How the Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream, 1790-1935

How the Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream, 1790-1935

How the Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream, 1790-1935

How the Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream, 1790-1935


Americans have always shown a fascination with the people, customs, and legends of the "East"--witness the popularity of the stories of the Arabian Nights, the performances of Arab belly dancers and acrobats, the feats of turban-wearing vaudeville magicians, and even the antics of fez-topped Shriners. In this captivating volume, Susan Nance provides a social and cultural history of this highly popular genre of Easternized performance in America until the Great Depression.

According to Nance, these traditions reveal how a broad spectrum of Americans, including recent immigrants and impersonators, behaved as producers and consumers in a rapidly developing capitalist economy. In admiration of the Arabian Nights, people creatively reenacted Eastern life, but these performances were also demonstrations of Americans' own identities, Nance argues. The story of Aladdin, made suddenly rich by rubbing an old lamp, stood as a particularly apt metaphor for how consumer capitalism might benefit each person. The leisure, abundance, and contentment that many imagined were typical of Eastern life were the same characteristics used to define "the American dream."

The recent success of Disney's Aladdin movies suggests that many Americans still welcome an interpretation of the East as a site of incredible riches, romance, and happy endings. This abundantly illustrated account is the first by a historian to explain why and how so many Americans sought out such cultural engagement with the Eastern world long before geopolitical concerns became paramount.


After a half century of near invisibility, since 2001 West and South Asian Americans have become increasingly prominent in comedic and dramatic entertainment, advertising, and journalism in the United States. This notoriety is only one aspect of the public attention people have recently begun giving to those who came to the United States as a result of the 1965 Immigration Reform Act. the descendants of these new immigrants have in turn thought long and hard about how to come across as native-born Americans by their appearance, speech, politics, and more. For entertainers in this group, building a career in show business has been especially tricky. Audiences have been deeply affected by the “War on Terror,” the nation’s often-troubled relations with various governments in the Muslim world, and the debate over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. These issues can make it nearly impossible for desi, Iranian, or Arab American performers to get work playing anything but bewildered migrants, religious radicals, or foreign terrorists.

To make their way as entertainers and citizens, West and South Asian Americans often use humor to step outside the portrayals of Muslims in news broadcasts and cautionary television dramas. Prominent among these ventures is the “Axis of Evil” Comedy Tour. Featuring comedians of Iranian, Egyptian, and Palestinian descent—but “still looking for a North Korean,” their publicity material teases—comics like Maz Jobrani depict themselves as normal people living in complicated times. One of Jobrani’s most famous jokes revolves around the common scenario of the Iranian American who reveals his ethnic background to a group of acquaintances for the first time. “You’re Iranian?!” they ask with alarm. “No…,” he says with a smile. “I am Persian, like a carpet. I am soft and colorful, you can lay down on me. Go ahead, take a nap.” Here Jobrani reminds us of an older American tradition of interpretation wherein the Muslim world was not a national security concern or subject to invasion by American companies or armies but a familiar provider of contented consumer experiences. in insisting he is Persian, Jobrani brings to the fore again an interpretation of Eastern lands that actually predominated for the first 150 years of American history. in those years, most people interpreted an Eastern persona . . .

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