Book Review: Al’ America: Travels Through America’s Arab and Islamic Roots

by Bushra on February 7, 2009

In Al’ America: Travels Through America’s Arab and Islamic Roots, journalist Jonathan Curiel explores the influence Arab and Islamic culture has had on the United States of America. Curiel provides Americans with an accessible book that forces one to look at America since its inception and recognize that we should not all fear Arabs and Muslims because in fact, many things can be traced back to these origins.

With this book, Curiel delves into many aspects of the American culture to discover Arabic or Muslim beginnings. He writes about Islamic roots since the time Columbus set foot on America, slaves that were Muslim, origins of words that take root from Arabic words, buildings that were created with Arab architecture in mind, and amazingly enough, the origin of one of the most popular surfer songs, Miserlou, has an Arab point of reference as well.

One interesting story is about one of the most American things, the ice cream cone, which was created through happenstance in 1904. When an ice cream vendor at the World’s Fair in St. Louis ran out of plates to serve ice cream, a zalabia, a flat pastry with a grid-like pattern that a Syrian was selling, was shaped like a cone and used to serve the ice cream instead. Even something like coffee can be traced to Muslim countries where it was initially used by Sufis to help them stay up late and pray. In fact, the first coffeehouse was in Mecca around the 1500s.

The biggest shock to many could be that Minoru Yamasaki, the American architect, was inspired by Arab architecture when he designed the World Trade Center. In fact, the original plan had a lot more archways that are present in mosque designs before he had to change the design.

While I can go on and on about what Curiel tied to Arabic and Muslim culture while he researched this book, it’s worth talking about the ramifications of such a book. Americans have lived in fear of Muslims and Arabs for quite a while now and Curiel will force one to reexamine this misunderstanding and for that, Al’ America is an important book and worth adding to one’s bookshelf. Well written and well researched, this book benefits many people, whether it is someone that thinks of Arabs and Muslims living in the United States as ‘the other’ or even Arabs and Muslims who live in the United States. The former will understand that a lot of what they thought to be “American” can be traced to Arabs and Muslims while the latter may acquire a closer association to this country as they learn about roots planted a long time ago.

In his preface, Curiel writes “..the history of these pages will require a popular reassessment of America and its relation to Arab and Muslim culture. It’s not “their” culture, but “ours.” American culture. The culture of America.” Hopefully, Jonathan Curiel will accomplish this with Al’ America.

Be sure to check out Jonathan Curiel’s website as he has pictures of some of the buildings he writes about in his book.

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