What is Arab Kitsch?

ARAB KITSCH is a study of popular American songs dealing with the Middle East. For the purposes of this study, Middle East is taken in its broadest sense to include any area or country from the Magreb to Afghanistan, with a slight extension northward into Turkistan. The searchable database contains mostly songs, i.e., words and music, and not instrumental pieces (marches, rondos alla turka, etc.). Occasionally the title of a piece can be misleading; arag may or may not have words. For my purposes, the words are critical, since they convey the intentions of the lyricist and give the essential clues about contemporary social climate. The ultimate goal is to chronicle the durability of Arab and Middle Eastern stereotypes in American popular music spatially from “the Road to Morocco” to “Hindustan” and chronologically from “the shores of Tripoli” to the Persian Gulf and Iraq.


Middle Eastern stereotypes also includes Jewish characters, although they are a minority here because, for the most part in popular thinking, Jews were associated with Europe, not the Middle East. Certain historical figures such as King David and Solomon were “biblical,” not Jewish, and so came under a different set of rules.  Salome made the crossover from biblical to popular status because of the sensation caused by Richard Strauss’ opera Salomé: “Sadie Salome” was an Eastside New Yorker caught up in a Middle East craze around 1908.

The Middle East has figured into popular American culture since the late 18th century when American ships under British protection transported agricultural goods from North America to the Mediterranean basin. About one-fourth of our foreign trade was destined for ports in Turkey and the Levant. When the Barbary Pirates disrupted this trade by seizing vessels and holding the crews for ransom, the impact was felt along the Atlantic seaboard. Sermons were preached about the captive seamen and benefit performances were staged to raise ransom money. A good bit of this enthusiasm carried on through the War of 1812, encouraged by the exploits of the new American Navy and Marines (whence “the shores of Tripoli”).

Toward the middle of the century events in Europe spilled over onto the American scene. French incursions into North Africa fostered the beginnings of Orientalism  in art and literature. These in turn prompted composers to set  poetry to music or write tone poems about the region. Translations of “The Arabian Nights” provided stories that could become songs and operas. Other poems, some translations, some original by European authors, were recast as “art songs” along the lines of Schubert’s Lieder. This was music for the concert hall and parlor recitals.

By the end of the 19th centry the popular stage saw the appearance of operettas and later musical comedies with story lines usually created by the lyricist to appeal the western audience by using the trappings of the orient: harems, palaces, sultans, evil visiers, and, most of all, scantily-clad dancing girls.

The 20th century began with the Salome craze, brought on by the American premiere performance of Richard Strauss’ opera  Salomé at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. The audience was scandalized by Salome’s dance and her kissing the severed head of John the Baptist  But the public across the East River at Coney Island couldn’t get enough of Salome. Competing side shows offered verrsions of the dance routine and songs were written to profit from the craze.

World War I brought a new dimension to America’s interaction with the Middle East. Turkey sided with Germany and the Central Powers against the allies and so the Turk became a popular stereotype of decadence as the sultan and his harem was the symbol of overheated sexual behavior. The nascent Zionism was gaining attention among American Jews, prompting songs about Palestine as the romantic homeland for Jews.

The 1920s saw Prohibition in America, but the Middle East was still a regular topic for songs, thanks to the romanticism of the French Foreign Legion and the Riff Wars that produced stories like “The Sheik.” Rudolph Valentino would make them immortal in films and Americanize the title to apply to young men with winning ways with women. By the end of the decade, Desert Song conquered both Broadway and Hollywood and the stereotypes of desert life were indelibly printed on the American mind.

The discovery of King Tut’s tomb in Egypt prompted a new wave of songs about Egyptian pyramids and the sphinx, the desert, and especially the boy king. In future years, each museum exhibit of the tomb finds would engender a new wave of songs, most notably Steve Martin’s concert number. “King Tut.”

A romantic interlude followed in the 1930s, with movie musicals and comedies set in the Middle East as a backdrop for songs by the crooners of the day.. No attempt was made to delve deeply into the oriental culture; the lyrics were merely a set of clichés to be used as a vehicle for the sentiment of the song.

World War II in Europe spread to North Africa as the German armies fought their way from Tunisia eastward toward Suez. Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour were off on the “Road to Morocco” while American troops sang the exploits of “Dirtie Gertie from Bizerte” and other ladies in the cities along the way.

After World War II there was a return to the romanticism and escapist literature that remembered the Middle East in the lush music of “Kismet” or the haunting melody of “Hajji Baba.” But the continuing warfare surrounding the establishment of the State of Israel after 1948 saw a change in the perception of Arabs by Americans. No longer the “sons of the desert” traveling in caravans along the trade routes, they became the villains and thus in popular culture the subjects for comedy and satire (e.g., “Ahab the Arab” and his camel named Clyde).

At the beginning of the 21st century we have almost come full circle in the popular depiction of Arabs (and now Muslims). The United States is again at war with nations in the Middle East. Once again we send in the Marine Corps to defend our liberties. Once again the peoples of the Middle East are portrayed as the enemy in songs written in a distinctive Amrican form, in this case, the country/western song. Radio stations and concert halls are the venue for these songs instead of the vaudeville stage, but the subtext is the same: the people of the Middle East are alien and our enemies, so we must fight them with every weapon available, including the popular songs that, as they have for over two and a half centuries, will inspire and enrage us to continue the struggle against terrorism.