Landscape, culture, and cuisine in two great deserts

During my recent sojourn in southern Arizona, I spent a few minutes shopping at one of the most important small stores in Tucson. It is operated by staff and volunteers of Native Seed/SEARCH, a not-for-profit organization that “conserves, distributes and documents the adapted and diverse varieties of agricultural seeds, their wild relatives and the role these seeds play in cultures of the American Southwest and northwest Mexico. We promote the use of these ancient crops and their wild relatives by gathering, safeguarding, and distributing their seeds to farming and gardening communities.”

In addition to stocking up on Spicy Chile Hot Chocolate Mix, I bought a book by Gary Paul Nabham: Arab/American, Landscape, Culture, and Cuisine in Two Great Deserts (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2008). Three of his earlier books are treasured volumes on my short shelf of southwest desert literature, and I was eager (because of a review some time ago) to acquire this book of trans-cultural essays.

Although Nabhan grew up in Gary, Indiana, he belongs to a family with many relatives in the Middle East, and the two branches of the Nabhan clan maintain active connections with each other. An ethnobiologist, he has spent most of his adult life in southern Arizona, specializing in the history, culture, agriculture, and nutritional aspects of the Tohono O’odham people, who from ancient times have lived as agriculturalists in one of the most arid parts of the world.

Nabhan is currently associated with the Southwest Center of the University of Arizona, and he and his wife operate a farm near the little town of Patagonia. One of the highlights of my bicycle tour in the winter of 2011 was a brief visit to this community, including time for coffee and a sweet roll in a shop on Main Street. Native Seed/SEARCH operates its farm where it renews old seed stock somewhere close to Patagonia and while I am still able to move around I hope to see it myself.

Arab/American consists of nine chapters, divided into three sections. The first focuses upon “cultural, ecological, and culinary connections between deserts.” As a bicyclist interested in names, places, history, and human experience, I find this section illuminating. One reason is that Nabhan gives a good summary of the history of camels in the American desert. I intend to write on this portion of the book some time soon.

The second section gives attention to “bridging identities and family histories in two worlds.” More interesting to me as religious historian, however, is the third section, which Nabhan entitles “conflict and convivencia.” He begins with a close study of aggression in humming birds in the desert and then offers extended remarks about the history of human aggression. The final chapter of the book is a moving discussion of the importance of place in human society.

At a time when turmoil in the Middle East is spinning out of control and American practices are increasingly misdirected and unproductive, Nabhan’s sorrowful narrative and call for economic justice deserve a wide reading. There is much for people of religious faith, whether Christian, Jewish, or Arab, to ponder in Nabhan’s narrative. Its deep sorrow and the rightful longing of displaced peoples everywhere are expressed in these lines, which Nabhan quotes, from a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, Palestine’s poet laureate:

I belong there. I have memories. I was born as everyone is born.

I have a mother, a house with many windows, brothers, friends, and a prison cell with a chilly window! I have a wave snatched by waterbirds, a panorama of my own.

I have a saturated meadow. In the deep horizon of my word, I have a moon, a bird’s sustenance, and an immortal olive tree…

I have learned and dismantled all the words in order to draw from them a single word: Home.

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