Today’s Solutions: June 16, 2024

How the Arab and Muslim worlds have influenced America for the better.

Jonathan Curiel | December 2008 issue


He wasn’t on the cover. That honor went to B.B. King, Jimmy Page, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Eddie Van Halen, but Dick Dale was still a prominent part of Rolling Stone magazine’s recent “100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time” issue. Dale and his signature surf tune, “Miserlou,” were ranked No. 46, one below The Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There” but ahead of Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun,” B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone” and Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” Only one problem: Rolling Stone completely misrepresented Dale’s song. It disregarded Dale’s Arab origins (Dale is Lebanese; his real name is Richard Mansour), ignored the hit’s Arabic and Turkish roots and described “Miserlou” as “this old Greek pop song.” It’s not. It’s an old Greek-Turkish-Arabic song; the name means “The Egyptian” in Turkish, not Greek.
The tune, which is the theme song of Quentin Tarantino’s film, Pulp Fiction, has been wrongly identified for decades, which begs the question: so what? Here’s what: The contributions of Arab and Muslim culture to the U.S. have been downplayed since the founding of the country, and this displacement led to a collective state of ignorance that, in the wake of 9/11, helped fuel the backlash against Arabs and Muslims.
It’s not just music that ties Arabs and Muslims to America. It’s architecture; embedded in the Alamo in Texas are Islamic designs, and the World Trade Center was rimmed with pointed Islamic arches. It’s food and drink; the ice-cream cone was inspired by Syrian-Americans, and coffee came to the U.S. via Turkey. It’s poetry: Ralph Waldo Emerson was influenced by Muslim poets from medieval Iran, Elvis Presley by Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran, and ­language (“giraffe,” for example, stems from Arabic). It’s campy traditions, the Shriners are steeped in Arab and Muslim culture, and artistic work (Persian carpets head the list). And it’s many other areas of culture, commerce and history.
The connections stretch back to Christopher Columbus, who relied on navigational techniques solidified by Arabs and Muslims, and who, in the waning years of his life, credited them for aiding his adventures. Arabs and Muslims didn’t make it to America with Columbus (the Spanish crown forbade them), but their culture did, one of the ironies of this ­interconnection. Spaniards themselves transported their culture across the Atlantic Ocean in the form of food, architecture, language and customs derived from 700 years of Muslim rule over the Iberian Peninsula. When New Orleans was part of Spanish, territory in the late 18th century, Spain’s leaders brought in ­courtyard ­architecture learned from Muslims. The balcony grills that wow tourists in New Orleans’ French Quarter are rooted in the geometric designs Muslims perfected on the Spanish peninsula.
Why don’t more people know this? Has there been some sort of deliberate conspiracy to deprive people of a knowledge fount that would put Arabs and Muslims in a different light? No, no conspiracy. It’s more benign than that. The information about these links was always out there, tucked away in obscure books gathering dust on library shelves, known in small amounts by academics with no reason to announce it to a broader audience or seen as trivia.
Those who discover Arab and Muslim culture at its best never see it the same way again. This updated picture of a people promotes the idea that Arabs and Muslims have always influenced the U.S. for the better. The attacks of 9/11 were an ugly flip side. Despite the backlash that ensued, evidence is widespread that Arab and Muslim ­culture is becoming more integrated into the U.S., not less. History offers hope that people of ­divergent backgrounds inevitably find a ­common ground, even if it takes years of caution and circumspection.

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