Tumbao in Virginia

Ayeh Bandeh-Ahmadi
7 min readFeb 9, 2017

Cross-posted from heyayeh.com

When I get fed up with the ongoing reality TV show that has taken over the news, I spend a day or, if I can manage it, a long weekend driving around Virginia. Not the Northern Virginia of Arlington and Alexandria where I used to live and owned an apartment for many years, but the parts of Virginia where high school LED signs announce a basketball game has been cancelled so an emergency meeting about a new mosque can be held. Or, better yet, deeper into the country to rural towns near Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina where there are no such ongoing debates to be had.

I go shopping for vintage furniture and homewares, find venues to listen to bluegrass music, track down small mom and pop lunch and dinner joints and try my best to support local entrepreneurs. I listen when the woman behind the counter with the TV turned to FOX News says “Can you believe it? What are they gonna do next?” as she points to the headline on the screen that reads “Mother taped her own child to wall.” At lunch, I tell the waitress how frustrated I am that the gallstones I was recently diagnosed with make it difficult for me to eat onions, dairy, and most animal fats. I let her sympathize and brainstorm options on the Southern menu that will work with my body. So far she, in all her many incarnations, has always been much more eager to accommodate than the fancy restaurants I visit in big cities or on overseas trips.

At the antique malls filled with booths curated by individual retailers, I let my mind imagine the potential stories behind each piece and the person who collected it. The blue willow plates memorializing different places and events in American and British history will add some much needed color to the brand new white box of a row house I have finished building in D.C. Handwoven blankets from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries featuring detailed geometric patterns that remind me of 1970’s acid-trip geometry command a premium in the several hundreds of dollars depending on their condition and the rarity of the weave. The handwritten tags detail these features. Well-loved negro dolls often bursting with straw filling bring another time to life. A price tag affixed to a captured WWII Japanese flag hand-inscribed with the names of three proud American GIs and their hometowns is labeled $300. It makes me think about these men, from as far away as Maine and Florida, and then about the Japanese soldiers they fought against. How each must have been pursuing something important to him, perhaps each with a sweetheart and mom and dad waiting back home. “It feels weird to see that flag. Those men probably captured it from a Japanese soldier they killed.” my friend says, clearly pondering a similar story. Daggers and tiny buttons with swastikas line the glass cases in this booth. The Yelp review I read of this mall had warned about these and other Nazi paraphernalia “if you’re into that.” These mementos tell a fascinating story I don’t want to forget. I wonder what my friends would think of the ethics of paying for them. The relics remind me of how quickly ideologies have been institutionalized and then nearly wiped away and then kind of resuscitated. The economist in me considers whether these items create an economy for war or for fascist regimes and simple ideologies. Then I think about what a luxury it is to reflect on the theory of all this.

Even after the election has ended, I still see Trump-Pence signs dotting the country routes, some of them quite huge. As I walk between booths, I think I notice people noticing my headscarf but maybe I am imagining things. When I say hello to each passing person, a big smile tracks across my face in a way that feels impossible and unnatural in downtown D.C. As I embrace this smile, I find myself wanting to get to know each person I pass, their likes and dislikes, their families, their sweethearts, their life stories. The person I greet almost always returns a smile that brims with genuine warmth and surprise. Only one man in a baseball cap and a weathered face has the motive and courage to ask what it’s like looking as I do these days but only after he tells me he came from Hawaii to serve during Vietnam and while stationed in Michigan would beat up his troopmates’ consorts when they called him a nigger or pineapple at the bar after hours. He proudly relates that his son, now a retired policeman, runs a private security company that provided protection for Donald Trump on the election trail.

In one booth, I buy a black-and-white photo of a fifteen-foot tall haystack on a clouded-over farm. Some chairs and a table sit atop the haystack and a huge spray-painted “Life After Clinton” sign is tacked to its side. The caption penciled below the photo says it was taken in Montana in 1993. I can relate.

In Floyd, where every Friday the town’s musicians line the main street in groups of banjo and fiddle players and bassists, I pay the $5 cover charge at the Floyd Country Store for an evening of “Ole Time Music.” Friday night here features a big crowd and two bands. The characters on the dance floor, ranging in age from six to ninety two-step to the music in tap-dancing shoes. One boy who looks about ten plays the spoons, clicking and clacking, as he dances on the wooden floor in front of the band. A man with slicked back hair in his fifties dances with a teenage girl wearing a Jesus camp t-shirt who looks like she could be his daughter. Both of their shoes click and clack as they promenade, do-si-do, and execute a whole host of other moves that I can’t name. I think about the last time I square-danced, back in first grade at the Catholic school I attended before my Iranian parents got comfortable with public schools. I was assigned to partner with the tallest boy in my class because I was the tallest girl. Once again, I think I see people noticing me in my headscarf but the music is so happy and the people so focused on having a simple good time that I don’t have the time to feel self conscious. I just can’t help but tap my feet to the music and smile along. It’s an inadvertent but disarming smile. It feels good to be here, listening to handmade music instead of reality television, in a country store that has started a program where guests can buy meal coupons for others so that anyone in need can stop by for a free meal.

Populism can only survive amid polarization. It works through caricature, through the unending vilification of a cartoonish enemy” says Venezualan Andres Miguel Rondon on how his country figured out how to survive populism. He published this in an article earlier that day but I don’t discover it until after I return home a few days later and five of my high school friends have shared it on facebook. “In Venezuela,” he says “we fell into the abstraction trap in a bad way. We wrote again and again about principles, about the separation of powers, about civil liberties, about the role of the military in politics, about corruption and economic policy. But it took our leaders ten years to figure out they needed to actually go to the slums and to the countryside. And not for a speech, or a rally, but for game of dominoes or to dance salsa — to show they were Venezuelans too, that they had tumbao and could hit a baseball, could tell a joke that landed. That they could break the tribal divide, come down off the billboards and show they were real. And no, this is not populism by other means. It is the only way of establishing your standing. It’s deciding not to live in an echo chamber. To press pause on the siren song of polarization. You will not find that pause button in the cities or the university’s campuses. You will find it precisely where you’re not expected.”

I think I see the gregarious man with the slicked back hair noticing me bobbing my head and tapping my feet to the music. What would I do if he felt the need to tell me “I voted for Trump,” I wonder. I pause and imagine my response “I’ll try not to hold it against you,” I mouth with a smile.

The next day, my friends and I show up early for the show at the Country Store and take over a booth with some hot tea and board games. I relay some wisdom to them. “Remember to save your tea bag,” an eight-year-old had told me the night before after he encouraged me to smell his aromatic cup of cinnamon blackberry tea “because the hot water is free but if you don’t save your bag you have to pay for another cup of tea.” Then, I forget the world around me as we all become entrenched in a game of checkers. I move my pieces across the board as I slowly remember the rules of the game I have not played since first grade. More guests arrive and take notice of our game. As I look up, I notice the man with the slicked back hair out of the corner of my eye. He’s been watching the game intently for some time. He asks after which set of rules we are playing by. We move our pieces around the board some more, kinging them and jumping them off the board one by one. He waits until the game is over then smiles “Why don’t you all get out there on the dance floor?” he asks.

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Ayeh Bandeh-Ahmadi

Ayeh is a writer & economist based in Washington, D.C. She is writing a collection of short stories about encounters in and outside her headscarf.