America’s Hidden Islamic and Arab Roots
By Jonathan Curiel
This semester, a select group of students at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music is learning about journalism – the good; the bad; the ugly. They’re learning how music journalism can inspire people and (conversely) mislead people. I’m teaching the course, and I’m using examples from Rolling Stone to make my points. I’m planning to show them an issue from a year ago, when the magazine published its cover story on “100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time.” A Who’s Who made the cover image, including B.B. King, Jimmy Page, and Eddie Van Halen, and I interviewed a prominent member of the elite 100: Dick Dale.
The artist and his signature surf tune, “Miserlou,” were ranked No. 46, one below The Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There,” but ahead of Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun,” B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone,” and Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” There was only one problem: Rolling Stone completely misrepresented Dale’s song. It disregarded Dale’s Arab origins (Dale is Lebanese; his real name is Richard Mansour), ignored the hit’s Arabic and Turkish roots, and – adding insult to injury – described “Miserlou” as “this old Greek pop song.” It’s not. It’s an old Greek-Turkish-Arabic song whose name means “The Egyptian” in Turkish, not Greek. The tune, which anchors Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” has been wrongly identified for decades, which begs the question: So what? Here’s so what: The contributions of Arab and Muslim culture to the United States have been severely downplayed since the founding of the country, and this displacement led to a collective state of ignorance that – in the wake of 9/11 – helped fuel the backlash against Arabs and Muslims.
It’s not just music that ties Arabs and Muslims to America. It’s architecture (the Alamo in Texas is embedded with Islamic designs; the old World Trade Center was rimmed with pointed Muslim arches), and food and drink (the ice-cream cone was inspired by Syrian Americans; coffee came to America via Turkey), and poetry (Ralph Waldo Emerson was influenced by Muslim poets from medieval Iran, Elvis Presley by Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran), and basic words (“giraffe,” for example, stems from Arabic), and sayings (“check mate” originated in the Muslim world), and the names of U.S. locales (“California” is connected to the Arabic word “caliph”), and campy traditions (the Shriners are steeped in Arab and Muslim culture), and artistic work (Persian carpets head the list), and countless other areas of culture, commerce, geography, and history. The connections stretch all the way back to Christopher Columbus, who relied on navigational techniques solidified by Arabs and Muslims, and who – in the waning years of his life – specifically credited Arabs and Muslims for aiding his adventures. Arabs and Muslims didn’t make it to America with Columbus (the Spanish crown forbade them), but their culture did – one of the ironies of this story of interconnectedness. Spaniards themselves transported Arab and Muslim culture across the Atlantic Ocean in the form of food, architecture, language, and other customs they had derived from 700 years of Muslim rule over the Iberian Peninsula. When New Orleans was part of Spanish territory in the late 18th century, Spain’s overseers brought in courtyard architecture that it learned from Muslims. The balcony grilles that wow tourists in New Orleans’ French Quarter – those grilles are rooted in the geometric designs that Muslims perfected during their 700-year presence in the Spanish peninsula.
Why don’t more people know this? Has there been some sort of conspiracy to deliberately deprive people of a knowledge fount that would put Arabs and Muslims in a different light? No. No conspiracy. It’s more benign than that. The information about these links was always out there, but it was tucked away in obscure books that were gathering dust on library shelves, or it was known in small amounts by academics with no reason to announce it to a broader audience, or it was seen as just bits of trivia. Elvis Presley was so touched by Gibran’s “The Prophet” that he memorized much of its text and wanted to make a movie of the book? A mere footnote to his biographers. To me, it’s headline news, which is why I flew to Memphis for the research of my new book, “Al’ America: Travels Through America’s Arab and Muslim Roots.” In the basement of Graceland, in a room that documents Presley’s literary tastes, sits a copy of “The Prophet” that the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll read whenever he had time. Gibran’s book was on Presley’s nightstand when he passed away those many years ago. It’s still read by millions. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush helped inaugurate the Kahlil Gibran Memorial Garden in Washington, D.C., saying then that “perhaps his greatest bequest was the key by which we opened our own imaginations.”
Like George H.W. Bush, those people who discover Arab and Muslim culture at its best – including the books of Kahlil Gibran – never see that culture in the same way again. This updated picture of a people promotes the idea that Arabs and Muslims have always influenced the United States for the better. The attacks of 9/11 were an ugly flipside. Despite the backlash that ensued, there is widespread evidence that Arab and Muslim culture is becoming more integrated (not less) in the United States today. History offers hope that people of divergent backgrounds inevitably find a common ground, even if it takes years of caution and circumspection.
Jonathan Curiel teaches music journalism at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music and will be giving a talk on Thursday at CIIS Namaste Hall.