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

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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.


Hattie B’s Hot Chicken. Credit Robert Rausch for The New York Times

“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.


The huckleberry hot fudge sundae at Annie’s Soda Saloon in Cody, Wyo. Credit Janie Osborne for The New York Times

The North

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.


Midway Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park. Credit Janie Osborne for The New York Times

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…”

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Source: New York Times



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