Lines in the sand

  • ARAB/AMERICAN: LANDSCAPE, CULTURE, AND CUISINE IN TWO GREAT DESERTS Gary Paul Nabhan 160 pages, softcover: $17.95. University of Arizona Press, 2008.

  • An Omani ranger approaching a Boswellia sacra tree in Oman. GARY PAUL NABHAN

  • An adobe tower at the Roxanne Swentzell Tower gallery in northern New Mexico. GARY PAUL NABHAN


Desert cultures are a breed apart. The environments of each shape the particular ways in which its inhabitants - human and otherwise - survive and express themselves. But beyond each desert's distinctive topography, climate and culture, "a living river of common heritage runs through them all."

So says Gary Nabhan, Sonoran Desert ecologist and author of this delectable volume of essays. Nabhan searches out the commonalities between desert cultures and landscapes - specifically the deserts that have informed his ethnic heritage and those that have shaped his life and work experiences. Nabhan's great-grandfather immigrated to the New World from Syria. Thinking he was bound for the U.S., he ended up in Vera Cruz, Mexico, instead. He died before his wife and family could catch up with him, and they immigrated instead through New York. As a result, Nabhan was born in America. Always fascinated by deserts, he has spent most of his adult life exploring and studying the arid environments of the Southwest and Mexico.

Using food, language, culture and history, Nabhan draws intriguing parallels, linking the deserts of his Lebanese and Syrian past with those of his North American present. He delves into the history of an ill-fated nineteenth-century attempt to introduce camels to the American Southwest. We visit an out-of-the-way cafe in Chihuahua, where menu items include stuffed grape leaves, mashed chickpeas with sesame paste, and lamb kibbe. "Wherever there is an oasislike agricultural area on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border," Nabhan writes, you can find groves of dates, figs, olives, apricots, citrus fruits, grape vines, and pomegranates, much like those you would see on the Arabian peninsula. He also invites us to the remote O'odham lands that straddle the U.S. and Mexico, where we ponder the way some Spanish and O'odham words echo the sounds and meanings of Arabic terms, perhaps carried to the New World via trade routes and the peculiarities of human migrations.

Nabhan offers us a "what if" - a walk through deserts seemingly worlds apart - and he finds in the sands of both common roots. Both lyrical and liberating, this is an intensely warm and personal foray through two very different regions that share far more than we might suppose.

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