Millwood sits right off Murfreesboro Road, the long corridor between the affluent downtown Nashville and the emerging business center of Murfreesboro City. Today, on the same land of the Trail of Tears, this long road is the main artery that connects several African diasporas: Egyptians, Sudanese, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Somalis, Jamacians, and Haitans. Murfreesboro Road still marks a long history of displacement, migration, community, and loss–though differently. Truly, the only people who know the little streets that climb out of Murfreesboro Road are the locals: Black non-immigrants, Latinx, Black immigrants, and Arabic-speaking peoples.
For decades, African migrants have settled on Murfreesboro Road. Over time, they slowly move away from downtown Nashville. For Egyptians, Somalis, and Ethiopians, Millwood is just 10 minutes from the heart of downtown, the airport, and major resorts and hotels. These migrants live so close to downtown that during the Christmas Nashville bombing in 2020 they heard the sound of the bomb early in the morning. Yet, despite how close they are to the centers of power, they remain unrecognized by official or institutional leaders.
Millwood rests on Mill Creek, which wraps around Coptic-owned grocery stores, mechanic shops, and a nightclub; Ethiopian restaurants; taco trucks; the Somali mosque, a coffee shop, and a restaurant; a Honduran bakery; a Veitnamese restaurant and a salon; and, a camp of unhoused persons who have carpeted the Creek’s banks to make it feel more like home. There is a bus stop where workers wait for a ride. At 3pm, before the pandemic, the buses unloaded the children in front of the grocery store, where their parents picked them up and walked home together. On a warm Saturday, you can often hear mariachi music blasting from people’s cars. And, on Fridays, a Coptic store owner fries falafel to feed the unhoused by the Creek. Most people don’t have cars – many are newcomers – so they walk. On weekends, Western Union is bustling with people eager to make transactions to Jamaica, Honduras, and Egypt. From this little corner of the world, in Millwood, millions of US dollars are sent to families around the world who are separated by economic circumstances.
Millwood is an important place. Millwood is not a representation of cultural diffusion or any textbook definition of a community. Millwood is not a relic of a past that can be razed to the ground and gentrified. While certain officials and land developers have claimed that South Nashville is dead, consumed by violence and poverty, Millwood is a breathing, buzzing, and beautiful place. It is actually a testimony to the working class, newcomers, and those separated by legal and economic strains. Millwood directly counters assumptive narratives–that Somalis and Copts do not get along, that Copts are all middle class, that language is a barrier to community formations, that the poor will always fight one another for resources. Millwood, rather, is a tribute to the power of cultures, from across continents, to find spaces to live, support, and fight alongside one another. As over policing and gentrification continue, Millwood may not last as it currently is. Migrant families are displaced and forced to, once again, remake their homes. At this critical time, when residents who’ve made a home along the Creek refuse to be budged, it is important for all Egyptians to consider that these movements and migrations are a part of Egyptian histories.
Millwood’s centrality to Egypt shows in the mundane. In the millions via Western Union that build new futures for families back home, the viber ringtones despite the bad wifi connection, the Arabic on the street and on the lips. Beyond the mundane, Millwood lives as an Egypt without borders. Migrants recreate the ethos of the good neighbor when a Coptic store owner learns Spanish to communicate with their Latinx neighbors; when an Egyptian converses with a Jamaican neighbor about the British; or when fasting Copts eat at Ethiopian restaurants. Millwood is as much a part of Egypt as Cairo or Minya or Ismailiya are, reminding us that cultures transcend borders, time, and definitions. In fact, I argue that Millwood is very much a part of Egypt.
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Lydia Yousief is a founder and the director of Elmahaba Center in Nashville, Tennessee. She earned her master’s from the University of Chicago’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies in 2019 and her bachelor’s from Vanderbilt University in 2017, with both theses centered on Coptic diasporic identities and identity-making. She loves Nashville’s hot chicken, Um Kalthoum, and tea.