- American Arabesque: Arabs, Islam, and the 19th-Century Imaginary by Jacob Rama Berman
In American Arabesque, Berman argues that the representation of Arabs in nineteenth-century American literature and culture played an important role in mitigating the young nation’s relationship to its racial and ethnic others, both abroad and at home, and in shaping America sense of national and cultural identity. This thesis is as simple as it is conclusive, and yet it is entirely original. It is born out in wide-ranging readings of Barbary captivity narratives, Middle East travel narratives, the work of major writers like Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville, and African American and Arab American texts.
Scholarship in the past three decades has established the crucial role that the representation of African and Native Americans has played in the construction of American identity, yet scarcely any attention has been paid to the widespread, direct and indirect, references to Arabs and Arab culture in American literature that Berman traces here for the first time. In doing so, he proves not merely that Orientalism was a prevalent discourse in nineteenth-century American culture (something that has been well-established in the wake of Edward Said’s Orientalism by Malini Johar Schueller, Fu’ad Sha‘ban, Scott Trafton, among others), but that the representation of Arabs and Islam in particular took specific forms in the U.S. context that were central to shaping America’s sense of itself. For example, Schueller’s important book, U.S. Orientalisms: Race, Nation, and Gender in Literature, 1790-1890 (1998), does not mention Arabs in what is otherwise a perceptive and informative study. Neither does Trafton in Egypt Land: Race and Nineteenth-Century American Egyptomania (2004), which reads American Orientalism through the prism of Egyptology and the representation of ancient Egypt. By the same token, Sha‘ban’s Islam and Arabs in Early American Thought: The Roots of Orientalism in America (1991) is more focused on a genealogy of American Orientalism than on the role of that discourse in shaping American cultural identity; indeed, his next book, For Zion’s Sake: The Judeo-Christian Tradition in American Culture (2005), seems to imply that the Arab-Islamic tradition played no role in shaping American culture, a reductive notion that Berman’s book eloquently and conclusively refutes. While Sha‘ban’s work reproduces a polarity in which the U.S. is discursively and ideologically pitted against Arab-Islamic culture, Berman demonstrates the extent to which notions like “Americanness” and “Arabness” are discursive effects of the erasure of cross-cultural contact, fertilization, or (depending on how one sees it) contamination. Berman is able to do so by evoking the figure of the arabesque as a mediation between what is “Arab” and its representation in the U.S. context, thereby turning the duality of Arab vs. American into a fluid field of interplay and modulation of representations that perform discrete ideological functions for different agents under different circumstances—a richer, more nuanced, and more productive model. [End Page 420]
Berman’s book also complements more recent contributions to American literary studies like Wai Chee Dimock’s Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time (2006), which argues for comparative approaches to American literature that place it in a global historical context stretching back to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Although Dimock does not dwell on the Arabic literary tradition and its relationship to American literature, the vision guiding hers and Berman’s books is the same. I might add that the rapidly growing field of Arab American studies will benefit enormously from Berman’s exposition of its pre-history, which anchors Arab American literature firmly in the American literary field.
Berman’s scholarship is wide-ranging and impeccable. His thorough knowledge of nineteenth-century American literature and culture is evident on every page. His knowledge of the Arabic language, classical Arabic literature, and Islamic scholarship is impressive. All of that is to be expected in the best kinds of comparative work, but the truly original thing...