A Muslim American’s Homecoming: Cowboys, Country Music, Chapatis

From The New York Times:  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/26/travel/muslim-road-trip-america.html

By

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 Not-So-Deep South

“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.

Continue reading at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/26/travel/muslim-road-trip-america.html

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