic box. Only a few people would understand the painful experience of being homeless. I couldn’t believe that such a man had to be killed by his landlord for owing rent. Why did he owe rent? He was the king of Parkchester. When did he lose his kingdom? How did that happen? I turned on the computer and Googled his name. A news report from Time TV caught my attention:
“Taha Mahran, a 51 [year] old landlord of Zakir Khan, plunged the knife into the 44 year-old victim 20 times because the latter owed him rent. I saw Eklel (now 12-year-old) witness the attack, standing helpless and horrified only a few feet away. ‘Eklel!’ a dying Zakir Khan, shouted outside their Bronx home. ‘Help me! Call 911!’ Eklel started as enraged landlord Mahran grabbed Khan by the jacket, pulled him to the ground and started furiously plunging a kitchen knife into his neck, head and torso.”
I couldn’t read the news anymore. It was so heartbreaking.
I reached out to Khan when I was poor. However, he did not reach out to me when he became poor. In fact, I have received the last and final message from him some 5 years ago on the Facebook. He asked me to translate a Bengali sentence to English.
The message above surprised me because I didn’t know that Khan was a very secular person. In fact, his Bangali line reminds me of the ideology of Tagore and Nazrul, the two Bengali poets, who also opposed the cultural nationalism that has recently been gaining ground in America since President Obama left office.
Zakir Khan’s Bengali line reminds me of his uncompromising belief that human beings including Muslims should absorb different religions in constructive ways. That’s why I borrowed the ideologies of Tagore and Nazrul to translate Zakir Khan’s Bangla sentence:
Whatever we can enjoy in human products instantly becomes ours including Eid, Christmas, Easter, Saraswati, Torah regardless of their origin. As a Muslim, I am proud of my humanity when I can acknowledge the festivals of other religion as my own. Let me feel with unalloyed gladness that all the great holidays including Eid, Christmas, Easter, Saraswati, Torah are mine.
He was a good man. However, poverty and goodness are mutually exclusive. Khan might have made a mistake by falling behind in the rent, but that doesn’t mean Mahran had to kill a father in front of his child in the most brutal way possible. Mahran’s behavior reminds me of the behavior of ISIS.
When one becomes enamored with a principle, as Mahran has, one also becomes blind to alternatives. As such, it is as though a hobgoblin has entered his imagination, blocking the ability to see alternatives. We certainly witnessed the blindness of ISIS in the behavior of Mahran.
I left Bronx Community College for home at 8:30 p.m., with the idea that soon I would forget the tragic death of Zakir Khan. There is no benefit in being able to recall these events, no benefit in being able to remember the faces of Ramin (who is just two year older than my son, Isaac), Taiba and Eklel (who had to watch the killing of his own father).
So I tried my best to forget everything I had seen and read, and I thought I would soon forget everything. But I was wrong.
I got home at around 10 p.m. It all flooded back to me when Albert opened the door and Soborno Isaac jumped onto my lap. Immediately it popped into my mind: where would Ramin, Taiba and Eklel jump now? I skipped dinner and took sleeping pills for the first time in my life, hoping a sound night’s sleep would help me to forget the innocent faces of those three beautiful children. However, it all flooded back again in the morning, as I dropped both my sons off at the library.
Zakir Khan picked them up from the library an hour before Mahran killed him. For a moment, I took the place of Khan. For a moment, I felt like the father of Ramin, Taiba and Eklel. Who would drop them off at the library now?
Rashidul Bari teaches Mathematics at Bronx C. College and Physics at Brooklyn Tech. His websites is: Bari Science Lab