Arab/American: Landscape, Culture, and Cuisine in Two Great Deserts
It is hard to imagine that anyone other than Gary Paul Nabhan could have written Arab/American, but then that is true of most of his books. Nabhan's individual and professional experiences as paleobotanist, agricultural scientist, southwestern desert ecologist, seed saver, locavore and food writer, community organizer, jokester, traveler, storyteller, and author, co-author, and editor of a score of books, plus the recognition bestowed upon him as a Lannan Literary Fellow, a MacArthur Fellow, and a Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient from the Society for Conservation Biology, combined with his family background in Syria/Lebanon, make him one of the few who would even think of writing a book like this one. That is part of its appeal: Nabhan is a writer to follow, and it is always interesting to see what he will come up with next.
Arab/American is a collection of nine essays (three of them previously published and likely familiar to WAL readers), split (unevenly) into three sections: (1) Cultural, Ecological, and Culinary Connections between Deserts; (2) Bridging Identities and Family Histories in Two Worlds; and (3) Conflict and Convivencia.
Two unifying strands hold these essays together. One is a set of intriguing—and entertaining—connections between the deserts of the American Southwest and those of North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Middle East, connections that include words, recipes, the lives of individual people, and ways of adapting to similar arid and semiarid landscapes. Words migrate from Arabic to Spanish to O'odham to borderland English. Dishes spread from Syria to Chihuahua and Merida. A [End Page 91] Syrian/Greek camel-handler moves—with camels—from Turkey to Arizona and Sonora. American agricultural researchers travel from Arizona into the oases of Egypt. Together, these stories add another significant new cultural dimension to the multicultural (and borderland) West. This concept will appeal to readers of WAL who will want to consult the book for their own education and for possible use in the classroom. The second unifying strand of Arab/American is a yearning, even a nostalgia, for rootedness, conceived of here in the context of displacement, migration, exile, and transience—and complicated, of course, by the current state of tension between the Arab and the American worlds. Nabhan tells us that one in three people on the planet have been recently uprooted from their homelands—a proportion that is even higher if we include those whose families moved less recently, whether by force or choice. His on-the-ground tracking of his own clan's history is part of this strand, as are essays about the recent violent conflicts and knowledge of a place that comes only with very long experience. This complex of issues will especially interest those of us who take seriously the role of place—and the world that we humans have made in tandem with nature.
As I often find when I read one of Gary Nabhan's books, what I most enjoyed about Arab/American was the experience of being inside the mind—and heart—of a really interesting, active, and original thinker who also writes with engaging clarity. It is a bonus for me, as it will be for others, that Nabhan's literal and intellectual territory overlaps with ours in such provocative ways.