We welcome a guest post today from Susan Nance, author of How the Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream, 1790-1835. Americans have always shown a fascination with the people, customs, and legends of the “East,” such as the stories of the Arabian Nights, the performances of Arab belly dancers and acrobats, the feats of turban-wearing vaudeville magicians, etc. In her book Nance argues that the leisure, abundance, and contentment that many Americans imagined were typical of Eastern life were the same characteristics used to define “the American dream.” In this post, she offers insight on recent American engagements with the globalized Muslim world.
Recently I was asked to participate in a panel discussion on “Islamophobia” in the United States. Although I declined due to a scheduling conflict, I was also ambivalent about the event. I wondered: if journalists, opinion-makers, and academics boil down Americans’ perceptions of the Muslim world to a collective, primal fear of “Islam,” won’t we be diverted from asking more introspective questions about the American experience?
Consider this: many New Yorkers are currently engaged in a public argument over plans to build an Islamic Center called Park51 a few blocks from Ground Zero. Some accuse those opposed to the project of being Islamophobes who vent their stress over the recession by placing guilt for the attacks of 9/11 on innocent American Muslims. Others contend the naysayers are rightfully still traumatized from those events nine years ago. To them, the Islamic center would be salt in the wound, not a symbol of American religious freedom. In fact, what New Yorkers are really trying to figure out is this: with its millions of Muslim citizens and declining middle class, how will Americans come to terms with the fact that the United States itself is now part of the Islamic world?
More to my point, how do the New Yorkers from TV’s Sex and the City navigate this reality? This may sound like a strange question, but the DVD of Sex and the City 2 is set to be released this October, about three weeks after the anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks. Its coexistence with the roiled political climate in lower Manhattan shows how confused many Americans are about the complexities of globalized living. The film is a sequel to the 2008 film and highly successful cable show of the same name depicting the changing lives and fashion of four New York women, Carrie, Charlotte, Samantha, and Miranda. The latest installment sees these familiar characters working through new feelings about babies, marriage, and Islam by way of a luxury vacation to Abu Dhabi. “I’ve always been fascinated by the Middle East. Desert moons, Scheherezade, magic carpets,” says Carrie. “Like Jasmin and Aladdin?” asks Charlotte’s young daughter Lily. Replies Carrie wryly: “Yes, sweetie. But with cocktails.” “I can hear the decadence cal-ling!” Samantha joyfully declares.
And sure enough, the film recasts today’s affluent Middle East in the age-old American genre of the Oriental tale. The girlfriends are initially charmed by Abu Dhabi. Their opulent seven-star hotel provides them with handsome butlers, spacious suites, and bottomless cocktails. The women take an excursion into the desert à la Sex and the City, riding camels over golden sand dunes in impossibly fashionable and impractical clothes. Thereafter they take their repose in a desert tent, playing Eastern by lounging on soft cushions, feasting, drinking, and relishing the romantic setting and the many attendants there to ensure their happiness. (In How the Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream you can find artwork from an 1885 American edition of the Arabian Nights employing this exact trope and an 1837 poem on the same theme, on pages 43 and 28, respectively—see how versatile and long-lived this American interpretive tradition is!)
At the same time, the Sex and the City ladies are unsure about the political and social realities in the modern Arab Gulf. Charlotte travels by her maiden name to avoid discrimination she believes her Jewish married name, Goldenblatt, would invite. They wrestle over the status of Middle Eastern women, Miranda encouraging cultural relativism with careful explanations of the niqāb while Samantha fights against local customs of modesty at every opportunity. Eventually the ladies’ trip is cut short when Samantha is arrested for kissing a man in public. But before their disappointed departure, the group gets into an altercation with a group of men in the market offended by Samantha’s clothes, the contents of her handbag, and, well, just about everything about her. The four attempt to flee and are taken in by a group of veiled women. Once in private, each of the women pulls off her black niqāb to reveal she too is wearing “this year’s Spring collection” from New York City, as Carrie narrates.
The take-away lesson? Men may cause international conflict but women around the world are united by a love of style that can solve any problem. Maybe those foreigners don’t really want to harm us, they don’t want to dominate America. They just secretly want to go to Bloomingdale’s.
Carrie’s Arabian Nights fantasy is a comforting one. Certainly, the whole Sex and the City content brand evokes the carefree, credit-card-propelled 1990s rather than the misery of the last few years. Such imaginings can be culturally useful because they seem to offer a well-meaning alternative to Islamophobia. And equally, they help us cope with self-inflicted economic problems, the fear of global terror, and the increasing diversity of the American population. Yet they do so by reducing the Middle East to a mode of consumption.
Cross-cultural understanding through shopping? That approach is no more insightful than the blanket reduction of American unease to Islamophobia. We should understand these tendencies for self-distraction and instead ask ourselves: do we have the nerve to take a more nuanced, honest look at the raw emotions and real anguish caused on all sides by the globalization of American military, economic, and cultural power over the last century?
Susan Nance is associate professor of U.S. history at the University of Guelph in Ontario. She is author of How the Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream, 1790-1835 and blogs at www.susannance.com.