No Friend but the Mountains: The World Cup in Nashville's Little Kurdistan
Why this matters
For many, the World Cup means rallying around one's home country. But in Nashville, Tennessee, a large community of Kurds -- the world's largest ethnic group without a state -- through resettlement have made the suburbs of the Music City their home. The World Cup for them brings about passion for soccer, but also more time to contemplate what home really means.
Two nights before the World Cup, in an auto glass shop north of Nashville, Tennessee, a man from a forgotten nation kicks around a soccer ball.
It’s 6 o’clock on a Friday, and Nashville Knights FC players are about to start training. During the United Premier Soccer League season, which ended in November, the Knights won one game and lost nine. One of their coaches left midseason, so Delshad “Delo” Ebrahimzadeh, the center back who also owns this shop, became a player/coach.
Delo and Mwesi Kalugendo, whom friends call “Mercy,” are hanging out at the shop, which feels like a slice of Paris or Río de Janiero or Cairo cut-and-pasted into Nashville. The entryway contains traces of their lives — an empty pizza box, a chessboard, a couch, a PS5 paused at halftime of a “FIFA” video game. Beyond an industrial double door, two sedans are parked in the shop area. Up the stairs, there’s a wide-open area, where a mean-mugging stuffed gorilla stands guard over a tower of windshields, a small gym, a desk where Delo plays chess against himself, and a patch of turf.
“This is where we wrestle,” Delo says, pointing to the turf. “To see who the big, strong center backs are.”
“I voted against that,” Mercy says, shaking his head. “Too much like Fight Club.”
The rest of the squad trickles in over the next hour. Mercy goes over to the turf to lead training. They play keepy-uppy, then leave for their two-mile run. When they return, they amble through a circuit that Delo and Mercy have written on a whiteboard, blasting “In Da Club” by 50 Cent and polka from a speaker. While they train, the smell of carne asada and tortas drifts in from the carnicería out front.
Everyone who joins the Knights must sign a contract. No drinking. No drugs. If they want, they can live in a team house near the shop. On lazy days, the team works on cars, talks about everything and nothing, and tries to meg each other. Life here is half “Friends,” half “Fast and Furious.” In their world, Delo is Dom Toretto, and Mercy is Brian O’Conner. Delo is fire; Mercy is ice. Delo is robust and muscular; Mercy is lean and willowy. Delo laughs loud and smiles big; Mercy grins and shakes his head. Delo has a beard; Mercy does not. They’ve been tight since they met 15 years ago as freshmen at Overton High.
This week, when the first-ever World Cup hosted in the Middle East begins, Delo will set up a projector and beam games onto one of the shop’s walls. The team will watch the tournament together. Delo will pay close attention to Brazil, his favorite team since the 2002 World Cup, when he was 10 years old.
He can’t root for his own nation, which won’t be represented at the World Cup. You can't find his nation on most maps.
While the team bench-presses, does rondos, and rides stationary bikes, a Kurdish flag — red, white, and green stripes around a golden sun — hangs over them from the rafters.
Delo moved to Nashville from Iranian Kurdistan when he was 10. His family split their time between his mother’s hometown of Urmia and his father’s hometown of Mahabad, always surrounded by mountains. On a typical day, Delo would leave home as the sun rose, spend his day playing in the mountains, and return after he’d sufficiently scraped up his body. His father was a karate enthusiast who worked security at a chicken factory, and the family never had much money. Delo’s uncle was a peshmerga — a Kurdish fighter, “one who faces death” — who died from a grenade blast during one of the revolutions. Delo doesn’t understand exactly how, but because of the area’s esteem for his uncle — a shaheed, a martyr — his family was able to move to the United States to seek out better work.
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After moving to Nashville, Delo went to high school, played soccer, got decent ACT scores, tried college, and then dropped out. During the pandemic, with time to fill, he picked up the Qur’an and, for the first time, read through all of its stories. After he finished it, Delo fasted for several weeks and considered his ultimate purpose.
“I was just like, ‘Man, I’m always chasing after money,’” Delo says. “Why? I just want something straight authentic.”
When he broke his fast, he founded Nashville Knights FC (original name: Kurdistan FC), a nonprofit that provides lodging, occasional work to people from around Nashville, and a place to play soccer. The Knights come from around the world, places like Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan. Like Kurdistan itself, they are perpetual underdogs, but they love one another and being together.
On the morning of the World Cup’s first match, Delo, Mercy, and a few of the Knights will play in the Legends Cup, a tournament hosted by Riz, another of their friends from high school. A group of almost entirely Kurdish men will step onto 6-v.-6 pitches, competing for teams named for nations like Brazil, Iraq, the U.S., and Ukraine.
“(What team) do you think we are?” Delo asks me.
He laughs. “Good choice,” he says. “Actually, we’re Kurdistan.”
I spent the days leading up to the tournament driving around my hometown of Nashville, hoping to answer a question: What does the World Cup, a tournament of homelands, mean to people denied a home?
More Kurdish people live in Nashville than in any other city in the U.S. They arrived in waves — first after a failed revolution in the 1970s, next after Saddam Hussein’s chemical attacks in the 1990s, and most recently because of the rise of the Islamic State and the civil war in Syria. Immigration agencies began settling Kurdish refugees in Nashville during the mid-1970s. Then, word got out that a booming Kurdish community had sprouted here. Kurdish people all over the country began to move their families to Nashville, a city that has earned a reputation as “Little Kurdistan.”
The Kurdish people are the largest ethnic group in the world without a state. They are mostly, but not entirely, Sunni Muslim. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, allies promised autonomy to the Kurds. Instead, they used borders to weaken Kurdistan, a region encompassing parts of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, making the Kurds a minority in each of these states.
Today, some Kurdish people still seek independence through statehood. Lately, Turkish raids and the fight against the Islamic State have demanded much of Kurdistan's geopolitical focus. The main goal for many Kurdish political parties is regional autonomy. Kurdistan does not have a seat at the United Nations (UN). The Kurdish national soccer team does not have FIFA membership.
Much of Kurdistan encompasses the Zagros Mountains, which are sacred to some Kurds. The Kurdish people, a proverb goes, have no friend but the mountains.
The horror of the Qatari World Cup is well-documented: the exploitation and deaths of migrant workers, the intolerance, the bribes. “There will never be another first World Cup in the Middle East,” the writer Musa Okwonga said on his podcast, Stadio. “And they blew it.”
Much of Nashville’s Kurdish community will still watch.
“Ramadan is my favorite holiday,” Delo says. “And I would compare the (World Cup), kind of, to Ramadan. Ramadan happens once a year. And I take Ramadan seriously. And the World Cup is every four years, and now it’s in the Middle East, you know? I can’t wait ’til it’s in America.”
On Friday morning, two days before the opening match, I drive to South Nashville to meet with Meran Abdullah. The car dealership he owns, wedged between a Somali café and a sign store, is called Low Book Auto Sales. Meran arrives a few minutes after opening, wearing a navy blazer over a gray turtleneck. He has played soccer his whole life, and even in his 40s, he still has the slight frame of a Spanish central midfielder. He’s left-footed and models his game after Messi, even though many Kurdish people don’t rate dribblers.
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Meran grew up in a village not far from the city of Duhok in Iraqi Kurdistan. In 1988, when he was still a child, Saddam Hussein attacked his home with chemical weapons. Meran still remembers running from his village, up the valley into the surrounding mountains, where he and his family found a creek and covered their faces with wet cloths. He survived, but his parents and one of his older brothers died. Meran fled with his remaining family to Mardin, Turkey, where they stayed in a refugee camp, and he played organized soccer for the first time.
The family was eventually resettled in North Dakota. A few years later, Meran moved to Nashville to play soccer for Belmont University. The school found an issue with his transcript, however, so he enrolled at Nashville State and played in local pickup games.
Two decades later, Meran has six kids and his own business. He has never left Nashville. If he squints hard enough, however, Tennessee’s hills look a little like Kurdish mountains. The climate is nearly identical, with four distinct seasons. Most importantly, he’s surrounded by friends. On weekends, he still plays pickup soccer with other Kurds.
“We have a united voice (in Nashville),” Meran says. “Like tomorrow, if someone interfered with Kurdish nationality, we could show our voice. We could go downtown, pray, you know? If we’re spread out, a lot of people won’t hear us. But if you’re (Kurdish) in San Diego, Dallas, Nashville, as soon as you go downtown, everyone knows what happened.”
Meran admits that the World Cup can be bittersweet for Kurdish people. Without a team of their own, they choose other nations to support, typically rooting for successful and entertaining teams, not necessarily countries where Kurds reside.
“(Kurds) love soccer,” he says. “They love dancing. They love social stuff. So no matter what’s gonna happen, they’re gonna go wherever life is going.”
Though Meran has a business to run, he’ll make sure he catches the knockout stages. He enjoys watching Brazil, but like most of the world, he’d love to see Messi finally win it all. One day, he hopes, when he switches on the World Cup, he won’t have to choose a foreign nation to support instead of his own.
“It is really sad to see the UN being quiet until now,” he says. “It’s very sad. I mean, the UN should do their job. And give (us) some kind of independence. So we can have our own team.”
After I say goodbye to Meran, I hop on the freeway, get off on Nolensville Pike, and drive south to the Salahadeen Center, the city’s main Kurdish mosque. This area, a strip mall on Elysian Fields Court, is what most Nashvillians call Little Kurdistan, and comprises the mosque, a bakery, a market, and a Turkish restaurant called Edessa. The Salahadeen Center is the Kurdish community’s anchor here – their Zagros Mountains. When a small number of Kurdish Pride gang members operated in Nashville, the center stepped in to reason with them. It’s a simple building, with cubbies for shoes, a large carpeted prayer room, and an office. Throughout the day, people pop in and out for Salah, their daily prayers.
After we take off our shoes, Mehmet Ayaz serves coffee and baklava in the office. He moved here a few months ago to run the youth programs at the Salahadeen Center. He's dressed in business casual — wool peacoat, checkered shirt — except for a standard-issue Boy Scout belt, a remnant from his days as a troop leader. He speaks softly, often with a smile.
Mehmet grew up in a village outside of Urfa in Turkey, or Northern Kurdistan. The village was almost entirely Kurdish, but a group of 20 to 30 policemen and soldiers was enough to make sure everyone spoke Turkish. Each morning, before class, Mehmet and his friends were forced to shout that they were proud Turks, that they would sacrifice themselves for Turkey, that they would serve Turkey. If he or his friends spoke Kurdish, their teachers would beat them.
Mehmet had always considered the possibility of leaving Kurdistan for the U.S. Many of his friends had immigrated for college or grad school, and Mehmet was a strong student who spoke good English. An incident with his father, who was traveling in the city of Amed, convinced Mehmet to finally leave Turkey. Mehmet's father and his friends were recording each other with a camcorder, and they were speaking Kurdish. They ran into a group of soldiers, who took the camera and played back the video. For the crime of speaking Kurdish, Mehmet’s father spent 10 days in Diyarbakir Prison, where he was tortured and starved.
“Because we don’t have a voice, a government entity that supports us, most of the time we are blamed,” Mehmet says. “We are blamed for many things that happen in the Middle East, even though we didn’t do them. A single request for our rights is considered terrorism. We ask for our rights, and we are called separatists. We are not separatists when we are asking for our rights.”
Mehmet had already seen his uncles tortured for wearing Kurdish headgear and carrying tobacco. At 22, he moved to the States for school. Georgetown University offered him a scholarship, but he had a friend in New Orleans, so he enrolled at UNO. He met his wife, and together they moved to Kansas, then Virginia, and finally Tennessee. They have nine children.
Mehmet loves what he calls the “dense” Kurdish community here. Even when he lived elsewhere, he followed the progress of the Salahadeen Center online. In Nashville, he’s found some of what he felt he lacked in Kurdistan — the chance to openly celebrate his roots with fellow Kurds. He feels like the best versions of Southern and Kurdish culture overlap: hospitality, service, togetherness, authenticity. He predicts that Kurdish people will continue to move here.
“We used to call it Little Kurdistan,” he says. “Now we call it Bigger Kurdistan.”
In addition to the mosque, the Salahadeen Center just purchased some land south of town. They recently opened up the Hivi Center, a community center with plentiful green space for picnics, gatherings, or even a full soccer field. For the World Cup final, Mehmet says, they might set up a projector on the lawn, pop some popcorn, light a bonfire, and roast some marshmallows.
For Mehmet’s community, the World Cup is a reason to come together. And yet the tournament also taps into communal anxiety about a world that doesn’t acknowledge their existence.
“Every four years, we have this frustration,” Mehmet says. “It’s like a reality hits. You know, we live in this beautiful (place). But in the world arena, (they) commonly say we don’t exist, and it’s heartbreaking at the same time.
“But the excitement and pleasure of watching it, …” he says, trailing off and pausing for a long moment. “It kind of makes you forget.”
Mehmet still plays soccer, a sport he learned in his village, on Mondays and Thursdays. Sometimes, he plays with Meran Abdullah. I ask him why soccer is so important to him and to many Kurds who live here.
“I could give you a psychological answer,” he says, smiling. “We’re really resilient. We don’t give up. We’re not easily crushed. We have this – not anger – but we have years of oppression saved in us. And we want to do something (with it), and we turn it into physical energy.”
At 9 on Sunday morning, one hour before Qatar and Ecuador kick off the World Cup, Delo Ebrahimzadeh’s Team Kurdistan players are about to start the opening match of the Legends Cup at Rose Park. When I arrive, Delo pulls off his gloves to shake my hand, and Mercy points to my coffee.
“I can’t do coffee here,” he says. “It’s just so much better back home in Tanzania.”
Their only teammate who’s on time is Daniel, a midfielder from Ethiopia by way of Columbia, Tennessee. “It’s cold,” Daniel says to Delo, shivering in his NYPD crewneck. “I’m gonna go back to my car. Maybe get some food.”
“Bro! The game’s about to start!” Delo is apoplectic.
“You want food?” Daniel asks Delo. He turns to me. “You want food?”
A few more Knights trickle in, and Delo finds someone to pick up with them in the parking lot. Their opponents, Team Switzerland, have all their players, so Team Kurdistan, wearing yellow kits, starts a man down, playing five against six. Though he’s normally a center back, Delo plays keeper today. As a defender, he compares himself to Pepé, the big and sometimes reckless Portuguese player who started for Real Madrid for a decade. In goal, he’s more like René Higuita, “El Loco,” the long-haired Colombian keeper from the ’90s. When Delo makes a save or intercepts a cross, he’ll occasionally drop the ball and start the counter himself, dribbling past the halfway line. When Kurdistan loses the ball, he sprints back to his goal.
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In the first half, Kurdistan manages a few shots on goal, and a backheel from Daniel nearly fools the Swiss keeper. The players defend bravely, Delo makes some nice saves, and they reach halftime down only 1-0. During the break, the sixth member of the squad finally shows up.
“Hurry up! Put on a yellow!” Delo yells at him, asking for a foul. “You’re acting like you’re on time!”
In the second half, Delo steps up the communication, speaking to Mike, a defender, in his native language. “Izquierda! Dale dale dale, we’re losing!”
After Kurdistan gives the ball away trying to play out from the back, the Swiss add a second goal with five minutes remaining. Delo slumps, knowing that they’ve likely lost. But they almost immediately claw a goal back, and Delo goes into overdrive. By this point, a large crowd has gathered. They’re wearing adidas sweatpants and hoodies, Tottenham and Arsenal and Brazil jerseys. They have excellent haircuts. They’re Kurdish men, and they’re here to heckle. With a minute left in the game, the Swiss keeper punts the ball as far out of bounds as he can. The crowd laughs and jeers.
“This dude for sure a Chelsea fan,” someone yells. “Time-wasting in a pickup game!”
When the ref blows the whistle, Delo claps, shakes hands with his teammates and their opponents, and heads to the bench for a tactics session. Then he goes over to greet the crowd. He's sad about the loss, but being around people he sees as brothers makes up for it. Someone looks at his phone and shouts, “Ecuador goallllll! Vamos!” The World Cup has officially begun.
Later in the week, Voria Ghafouri, a professional footballer from Sanandaj in Iranian Kurdistan, is arrested for publicly highlighting the Iranian regime’s violence against Kurds and women. He has spoken openly against the government before, which is perhaps one reason he was left off of Iran’s 2022 World Cup team after making the preliminary squad for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Some of the world does not acknowledge that Kurdish people exist. Kurds have been dehumanized, thrown in jail, and tortured for speaking their language and celebrating their culture. They are stateless, subsumed into other sovereign nations.
After the tournament, some players will drive to the Salahadeen Center to pray, maybe stopping at Newroz Market next door for a box of pastries. Others will go home, shower, and head to Safari Hookah to laugh over a pipe with friends. Kurdistan exists in Music City.
During the month to come, much of Nashville’s Kurdish community will watch the World Cup with the people they love. They’ll find home in each other. They’ll bask in the joy of the tournament. And they’ll carry years of oppression saved within them, wondering when they might see a team of their own on the world’s biggest stage.
The World of Football
The Qatar World Cup looks destined to be a debacle, from the scheduling for teams and athletes to the human rights abuses around workers at the event, to the logistics and after-effects of holding the event itself.
At the same time, soccer is changing like all sports – becoming more cross-pollenated between cultures and nations, maneuvering through a massive influx of cash, and modernizing on and off the pitch.
We offer a look at the state of world football through the lens of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.