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American Arabesque

Arabs and Islam in the Nineteenth Century Imaginary

By Jacob Berman

Publication Year: 2012

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.

Published by: NYU Press


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Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. vii-viii

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Preface: Roadside Attraction

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pp. ix-xii

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. ...

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pp. xiii-xvi

The inspiration for this book is the time I have spent in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Near East. The people I met in these places, the stories I heard, and the things I have learned and unlearned about Arabo-Islamic culture motivated me to take a closer look at its representation in American literature. ...

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Introduction: Guest Figures

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pp. 1-30

In nineteenth-century American discourse, the term Arab is often figurative. Arab could and did indicate an intermediary position between foreigner and citizen, black and white, primitive and civilized. Literate black slaves on the Southern plantation, American Indians on the western frontier, and new immigrants in the urban slum ...

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1. The Barbarous Voice of Democracy

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pp. 31-69

For pre-Revolution settlers, tales of Indian captivity dramatized the stakes in the American experiment.1 They also dovetailed generically with themes familiar from Barbary captivity narratives written by Europeans.2 After the Revolutionary War, however, American citizens began writing their own accounts of Barbary captivity. ...

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2. Pentimento Geographies

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pp. 70-108

The New York lawyer John Lloyd Stephens wrote the first American version of a Near Eastern travel narrative. Europeans had been describing their travels in the Orient since the Middle Ages, but Stephens’s particularly American perspective on the region made his account an instant success with his domestic audience. ...

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3. Poe’s Taste for the Arabesque

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pp. 109-137

While the first two chapters detail American literature’s direct engagement with Arabo-Islamic culture, chapter 3 examines the incorporation of that world into a self-referential American aesthetic. In Edgar Allan Poe’s oeuvre, the American arabesque undergoes a fundamental change in its meaning. ...

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4. American Moors and the Barbaresque

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pp. 138-178

Standing on the shores of Morocco just prior to returning to Harlem in the 1930s, the Caribbean writer Claude McKay pays romantic homage to the Barbary Coast almost a century and a half after the word Barbary circulated in American print culture as an indicator of savagery and slavery. ...

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5. Arab Masquerade: Mahjar Identity Politics and Transnationalism

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pp. 179-210

The first four chapters of this book address an American discourse on Arabness that the first generation of Arab immigrants to America inherited. The ways in which this discourse prefigured Arab American identity and the ways in which a group of Syrian migrant intellectuals challenged that discourse ...

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Afterword: Haunted Houses

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pp. 211-216

Just outside Natchez, Mississippi, in a thicket of imposing live oaks, sits the main house of the Longwood Plantation. Described by its owner, Haller Nutt, as an “oriental remembrancer of times past,” the octagonal structure stands six stories high and is capped by a large onion dome. ...


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pp. 217-244


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pp. 245-260


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pp. 261-269

About the Author

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p. 270

E-ISBN-13: 9780814789513
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814789506
Print-ISBN-10: 0814789501

Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 794671672
MUSE Marc Record: Download for American Arabesque

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • American literature -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
  • Arabs in literature.
  • National characteristics, American, in literature.
  • Islam in literature.
  • Arabs -- Race identity.
  • National characteristics, American -- History -- 19th century.
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