America's North Africa Exhibit


An exhibit in the Powell Library Rotunda March 2 - September 18, 2009

Monday, March 02, 2009
Powell Library Rotunda
Los Angeles, CA 90095

This exhibit in the Powell Library Rotunda showcases a cornucopia of films, popular literature, and cultural artifacts that have captured the imagination of the American public. But what do these American-made items represent and convey and how do they reflect American perceptions of North Africans and Arabs and, in turn, Americans own self-image?

American perceptions of North Africa have been bound up for more than a century with erroneous notions all too easily identifiable with the Casbah, the Sahara, the French Foreign Legion and, more recently, a new battleground in the “war on terror.” How did these misconceptions of the region known as the Maghreb, or Arab West, a region so immensely varied in climate, topography, population, and traditions, enter American thinking and imagination, and what are the reasons for their persistence today?
Popular culture in all its forms has been instrumental in shaping impressions of North Africa and the Middle East as a whole. Consider the multitude of movies and magazines that have brought the Maghreb to life: the paperback and hardcover books that have thrilled and amazed generations of readers; the American built environment, from casinos to shopping centers that emulate North African architectural styles; and the music, dance, and cuisine of the region which continue to attract the American public. Increased travel to the Maghreb, leading to more first-hand experience and direct contact with the locals, has inspired sensitive narratives and literary works by renowned writers. Yet these continue to be overshadowed by the appropriation of North African motifs in popular film, literature, and consumer culture.
“America's North Africa” opens March 2 in UCLA’s Powell Library Rotunda and runs through September 18, 2009.  Drawn from the extensive holdings of the University’s Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections, the several hundred items on view shed light on seemingly harmless and often entertaining expressions of popular culture from the annals of Americana. Meandering between reality and fantasy, these aesthetically and visually striking artifacts and the conceptions they represent call for critical study and self-reflection. This exhibition is the third in a series focusing on American Orientalism and Middle Eastern Americana, which includes “Seducing America: Selling the Middle Eastern Mystique” and “Tales of the Imagination: The Middle East in American Popular Literature.”
“America's North Africa,” organized by the Center for Near Eastern Studies and the College Library, is part of a broader North Africa Initiative focusing on the region and its people, funded by the Social Science Research Council and the UCLA International Institute. The program of lectures, conferences, concerts, films, exhibits, and multimedia aims to inform, educate, and enlighten the public about a region that resonates powerfully in the American imagination but has not been sufficiently explored outside of academic circles.

The exhibit consists of seven display cases and corresponding themes described below:


This central exhibit case contains a sample of materials produced in the United States, featuring and framing North Africa in various settings that would define common perceptions of the region and its people for more than a century—from Mark Twain's travel accounts to coffee trading cards to the outpouring of films and print items, jazz recordings (including Dizzy Gillespie’s Night In Tunisia), consumer products, and mementos of all kinds. These images reverberated in the American imagination of the Maghreb well into the 1990s, and even today they strike a chord. What accounts for the popularity of this array of materials? Indeed, what is it about North Africa that attracts Americans? As our understanding of North Africa and its people has increased, has there been a comparable shift in our perception of this pivotal region of the Arab world and the Middle East?

In the Western popular imagination these two iconic North African port cities are nearly interchangeable. Even though they are distinguished by their locations (in Algeria and Morocco respectively), status, histories, and developments, in the realm of American popular culture Algiers and Tangier reflect the common perception of the Arab and Muslim city dominated by the medina and the Casbah—exotic, decadent, and decaying—the setting and backdrop for intrigue and romance. By nullifying distance and homogenizing identities, the powerful forces and venues of popular culture reinforce the notions of the Mysterious East at the expense of understanding these modern urban centers in context. What is the reason for this persistent point of view, and how can we redress these reductionist tendencies and notions?


For Westerners the Sahara Desert is a place of solitude, escape, romance, and conflict—the shared space where nomads and tribesmen, the French Foreign Legion, and nationalist movements and aspirations intermingle. The Sahara is the historic battleground where the Allies and the Axis powers fought in WWII. It is an imaginary place where sheikhs woo kidnapped European women. It is a frequent focus of National Geographic and its spectacular coverage of Saharan landscapes and migrants. Throughout history the desert has been a conduit between coastal and sub-Saharan Islamic civilizations, hardly the perception generated by American popular culture which continues to hang on the outmoded dichotomy between the desert and the sown. Has this erroneous notion of North Africa and the Middle East changed?

This auxiliary force of the French army had an illustrious presence in North Africa and likewise in the annals of American popular culture. Established in 1831 and comprised of volunteer French and foreign nationals under the command of French officers, the Legion served the colonial project from inception to demise. Based in Algeria, the Legion attracted renegades, misfits, and mercenaries into its ranks (including Americans), with a mission to defend France with “Honor and Fidelity.” These circumstances were a gold mine for novelists, pulp fiction writers, and filmmakers active from the 1930s to the 1960s—the heyday of popular culture’s infatuation with the Legion and North Africa. What is our fascination with the French Foreign Legion, and indeed who are the heroes, the villains, and the victims?

In the Western imagination the Casbah conjures the heartbeat of the Middle Eastern city. It is the traditional quarter of the North African medina. In Algiers it is the site of the citadel, its maze of alleys surrounded and protected by defensive walls, sheltering the locals and resisting the entry of foreigners. Yet the forbidden quarter has invariably attracted outsiders who sought and relished the seductive Casbah as a place of danger, intrigue, and pleasure. The Casbah was easily adopted as a brand name for various products that appeared in our consumer market—magazines, paperbacks, cosmetics, music, film, dance, and restaurants that continue to attract Americans. If you want to know why, then “Come with me to the Casbah.”

North Africa has been a prime region of exploration by this iconographic American journal since its inception in 1888. Over the course of the past century and up to the present, the journal has published numerous articles on the Maghreb, many based on expeditions to the region sponsored by the National Geographic Society. Shaped by its geographic mission and interwoven with the colonial history and the era of independence in North Africa and the Middle East, the photographic conventions and the style of reportage espoused by NG have conceivably shaped our perceptions and created lasting images of the region and its people. Taken as a whole, what are the underpinnings of the National Geographic approach that has made its presence and impact so enduring and formidable?


What accounts for the prominence of North Africa in the annals of American cinema? Consider Casablanca, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, or the numerous love stories (like The Sheik starring Rudolph Valentino, set in the Algerian desert), the Marlene Dietrich classics Morocco and The Garden of Allah, the hilarious comedies of the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, or the many B movies about the Casbah, the Foreign Legion, the vast Saharan desert, Algiers or Tangier. What is the attraction that drew Americans to movies about the Maghreb, and has it changed over time? And what are the implications and consequences of this fascination with the Arab West on the silver screen, and in our lives and times?

Cost : Free and Open to the Public

Amy Bruinooge