Cowboys, food, architecture, language carry Islamic markings

By Phyllis McIntosh
Washington File Special Correspondent

Washington — On the surface, it may seem like the United States and the Middle East are worlds apart, two separate cultures with little in common and no historical connections. In fact, there is considerable evidence to the contrary.

Though little known, Islamic influence runs deep in American culture. A number of the words Americans speak, foods Americans eat, buildings Americans design, decorative items Americans create, and traditions Americans treasure can trace their roots to the Islamic world.

In the United States today there is growing interest in all things Islamic. Although American museums have long collected and displayed Islamic art, the past few years have brought more media attention and public awareness of special exhibitions, says Massumeh Farhad, chief curator of the Freer Gallery of Art/Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington.

More than 120 American colleges and universities now offer graduate or undergraduate programs or courses in Middle Eastern studies, according to the Middle East Studies Association of North America. Statistics compiled by the Modern Language Association show more than 10,500 students enrolled in Arabic language courses at U.S. colleges in 2002, nearly double the number in 1998, making Arabic the fastest growing foreign language offered on American campuses.

Islamic influences may date back to the very beginning of American history. It is likely that Christopher Columbus, who discovered America in 1492, charted his way across the Atlantic Ocean with the help of an Arab navigator. Long recognized as experts in maritime navigation, Arabs knew well before the Europeans that the earth was round and also probably introduced Europe to such navigational devices as the magnetic compass and the astrolabe, a forerunner of the sextant used in celestial navigation. By the 15th century, it was common for European ships crossing the Atlantic in search of an alternate route to Asia to enlist Muslims as navigators and potential translators, according to the Council on Islamic Education.

The Spanish who settled what is now the American Southwest brought with them designs, materials and food inspired by Muslims who invaded Spain in the eighth century and remained prominent there until the end of the 15th century. Prominent features of southwestern U.S. architecture, such as enclosed patios, fountains, arches, decorative tile work and use of adobe or clay bricks as a building material, came to the New World from the Middle East by way of Muslim Spain.

Islamic designs also influenced jewelry produced by Native Americans, particularly the Navajo, in the American Southwest. One of the most identifiable items of Native American jewelry, the squash blossom necklace, features an inverted crescent pendant made of colorful beads that resemble tiny squash blossoms, hence, the necklace’s unusual name. Historians of southwestern jewelry believe the Native Americans adopted the design from a crescent ornament on the horse bridles of Spanish-Arab mudejars who arrived in the New World in the 1500s. Mudejars were Muslims who remained in Spain after the Christian reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula (11th-15th century).

The very embodiment of the American Old West, the cowboy, likely owes much of his equipment — saddle, spurs, and even his boots — to the Spanish Muslims, who were skilled horsemen. Donald Gilbert Y Chavez, a New Mexico author and cowboy historian, notes that the pointed-toe, high-heeled, and high-topped boots that Americans identify as “cowboy boots” was designed by Muslims in Andalusia, Spain, for mounted cattle herders who spent long hours in the saddle. The fancy stitching, he adds, is reminiscent of Arab designs.

What Americans identify today as southwestern or Mexican cuisine also has deep roots in the Islamic world. Spicy meat dishes, rice and seasonings such as cinnamon and cloves introduced to Spain via the Muslim trade routes have combined with New World vegetables such as beans, tomatoes and peppers to produce some of the world’s most flavorful foods. “A Mexican meal is history in a dish,” writes culinary historian Terrie Chrones. “When I order, I like to look for and taste the Arab connection, imagining the chefs of these cultures creating this marvelous blend.”

In architecture, Islamic influence has extended well beyond the Southwest. In the early 20th century, Louis Sullivan, sometimes called the dean of American architects, made liberal use of arches, niches, and decorative friezes inspired by Islamic calligraphy in the office buildings, department stores, and banks he designed for Midwestern cities. Islamic designs also were popular in some of the lavishly decorated movie theaters of that era, which sported names such as the Alhambra, after the famous Islamic palace in Granada, Spain.

It is through language, however, that the Islamic world most directly influences the average American. According to a number of encyclopedia sources, many everyday words come from Arabic, including alchemy, algebra, asthma, average, cable, coffee, guitar, hazard, jar, lemon, macabre, magazine, racket and soda.

Americans also are discovering a new appreciation for Islamic art and artifacts. Tourists visiting the Washington this summer can enjoy two spectacular exhibitions: “Caliphs and Kings: The Art and Influence of Islamic Spain” at the Smithsonian’s Freer/Sackler Museum; and “Palace and Mosque: Islamic Art from the Victoria and Albert Museum,” at the National Gallery of Art.

“Caliphs and Kings” includes some 90 objects dating from the eighth to the 16th century from the collection of the Hispanic Society of America in New York. The more comprehensive National Gallery exhibition of more than 100 objects from the renowned Islamic collection at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum features calligraphy, ceramics, textiles, carpets, metalwork, glass and woodwork that represent both religious and secular art of the Islamic world. Also on display are objects such as European lusterware and tin-glazed pottery that were inspired by cultural exchange with the Islamic world, as well as Islamic pottery influenced by high-fired ceramics from China.

The exhibition, funded at the National Gallery by Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States Prince Bandar bin Sultan, will remain in Washington until February 2005. It will then travel to Fort Worth, Texas, Tokyo, and Sheffield, England, before returning to newly renovated quarters at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Tim Stanley, Middle East curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum who organized the exhibition in cooperation with the National Gallery, said the show is designed to educate museum visitors about three main themes:

— In its broadest sense, Islamic art refers to all art of the Middle East during the Islamic period, whether produced by Muslims or non-Muslims or for religious or secular purposes.

— Images of living beings, though never used in a religious context, are actually quite common in secular Islamic art.

— Because the Middle East sits at the center of the “Old World,” many features of Islamic art are the result of cultural and artistic exchange with other regions.

“The art of the Islamic Middle East has had the power to engage people outside the Middle East for many centuries,” Stanley said in opening the exhibition. “We have created this exhibition in order to continue that tradition of awe and respect.”

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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