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Reviewed by Paul M. Barrett
Sunday, November 9, 2008


Travels Through America's Arab and Islamic Roots

By Jonathan Curiel

New Press. 246 pp. $25.95

It was a rough election season for American Arabs and Muslims. The McCain-Palin ticket shamelessly amplified the Internet smear that Barak Obama is a crypto-Islamic fanatic who fraternizes with terrorists. Obama responded by insisting, persuasively, on his credentials as an observant Christian. But in the process, he did little to point out the inherent bigotry in the Republican strategy Colin Powell, during his televised endorsement of Obama, eloquently challenged the assumption that Arabs and Muslims deserve to be held at arm's length. But the former secretary of state couldn't single-handedly do much to change the perception of these groups as a political liability.

Jonathan Curiel intends his book Al' America as an antidote to the fear. Ignorance, unsurprisingly, lies at the heart of it. Start with basic demographics: Most Arab-Americans are Christian, not Muslim, and most American Muslims are not Arab. Private surveys show that the largest segment of the American Muslim population -- about one-third -- traces its roots to South Asia, primarily Pakistan and India. Arabs make up only about a quarter of the Muslims in this country; African Americans, mostly converts and their children, another fifth.

Muslims in America are more varied in background and outlook than their non-Muslim neighbors realize and in many cases have been in the United States longer than is generally understood. Two-thirds of Muslims here are immigrants. Fully one-third are American-born and -schooled. The U.S. Census doesn't count by religion, so there is no reliable Muslim headcount. Private surveys yield estimates ranging from 2.4 million to 6 million.

Curiel, a veteran reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, focuses not so much on the personal stories or sociology of Muslims and Arabs in America as he does on the myriad aspects of American culture that have been influenced by them. His message: When transplanted to American shores, Middle Eastern culture and Islam aren't nearly so foreign or forbidding as portrayed by demagogues and politicians.

Al' America offers a quirky tour of sites, sounds and personalities that are quintessentially American and also reveal fascinating vestiges of Islamic and Arab influence. Musical stops include the Surf Sound of 1960s southern California, the Mississippi Delta blues and the startlingly spiritual confines of Elvis Presley's Graceland. The King, it turns out, kept a copy of Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet on his bedroom nightstand.

One of Curiel's most colorful excursions takes him to the fez-festooned conclaves where Shriners still greet each other by declaring, "salaam aleikum" (peace be upon you). At their apogee in the 1920s, when they had 500,000 members, the Shriners paraded through downtown Washington, D.C., were publicly hailed by presidents and drew a welcome committee of Marine Corps musicians dressed in Arab garb. Washington merchants even dressed up their storefronts as ersatz mosques. Those were different times.

Another entertaining digression takes readers to mid-19th-century Bridgeport, Conn., where circus impresario P.T. Barnum built a mansion in quasi-Islamic style and called it Iranistan. The grand house, with its pseudo-minarets, is long gone. But Iranistan Avenue survives, now pronounced "Arn-i-stan," Curiel reports with the light, bemused tone that makes the book a pleasurable read.

The author's intent here is pure; his eye for telling detail, sharp. But his analysis wavers at times, as he seems to confuse kitsch with substance. Tales of the boozy Shriners in their heyday illustrate that once, at least, some of what Sarah Palin calls "small town America" didn't consider "Arab" to be a flat-out slur. But donning a fez and calling your fraternity president a potentate doesn't demonstrate that you'd be comfortable living next door to a real live Arab.

In the wake of a bruising presidential campaign, Americans of all faiths ought to consider how to strengthen ties to their Arab and Muslim fellow citizens. Curiel's book, though short-sighted in some ways, can play a role in persuading the skeptical that Arab and Muslim traditions are already woven deeply into the American fabric. ยท

Paul M. Barrett is the author of "American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion," out in paperback this year.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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