Earlier than the Music Competition, Coachella Valley Promoted Itself With an Arabian Fantasy – Atlas Obscura


Simply chillin’ on a camel, sharing a shake, on the 1958 Indio date competition. College of Southern California / Getty Photos

At first look, the Riverside County Honest and Nationwide Date Competition within the Coachella Valley city of Indio, California, seems to be like all native truthful. The monster vans are lined up, the Twinkies are frying, and ferris wheels gleam within the desert solar. However different particulars are out of the atypical: The truthful poster faintly resembles the sweeps and curves of Arabic calligraphy. Domes and minarets seem on the horizon. The official Honest ambassadors—elegant younger women, becrowned and sporting sequinned, midriff-bearing skirts or harem pants—wave regally. Say hey to Queen Scheherazade and her court docket.

Held between February 15 and 24, this was the competition’s 73rd yr. Though dates are not the spotlight, and the truthful positions itself like some other county truthful with carnival rides, livestock reveals, and musical leisure, the competition nonetheless incorporates curiously “Arabic” components, which really feel misplaced in a area that’s 71 % Hispanic and 25 % white, with a Muslim inhabitants within the mere a whole bunch.

All of it started, as most tales of fruit in America do, with the USDA. On the flip of the 20th century, the US Division of Agriculture’s mission to enhance the nation’s agricultural range led to the import of date varieties from the Center East and Algeria to the Coachella Valley. By the early 1900s, promoters launched bold advertising and marketing campaigns to spice up the trade. Making the most of the desert panorama, Coachella Valley cities refashioned themselves as American counterparts of the Center East. The city of Walters grew to become Mecca in 1904, and a number of other streets within the Valley bought names like Cairo Avenue and Medina Avenue, which nonetheless exist at the moment. The Coachella Valley Excessive Faculty mascot grew to become the picture of an Arab in a keffiyeh. Date retailers had been designed as replicas of pyramids and Bedouin tents. A competition celebrating the fruit was the pure subsequent step.

In 1921, the city of Indio, situated 130 miles from Los Angeles, launched the “Worldwide Competition of Dates.” Native press reported that “seven society women” had donned Arabian costumes on the opening ceremony, making a sensation. The promotional pamphlet included an illustration with bedouin tents, camels, and the legend: All “The Clever Males” are going.

After that first date competition, although, curiosity dwindled till 1938, when the Riverside County Honest merged with the Indio Civic Membership (organizers of the date competition) to type the Riverside County Honest and Nationwide Date Competition. With a quick pause in the course of the Second World Battle, the competition has run repeatedly since, held in mid-February yearly. The county truthful added conventional American occasions reminiscent of rodeos, carnival rides, and funnel desserts, however the love of faux-Arabia remained.

Undated photo of Queen Scheherazade and her court.Undated photograph of Queen Scheherazade and her court docket. Courtesy of the Riverside County Honest and Nationwide Date Competition

“Within the early half of the 20th century, the Center East is romanticized and regarded as the place of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights,” says Sarah Seekatz, an affiliate professor at San Joaquin Delta School, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the creation of “America’s Arabia” to advertise the Coachella Valley’s date trade. “It’s seen as glamorous and splendid and sex-crazed, but in addition harmful.” The enthused adoption of a mythic Arabia because the cultural id of this date-producing city was a handy option to market the group and the competition for tourism. The motive was “you need to go to us, and try to be a vacationer as a result of we’re this place the place you may journey the world with out leaving the state,” explains Seekatz, who additionally chronicled the date competition as a part of her dissertation.

The Arabian Nights theme took off after World Battle II. An area artist, Louise Dardenelle, conceived the Arabian Nights pageant, which grew to become an annual custom of performs tailored from One Thousand and One Nights (extra generally known as Arabian Nights). The manufacturing wanted a stage, and retired Hollywood artwork director Harry Oliver, recognized for his excessive replicas of bygone eras, constructed the faux-Center Jap Baghdad Stage, replete with minarets, Moorish arches, and latticed home windows. The Islamic model was not rooted to any precise place of Islamic heritage. On both aspect of 1 facade, indicators written in Arabic respectively learn “Pastry Store” and “Dates Store—The Solely One in America.” On the center wall, an indication written in Farsi mentioned, “Arabian Meals & Candy Meats.”

The Arab fantasia within the fairgrounds structure was pan-Islamic, stretching past the Center East for inspiration. In addition to the Baghdad stage, there may be the Taj Mahal constructing, which has a mural of the particular Taj Mahal on one exterior wall. Different areas have names reminiscent of Shalimar Garden and Magic Carpet Stage.

Just like the annual play, the Queen Scheherazade magnificence pageant has been held since 1948. Contestants, most of them achieved native college students, gown in bejewelled, gossamer-thin harem pants, and compete for scholarship cash. The Queen and her court docket, comprising a Princess Dunyazade and Princess Jasmine (the primary and second runners-up), greet fairgoers and make promotional appearances.

The open-air Baghdad Stage, fit for a Caliph.The open-air Baghdad Stage, match for a Caliph. Amin Eshaiker / CC BY-SA three.zero

Each the Arabian Nights pageant and the Queen Scheherazade contest have change into enduring traditions. At first the pageant was a group affair, showcasing native expertise, however its recognition has led to professionals doing costume and theatrical design. It’s now California’s second-oldest outside play, outrun solely by the Ramona pageant, in neighboring Hemet, writes Seekatz, in her 2016 guide, Photos of America: Indio’s Date Competition.

Seekatz has been monitoring how the competition has modified through the years. At first, native companies and distributors participated within the Orientalist depictions, dressing up in Arab clothes—headdresses, veils, and all. However by the 1970s and ‘80s, the depiction of the larger Center East was starting to vary in the US, spurred by geopolitical turmoil such because the Iran hostage disaster, oil embargoes, and the Gulf Battle. The times of a blue-eyed Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia or an electrical Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra—portrayals that glorified the mythic Orient—had been over. After 9/11, American in style tradition overwhelmingly depicted Muslims as terrorists and threats.

The truthful adopted go well with. In 2003, the truthful’s taking pictures gallery used a sketch of an Arab as targets. The camel races had been run by males in U.S. army garb, not Arab headdresses, as up to now. An American flag was raised on the Baghdad stage, in an occasion known as “Salute to America,” which preceded the Arabian Nights musical pageant, and has change into a unbroken custom. “Let’s face it, it’s kinda bizarre now, this Arab factor,” a fairgoer informed Lorraine Ali, a journalist who wrote about visiting the truthful as a baby within the 1970s after which returning after 9/11.

From the 1958 date festival.From the 1958 date competition. College of Southern California / Getty Photos

There are hardly any Center Jap voices in protection of the competition, so it’s exhausting to inform what precise Muslims considered the cultural appropriation. Seekatz directed me to Ali’s 2003 article in Newsweek. She writes about her bewilderment on the sight of blue-eyed males in fez caps on the 1973 competition, which she attended together with her father, an immigrant from Baghdad. However the preliminary confusion gave option to pleasure. “[We’d] whoop and holler on the camel races and marveled on the pyramid of dates within the Taj Mahal constructing—India? Arabia? Who cared?—and ate corn canine subsequent to freckled children on the ‘Arabian Nights’ pageant.”

In some ways the framework of the date competition mirrored that of its major supply of inspiration. The tales of One Thousand and One Nights draw from Arab and Indian folklore, from Ottoman literature and Egyptian mythology. Its standing as world folklore has given it a universalism that has led to widespread diversifications. The tales, and notably the character of Scheherazade, have impressed writers as various as Jorge Luis Borges, Neil Gaiman, Haruki Murakami, and Salman Rushdie. That a small group in Southern California may also like to make use of it to rejoice (and promote) their date trade is maybe not the purpose of rivalry. Ali’s dad deemed the genies and flying carpets too harmless to trigger offense.

Maybe what irked Ali is how the date competition used the fantasy of Arabia like its personal genie in a bottle: a robust, wish-granting pressure that might be subdued and known as to motion at will. The organizers used grand domes and delightful harem ladies as a advertising and marketing trope when it was handy. However when this notional Muslim world grew to become threatening within the nationwide consciousness, the turbaned Arab face grew to become a goal on the gun vary, the costumes had been (principally) retired beneath the guise of heightened political consciousness, and the remaining vestiges of legendary Arabia had been preceded by reassuring renditions of patriotism, such because the American flag flying on the Baghdad stage (which seems on this yr’s Honest calendar merely as “Pageant stage”). “I couldn’t assist feeling that the truthful was apologizing for as soon as having promoted a spot and folks whose very existence is now considered as anti-American,” rued Ali.

The 2019 Musical Pageant <em>Aladdin and the Magic Lamp (and Ring)</em>.” width=”auto” data-kind=”article-image” id=”article-image-64514″ data-src=”https://property.atlasobscura.com/article_images/64514/picture.jpg”/>The 2019 Musical Pageant Aladdin and the Magic Lamp (and Ring). <span class=Courtesy of the Riverside County Honest and Nationwide Date Competition

The Honest may need taken a cue from Coachella Valley Excessive Faculty, which responded positively in 2014 to a grievance from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee about its snarling Arab mascot. The varsity designed a brand new mascot, that includes the picture of a “Mighty Arab,” which honored the varsity’s heritage with out propagating Islamophobic stereotypes (and was accredited by the Committee).

Because the Coachella Valley grew extra various, populated with newer arrivals who had no connection to the date trade, and the trade itself discovered different methods to promote its fruit, the allegiance to the Valley’s Arabian mythmaking waned. The truthful’s date distributors have discovered different avenues of promotion, present Honest supervisor, Veronica Casper, writes in an e mail. At the moment, guests would possibly amble amongst date groves and revel in a date shake or ice cream. There are nonetheless date-focused cook-offs on the truthful, and a few distributors promote date shakes and different treats, together with date beer, however the choices are meagre in comparison with the competition’s early days.

This was the primary yr with out the truthful’s camel and ostrich races, though camels had been there for rides and an academic exhibit, based on Casper. At the moment, a Disneyfied Aladdin, stripped of any vital allusions to an Islamic world, is without doubt one of the final vestiges of an extended affair with a mythic Center East. The Oriental sheen stays, however solely because the feeble afterglow of a outstanding cultural and agricultural heritage.

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