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Nashville, AKA Little Kurdistan: An Analysis of City of Songs by Clark Hart

Posted by on Friday, November 20, 2015 in News.

Nashville is a city of nicknames: Music City, Nash Vegas, and the Athens of the South. But for Nashville residents who have emigrated from the Middle East, Little Kurdistan is their nickname of choice. City of Songs, an original play developed by Brian Granger and the members of the Vanderbilt University Theatre cast, highlights the unique experiences, challenges, and cultures of immigrant communities in the Nashville area. I attended the two o’clock showing of City of Songs on November 8th.  While it was a sleepy Sunday afternoon around campus, viewers young and old made their way to Neely Auditorium. Although the audience seemed smaller than usual, they were vibrant, attentive, and ready to immerse themselves in a theatrical experience. For this, the cast did not disappoint. While City of Songs told the fictional story of an Algerian family, the piece highlighted the largely untold stories of immigrant families across Nashville.

The play opened with the Firari family, a first-generation Algerian immigrant family who also own and operate the struggling Burger Bomb restaurant. While Burger Bomb seemed to be just a small fish in a sea of Nashville specialty burger joints, the family prided itself on their service, commitment to detail, and Algerian influence. The parents of the family, Isidor and Rovena, seemed relatively comfortable with their place as Algerians in American society. Isidor and Rovena’s clean-cut appearances reflected their comfort with their heritage and individuality. However, children Fatos and Aurora struggled heavily with their cultural identity. Fatos was incredibly proud of his heritage, yet he fought with balancing his heritage with American culture. Aurora fit in much better with traditional American culture, but she struggled with maintaining her Algerian identity.  The construction of the family seemed not only believable, but also authentic. While the Firari family was simply one family, their economic and cultural struggles were reflections of thousands of refugee families in the Nashville area.

The play followed two main conflicts revolving around the Firari children. Fatos’ conflict revolved around Burger Bomb. The Burger Bomb building owner was threatening to sell the property to developers if the Firaris could come up with the money. Despite Fatos working all hours of the day, he was fighting a losing battle to save Burger Bomb in its original location. His stress, along with his pride, impacted both his personal and professional relationships.

Aurora experienced a much different conflict. Aurora, who was a server at Burger Bomb, was working to find a way to balance the family business with a college course load. It was clear that Aurora was more interested with school than the family restaurant, but she was obligated to contribute to Burger Bomb and help support her family.  When Aurora faced an offer to become the lead singer in a local college band, her life became even more complicated. For Aurora, juggling band membership with Burger Bomb and college classes proved to be difficult. Furthermore, American culture was becoming a bigger part of Aurora’s life. While Aurora wanted to live the music city dream, it came at the cost to her cultural identity. This juxtaposition between western culture and traditional heritage became a prevailing theme for the play.

While the stories of Aurora and Fatos drove the play, subplots involving the Burger Bomb chef and a homeless Syrian refugee family also contributed to the play’s narrative. In the case of Reynaldo, the Burger Bomb chef, his cultural differences with Fatos created an unfixable divide. After a fiery disagreement, an overabundance of pride lead Fatos and Reynaldo to go their separate ways. In the case of the Syrian refugees, Kasim and Yara, they had nowhere else to go. While the family was successful in Syria, they had nothing in America. Fatos’ offering of a place to stay highlighted the social cohesion and community care aspects that are strong in immigrant communities.

While the play portrayed the struggles of a fictional immigrant family, it spoke to the larger struggle of immigrant families in the Nashville area today. Nashville has the largest amount of Kurdish immigrants in the United States with numbers totaling over 13,000 (Campbell, 2014). While Nashville Kurdish immigrants have the benefit of a large community, they still face an incredible amount of challenges. Foremost, Kurdish immigrants in Nashville face blatant discrimination. Laws drafted by members of the Tennessee state legislature, like bans on the practice of Islam and an English-only law, have threatened to directly suppress the rights and cultures of immigrants (Campbell, 2014). While many immigrants struggle to reach Nashville in the first place, often hopping from refuge camp to refuge camp, their struggles do not end when they finally reach their destination.

While Kurdish immigrants face issues of discrimination, they also face difficulties in education and income. Currently, Kurdish immigrant children make up a significant portion of the 24,000 children in the Metro Public Schools who, along with their parents, do not know how to speak English (Zelinski, 2014) Furthermore, almost 70 percent of students enrolled in Overton High School, a hub for Nashville immigrant students, are from low-income families (Zelinski, 2014). This financial struggle, along with the struggles of discrimination and language education, creates a system that puts a much greater amount of stress and challenge on Nashville’s immigrant population compared to the population at large.

Nashville stereotypes can be hard to shake from inside the Vanderbilt bubble. However, City of Songs pushes its Vanderbilt audience to challenge their conception of the Nashville experience. While a small portion of Nashville residents might define their experience with tailgates and neon lights, there is a much larger population that is living in a totally different world only a few short miles away. City of Songs forces its audience to think of the challenges of all Nashville residents, not just the ones living on the city’s western border. By considering the challenges of all Nashvillians, Nashville as a whole may be able to become the city with the happiest residents.


One Comment on “Nashville, AKA Little Kurdistan: An Analysis of City of Songs by Clark Hart”

I too thought that the cast did an excellent job at portraying some of the hidden stories of immigrant families in the Nashville area. We are constantly saying that Nashville is a growing city but rarely do many of us think about how Nashville is growing and in what way. Like you said, the Vanderbilt Bubble not only perpetuates certain Nashville stereotypes but more importantly it shelters students from what is really going on in the greater community. In particular I was unaware of the large population of Kurdish immigrants in the Nashville however the play did a great job at challenging the audience to open their eyes and see the many struggles of immigrant families all around the area.

One thing that I found really interesting was that the play was able to describe the many different challenges immigrants face at different times in their lives. From the Syrian family trying to find asylum in Nashville to Fatos and Aurora who were battling the struggle of assimilating to a new culture while trying keep their own Algerian values. The problems of immigrant families don’t just disappear once they have found some type of refuge. The cast did a great job of tackling such a relevant and present issue and I hope that the success of the play will facilitate a more open dialect on immigrant issues in Nashville in the future.

Allison Isabelli on December 4th, 2015 at 10:21 pm

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