Author, Al' America: Travels Through America's Arab and Islamic Roots
Interview by Adam McKibbin
They hate us for our freedom – and you are either one of us or one of them. That’s been the mantra of the Bush Administration during the long years since 9/11 and the terrorist attack that was said to vindicate the Clash of Civilizations theory of Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington. In the eyes of many, 9/11 was the proof that American culture and Arab culture are diametrically opposed – and hopelessly set on a collision course.
Not so fast, says Jonathan Curiel, author of Al’ America: Travels Through America’s Arab and Islamic Roots. In his book, the longtime San Francisco Chronicle writer and Fulbright scholar discusses and even discovers numerous ways in which Arab and Islamic culture left a deep impression on America. He unearths the forgotten architectural lineage of an American landmark, discusses Middle Eastern touchstones with Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek and surf rock king Dick Dale, and considers the philosophical impact of Arabic thinkers on American icons from Emerson to Elvis.
Aided by meticulous research, some key interviews and an engaging style, Curiel lays out his case that “us vs. them” remains a false dichotomy. “I refuse to believe in that kind of world,” he tells The Red Alert.
In an illuminating interview, he also speaks about the triumphs and challenges involved with uncovering the secret cultural history of Al' America, the reasons George H.W. Bush gave him the slip, and the larger lessons to be found in our ice cream cones, record collections and tourist attractions.
I wanted to start with a little personal backstory. You write in your introduction that your mother helped inspire you to write about the Middle East –and just to write in general. At what age did that inspiration really bloom?
My mother was a literary person – she never actually graduated from college, but she was always throwing books my way. She actually wanted to be a writer and she essentially encouraged me to be a writer. She was always giving me books by Bernard Malamud. We got the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle and we’d watch Walter Cronkite and the CBS Evening News every night instead of talking at dinner. You could argue that wasn’t a good thing, but we watched news instead of talking. News was highly valued at our house.
She also sent me to Sunday School, to Jewish school. I was bar mitzvahed and confirmed here in San Francisco and when I was confirmed, I went to Israel. This was 1976. All of these things had a huge impact on my life. In 1976, I went with a bunch of other Jewish kids and we went to Israel’s borders- Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan. We weren’t allowed to go across those borders, of course. If you grew up Jewish in the 1970s, you were very much aware of these other countries – especially Iran after the revolution. When I got the chance to look beyond those borders and see for myself what those countries were like, I took it. It was 1990 when I scrambled around the Middle East for three months by myself. I was in Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq. I visited Iraq about a month or two before the country invaded Kuwait. These experiences transformed me because I realized how much the world was unlike what I’d read about.
At the time, a lot of the Arab and Muslim world was sifted through the lens of war and religion – a clash of civilizations. To see another side of these countries was really personally transforming. The trip began in Cairo, where I interviewed the great Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize in 1988. For that interview, I read his trilogy – which takes place in and around Cairo – and I also read his other books, and they reminded me how much there is – history, religion, culture, et cetera – in the Arab and Muslim world that journalism doesn’t get.
For the reader, I think much of this information will be new – a secret history of sorts. How much of it was new to you as you wrote and researched?
Yeah, this is a good question. If I could put a percentage on it, easily more than half the book was new to me – maybe upwards of 80 percent of the book was new to me. I had done a fellowship at Oxford University in 2005 and 2006 where I researched Islamic architecture and its historic impact on synagogue and cathedral architecture. That research really motivated me to research these connections that were true in the United States.
Before I went to Oxford, I did a three-part series on the impact of Islamic culture on the United States for the Chronicle. I focused on music – particularly blues music and its link to West African slaves – and I focused on Islamic architecture and Islamic literature. I expanded all three of those articles into bigger chapters.
Did you have any favorite new discoveries in particular, things that surprised even you after years of experience in the field?
The Alamo in San Antonio. That, to me, is a shocking revelation in the book. I knew from my research at Oxford that Spanish architecture is really a mish-mash of architectures, and that Islamic architecture is a fundamental part of a lot of Spanish architecture, especially as it went around the world. I had a hunch that these buildings in Texas – which used to be part of New Spain – were somehow connected to Islamic architecture. But even when I flew to San Antonio and even when I went into the Alamo, I did not know. Frankly, I didn’t find it when I went to the Alamo.
But here’s the shocking thing: the Alamo is part of a chain of Spanish missions [and] after leaving the Alamo, I went to the Mission San Jose – and it was like this great gift from above. They had a recreation of what the building looked like in 1782, and it was pretty much a facsimile of the Aljama Mosque, which is now known as La Mezquita. The facsimile was in the alternating red-and-white archways, which are a trademark of the Aljama Mosque. I thought, wow, here is the evidence. But there still was not an exact confirmation. When I went into the building itself, which is kind of a museum describing the history and origins of these missions, it said specifically “These buildings are a combination of blah blah blah and Moorish architecture.” When I saw that, believe me, I wanted to kiss the ground.
Those moments of revelation must have been very exciting.
It was so exciting. I’m a daily journalist and I had to kind of keep it to myself [but] I wanted to shout out to the world. You know, I have so many other revelations in the book. Even the Doors influence from Arabic music – that’s never been reported before. I mention this in the book, but Ray Manzarek told me I was the first person to ask about that.
Jumping to the chapter on blues music… there are a few different cities in America that would lay claim to being the birthplace of the blues – with the implication that blues sort of emerged from the ether, that it’s something that just belongs to us.
And having interviewed lots of bands, I know that some artists love to talk about their influences but some are reluctant to admit or acknowledge any lineage beyond the lightning bolts in their head. Did you find anyone who was reluctant or skeptical to talk about the roots you detail?
This is a really good point. I owe Ray Manzarek a ton of gratitude for talking about the influence of Arabic music. As you noticed in the book, he specifically mentions Islam – he doesn’t just say it was a minor influence, he says it was a major influence. He talks about the song “When The Music’s Over” and the lyric “Persian night, babe. Save us, Jesus.” He says this is their way of mixing Islam and Christianity. That’s astounding to me. And, as you say, people are loathe to admit other influences. It might even be human nature. But when I was doing the chapter on ‘60s music, everyone I interviewed was happy to talk about it.
There were a lot of people, though, who didn’t want to talk to me once they knew what I was writing about. George Herbert Walker Bush, the current president’s father, did not want to talk to me. I wanted to talk to him just about Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet. [Bush, Sr.] inaugurated the Khalil Gibran Memorial Garden in 1991. I just wanted to talk to him about that. And the email says it all – “George Bush does not want to talk about current world affairs.”
That, to me, is another scoop in a way. It’s an inadvertent scoop. To me, it says that’s how Arab and Muslim culture has been politicized in this country. We saw what happened in the presidential campaign where Barack Obama was accused of being a crypto-Muslim and essentially said “No, I am not. Let’s move on.” He didn’t defend the fact, as Colin Powell did a few days before the election, that “If I am a Muslim, so what?” Muslims have become political poison. Arabs, to some extent, have become political poison.
That’s one reason I wanted to write this book – I knew Arab and Muslim culture had been demonized. I wanted to say to those that were demonizing, “Here’s a side that you may not know about.” A lot of books have been written on the Arab and Muslim world. There’s one called Heavy Metal Islam… Mark LeVine goes into Arab and Muslim world and interviews a lot of people who are into punk rock, reggae, rock and roll and a lot of different kinds of music. It humanizes their world in a way. But it’s still a book that says “These people are out there.” My book says they’re not out there – they’re actually us. Their culture has influenced us in so many ways.
I wonder about the impact that would have on the people mentioned in your Preface [who responded to 9/11 with threats and acts of violence against Arab Americans] – or people I know in my own life who send emails about paving over the Middle East.
My devil’s advocate hunch is that they may say “Hmm, wow, interesting, I never knew that,” but then turn right back around with “They’re still the enemy. We should still nuke ‘em into oblivion.” Where do we go from there?
This is a good question and I’ve been asked this before in some shape or form. I’d answer it this way: this book does not say that Islamic fundamentalism does not exist, this book does not say that these terrorists should not be eliminated, and this book does not say that these Muslim fundamentalists – as they are thought of now – aren’t a huge scourge in the world. I am totally in support of getting bin Laden and bringing him to justice along with all these fundamentalists. But, on the other hand, that side of the Arab and Muslim world is one side and one side only; we need to look at the Arab world in a multidimensional way.
I don’t believe there is a clash of civilizations. At all. I believe there is a clash of people who have authority who are ignorant and insecure and have the means to inflict harm on people they perceive to be enemies. I believe there are fundamentalists in America, just as there are fundamentalists around the world, including the Muslim world. My father was alcoholic, my father was violent – when I think of fundamentalism, I think of my father. I don’t automatically pin it to one culture or one religion. Fundamentalism is an equal opportunity employer.
Osama bin Laden would like the world to believe that it’s very simple. George Bush, under his presidency, wanted the world to believe it was either them or us – you’re either with us or against us. I refuse to believe in that kind of world. I lived in Pakistan, I know a lot of Arabs and Muslims, I know the culture through ways other than through fundamentalism. If you want to see that world, you have to understand it through something other than religion and terrorism. That doesn’t mean that you may not have opinions that are forceful about Al Qaeda – of course it doesn’t mean that. But it only means that you should also include these other things – and I’m more than happy as an author and a journalist to try to do that.
** Al' America: Travels Through America's Arab and Islamic Roots (The New Press; hardcover) is now available in stores.