Al' America: Travels through America's Arab and Islamic Roots


Four out of ten Americans say they dislike Muslims, according to a Gallup poll. “Muslims,” a blogger wrote on the Web site Free Republic, “don’t belong in America.” In a lively, funny, and revealing riposte to these sentiments, journalist Jonathan Curiel offers a fascinating tour through the little-known Islamic past, and present, of American culture.

From highbrow to pop, from lighthearted to profound, Al’ America reveals the Islamic and Arab influences before our eyes, under ...

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Four out of ten Americans say they dislike Muslims, according to a Gallup poll. “Muslims,” a blogger wrote on the Web site Free Republic, “don’t belong in America.” In a lively, funny, and revealing riposte to these sentiments, journalist Jonathan Curiel offers a fascinating tour through the little-known Islamic past, and present, of American culture.

From highbrow to pop, from lighthearted to profound, Al’ America reveals the Islamic and Arab influences before our eyes, under our noses, and ringing in our ears. Curiel demonstrates that many of America’s most celebrated places—including the Alamo in San Antonio, the French Quarter of New Orleans, and the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina—retain vestiges of Arab and Islamic culture. Likewise, some of America’s most recognizable music—the Delta Blues, the surf sounds of Dick Dale, the rock and psychedelia of Jim Morrison and the Doors—is indebted to Arab music. And some of America’s leading historical figures, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Elvis Presley, relied on Arab or Muslim culture for intellectual sustenance.

Part travelogue, part cultural history, Al’ America confirms a continuous pattern of give-and-take between America and the Arab Muslim world.

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Editorial Reviews

Paul M. Barrett
Curiel…focuses not so much on the personal stories or sociology of Muslims and Arabs in America as he does on the myriad aspects of American culture that have been influenced by them. His message: When transplanted to American shores, Middle Eastern culture and Islam aren't nearly so foreign or forbidding as portrayed by demagogues and politicians. Al' America offers a quirky tour of sites, sounds and personalities that are quintessentially American and also reveal fascinating vestiges of Islamic and Arab influence…Curiel reports with [a] light, bemused tone that makes the book a pleasurable read. The author's intent here is pure; his eye for telling detail, sharp.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Amid a heightened wave of xenophobia directed at Arabs and Muslims, San Francisco Chronicle writer Curiel reminds readers of a rich store of cultural borrowings and relationships that have gone deep into the very fabric of American society, including its most precious symbols and artifacts. While many will readily recall the "Arabic" strains in 1960s rock groups like the Doors, less obvious is the formative personal background at work in a classic like "Miserlou" (Turkish for "The Egyptian") by Dick Dale. Still fewer Americans are likely aware of the blues' significant debt to Arab and Muslim musical traditions (imported by Muslim West Africans kidnapped into slavery). While the relative interest and import of these and other examples varies, Curiel's cultural odyssey moves swiftly and engagingly across time and geography, as he excavates everything from the "Moorish" architecture of New Orleans and the Alamo to the stories of the Arab and Muslim victims among the 9/11 World Trade Center dead. His research and focused interviews with leading scholars and musicians yield many surprises and leave little doubt about a crucial historical connection too easily forgotten in facile appeals to American identity. (Nov.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews

San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Curiel lists a few Middle Eastern influences on American music, culture and politics.

Readers misled by the subtitle to expect information on how—or even whether—the United States was founded in part on Islamic ideas of democracy and the nation-state will be sorely disappointed. Instead, the author focuses on the bits of the Middle East he finds everywhere in America. Some of his examples are illuminating. That the ice cream cone may have come from Syria to St. Louis via the 1904 World's Fair is a neat factoid, if a disputed one. That architect Minoru Yamasaki was interested in Arabic architecture and wanted to put Moorish arches on the World Trade Center may be news to some. But Curiel lets these and many other examples pass without examining their significance. Surf rock has Arab-infused chord changes—so what? Elvis may have read Kahlil Gibran, but that has nothing to do with America's roots and little to do with popular music today. Nor does the author explore in any depth how Islamic-inflected cultural processes arrived in the United States, or how immigrants and local circumstances altered them to be usable in the New World. He ends with two chapters stating the blindingly obvious: Contemporary Arab-Americans are real people too, not the distorted and vicious stereotypes portrayed on right-wing radio shows and in Samuel P. Huntington's books. The lone bright spot here is a chapter on the Shriners, who invented for themselves a mythic past based loosely on Islamic history.

Offers little of interest to anyone who hasn't been living in a cave.

Agent: Kirsten Neuhaus/Vigliano Associates

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781595584816
  • Publisher: New Press, The
  • Publication date: 11/3/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.36 (w) x 7.98 (h) x 0.71 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan Curiel is a journalist in San Francisco and the author of Al’ America: Travels Through America’s Arab and Islamic Roots (The New Press). As a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, he has had his journalism on Arabs and Muslims honored by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He has taught as a Fulbright scholar at Pakistan’s Punjab University and researched the history of Islamic architecture as a Thomason Reuters Foundation Research Fellow at England’s Oxford University. He lives in San Francisco, California.
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Table of Contents

Preface: The Irony of 9/11

1 The Seeds of Islam in America: From Columbus to the Alamo 1

2 Slavery and Islam: The Roots of American Blues Music 18

3 Emerson and Persian Poetry: The Transcendentalists Find Their Reflection in Southern Iran 37

4 P. T. Barnum and the Taj Mahal: The Spread of Muslim Art from One Continent to Another 55

5 Language and Names: The Arabic Origins of "Giraffe" and "Coffee" - and What About "Mecca, U.S.A."? 67

6 Arabs and the Ice-Cream Cone: The Joy of Eating (and Drinking), from Damascus to St. Louis, Missouri 81

7 The Height of Orientalism: When U.S. Presidents Donned Fezzes and Said "Salaam Aleikum" 92

8 The Lasting Appeal of The Arabian Nights and the Bearded Mullah from Turkey 105

9 The Trippy Sounds of the '60s: How Dick Dale, The Doors, and Even Dylan Swayed to Arab Music 119

10 East Meets West in Memphis: Elvis and the Poet from Lebanon 131

11 Islam and the World Trade Center: Minoru Yamasaki Plants a Dream for Peace in New York 145

12 Fashion, Tattoos, and Arabic Calligraphy: The Nexus of Style, Design, and Angelina Jolie 159

13 Arabs and Muslims in the United States: Today and Tomorrow 172

Notes 195

Index 231

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