AL’ AMERICA by Jonathan Curiel


Travels Through America’s Arab and Islamic Roots
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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.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-59558-352-9
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: The New Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2008