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VOL. 39 | NO. 51 | Friday, December 18, 2015

The American dream: ‘I got the lottery’

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Memet Arslan has carved out his piece of the American Dream with his Istanbul Restaurant on Nolensville Pike.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

He says he’s “not religious,” but he trusts God, loves his family and makes “the best kebab in America.”

Memet Arslan also preaches peace and brotherhood while sipping a personal tea blend in his business in the almost foreign part of Nashville that is Nolensville Pike, particularly south of 440.

Commonly referred to as “Little Mexico,” that name doesn’t do it international justice.

Sure, there is a large Latino population and there are places where business is conducted completely in Spanish. But Memet, who lives the American Dream here, is happy proof it’s really a multi-ethnic swath of Nashville that’s home to refugees, illegals, immigrants and flag-waving naturalized citizens.

After all, there aren’t kebabs on the menu at your local taqueria of the brick-and-mortar or portable varieties.

Memet’s from Turkey, and he’s far from alone. “We have a lot of Turks here. Lots of Kurds, too. Egypt. Somali. They’re all here.

“I bet you 99 percent that in 10 years Nashville will be bigger than New York City. We have 70,000 coming here every year.” Memet’s neighbors aren’t lured by the “It city” nickname, Jack White or some silly and successful soap opera. They are here to live, to breathe free, as the elegant Lady in the Harbor says.

Memet steps from behind the counter at his Istanbul Restaurant to join me at a table by the window, where we overlook rush hour traffic, the huddled white-collar masses escaping downtown.

Smiling, he ignores me when I decline the offer of a cup of hot tea, something in which he takes great pride, a soothing staple for all of his 13 years on Nolensville Pike.

“Kayla. Kayla. Two cups tea,” he says in a thick accent, remnant of his Turkish heritage.

”I got the lottery,” he says, explaining how in 1991 he was able to escape oppression in his native land and make a new life for himself in the land of the free, home of the brave … Just as refugees have been doing throughout our history.

“My sponsor was from Turkey. He lived here in Nashville. So I came here. My first job was as a painter in a house over by Belmont,” he says. “I slept upstairs in the house at night. There were no doors and no windows.”

He pauses to sip his tea and long enough to allow me to set down my pen for a few seconds and take a couple of good sips of this unusually rich blend of many different types of leaves.

“Good,” he says. I guess he’s complimenting his hand-blended tea. Course he could be talking about the fact I decided to go ahead and accept his generosity as we spend an hour-plus at the table, feet from bumper-to-bumper Nolensville Pike.

Many of the commuters are likely too busy texting during traffic’s crawl to notice what’s around them, places like this welcoming, unassuming restaurant.

Oh, they probably see the porno shop just down the road. Hard to miss, especially if you are in the market for edible underwear or whatever they sell. Also hard to miss the psychic near that shop. I predict I’ll tell her story one day, but on this afternoon she is fully booked.

So as the sun cuts through the blustery afternoon, instead of having a psychic look at the lines in my face and tell me that in another life I worked at the Nashville Banner, I enjoy the company of a proud American who just happens to have come from Turkey.

It worked out fine, because instead of looking into a crystal ball and talking with MLK or The Walrus, I’m sipping rich tea and talking with Memet about the country he loves and the one he fled all those years ago.

“Turkey is the better part of Europe now. In Europe they are really crazy,” he says, after setting down his brown mug.

He’s talking about the refugee crisis caused by folks fleeing religious persecution in Syria, Iraq and Iran and waiting in camps for a chance to go to the rest of the continent and – as long as it’s OK with Donald Trump – America. I’ll get back to that later.

“There are more than three million refugees in Turkey now,” Memet adds. Besides coming to that country for safety from civil wars and religious tyranny, they have arrived in what he calls “the No. 1 tourist spot in the world… Turkey’s really beautiful.”

“I am Alevi. We are shadowing the Kurds. We are just like them. We are held down. The government (in Turkey) makes it hard for them. And hard for us.

“Turkey is not free government,” he says. “Whatever Turkey do to the Kurds they do to Alevi.

Istanbul Restaurant at 2631 Nolensville Pike was born out of its owner’s desire to get a fresh start in America, away from Turkey, where he and his fellow Alevi share second-class status with the Kurds, according to Memet Arslan.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

“We’re like kindred people. I’m not missing the government. But I miss my friends, family, all my cousins.”

He only has returned once, back in 2002, to try to catch up with his family. “I’m from Turkey, but I’m an American.”

His patriotism shines brightly in his dark eyes. It also decorates the walls. A poster advertising a vacation in Antalya, Turkey, is joined by both Turkish and U.S. flags. The Stars and Stripes, while certainly not used-car-lot huge, is bigger than aay yildiz – the crescent and star on a red field, Turkey’s “moon star.”

Alevis – Shi’a Muslim with a parochial twist or two – are the largest minority in Turkey … ahead of the Kurds, (as long as you don’t count those chased into the refugee camps), he says, adding that the situation of the Alevis and Kurds “is kind of like that” of the African-Americans who fought hard to secure freedom and equality in a Caucasian nation.

In the years since he holed up in that Belmont-area home he was painting, he has created the good life here through hard work and sometimes sleepless nights. Memet rattles off a string of jobs he’s had, sometimes two or three at a time – “I would work 17 hours, 14 hours, 15 hours” – to provide for his family.

Before opening his own restaurant in the neighborhood where charred el pollo loco flavors the air, he did whatever it took to care for his family.

“Sometimes I worked from 7 a.m. to 3 a.m.,” he explains, describing a string of jobs that included not only restaurant work and painting, but also a stint in a hydraulic pump factory.

“I never saw my children when they were small. They were still asleep when I left for work and asleep when I got home at night.” It was worth it, though, as he was in America, a land that was birthed by refugees.

Memet smiles when detailing his $6-an-hour work at the Luby’s Cafeteria in CoolSprings. “I was there seven years. I worked with the meat … butcher.”

Memet Arslan says his cook, Carey McLeod (center), was a quick learner. Server Kayla Ballew says her boss is laid-back and all-American.

-- Tim Ghianni| The Ledger

He went on to become the cook. “You can’t be afraid to work. I’ve been in America for 24 years and I never stopped working.

“When I had a morning job, always had another job. I don’t ever have no single job.”

Working for others wore on him, though, so he started his own painting business. “I had two men. We worked on this house for three weeks outside. Then it rained for a week.

“I told the people we could paint inside, but they said they didn’t need it. So after four weeks, I got out of the painting business. I said ‘I’m not going to live this way.’”

It was after he laid down his brushes that he “went home’’ to Turkey. “I stayed a month, then I came back here and started Istanbul Restaurant.

“I didn’t want to work for nobody else,” he adds. He figured that if he sold enough falafel, kebabs, tabbouleh and hummus, he could make a good living for his family. “I have a boy now 24, who was born in Turkey. A girl who is 22, another girl 11.

“My wife, Nurten Arslan, spent much of her time raising those children” after morning shifts at a school cafeteria. “It is near my home. Franklin Public School.”

Selling tea, coffee, kebabs and the strangely sensual Turkish wedding cake was a natural fit for him as he moved forward and upward.

“Before I come here (to America), I sell coffee, tea and cook. Had my own business at 18 in Turkey. Closed it to come here.”

The Turk with the faraway eyes talks about his hometown, Izmer. “It’s like Istanbul. It is beautiful. I’d like to visit again, but my children don’t want to. They are all American. My daughter going to be nurse.”

He says all the children live by his philosophy: “If you work hard, you get opportunity, you get much more work and much more pay.”

“I like work. I do my best when I am busy working. But I don’t want to ever work for anyone else again.”

Memet Arslan, who came to America long ago to seek a new life in the U.S.A., proudly stands outside his restaurant that’s in the most international part of Nolensville Pike. He hopes to open a second one sometime.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

He’s pondering opening up a satellite Istanbul Restaurant. He’d like to do it away from this hearty international strip and open in WASP-centric Williamson County, where he has chosen to raise his family.

He shakes his head. “Rent is too much down there,” Memet says, gesturing with his tea-free hand to the spacious restaurant.

“To have this much space in Franklin would cost $7,000, $5,000, $6,000 a month.” For this prime location in what the uninformed call Little Mexico, he pays $2,600 a month. “Here is good size. The problem is parking (it is Nashville, after all), five spaces in front, 19 in back.”

If your decision is to park in front – as I did a trio of times while visiting for this column – the price you pay is that you must back out onto Nolensville and listen to the horns of the folks from Brentwood or wherever.

Before everybody started packing heat, I would “salute” these impatient drivers. Now I just shrug and hope not to be shot by some weary commuter or jihadist.

The subject of refugees and the sometimes fear and loathing of politicians is brought up. So is the recent gunplay, the slaughter in San Bernardino, people murdering others in the name of some hate-warped version of God.

“I’m not scared,” he says. “I don’t know. Bad people everywhere. It’s like five fingers,” he raises his hand and demonstrates the variety of his digits.

“Everyone is different. You are different than your brother.” Every finger tells a story (don’t it?). In other words, the immigrants, even the ones some governors and legislators and political blowhards wish to turn away, should not be pre-judged as terrorists. Just as I hope people don’t think that because of my “‘Eye-talian” heritage I’m in the Mafia (I would dress better and have a fancier car.)

“You help them, then God help you. No matter who they are, they have to be survivor,” he says of the refugees waiting to get tickets punched for Western Europe and the U.S. “They come with no house, no food, nothing.”

An older white gentleman (the latter excludes me, they say) lets some of the cold air in from Nolensville Pike and goes straight to the case filled with baklava and other delights. Memet greets him by first name, as he does all who enter the restaurant during our conversation.

“I’m not a religious person, but I respect all religions,” Memet allows, speaking of all flavors of people. “I trust only myself and God.”

He has no answers either for the bloodshed in the Middle East, at a Paris nightclub, during an American office party or at the cinema. “What’s going on? Turkey don’t want to fight.

“This war, it’s all politics,” he says of the strife in Syria and San Bernardino and Paris. “All politics to make money. Gun companies make money. Bomb companies make money. They don’t care. They kill civilian people.”

He looks down at his tea as he stirs the sugar in it with a red cocktail straw. “People are scared. I’m scared, too. I’m scared of everything but God.”

He’s not foolish. He knows there are people in the world who don’t value human life, who jihad for the pure hell of it.

Yes, it’s a violent world out there, and the most publicized acts of terror have involved radical Islamists.

That does not mean blocking all Muslims, all Kurds, all Alevis, from a chance at the jackpot that is the American Dream.

Most come here to work, build good lives, chasing the same dream that brought the Mayflower, a boatload of religion-driven and radical Puritans, here. The same dream my own family sought when they departed Chieti for Ellis Island almost a century ago.

Particular disdain flavors his words when he talks about suicide bombers who take their own lives and those of many others so that they may get in line to greet Allah and enjoy those storied virgins. “Bomb people are sick.”

But this kind Turkish American knows that most who seek to come here are good, even if the headlines skew otherwise.

“People are crazy everywhere.”

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