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Arab/American: Landscape, Culture, and Cuisine in Two Great Deserts

Arab/American: Landscape, Culture, and Cuisine in Two Great Deserts by Gary P. Nabhan. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press; 2008. Paperback. ISBN 978-0-8165-2659-8. $17.95.

As its title implies, this book is a comparative journey in 2 desert lands: the Arizona Sonoran desert and the Middle Eastern deserts of North Africa and the Arabian peninsula. The author continues his trek to unveil more of his ancestral heritage and how it is linked to his present home in Arizona. The journey spans 9 chapters, each with its own theme and topic. Topics include people, plants, animals, and food, as well as socio-political, historical, and to a certain extent, philosophical views of the author about life and human relationships. The book ends with a reference section for each chapter followed by source credits and the author’s biography. It also contains a set of black-and-white pictures from different locations mentioned in the book.

The first chapter provides the reader with a historical background about the importing of camels from the Middle East before the American Civil War and how people attempted to use them in transportation.Camels were eventually released in the Sonoran desert, where they were gradually hunted by the locals until they completely disappeared from the area around the mid-1950s. The chapter also chronicles the journey of the first Arabian immigrants who were initially hired by the US army as camel drovers and who finally settled in the United States to pursue their own interests. Chapter 2 describes the strong influence of Arabian cuisine and culinary spices on some of the ethnic foods popular in the Southwestern United States and Mexico. Chapter 3 further explores the Arabian influence by citing various words in the spoken language of the Sonoran desert population that have common roots in Arabic language. In chapter 4, the author moves to North Africa to recount his experience in the Siwa Oasis located in the Western desert of Egypt, close to the border with Libya. In this chapter, the author describes his interaction with the local Berber-descendant people, their habits and habitat, as well as their foods and economic crops. In the following chapter, Nabhan elaborates on 3 species belonging to the genus Zizyphus, one of the plants common to both Middle Eastern and North American deserts. He uses this relationship to illustrate the concept known as the “Geography of Nowhere”: how the similarities in plant populations make all places on Earth look alike. In the course of the chapter, he also lists at least 50 plants that are common to the North African and North American deserts, such as wild watermelon (Citrullus lanatus, Cucurbitaceae), jimson weed (Datura stramonium, Solanaceae), milk thistle (Silybum marianum, Asteraceae), and many others.

Chapters 6 and 7 comprise part two of the book, which explores the author’s family histories in the Middle East and the United States. In these 2 chapters, he tells the story of the old Arabian tribes, the Nabhanis, from which his family name is derived. He also talks about his visits to Lebanon and Mexico, where his contemporary relatives now reside. Thyme (Thymus vulgaris, Lamiaceae) was brought in focus as an essential herbal ingredient in many of the ethnic foods shared by modern Arab Americans. Another common plant mentioned in chapter 6 is prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica, Cactaceae) growing in the Sonoran Desert, and its wild type O. humifusa, grown by the Nabhanis in old times. The regional and global effects of the Gulf War were also discussed at the end of part two. The final part of the book, included in chapters 8 and 9, summarizes many of Nabhan’s opinions and impressions about human aggressive behavior through incidents that he experienced during his travels. More discussion is included in chapter 9 about the significance and implications of human immigration and displacement.

This book is not only about an Arab American trying to explore his mixed heritage in time and space; it is a compilation of genuine stories about special people and their special places. The described locations, populations, foods, and plants have an authentic and exotic quality that should captivate the reader from start to end. As such, the book achieves its goals and may thus appeal most to those interested in travel, ethnic history, and exotic fauna, flora, and foods. The author’s philosophical views often encountered through the book may also be of interest to readers with similar inclinations. The style of the book and its content, however, are more suitable for the general reader than for the professional/academian seeking an in-depth reference text. Overall, Arab/American is a delicious light meal with a unique flavor that stays with the reader long after the meal is over.

—Ehab A. Abourashed, MS, PhD ElSohly Laboratories, Inc., Oxford, MS National Center for Natural Products Research, University of Mississippi University, MS