San Francisco Chronicle reporter Jonathan Curiel explores Arab and Islamic influences in our nation's culture in "Al' America: Travels Through America's Arab and Islamic Roots."
“Al’ America: Travels Through America’s Arab and Islamic Roots”
by Jonathan Curiel
New Press, 246 pp., $25.95
We may not always get along in this nation of immigrants, but our culinary and pop culture say otherwise.
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Americans savor enchiladas and sushi alongside hot dogs and hamburgers. We embrace yoga, endure acupuncture, look to foreign cinema and television for inspiration and tattoo our limbs with Chinese calligraphy.
So it should come as little surprise, author Jonathan Curiel writes in “Al’America: Travels Through America’s Arab and Islamic Roots,” that for generations we’ve adopted so many aspects of Arab and Islamic art, music, literature, food and customs into our culture, even in a post 9/11 world.
Words like alchemy, alcohol, algebra, apricot, assassin. The wavy intonations of the blues. The design of treasured American spaces such as San Antonio’s Alamo and New Orleans’ French Quarter. The first ice-cream cone. The frenetic energy of Dick Dale’s surf music and the moodiness of The Doors. All found origins or inspiration in a region of the world that, despite centuries exporting culture and philosophy, remains an enigma to many Westerners.
Curiel, a longtime San Francisco Chronicle reporter, shares years of observation from covering Arab and Muslim issues in the United States and abroad, plus the fruit of more recent research.
Despite, or perhaps because it’s packed with so much information, “Al’America” starts out slowly, unspooling like a history book rather than a whirling dervish. It picks up steam as Curiel begins peppering the chapters with the kind of detail that wins trivia competitions and prompts readers to share what they’ve just learned with whoever’s sitting nearby.
Circus magnate P.T. Barnum built his sprawling 1848 estate, Iranistan, as an homage to stylized Islamic architecture, minarets, arches and all, plus an elephant to plow the fields.
Elvis Presley, Curiel writes, found such solace in Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet,” he longed to produce a film version. In the late 1800s, thousands of Masons found the Islamic world fascinating enough to found an entire new secret fraternal society — The Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, otherwise known as the Shriners — based on their favorite (exaggerated) aspects (including fanciful robes, Arabian horses and their signature bright-red fez).
The best-selling poet in the U.S.? Not Poe, not Frost, but Rumi, the Muslim religious leader born in Afghanistan.
The book would benefit from an illustrated glossary of the many architectural terms (voussoirs, alfiz, muqarnas, mashrabiya) Curiel references, as well as images of key structures in the book (Iran’s Shah Mosque, Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd International Airport, detail of the World Trade Center’s Islamic art-inspired base). Maps would help readers better picture ancient and contemporary places mentioned throughout.
Curiel writes with good intentions, despite his thinly veiled disappointment toward those who fail to share his views. He dedicates “Al’America” to the woman who taught him to view the world with an open mind — his mother.
It’s clear Curiel hopes to adjust our fear-tinted glasses as well, to adopt a more tolerant, even reverential, lens toward the contributions of our Arab and Muslim brothers and sisters.
Karen Gaudette is a Seattle Times food reporter.