The conversion took place on Honky-Tonk Row, my baptism a glaze of midsummer Tennessee sweat anointing my forehead. Nashville’s Wildhorse Saloon is a tabernacle for line-dancing disciples, and I was in communion with the gyrating congregation.
“Shuffle, shuffle, turn to your left.”
“Right, left, right — there ya go!”
I have a strong respect for choreographed mass dancing; I grew up with the understanding that seminal moments in Bollywood films must be commemorated with synchronized hip shaking. The Wildhorse was a divine revelation — white people, they’re just like us!
There I was, a Yankee of Indian extraction who had always dismissed country music without a second listen, tearing through Nashville’s Lower Broadway — swaying along to cover bands at Tootsie’s and Robert’s Western World and perusing star-spangled cowboy gear at Boot Country.
My visit to the South was long overdue. I’ve lived in five countries on three continents, but the United States has always been the unifying thread; my America is diverse and dynamic and molded by immigrants. But how well did I really know it? Last fall, when I returned from a four-year stint as an expat in South Africa, I deplaned into unfamiliar territory. There was an acrid, unseen fog looming: two weeks later came Election Day.
President Trump began his term with a travel ban on certain Muslim-majority countries; this week he’s expanding that diktat, and in what’s become the hallmark of a turbulent presidency, no one has any clue what’s next. As a Muslim American immigrant, am I just a few 140-character proclamations away from having my citizenship revoked? But fear also sparked curiosity. To me, “Wyoming” sounds foreign and peculiar, spilling lazily off the tongue like a yawn and evoking in my mind the wild terrain someone else might associate with a Zimbabwe or Mozambique. What’s exotic to me isn’t food gilded with turmeric and six-day weddings — it’s grits and rodeos. How much time did I have left to experience them?
I wondered if, given Mr. Trump’s rhetoric, I would feel like a foreigner in my own home. So I hit the road over the Fourth of July to see how much of an outsider I really was.
“The songs really don’t help the stereotypes,” Sobia remarked.
Every explorer needs a sidekick, so I’d drafted a friend whose curiosity rivaled my own. Sobia was the Clark to my Lewis, the Finn to my Sawyer, the Buzz Lightyear to my Woody; we were two Muslim-American women trying to demystify guns, cowboys, and church, and hopefully evading lard in the process. At that moment, however, our ambitions were limited to making sense of the song on the radio: “I was sittin’ there sellin’ turnips on my flatbed truck…”
You have to hand it to country music. You want to mock its clichés? It’ll cram each verse with so many mommas and daddies and shotguns and Chevys that it insulates itself from satire. It’s self-aware and sassy, somewhere between caricature and cultural anthropology — just look up the lyrics to Hank Williams Jr.’s “A Country Boy Can Survive.” Recurring themes of booze, small-town boys chasing blonde-haired girls, guns, and pickup trucks are not my domain. The heartbreak, however, is breathtakingly relatable.
Sobia and I began our trip to Nashville by educating ourselves, first at the Country Music Hall of Fame and later at the iconic Grand Ole Opry. But it’s in the kitschy, bachelorette-party ridden dives of Lower Broadway, dappled in neon and scorned by locals, where we truly embraced the music. We enjoyed our barhopping expeditions far more than anyone sober reasonably should, given the unseemly behavior and crimes against dancing that prevailed. We took a break to fuel up at Hattie B’s, where we waited in line for an hour to sample Nashville’s famed hot chicken, a fiery, delectable treat that singed even my normally spice-immune Indian taste buds.
Sunday morning in the Bible Belt can only mean one thing, and I sought the wisdom of Father Google to find us a house of worship. Established just after the Civil War, Mount Zion Baptist Church is one of Nashville’s oldest black congregations. The exuberant serenades by the gospel choir invigorated us; the Converse-clad Bishop Joseph Walker III’s rollicking sermon, peppered with references to Run DMC, Facebook, and baes, had me joining cries of “All right!” and “Tell it now!” Sobia and I walked out of the church humming the chorus of “My God Is Awesome.”
If the God-fearing and gun-loving bumper stickers in these parts are anything to go by, Jesus himself might have drafted the Second Amendment. So as we hit the highway from Nashville, I insisted on a pit stop at Walmart to see what the hype was about.
A gun-browsing native by the display of hunting rifles caught me ogling and chuckled. “How many do you own?” I asked him.
“Four, including this one,” he answered, lifting his shirt. My eyes widened at my first glimpse of a gun in the wild. “You need one in Memphis.”
“I’m… headed to Memphis.”
“Then I suggest you get one.”
I invested in a $6 red, white, and blue cowboy hat instead.
The Mississippi Delta’s history is shaped by slavery and poverty, igniting a musical genre that’s inspired everything from jazz to rock ‘n roll to R&B. “When I first got the blues, they brought me over on a ship, men were standing over me, and a lot more with a whip,” sang B.B. King. “And everybody wanna know why I sing the blues. Well, I’ve been around a long time, I’ve really paid my dues.”
In Memphis, we listened to Blind Mississippi Morris belt out King’s classic in a bar on Beale Street. But it was another King, he of sparkling spandex and bacon-banana PBJs and an affinity for Kahlil Gibran, who was beckoning me. I expected Elvis Presley’s Graceland to be a temple of tacky brimming with shag rugs and frequented by zealous impersonators in blinged-out one-pieces. We scoffed when the woman selling tickets said the tour could take three hours. We ended up needing four.
Sobia and I found many nationalities and shockingly few sequins among Graceland’s pilgrims. “So many people try to copy him, but he was the ultimate,” said Rishi Khanna, a fan since his youth in India, before singing a few bars of “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” “Elvis’s music is from the divine.”
Memphis’s other major landmark is the site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, reborn as the National Civil Rights Museum, a powerful look at the nation’s fractured racial history — a requisite at a time when so many people seem determined to downplay the struggles faced by African-Americans. “There have been some changes, but things are not what they should be,” said Roy Logan, a museum volunteer. “We still have a ways to go.”
His words lingered that evening, when a jovial elderly man chatted us up at a doughnut shop. The store had run out of doughnuts; I may have missed dessert, but I was treated to a serving of white privilege when I asked him about life in Memphis during the civil rights struggle.
“Blacks and whites never had problems,” he claimed.
“But weren’t blacks second-class citizens?”
“They never thought about it until Martin Luther King,” he replied. “If they thought about it, it never came up.”
The man was in his 80s, and his filter had clearly reached its expiration date. Most people of color have heard rumors of this camaraderie that exists among some white folks, where racist banter is exchanged with strangers as nonchalantly as chitchat about the weather. But I’ll never be part of that club, and was startled by his bluntness. I don’t wear a head scarf that identifies me as Muslim, yet surely one would assume I’m Indian, or Arab, or Hispanic, or Persian — origins rooted in some place where the people are brown, the governments are temperamental, and the food is delicious (“the hot-sauce zone,” my friend Aarti dubs it).
It was more peculiar since I was joined by my friend Nazia, a Memphis transplant, who does wear a scarf. Confederate statues aside, though, she feels Southern hospitality typically trumps bigotry. “There’s a lot of respect for people of faith,” she said later. “They might not agree with you, they might think Jesus needs to save you, but they believe they need to be good and kind because that’s the way Jesus would have been.”
This ain’t my first rodeo. I liked my first one so much that I was back for seconds the next night.
In Cody — the self-professed rodeo capital of the world, in the Cowboy State of Wyoming — the Nite Rodeo starts every evening at 8 sharp, all summer long. By my second go, I could appreciate the skill exhibited in tie-down roping and saddlebronc riding. I was addicted to this bovine Broadway. The spectacle had me wide-eyed with delight.
Is this how outsiders feel when they encounter their first Indian wedding? Was my flimsy Walmart-issue cowboy hat cultural appropriation?
After the show it’s the after-party, and a packed Dairy Queen was where we found some cowboys hanging out post-rodeo. “It’s like strapping yourself onto a moving truck and rolling it down a hill,” said Dalton Epperson when I tried to pinpoint the appeal of mounting a riled-up bull. “Pretty much tying yourself to death.” In two nights, I only saw one bull rider last a full eight seconds; when I attempted a turn atop a mechanical bull, I went airborne after two.
Cavorting with death is a common Western pastime, in the way I might go to brunch or a museum. “It’s a different world out here. This is the wilderness,” said Ron, a local I met on Cody’s main drag. “You go 15 minutes one way and there’s a wolf; 15 minutes in the other direction there’s a grizz. Guns aren’t a macho thing, it’s a way of life.”
I tried that way of life at a shooting range, unloading a Ruger SR22 semiautomatic into a target that offered visual confirmation that I had not uncovered a hidden talent.
“Guns were originally a self-defense tool, you had to have one. It became part of the culture,” said Paul Brock, the owner of Cody Firearms Experience.
“Have you ever had to use one in self-defense?” I asked.
“No, but it’s the same thing as having a fire extinguisher — I have one in my house but I hope I never have to use one, either.” I personally wouldn’t brandish a fire extinguisher on my belt while running errands, but that’s a sartorial choice I’ll have to live with.
Afterward, Sobia and I treated ourselves to huckleberry fudge sundaes at Annie’s Soda Saloon and browsed for souvenirs at Yellowstone Gift Shop. Fetching as it was, I decided against dropping $69.95 on a rhinestone-studded purse advertised with the sign “Be calm and carry a gun — this is concealed gun carry.”
From Cody, we took the Beartooth Pass to Yellowstone National Park.
The frontier has always intrigued me, but from a safe, playing-Oregon-Trail-in-a-computer-lab kind of distance. Now there I was, except I was steering an American-made Ford, not a rickety wagon prone to absconding wheels, and death by dysentery wasn’t a significant concern. We stopped at a ranch to try horseback riding, and Caleb, a teenager who could ride before he could walk and has had his own gun since he was nine — the kind of fella who probably would have survived a non-pixelated Oregon Trail just fine — guided us through a forest of lodgepole pines with snowcapped mountains, pleated like the folds of a sari, rippling in the distance.
Things weren’t as serene inside the world’s oldest national park. Yellowstone was established by Ulysses S. Grant in 1872 as “a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people”; people took that to heart, and now they seem to outnumber bison and buffalo. We battled peak summer crowds to see blindingly white hot springs, steaming pools whose kinetic colors resemble semiprecious gemstones in liquid form, and one particularly unreliable geyser. Despite its tardiness, Old Faithful draws crowds that rival Disneyland. “This feels more like a theme park than Graceland did,” Sobia said.
Sobia and I parted ways at Montana’s Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport, a supersize log cabin with grizzlies, buffalo, and bison cast in bronze milling about baggage claim. But my trip wasn’t over yet.
Some call Minnesota the Midwest, others dismiss it as Flyover Country. But restaurateur Eric Dayton, a son of Gov. Mark Dayton, would like to direct your attention to a map. “We’re part of this big, nebulous Midwest,” he said over lunch at Bachelor Farmer, his lauded restaurant in Minneapolis’s North Loop. “But it’s just geography. You’ve got East, South, West, and it’s a glaring omission. It’s not hard to see we’re the North.”
Rebranding aside — looking at the map, one thing is for sure: Minneapolis is a long way from Mogadishu.
Steps from the University of Minnesota campus, Afro Deli serves cheeseburgers, quesadillas, and other fast-casual fixtures alongside sambusas and chapati wraps.
“I wanted to bring the goodness to the mainstream,” said the owner Abdirahman Kahin. “The goodness” is Somali cuisine; judging by the patrons — college students, middle-aged officegoers — the mainstream loves it.
In Minnesota, Somalis are deeply embedded into the mainstream. Refugees fleeing civil war began arriving in the 1990s; today, they number around 30,000 in the Twin Cities. I met playwrights and poets, artists and fashion designers, social workers and entrepreneurs; Minnesota has Somali lawmakers (Ilhan Omar, recently on the cover of Time) and supermodels (Halima Aden, recently on the cover of Allure). And it’s not just Somalis assimilating into the culture — non-Somalis guide visitors at the Somali Museum of Minnesota, hang out at the offices of nonprofits like Isuroon and Ka Joog, and have sweet Somali tea and malawax crepes at Capitol Café.
It’s not a perfect world, and the community is anxious about perception problems — several young Somali Americans asked not to be quoted. But with the anti-refugee rhetoric surging across the country, I came to Minneapolis to see what it looks like when a city throws open its doors.
“I’m so proud of my city — we’re breaking stereotypes,” said Sumaya Keynan, a designer and social media influencer. “It’s called ‘Minnesota Nice’ for a reason. With elections things have changed in America, but Minneapolis hasn’t.”
Trying to understand how Minneapolis became a beacon for refugees — the city also has notable Hmong, Bosnian, Liberian, Tibetan, and Syrian populations — I met with a former mayor, R.T. Rybak. “It’s always been a bit counter to some of the nationalist trends about being ‘America First,’” he said. “Being ‘America First’ in Minneapolis means you understand you’re part of the world.”
As a former milling capital and current headquarters of 3M, Target, Best Buy, and others, the Minneapolis-St. Paul area has always attracted business from across the globe. And organizations like Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Charities have been at the forefront of refugee resettlement in the city for decades. My knowledge of Minneapolis’s landmarks had been limited to the Mall of America. I came to the city expecting to encounter a lily-white sea studded by isolated islands of Somalis trying to float; instead I found a multicultural metropolis, a glimpse of what the future of America could look like. One night I attended a memorial service for the Srebrenica massacre at a Bosnian mosque; another afternoon I hung out at Zizi Boutique, a modest-clothing emporium near trendy Uptown where chic Somali women browse ankle-length pencil skirts and hijabs. After dinner at World Street Kitchen, I sampled quirky flavors like avocado lychee and Turkish coffee toffee at Milkjam Creamery — both businesses have cult followings and are run by a pair of Palestinian immigrants.
“If someone wants to get away from the rhetoric of building walls,” Mr. Rybak said, “they should come to Minneapolis.”
I had crisscrossed the country expecting to find cowboys and megamalls, humble churchgoing folk and racist old grandpas. But it’s hard to distill a nation into a series of tropes, no matter how easy Third World-bound travel writers make it seem. America is as much the cowboys bowing their heads to pray for their livestock before lassoing them in a ring as it is the New York couple who spend their summers rodeo-hopping, only missing shows to observe the Sabbath. It’s the Nashville mosque partially funded by Cat Stevens, so fitting in Music City. It’s the Venezuelan Elvis cover singer who hails the king for “the fulfilling of the American dream.” It’s malls not far from the Mall of America that are more African than the ones I frequented in South Africa. It’s the family reading from Sarah Palin’s autobiography while waiting in line at the National Civil Rights Museum, and it’s the B&B in Montana where I found a Quran on a bookshelf. America is Tom’s Barbecue, a Memphis institution where a Palestinian-American owner keeps separate pits for pork and halal beef; it’s the Indian-Southern fusion at Chauhan in Nashville, where the existence of chicken pakoras with soji waffles and tandoori shrimp and grits confirms my suspicions that there’s a lot about America that’s already pretty darn great.
I returned from my trip a few pounds heavier, not much wiser, but with some unexpected new interests. Weeks later, I looked up a familiar song on Spotify and blasted the volume as I sang along: “I was sittin’ there sellin’ turnips on a flatbed truck, Crunchin’ on a pork rind when she pulled up, She had to be thinkin’ this is where rednecks come from…”
Courtesy: The New York Times