Nabhan, Gary Paul. Arab/American: Landscape, Culture, and Cuisine in Two Great Deserts.

Author:Forbes, William
Position:Book review

Nabhan, Gary Paul. Arab/American: Landscape, Culture, and Cuisine in Two Great Deserts. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2008. 133 pages. Paper $17.95.

Arab/American is a fine contribution to the literature in geography and anthropology on comparative regions. The author follows the format of his previous work such as Songbirds', Truffles, and Wolves (1994) and Cultures of Habitat (1998) to weave various short stories together in a personal yet intriguing narrative. The theme is, of course, especially timely with the current conflict between the regions. Nabhan critically inquires about the nature of such human aggression towards the end of the book. This is not only a possible additional text for a regional course on the Middle East, but also a worthy supplemental text for introductory courses in world regional geography, cultural anthropology, or cultural geography.

Nabhan's habit of offering up unique, sometimes surprising histories of land, life, and place continues here. The first example may throw readers a bit off guard: in the mid1850s, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis proposed the use of camels as a transportation infrastructure project in the American Southwest, trying (unsuccessfully) to build an expansive, powerful American South that could avert the Civil War. Despite the odd, introductory subject matter, the reader is quickly engaged by the intersection of personal accounts and historical details, including the migration story of a Middle East "camel whisperer" who became a legend in the Southwest.

Most of the stories within this thin volume are short, personal, and relevant enough to hold students' (young and old) attention in this era of personal blogs. One example is Nabhan's personal, on-the-road research with his daughter into the surprising Arabian origins of culinary influences in Mexico. One-third of the residents in 1580s Merida, on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, were from al-Andalus (Spain's Andalusia region, occupied by Arabs from approximately 700 CE to 1400 CE). They spoke an Arabic dialect in their Yucatan homes and likely influenced Mesoamerican dishes of today such as mole. Nabhan also discovers Southwest plant, animal, and place names with surprising Arab origins.

A story of particular interest to cultural and political ecologists could be Nabhan's visit to a lush desert oasis in western Egypt documented in 1919 by a University of Arizona agricultural researcher, Robert Forbes. As is true with many...

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