Skip Navigation
Middle Eastern Americana Archive Unveiled"Rebecca Came Back From Mecca" sheet music cover, 1921

Middle Eastern Americana Archive Unveiled

Near East Center assistant director showcases collection of popular culture, artifacts, and memorabilia.

By Jonathan Friedlander

The exhibit "dispels any misguided notion that Orientalism was simply a passing fad in the nineteenth century."

What do Lena "the Queen of Palesteena" and Rebecca who "came back from Mecca" have in common? I asked myself this question while preparing a December 1 presentation on American Orientalism and popular culture. The illustrated talk, "Rebecca Came Back from Mecca and Other Follies from the Annals of American Orientalism," was a part of a lecture series accompanying the exhibition of artifacts and material culture titled Seducing America: Selling the Middle Eastern Mystique on display at the Powell Library Rotunda through December 16.

Besides being two titles from my collection of Orientalist sheet music, these tunes, written in 1920 and 1921, have parallax meanings. One obvious view underscores the exoticization and lure of the Middle East that was current in the music and film of the time, reflecting the mindset of most Americans whose perception of the Middle East was shaped by the persona of silent era film star Rudolph Valentino as The Sheik and by the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb and treasures and the onset of Egyptomania.

And yet, Lena and Rebecca were also transforming the mores of their own society. Their voyages and experiences, told in lyrics and song, underscore women's emancipation and liberation from the grip of inequality and dominance. In the words of the songwriters, Rebecca

saw an Oriental show and then decided she would go
to Mecca across the sea.…
She stayed there just two years, got full of new ideas,
And now she's back home again.…
Oh! Oh! Ev'ry one worried so; they think she's crazy in the dome;
She's as bold as Theda Bara, Bara's bare but Becky's barer,
Since Rebecca came back home.
In Mecca where the nights are hot,
Rebecca got an awful lot of learning.…
Her mother feels so sad. Her brother Moe is mad,
And he keeps on complaining so;
To satisfy his whim, she keeps on calling him,
"Mohammed" instead of Moe.

As for Lena from the Bronx in New York City: "She's such a good musician, She got a swell position, to go across the sea to entertain. And so they shipped poor Lena 'Way out to Palesteena, But now I hear she don't look the same…."

The graphic appeal of the front cover design, racy lyrics and catchy dance melodies (the oriental fox trot is a direct outcome) made sheet music a popular medium at a time when many Americans were taught to read music and play a musical instrument. And with the advent of mass media, color printing and consumerism, and the dance craze of the 1920s, the four- to six-page pamphlet, often strikingly illustrated, had wide appeal, evidenced by the vast sheet music collection housed at the UCLA Music Library Archive of Popular American Music. The trove includes romance, love and friendship songs, drinking songs, mammy songs, patriotic songs, Bible songs, and a cornucopia of travel songs and songs about other lands and peoples—from Mexico, Spain, and Scandinavia to Japan, Egypt, and the American colonies and territories of the day, the Philippines and Hawaii—as well as an abundance of derogatory songs about African Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans.

While Americans were in contact with early Arab immigrants and their communities, especially in New York, Boston, and Chicago (where the sheet music was produced), the depictions of the Middle East have nothing to do with this population. Conversely, the Middle Eastern and Orientalist songs are depictions arising out of a purely Orientalist imagination and mindset already rooted in the works of American painters of the mid- to late 19th century and propagated in early cinema and the publication of the Arabian Nights tales—often with fantastic illustrations, made available to children and adults alike.

In my December 1 presentation, I also showcased many samples of music with Middle Eastern representations and themes which have entered the realm of American popular music via vinyl records (from the Ali Baba Cha Cha to Ahab the Arab and Walk Like an Egyptian) to the belly dancing music available on CDs, along with hip-hop music videos featuring African American artists embellishing their songs with Arabian influences and imagery.

These primary sources deserve attention, something I'm trying to further with a new article on Orientalist sheet music. Understanding sheet music requires a multi-faceted investigation, taking into account the meaning of cover art as well as background information on illustrators, publishing companies, artists, and songwriters (Irving Berlin, Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson are among the many artists and performers whose creative output is featured in sheet music). This type of research could be carried out on LPs in the collection. For example, more than 50 stunning album covers were produced to sell the recordings of the Scheherazade symphonies by Rimsky-Korsakoff and Ravel in the United States in the 1970s-80s by an industry eager to capitalize on the mystique of the Orient, made in America.

The steady stream of Orientalist music and its broad appeal are evident in the several hundred recordings of ragtime, swing, jazz, rock, folk, hip-hop, cross-over, and belly dancing music. These are posted on the American Orientalism website and database produced in conjunction with the project and housed at the Department of Special Collections of the Young Research Library, along with an array of pulp fiction, adventure stories, romances, men’s magazines, and comics with Middle Eastern themes and representations past and present; posters of magicians and magic acts, movie posters, and VHS/LD/DVD renditions of many of the more than 1,000 films produced by Hollywood on the Middle East (most recently Syriana, Kingdom of Heaven, The Passion, along with Jughead, Sahara, Aladdin, Sinbad, Mummy, Scorpion King, Three Kings, Terms of Engagement, House of Sand and Fog, and the TV shows Over There and Tutenstein); dozens of board games from the early twentieth century and the electronic games of today, the Prince of Persia series, Desert Storm, and Back to Baghdad, among others; consumer items such as cigarettes, coffee, beer, beauty products, and more, many bearing Middle Eastern insignias and the accompanying advertisements and publicity for mass-marketing.

Also included in the Middle Eastern Americana collection are my own photographs documenting Middle Eastern representations in the realm of architecture and the built environment (from Moorish-style private residences to Arabian and Ancient styled entertainment and commercial venues, including movie theaters, casinos, and shopping malls); pageantry—from Shriners parades to Mardi Gras and the Date Festival in Indio, California; and the performing arts—notably the popularization of belly dancing. American Orientalism is a living tradition, and its manifestation in daily life underscores a deep American fascination with the Middle East.

In many ways Los Angeles is the Mecca of American Orientalism, and it is fitting that the Middle Eastern Americana collection be housed on the UCLA campus. Under the auspices of the Center for Near Eastern Studies and the International Institute, the several thousand items will be catalogued and made available to students, scholars, educators, professionals, and the general public. We hope that readers and collectors alike will collaborate with us to enlarge and enrich the archive.

The exhibition and collection have received critical reviews in the pages of the Los Angeles Times and the guest book at the exhibit site. For example, Victoria Steele, who heads the Department of Special Collections, observed, "Assembling the collection belies a serious purpose: to call attention to Western minds' conception of and fascination with the Orient, a realm of the imagination that represents longing, adventure, exotic splendor, and mystical perfection." Lorraine Pratt, a doctoral student in Islamic Studies at UCLA, said, "American Orientalism considers how the Middle East figures in the American imagination. Its careful consideration may begin to explain the very complicated—and often tragic—relationship between the U.S. and the Middle East." Connie Fitzsimons, a professor of art history at El Camino College, said that the exhibition… "provides ample evidence of Orientalism's continuing hold on our contemporary imagination and dispels any misguided notion that Orientalism was simply a passing fad in the nineteenth century. I am hopeful that this information can be made available to the public on a long-term basis."

Jonathan Friedlander is Assistant Director of the Center for Near Eastern Studies.

Center for Near Eastern Studies