Sitting over a bulky plate of shawarma in the back of Newroz Market, Shirzad Tayyar points to the front of the store. A cordoned-off corner of the shop near Nolensville Road features a graveyard of mismatched electronics.
Once a full-blown computer repair shop, the electronics business has steadily receded, first to half of the structure, then further and further as the Kurdish-owned grocery and shawarma shop grew. That’s despite offering much the same products as a similar Kurdish market directly next door and another a stone’s throw away — plus others within sight or a short drive away.
“My family, we know the ladies that make the bread over there,” Tayyar says, now standing outside Newroz and pointing toward the Mazi International Market on one end of the strip. “Whenever we come shopping, we’ll grab everything else except bread from this store, and then walk right across and go get bread from that store.”
One might expect these businesses to be rivals, but each spot has grown healthily, mirroring a movement in Nashville’s Kurdish community. This movement aims to take advantage of the city’s economic explosion, even though some Kurds think Nashville has left them behind. A group is currently laying the groundwork for a Kurdish Chamber of Commerce, which would be tasked with both connecting Kurdish business owners to one another and connecting the sometimes-insular business community to the rest of the city.
Many of the organizers, like Tayyar, moved to Nashville as young children, brought by parents who were fleeing Saddam Hussein’s Kurdish genocide in the 1980s and ’90s. Though considered first-generation immigrants, those kids grew up in Nashville schools, and many of them — now in their 20s and 30s — have entered the workforce beyond the family-run small businesses started by their parents.
One of the young professionals helping organize a Kurdish Chamber of Commerce works in data analytics for Brentwood-based naviHealth. Others work for the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp and the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. They see themselves as a bridge between the older generation’s businesses and the rest of the city, and the goal is not just economic empowerment, but also the cultivation of neighborly rapport between Kurds and the rest of the city.
Nashville is home to more Kurds than any other city in the United States, and it has variously celebrated, vilified and — mostly — overlooked its Kurdish population, which is estimated to be nearing 20,000. That perception was highlighted in April, when Nashville played host to the NFL Draft and its hundreds of thousands of attendees.
“I think there was so much opportunity for our Kurdish businesses to be involved, but we really didn’t have that,” says Dilman Yasin, the analyst at naviHealth. “We didn’t have access to any of that.”
The draft served as a catalyst for the Kurdish organizers. Yasin was one of three people who mentioned perceived missed opportunities there as a kick-starter for the conversation about setting up a Kurdish chamber.
She, like most Nashville Kurds, comes from the Iraqi part of Kurdistan. (That’s the region home to ethnic Kurds, which is not recognized by the United Nations, and also includes parts of Syria, Iran and Turkey.) Yasin’s family fled their village on foot when she was about a year old after getting word that the Saddam Hussein regime was bombing Kurdish towns. They lived in a Turkish refugee camp for four years before moving to Idaho in 1992 under the sponsorship of the Mormon Church.
By then, Kurdish people were beginning to flock to Nashville. Building on a first wave of Kurdish immigrants in the 1970s and a later influx of refugees from Saddam’s Iraq, the community came together to open America’s first Kurdish mosque, the Salahadeen Center, in 1998. That attracted even more Kurds, particularly those who were living as refugees in other American cities, and the community continues to draw in more and more Kurds today.
The Salahadeen Center remains the hub of Kurdish religious, cultural and economic life in Nashville. The mosque sits in the middle of the three adjacent Kurdish markets, and it owns the property home to Mazi. According to Nawzad Hawrami, manager of the mosque, the Salahadeen Center rented space to the first Kurdish market in the area. Throngs of visitors for Friday prayers move straight from the mosque to the nearby markets, creating a built-in, recurring and growing flow of foot traffic. It doesn’t hurt that the markets also offer products common in the cuisines of cultures with Nashville populations too small to support stores of their own.
Hawrami thinks the fresh bread at the bakeries inside two of the markets keeps non-Kurdish visitors returning to the Kurdish shops.
“We like people to know us,” he says. “If you hear about the Kurdish community, and you don’t know about us, maybe you’re imagining how we are, what we do. But if you’re closer, you know about us.”
In building a Kurdish chamber, the group may face outsiders questioning the need for further insulation. That potential reaction is acknowledged by Yuri Cunza, president and CEO of the Nashville Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, a long-established version of what the Kurds hope to build.
But, says Cunza, fostering a subgroup can help small-business owners from marginalized communities grow the networks and comfort necessary to begin engaging more with the rest of the city. It’s more intimidating for an immigrant business owner to join the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce — an establishment behemoth — than it is for a minority group’s business community to appoint a sort of liaison between the community and adjacent power centers.
Cunza says the Hispanic chamber and the planned Kurdish chamber should seek to replicate the network-building that the city’s leading business group does on a large scale, while also being “on the lookout for opportunities to build those bridges and to facilitate a safe environment so communities can interact with each other and hopefully do business and grow.”
In June, Cunza and the Hispanic chamber hosted a forum about commercial gentrification along the Nolensville corridor, which is home to both the area around the Salahadeen Center known by some as Little Kurdistan and many of the Hispanic businesses in the city. The event was held at a pupuseria, and afterward, Balin Ali — one of the Kurds behind the nascent Kurdish chamber — approached Cunza for advice and cooperation with the more-established minority chamber.
The conversations between Cunza and the young Kurdish organizers have not progressed much further, but the reason for that early meeting remains at the forefront. The more success a Kurdish chamber can have fanning the flames of booming Nolensville Road, the more enticing the area will be to creeping gentrification. One backstop Kurdish organizers point to is the cultural and religious tendency to buy things for cash: The Salahadeen Center owns their property outright, and a number of older Kurdish business owners scraped together money from friends and family to buy their businesses.
That could be enough to protect the cultural and economic interests in Little Kurdistan. Jeremy Elrod has worked as the area’s Metro councilmember to prevent the dilution of the community. (Elrod was defeated by Courtney Johnston in the Sept. 12 runoff election.) On the horizon is the construction of a professional soccer stadium at the nearby Fairgrounds Nashville, a development that could drive traffic to Kurdish businesses, but could also create so much demand that it drives businesses and residents out.
“You want to encourage investment in the area, but you still want to keep the character of what is there at Nolensville Road,” Elrod says. “I want investment to come to Nolensville Road for the people that live and work there already.”
With a Kurdish community numbering in the tens of thousands — largely concentrated in one or two Metro Council districts where elections can swing on mere hundreds of votes — it’s notable that no Kurd has yet won elected office. Some in the community speculate that the same tendencies that keep Kurdish businesses from joining the Nashville business establishment similarly keep Kurds from seeking public office or voting in large numbers.
Both Elrod and Tayyar, who is politically active and formerly served on the Davidson County Democratic Party executive committee, hope that the recent election of Zulfat Suara, a non-Kurdish Muslim, to a countywide seat on the Metro Council could encourage Kurds to get more involved.
“She might show that any kind of person, no matter what your background is or what your faith may be, there’s a place for you at the table in city government,” Elrod says. “It doesn’t take but a few hundred folks or a few thousand folks in an election to really swing it, and then you get even more bargaining power, especially if you live in such a small part of the city.”
Still, the councilmember adds, it is “incumbent” on the city and its leaders to bring Kurds to the table rather than waiting for them to figure out how to find it.
When the Kurdish community has caught the attention of the rest of the city, it has often been due to bad news. More than a decade ago, a series of national news stories highlighted the emergence of a Kurdish gang in Nashville, even though it reportedly had just a couple dozen members. In 2018, Nashville’s first Kurdish police officer, Jiyayi Suleyman, was arrested and charged with a number of crimes, including alleged ties to the gang. Many in the Kurdish community came to the officer’s defense, contending that the police department was punishing him for the same reason he was initially hired: his connections to the at-times insular and entangled Kurdish community. And of the 57 charges filed against him, more than 50 were later dismissed — the others resulted in no conviction.
It’s the kind of story that can stick to the community’s reputation. Though WSMV ran an unquestioning report headlined, “Gang member infiltrates Metro Police Department,” they and other media outlets that covered the initial story never published a follow-up when the charges were dismissed.
Suleyman comes from the same generation as the chamber organizers, having moved here as a young child in the early 1990s. They hope their efforts will help rebalance the scales of perception by highlighting the good in the community.
“I just really want people to know that we’re such an important part of what Nashville has become, and to really get to know their Kurdish neighbors, sit down and have some tea and bread with them,” Yasin says. “They’re really great people, and we have a lot to offer to Nashville.”
Tea and bread is a good place to start, which Tayyar discovered in 2016 when he hosted a series of food tours in Little Kurdistan. It started when a non-Kurdish friend asked him to show him around the markets, because the friend had fallen in love with the bread at a dinner party and wanted to keep buying it.
Tayyar then formalized it, to a point, and dozens of Nashvillians — mostly from East Nashville, he says — showed up to try the shawarma and baklava and other treats. As word spread, and Walk Bike Nashville and The Tennessean showed up, it ballooned nearly out of control, with crowds overwhelming the small businesses.
Tayyar didn’t continue the tours, in part because he was working and in school, but he’s considering bringing them back.
“I think we can all agree, food is an icebreaker for any culture,” he says. “Everybody wants to eat. You start with food, then broaden to other aspects. When people notice the food and start more conversations, I think what happens is [they find themselves thinking], ‘I had the completely wrong idea about your culture.’ ”
It’s not just food, of course. Car dealerships are popular among Kurdish business owners. (A baklava and hookah cafe on Tayyar’s tour has since become a car lot.) Beyond restaurants, markets and Nolensville Road car lots, many in Tayyar and Dilman’s generation work for big local companies and nonprofits, teach at local universities and practice medicine at hospitals.
As that diversity of occupation continues to flourish, the Kurdish business community will continue to adopt more of the linkages of the wider city’s business community — at least, if the organizers behind the planned Kurdish Chamber of Commerce have their way. They’ve already met with Kurdish businesses to gauge interest and are currently devising bylaws, and one timeline puts the formal establishment of the new organization at the start of next year.
No one involved wants to whitewash Kurdish businesses, instead encouraging the appropriation of proven business-to-business collaboration.
“It’s not a country club,” says Cunza, of the Hispanic chamber, “but it creates a sense of a support system.
“Human nature has a tendency to work with who you know,” he continues. “They may think it’s divisive, but it’s not. We want to serve the needs of those in our community. At the same time, we also care that we connect with everyone else and find common interest.”