Southern Nashville, Tennessee. I’m sitting at the table with Eva Abdullah and her youngest children, Siraj and Sajda, looking through photos from her trips to Iraqi Kurdistan in 2003 and 2013.
“I’m due for another visit in two years, I suppose,” she says, eyeing her son as he plays. “I want all of my children to go some day.” Siraj, who just turned five, is the only of Eva and her husband Meran’s six children who hasn’t seen his father’s homeland. Eva was born in the United States, but Meran is from the village of Bigdawdi, in northern Iraq.
We’re passing the time and letting Eva’s avko aluke simmer on the stove. This simple, hearty soup of turkey, chickpeas, and potatoes is served family-style and spooned onto plates over girara Kurdi, or Kurdish rice. The rich broth made from slow-simmering a whole turkey is seasoned only with salt and pepper; Kurdish cooking often favors fresh mountain herbs rather than heavy spices. The large pot of soup makes it easy for every member of the family to pick their favorite part of the turkey—the drumstick for Meran—and the broth keeps the meat warm and flavorful.
The turkey soup is one of the dishes Eva’s family serves during American Thanksgiving, but it’s also a reminder of another type of thanksgiving, back when the Abdullahs fled Kurdistan. Eva learned this recipe from Meran’s aunt Jemila, who was a young teenager when her family fled the Barwari region of Iraq in 1988 and crossed the border into Turkey. Knowing they might not return home, her family brought their chickens and a turkey with them and waited at the border with around forty other refugees.
“Not yet settled into a refugee camp, everybody was hungry,” Eva says. “They were at the mercy of whoever was around to feed them. So, Jamila’s dad, he has always had a really generous heart. He didn’t want to see people going without when something can be done. He said, ‘Take our turkey, and make a big pot of soup with it, and then make some rice to go along with it, and we’ll feed everybody.’”
Over thirty years later, Jemila proudly recounted this story to Eva as she prepared to make turkey soup for the holidays.
Like many of the over 15,000 Kurds who have made their way to Nashville, the Abdullah family fled Iraq during the 1988 Anfal genocide, when the Ba’ath government under Saddam Hussein targeted Kurds. One Kurdish estimate listed the dead as high as 182,000. Meran’s father, mother, and older brother perished in the August 25, 1988, attack on the village of Ekmole. Meran, his other siblings, and uncles survived and fled to the nearby Turkish border. The Abdullahs spent four years in Turkish refugee camps before they were resettled in Fargo in 1992.
Raised in nearby Moorhead, Minnesota, in a Christian family of Scandinavian and Irish descent, Eva met Meran at Trollwood, an international arts high school. They started as pen pals and became high school sweethearts, marrying in 1996 after graduating. She was welcomed into Meran’s large family and learned how to speak Bahdini Kurdish and cook traditional meals from his aunts and sisters. More than anything, Eva wanted to pass on her husband’s Kurdish culture to her children.
“I knew that a lot was probably lost in translation,” she tells me. “So that was a motivator for me to learn, but probably the biggest motivator for me was that, when I got pregnant, I wanted to learn for my children.”
Eva, Meran, and their children found their own Kurdish community in the United States. Ten days after Eva and Meran married, they moved with twenty relatives from Fargo to Nashville, now home to the largest community of Kurds in the United States. Nolensville Pike in the southern part of town is home to “Little Kurdistan,” centered on the Kurdish Salahadeen mosque and community center. It includes markets, restaurants, and other businesses like Meran’s car dealership.
“There’s Kurdish everything,” Eva says. “Potentially, if you wanted to, you could just not even interact with anyone else and just go to the Kurdish things and be set.”
Tennessee also offered a familiar climate, something that the Abdullahs sorely missed in Fargo: the mild winters, warm summers, and mountains of Middle Tennessee are surprisingly similar to their home in northern Iraq. For Kurds forced to flee their homeland, memories of lush springs in the Zagros Mountains can be both a comforting and painful reminder of what was lost. Eva’s sister-in-law, Gullizar, even gave her the nickname Nirgaz, the name of a beloved daffodil that blooms in the mountains of Kurdistan.
As we talk about the various events that have pushed the Kurds out of Iraq in the last thirty years—the Anfal, the Iraq War, the current civil unrest and insurgencies—Eva reminds me of a Kurdish proverb: Heval nin bes ciya. No friend but the mountains. When I drove away from the Abdullahs’ house, through the Appalachian Mountains covered in autumn leaves, it wasn’t hard to understand how this could become a new home away from Kurdistan. But it was evident, in photo albums and lovingly prepared meals, that there was still the pull to once again go to those other mountains, the home of the Abdullahs.
Avko Aluke (Turkey Soup)
1 whole turkey
1 onion, sliced
4 tablespoons salt
20 cups water
6-8 russet potatoes, peeled and diced (roughly 1-inch cubes)
1/2 tablespoon black pepper
2 cans chickpeas, drained
Remove the skin from the turkey and break it down into pieces (breast, thighs, wings, drumsticks, and back).
Place turkey pieces and onion slices in a large stockpot, add salt, and cover with water.
Bring to a boil and cook covered for around 1 hour, until turkey is nearly cooked and broth is flavorful. Taste for salt and adjust if needed.
Add potatoes, chickpeas, and ground black pepper. Boil for 20 to 30 minutes, until potatoes are fork tender.
Girara Kurdi (Kurdish Rice)
Note: This recipe calls for vermicelli rice, which can be found at a Middle Eastern or international grocery store. To substitute, use either dry vermicelli noodles, spaghetti, or angel hair pasta broken into one-inch pieces.
2 cups basmati rice
4 cups water
1 tablespoon oil (canola, corn, or vegetable)
1/3 cup vermicelli rice
1 tablespoon salt
Rinse basmati rice and then soak in warm water for 20 to 30 minutes, then drain.
In a large pot, add oil and vermicelli rice or broken noodles. Heat on high and stir constantly until golden brown.
Add rice, water, and salt. Cook on high, covered, until water goes down, around 5 to 10 minutes. Don’t stir, and try not to open lid too often.
Reduce heat to medium, cover, and cook for 5 more minutes.
Reduce heat again to low, cook an additional 10 minutes, and keep covered.
Turn off heat and let rice stand for 5 minutes, covered. Uncover and stir from sides inward to release heat.
To serve: Plate rice and spoon the soup on top. Sahadbit! (To your health!)
Claire Smith is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is an anthropology student at Sewanee: The University of the South, where she is also the editor-in-chief of the student publication, The Sewanee Purple. With a focus on the culture and history of the American South, she is interested in memory, identity, and cultural expression.