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From Ice Cream Cones to Elvis Presley – Uncovering America’s Arab Roots

New America Media, Q&A, Audio, Sandip Roy Posted: Feb 01, 2009

Editor’s Note: The attacks of 9/11 and the Iraq War have led to unprecedented interest in (and animosity toward) Arabs and the Middle East. But Arabs and Arab culture have been part of American culture from the birth of this country. Journalist Jonathan Curiel traveled across the United States trying to find these hidden roots and wrote a book, “Al America: Travels through America's Arab and Islamic Roots,” about what he found. He spoke to Sandip Roy, host of NAM’s radio show, New America Now. Here are excerpts.

Let me first ask you about an odd piece of culture with Arab roots: the ice cream cone.

Al America Jonathan Curiel: This is a fantastic story that begins at The World's Fair in 1904 in St. Louis. There you had various people from the Middle East including Abe Doumar. Abe Doumar is from Syria and his roots were also in Lebanon. He was there like a lot of people at the fair, to sell things, to make money. He was selling Holy Water from Israel and Jordan. Sales were probably pretty good, he was dressed in Arab robes, and he was next to an ice cream vendor.

At that time, ice cream was sold in cups and saucers and if you tried to walk away with them you'd cut into the person's profit, so you weren't allowed to walk away. Now, Abe Doumar was also selling Zalabia, these flat waffle-like pastries that are from Syria. Now at one point the ice cream vendor ran out of cups and saucers and Abe Doumar recognized an opportunity here and he rolled up the zalabia into a conical like shape, put the ice cream into the new zalabia and presto, the ice cream cone was born. Ernest Hamwi who was also there also takes credit for this. This was the first time the cone had appeared this way in the United States.

Tell us about the other odd discovery: the king of surf guitar Dick Dale, and one of his best known songs that was also in the film “Pulp Fiction.”

Yes, “Misirlou,” it's Dick Dale’s signature song. Dick Dale's real name is Richard Monsour, and that's very much a Lebanese name. I interviewed him and he doesn't give many interviews these days. He talks about his connection to Arab culture and his love of Arab culture, how he is half Lebanese and half Polish. He identifies very much with the Arab side of his family. He grew up in the Boston area, listening to “Misirlou.” He listened to it because his father was very much a fan of the song and he heard the song played on the oud, which is this instrument that predates the guitar and is very much from the Arab and Muslim world. So, when he made his way to the Los Angeles area and wanted to become a music star, he was figuring out what sort of songs he would play, he came up with “Misirlou” and adapted it to this sort of modern era. The song “Misirlou” means the Egyptian in Turkish.

It's a Turkish song about an Egyptian.

Right, it's about an Egyptian woman, this person longing for this woman from Egypt. The lyrics of the song, we know some of them in English. But when I interviewed Dick Dale he told me the lyrics in perfect Arabic. He said, "Wena Habibe, Winta Habibe," which means, "Where are you my sweetheart?” These Arabic lyrics are Arabic lyrics he learned growing up, he still knows Arabic, he signed his email with Rashidof. So Dick Dale is still immersed in this Arab culture.

“Misirlou” is not the only song with Arab roots. Can you give a couple of other examples of songs that maybe we have heard of and didn't know they had influences from the Arab world?

Huge songs. For example the entire ouvre of The Doors is Arab inflected. I interviewed Ray Manzarek, the keyboardist of The Doors, one of three surviving members, who told me about the connection. It's maybe not obvious, but if you listen to a song like "The End” it begins very much in this Arabic major/minor scale slant. I'll mention another one by The Doors. There's a song called "When the Music's Over". Now, this is a song that doesn't have Arabic musical influences, but is lyrically influenced.

Do you ever feel that some of this was just about exoticizing the Arab world, taking little bits and pieces from it and incorporating it into our fashions and music?

In some ways it is that, it is, you could say Orientalizing--borrowing something. But the difference between this and Orientalism is that Orientalism is this pernicious view of the world, it is looking at others, whether it's Arabs and Muslims, looking down on them and not relating to them. What these musicians did, including Bob Dylan for example, what they did was look to the Arab world for guidance and inspiration.

How far back did you have to go to find the first traces of contact between Arab and Muslim cultures and America?

Of course, there were linkages to the slave trade. Slaves who were brought to this country, upwards of 20 percent were Muslim. I had known already about that connection, but before I researched this book, I thought that there was a connection to Christopher Columbus. Now, the scholarship on this is mixed.

I looked at his journal and other things. I found connections between Christopher Columbus and Arab and Muslim culture. One example is the caravel, this triangular sail that he used on two of his ships the Niña and the Pinta. This was derived from Arab sea-farers who looked at ways they could make better sails.

But even if you realize that Arab culture has things to offer, whether it's the design of a sail or the poetry of Rumi or whatever it is, has that diminished the sense of Arabs and Muslims as 'others'?

I would say, ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ On the one hand, as you point out, there is a kind of picking and choosing, say, ‘well, let's benefit from that, I can use that, and let's move on.’ But it's also an embrace of the culture and an understanding that we as Americans are like Arabs and Muslims. Here's one example: Elvis Presley. When Elvis was 20 he looked at Khalil Gibran's "The Prophet," he was given a copy of it by a girlfriend. He was going through internal turmoil, struggling with a film career. He was doing quite well musically, but he had a lot of doubts. This book changed his life. Until the day he died he embraced "The Prophet." He wanted to make a movie of it, he quoted from it liberally, and he quoted from it the way some people quote from the Bible. Now did Elvis Presley, in any of his recordings or any of his correspondence say, ‘I owe this part of my life to this great Lebanese American poet’? He did not say that, but if you look at his history or experience, that's exactly what happened. Whether or not it's acknowledged, that's a whole separate issue. That's one of the patterns I mention in my book, that it's not acknowledged.

But to play devil's advocate again, Rumi might be the best selling poet in America, more than any of our poet laureates. But people’s embrace of Rumi doesn’t seem to extend to trying to understand Islam or not demonizing Islam.

There is a disconnect between these other aspects of Arab and Muslim culture and Islam. One of the reasons Rumi is one of the best selling poets in the United States is because of a man named Coleman Barks. Coleman Barks, as much as he has popularized Rumi--and he has done a good job of it-- he's de-Islamed it. When people look at Rumi, they don't necessarily make the connection, as obvious as it should be, between Rumi and Islam, between Rumi and Afghanistan, Rumi and Persia. I've interviewed Islamic scholars that say, ‘look, Rumi was very much an Islamic scholar, he issued Islamic rulings, he taught at Islamic schools.’ Rumi, himself, is quoted as saying, "I am the shadow of the Prophet.” As Americans we are divorced from that.

Again, that is one of the big patterns of my book and I could argue even why I wrote the book: these patterns are not acknowledged in the first place. I think more people should know that Rumi is very much an Islamic scholar, they should know more about Ralph Waldo Emerson and his connection to Persian poetry. A lot of Americans don't make these connections. But I think if they did make these connections, they would understand the Muslim world in a better way.

Interview transcribed by Laurie Simmons

To listen to an interview with Jonathan Curiel click here.

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