American Arabesque: Arabs, Islam, and the 19th-Century Imaginary

American Arabesque: Arabs, Islam, and the 19th-Century Imaginary

American Arabesque: Arabs, Islam, and the 19th-Century Imaginary

American Arabesque: Arabs, Islam, and the 19th-Century Imaginary


Part of the American Literatures Initiative Series

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.


Every January 10, the desert city of Quartzite, Arizona, holds a festival in honor of the “Syrian” camel driver Hi Jolly. Often cited as the first Arab to make his permanent residence in America, Hi Jolly arrived in the United States in 1856 as part of Jefferson Davis’s Fort Tejon Camel Corp experiment. The story of the Camel Corps is a story of fascinating failure. Davis sought to provide a reliable long-distance supply system for the dispersed forts on the frontier and commissioned forty or so camels to be shipped to the American Southwest from the Levant for that purpose. The camels performed well, but the outbreak of the Civil War made their job obsolete. Most of the dromedaries were dispersed in the desert. Eventually they entered into the myth of the American West spawning numerous folk tales and ghost stories. Reportedly the camels were last sighted as late as 1946. A man named Hadji Ali was among the camel drivers who accompanied the beasts of burden from the Levant. When the camels were released, Ali remained in the Arizona territory, occupying a number of colorful jobs before his death in 1902. A pyramidal monument marks Ali’s gravesite in Quartzite’s pioneer cemetery (figure 1). Atop the tomb is a bronze camel.

The Hi Jolly Memorial is significant not because it marks the burial site of the “first Arab” to live in America but rather because it demonstrates the role of translation in creating American images of the Arab, in creating American arabesques. The plaque adjacent to Ali’s tomb explains that because the soldiers whom the “Syrian” was tasked with training in the ways of the camel could not pronounce “Hadji Ali,” they changed it to “Hi Jolly.” Hadji Ali signifies, to a speaker of Arabic, a devout man who has made a pilgrimage to Mecca in accordance with religious duty. Hi Jolly, to an English speaker, is a somewhat ridiculous name that evokes laughter even as it speaks to the incongruity of a Levantine camel driver trying to . . .

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