San Francisco Chronicle writer explores America's Arab, Islamic roots

'They have always belonged in this country. These people are a part of America,' says Jonathan Curiel.

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WALLA WALLA -- Jonathan Curiel, staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle and author of "Al' America: Travels Through America's Arab and Islamic Roots," spoke at Whitman College on Wednesday night, as the school's fourth visiting O'Donnell lecturer of the academic year. The subtitle of his lecture was "How Arab and Muslim Culture has changed America for the Better."

The former Fulbright scholar -- who has spent time teaching in Pakistan and doing research in Oxford, England -- presented his research on the connections between American and Arab history, touching on topics such as the Muslim influences in the architecture of the Alamo, and how the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson was inspired by the scriptures of Islam and Persian poetry.

"He was America's first great intellect," Curiel said, "He identified with Islam and Muslim culture and he cited the Koran hundreds of times."

During his lecture, Curiel said that up to 20 percent of slaves brought to America from Africa were Muslim, and many slaves went by Arabic names and some even wrote their autobiographies in Arabic. According to Curiel, this Islamic connection to early African-American society can still be seen in the sounds of blues musicians and even in the music of Billie Holiday.

In addition, Curiel explained that when the American Southwest was settled by Spanish explorers, whose own history included centuries of rule by Muslim invaders in Spain, they brought Arabian plants like palm trees and fruits like pomegranates. He also said that the Spanish also were responsible for naming what is now the west coast state of California -- which came from the Arabic term for leader, Caliph.

He spent time answering questions from several students and community members who were in attendance and took part in a brief dialogue on the topic of Islam in America, a topic Curiel emphasized as an important conversation that needs to be discussed more often.

Curiel explained that despite the many interesting links between Arab and American cultures, his reason for writing the book was not just to entertain readers with fascinating anecdotes and amusing stories.

"No one thing is going to stop people misunderstanding (Islam), but I want to contribute to the debate. The sense that Arabs and Muslims didn't belong in this country was imminent moments after 9/11," he said. "My book is a way of saying that these people are us, they have always belonged in this country. These people are a part of America."

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