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American Arabesque

American Arabesque: Arabs and Islam in the Nineteenth Century Imaginary

Jacob Rama Berman
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    American Arabesque
    Book Description:

    American Arabesque examines representations of Arabs, Islam and the Near East in nineteenth-century American culture, arguing that these representations play a significant role in the development of American national identity over the century, revealing largely unexplored exchanges between these two cultural traditions that will alter how we understand them today. Moving from the period of America's engagement in the Barbary Wars through the Holy Land travel mania in the years of Jacksonian expansion and into the writings of romantics such as Edgar Allen Poe, the book argues that not only were Arabs and Muslims prominently featured in nineteenth-century literature, but that the differences writers established between figures such as Moors, Bedouins, Turks and Orientals provide proof of the transnational scope of domestic racial politics. Drawing on both English and Arabic language sources, Berman contends that the fluidity and instability of the term Arab as it appears in captivity narratives, travel narratives, imaginative literature, and ethnic literature simultaneously instantiate and undermine definitions of the American nation and American citizenship.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-8951-3
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface: Roadside Attraction
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Introduction: Guest Figures
    (pp. 1-30)

    In nineteenth-century American discourse, the termArabis often figurative.Arabcould and did indicate an intermediary position between foreigner and citizen, black and white, primitive and civilized. Literate black slaves on the Southern plantation, American Indians on the western frontier, and new immigrants in the urban slum were all, at one time or another, referred to as Arabs. The discursive creation of these figurative Arabs speaks to the shifting racial parameters of American citizenship, as well as to American writers’ propensity to use foreign references to redefine those parameters. Figurative Arabs thus acted as cross-cultural references that destabilized the...

  6. 1 The Barbarous Voice of Democracy
    (pp. 31-69)

    For pre-Revolution settlers, tales of Indian captivity dramatized the stakes in the American experiment.¹ They also dovetailed generically with themes familiar from Barbary captivity narratives written by Europeans.² After the Revolutionary War, however, American citizens began writing their own accounts of Barbary captivity. White, working-class sailors who claimed no literary skill or pretension to fame produced the majority of postnational Barbary captivity narratives. These accounts were often circulated in support of subscription drives for ransom. Beyond the material support Barbary captivity narratives provided for actual slaves in Africa, the genre was clearly also a source of entertainment and intrigue for...

  7. 2 Pentimento Geographies
    (pp. 70-108)

    The New York lawyer John Lloyd Stephens wrote the first American version of a Near Eastern travel narrative. Europeans had been describing their travels in the Orient since the Middle Ages, but Stephens’s particularly American perspective on the region made his account an instant success with his domestic audience.Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea, and the Holy Land, published by Harper and Brothers in 1837, sold through its first printing within a year despite a nationwide financial panic brought on by Jackson-era speculation. Within two years, the book had sold twenty-one thousand copies, ultimately staying in continuous print...

  8. 3 Poe’s Taste for the Arabesque
    (pp. 109-137)

    While the first two chapters detail American literature’s direct engagement with Arabo-Islamic culture, chapter 3 examines the incorporation of that world into a self-referential American aesthetic. In Edgar Allan Poe’s oeuvre, the American arabesque undergoes a fundamental change in its meaning. This change has a legacy in the poetics of both Eastern and Western modernism. Poe’s arabesque is an abstraction of the Arab world, but in modernist aesthetics, the foliate pattern comes to represent the impulse to figural abstraction in general. William Carlos Williams, devising his own genealogy of modernism in the poemPaterson, alludes to the importance of figural...

  9. 4 American Moors and the Barbaresque
    (pp. 138-178)

    Standing on the shores of Morocco just prior to returning to Harlem in the 1930s, the Caribbean writer Claude McKay pays romantic homage to the Barbary Coast almost a century and a half after the wordBarbarycirculated in American print culture as an indicator of savagery and slavery. “The Moroccans are a magical barbaric people,” McKay announces, “if one isn’t too civilized to appreciate the subtlety and beauty of their barbaresques.”¹ Federal-era American captives in North Africa used the termBarbaryas a discursive tool to establish the civilized mandates of the new, slave-owning, U.S. nation. In the process...

  10. 5 Arab Masquerade: Mahjar Identity Politics and Transnationalism
    (pp. 179-210)

    The first four chapters of this book address an American discourse on Arabness that the first generation of Arab immigrants to America inherited. The ways in which this discourse prefigured Arab American identity and the ways in which a group of Syrian migrant intellectuals challenged that discourse are the focus of this final chapter. Until quite recently, historians have tended to read the story of the pioneer Arab migration to America through a narrative of the Arab that existed in American literature prior to the actual presence of Arabs: the story of the street Arab. This story uses the figure...

  11. Afterword: Haunted Houses
    (pp. 211-216)

    Just outside Natchez, Mississippi, in a thicket of imposing live oaks, sits the main house of the Longwood Plantation. Described by its owner, Haller Nutt, as an “oriental remembrancer of times past,” the octagonal structure stands six stories high and is capped by a large onion dome. Longwood was never meant to be a working plantation, and the main house was a place where Nutt’s wife, Julia, planned on holding balls and social events. “It is creating much admiration,” Nutt effused in a May 19, 1861, letter to his architect, Samuel Sloan. “I think after this the octagon will be...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 217-244)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 245-260)
  14. Index
    (pp. 261-269)
  15. About the Author
    (pp. 270-270)