Jonathan Curiel mentioned the other night at his talk at the San Francisco World Affairs Council that a plan was needed to filter the Arab-Muslim world (in relation to this country) through the arts, not through violence.


This morning’s San Francisco Chronicle headlined Jonathan Curiel’s article in the Datebook section with splashy photos and a piece on “Arab Labor” a new comedy (yes, comedy!) about a Palestinian Journalist and his family “as they navigate life in Israel.” The series aired in Israel last year. The series creator, Sayed Kashua, says the show is “Seinfield –inspired.” It will be on the Link TV satellite channel (dish 9410), which is streaming the first episode free on website http://www.linktv.org/arablabor  7 p.m. Saturdays. Check it out.

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 Jonathan is promoting his new book, Al’-America, an original look at the little known influences of Arab and Islamic culture on America. Here are some I marked:

Elvis Presley had a crush on a girl, and she gave him a copy of Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet. He read it, even quoted from it and it helped him “…relax and forget everything.” (Everything?)

Jim Morrison and the Doors loved Arabic music. Strong influences are discussed.

Ralph Waldo Emerson “identified closely” with Hafiz and Sufi poet Saadi. And Emerson persuaded Thoreau to read them both.

Coffee berries grown in Yemen around 1400 led to the Shadhili Sufi’s reliance on the coffee to fuel their all night chanting (zikrs). One thing led to another – the first coffeehouse! Coffee spread to Turkey, where it exploded and became national beverage. Kahve is Turkish for Arabic qahwa. By the end of the 16th century, Yemen was producing most of the Muslim world’s coffee. Then, John Smith of Jamestown fame, (isn’t that the Pokahantas Smith?) brought coffee to America after drinking it in Turkey.

Islamic architectural influences in America: The Alamo in San Antonio Texas, the Alhambra in Evansville Illinois, and – this is very strange – The World Trade Center, designed by Minoru Yamasaki in 1959. The twisted metal arches are burned into the memory of nearly every American who has seen the aftermath of 9/11. “In 1961, (Jonathan writes), exactly a year before he was awarded the World Trade Center commission, Yamasaki told the New York Times that his favorite building of all times was Iran’s Shah Mosque…’Its delicacy and beautiful proportions are very thrilling,’ Yamasaki told the paper… He believed that the buildings accomplished the goal he had set for them: to be a welcoming place for people of all nationalities to conduct world trade.”  He used the words “an oasis” and “a mecca” to describe his vision for an elaborate plaza beneath the towers that was never fully realized.

Curiel has some language surprises. Christopher Columbus was known as almirante – “commander” and Queen Isabella herself was Almirante del Mar Oceano – “Commander of the Ocean Sea.” These words came from al-emir. “Alcatraz” stems from  al-ghattas – “the white tailed sea eagle” and became in Spanish, alcatras, a word for “sea birds”, hence the island of sea birds – “Alcatraz.” My favorite is “algebra” – al-jabr, which he attributes to an Arabic mathematician. (He doesn’t mention this but if you take Algebra back to the root Ja Ba Ra, it means to “compel”. From there you move to “the bonesetter,” “the healer,” and “the tyrant” – all from the word that became Algebra). Tangier in Morocco, with its famous orange fruit became “tangerine.” He ends the discussion with the fact that  over 500 words based in Arabic have become words in our everyday speech: “alcove,” “alchemy,” “almanac”… (Al means “the”).

The whirling poet from Afghanistan who died in Turkey, Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi is the best selling poet in America. True. Coleman Barks americanized John Arberry’s traditional British translations:


Why envious are ye

Of this all generous sea,

these joyous waters why

to each would ye deny?

Shall fishes treasure up

the waters in a cup,

to whom the ocean wide

will never be denied? (Arberry)


Are you jealous of the ocean’s generosity?

Why would you prefer to give

this joy to anyone?

Fish don’t hold the sacred liquid in cups!

They swim the huge fluid freedom.  (Barks)


[ Certain Sufis might sing this variation with Dumbek drum, Bouzouki and two dance circles:

Fill your cup, drink it up, Ya Allah, Allah…

…Fish in the water’s not thirsty! ] This last comment is not from JC’s book.