At Tennessee Titans Games, the Fiercest Tailgaters Are Kurds

NASHVILLE — The parking lot of Nissan Stadium was mostly empty at 8 on a recent Sunday morning, save for those dedicated few who had shown up early to stake out a spot for the tailgate before the game between the Tennessee Titans and the Buffalo Bills. The fans set up their tents, hung their Titans flags, unpacked their packets of hamburger buns and filled their coolers with ice and beer.

One group, though, was doing things a little differently. These tailgaters had the tents, the hamburgers, the flag and the coolers, but they also set out silver trays of biryani. Their coolers contained cans of orange soda and pouches of Kool-Aid, but no alcohol.

Flying alongside the Titans banner were two more flags — one for America, and one for Kurdistan, the semiautonomous region of the Middle East that most of them fled at a young age.

Here in Nashville, home to about 15,000 Kurdish-Americans, the largest population in the United States, many Kurds have fallen in love with the Titans, and come together by tailgating at home games. But they’re not just casual fans. They’re die-hard devotees.

On this October morning, they had purposefully set up their tents near the Buffalo Bills tailgaters to maximize heckling opportunities. About 30 strong, they booed at anyone who walked by in a Bills jersey, and yelled, “Titan up!” (the team’s cheer) at those wearing Titans gear.

“The Bills fans are intense,” said one of the Kurdish fans, Tabeer Taabur. “Hopefully they go home disappointed.”

He and his fellow fans have been deeply shaken by the bloodshed in northern Syria since the United States began withdrawing troops and ending longtime support for its Kurdish allies there.

“It caught everyone off guard,” Mr. Taabur said. “The Kurds have been the most reliable ally to the United States for centuries. We feel a betrayal.”

Some have been protesting, and lobbying the city government to put pressure on their representatives in Congress to support the Kurds and impose sanctions on Turkey. Mr. Taabur and others just set up a meeting with Representative Jim Cooper, who joined in a recent local Kurdish rally for peace. They’ve been giving media interviews to spread awareness of their countrymen’s plight.

And whether too busy or too worried, they have been showing up for games in smaller numbers. But their enthusiasm for the Titans is largely undimmed. And many non-Kurdish friends have approached them to express support.

Most of these Kurdish-Americans came to Nashville as refugees in the 1990s, escaping the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. That same decade, the city welcomed its first professional football team after the Oilers moved from Houston to Tennessee; they became the Titans in 1999.

Mr. Taabur, 34, who arrived here at age 10 and recently received his master’s degree in criminal justice at Tennessee State University, remembers the day he became a Titans fan. It was Super Bowl XXXIV, in 2000 — the only time the Titans have ever made the league’s championship game. They lost to the St. Louis Rams, 23-16, falling just one yard short of a touchdown at the end.

Mr. Taabur was watching at home, and though still getting acquainted with the sport, “I literally cried,” he said.

When Ramadhan Sindhi, 25, who works in commercial cleaning, first came to the United States in 1996, his family was placed in low-income housing. During one holiday season, eight Titans players came to his home as part of a charitable initiative.

“We didn’t even know what the holiday was,” he recalled, “but these big football players, I was so inspired by them.”

In Iraq, his older brothers played soccer. But in Nashville, wanting to be just like those Titans players, Mr. Sindhi became quarterback of his high school football team. “The Titans are the biggest thing we have here,” he said.

In 2001, Mr. Taabur and a few high school classmates started setting up a tent near the stadium on game days. Their parents would give them marinated kebabs to be cooked on the grill, and they would buy hamburgers and beef hot dogs, as they had seen other Titans tailgaters do. Most of the Kurdish fans are Muslims, and don’t drink.

Fatima Kucher, 23, who is completing her master’s degree in the cardiorespiratory program at Tennessee State, attended her first tailgate as a teenager.

“It was a whole different feeling than just watching at home, because you were strictly around fans,” she said. The gatherings reminded her of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, when Nashville’s Kurdish population congregates in a park, sets up tents and exchanges food.

“There is a misconception that just because we come from a different background, we can’t like the same things other Americans like,” Ms. Kucher added. “But I’ve been in America for so long. It’s hard not to adapt to the culture. Football is a big part of American culture.”

Although the Titans are having a so-so season (four wins and five losses, putting them at the bottom of the A.F.C. South), this group’s passion for the team runs deep. “We just keep imagining that Super Bowl parade,” said Heleen Tovi, 22, an undergraduate at Tennessee State. “Just once in my lifetime.”

Some of them travel to away games, most recently in Atlanta and Denver. But Areen Mohamad-Ali, 22, a nursing student at Lipscomb University, a private Christian liberal-arts school in Nashville, said her biggest fear was moving to another state “and having to be around fans of another team.”

Mr. Taabur said the home-game tailgates have brought out as many as about 85 Kurds. They come decked out in Titans gear, and carry in a flat-screen television to watch the game. Most bring their young children, who are equally fervent. Even some people who aren’t football fans come just to hang out.

They have attracted some notice. “They are my go-tos when I need energy,” said Spenser Fritz, a freelance videographer for the Titans, though a spokeswoman for the team said she and the staff were unfamiliar with the group.

By 10 a.m. on the recent Sunday, they were about 40 strong, huddled under three tents as it poured rain. Unfazed, some chugged Coca-Cola and discussed the forthcoming game, while others struggled to light the grill.

Scattered around the area were packaged snacks, but only the spicy versions: Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Flamin’ Hot Funyuns, Extra Hot Chili and Lime Pringles.

Next to a table laden with hamburgers and hot dogs was another buffet set up with Kurdish dishes — biryani flecked with vermicelli, carrots, peas and noodle-like strips of chicken; cucumber and tomato salad; kutilk, eye-shaped fritters filled with chicken and crusted with a thick layer of rice; and eprax, stuffed grape leaves nestled in a pot of rice with silken pieces of cabbage.

But most of the Kurds bypassed the buffet in favor of more classic tailgating options. “No one wants to eat what we eat at home,” Ms. Kucher said, adding that burgers and hot dogs are also easier to carry around than biryani.

The Kurdish dishes seemed to have more appeal for non-Kurdish fans. “I see people eye our food all the time,” Ms. Mohamad-Ali said. “Whenever we have leftovers, we pass it around.”

The fans eyeing the spread on this day were a group of veterans who said they had fought alongside Kurdish allies during the Iraq War in 2004. They recognized the Kurdish flag, and some of the food. “Y’all let us know if you need anything,” one veteran said earnestly.

As the game was about to start that afternoon, a few of the Kurdish fans headed into the stadium, but most stayed in the tents. Mr. Taabur’s brother Nechervan Taabur brought chicken kebabs, which were cooked directly over the charcoals on the grill. People passed the skewers around, sliding off chunks of meat and sandwiching them between hamburger buns.

The Titans scored a touchdown, but their next two were canceled by penalties. The Titans kicker Cairo Santos missed four field goals in a row. There was a lot of cursing, in Kurdish and English. To manage the stress, the fans munched on sunflower seeds, a fixture of Kurdish gatherings, Mr. Taabur said.

At every remotely positive moment — a tackle, a completed pass — the group erupted into cheers. The optimism lasted until the final minute. Mr. Taabur jeered at people in the parking lot who were leaving the game early. “Fake fans,” he growled.

No one seemed particularly upset when the game was over, and the Titans had been defeated, 14-7. The group briskly packed up the trays of leftover biryani and coolers of soft drinks.

“Being a Titans fan is like being on a roller coaster,” Ms. Kucher said. “But being the underdog is fun.”

There’s always the next game, she added. And the next tailgate.