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America's Arabia: The Date Industry and the Cultivation of Middle Eastern Fantasies in the Deserts of Southern California

  • Author(s): Seekatz, Sarah
  • Advisor(s): McGarry, Molly
  • et al.
Abstract

This dissertation explores the creation of "America's Arabia" in the Coachella Valley, California and the date industry that grew there. Importantly, it profiles United States Department of Agriculture agricultural explorers, scientists who traveled the globe looking for new crops at the turn of the twentieth century. When these agricultural explorers ventured to the Greater Middle East to bring back date offshoots, they took with them a popular understanding of the Orient that shaped their views of the date palms and the people who grew them.

Such views of the Orient, as a backwards, dangerous, and yet deeply romantic place, were passed from agricultural explorer to Californian date grower, reinforcing long established American understandings of the region. Date growers and importers, in turn, marketed their dates via this Oriental romance as well as new scientific understandings. Coachella Valley growers highlighted dirt, disease, and unsanitary conditions in foreign date packing while emphasizing the power of American science, particularly pasteurization, a "white" labor force, and fumigation. Despite the perceived benefits, these practices proved dangerous for workers.

Importantly, the romance surrounding the Greater Middle East in Western imagination provided the Coachella Valley with inspiration to create its own fantasies of the Orient, tying the two regions through the renaming of places and Moorish inspired architecture. As the century wore on, the Arabian theme drew in tourists who sought out the exotic date groves and the themed architecture that grew alongside them. Remaking the landscape into America's Arabia also provided a community identity that spilled into celebrations of the date, particularly the annual Date Festival. This event not only featured architecture influenced by the Orient but also an Arabian Nights inspired musical pageant, camel races, and, notably, sheik and harem girl costumes. The act of playing Arab, in particular, uncovers the importance of the date and its Orientalist connotations for the region's tourism and internal community. These racial masquerades mirror larger American practices of blackface and playing Indian, though few questioned the custom.

While much of the study ends in 1965, this research also brings up the shifting American pop cultural understanding of the Greater Middle East, which changed drastically towards the end of the century, as new geopolitical realities filtered through film and television. A review of the recent controversy over the Coachella Valley High School's Arab mascot provides crucial questions about what it means to play Arab in the twenty-first century.

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