Some Arabic influence in the American Southwest

Some Arabic influence in the American Southwest November 13, 2019


The Alhambra, as the sun sets
The Alhambra, of an Andalusian evening  (Wikimedia Commons public domain image)


Having grown up in southern California; having attended high school across the street from one of the most important of the old Spanish missions; having spent time in places like Santa Fe, New Mexico, I reflect fairly often on how very Arab the American Southwest sometimes feels.


My high school was part of the Alhambra School District, and it sat right on the border of the city of Alhambra — which was obviously named after the famous Arab palace in Granada, Spain.  Students at our sister school and rival, Alhambra High, were the Moors.  The city of Alhambra is criss-crossed with streets such as Alhambra, Granada, Cordova, and Almansor.


There’s a lot of Arabic influence around the region.  Even the name of the city of Albuquerque, the etymology of which is in some dispute, has been argued to come from Arabic.  (Many Spanish and English words beginning with the element al-, which is the Arabic definite article, indisputably do — e.g., algorithm, algebra, alcohol, the star-name Aldebaran, the aforementioned palace of the Alhambra and the southern California town called after it, the place-name Alcatraz, alchemy, alkali, albatross, and so forth.)  While some claim that Albuquerque comes from the Latin alba querqus, or “white oak,” others insist that it’s from the Arabic abu al-qurq, meaning “land of the cork oak” (literally, “father of the cork oak”), or the Arabic al-barquq (“apricot”)


In either case, the vehicle for such influences is Spanish, and it must be recalled that substantial portions of modern Portugal and Spain were ruled by Arabic speakers from AD 711 to AD 1492.  We often refer to this influence as Moorish.


Many of the architectural features of the Southwest, including the enclosed courtyards and tiled fountains that are so familiar in the California missions and beyond, are indisputably distant legacies of Damascus and the Arabs.  The Umayyad dynasty, based in Syria, ruled much of the Iberian peninsula (under the name Andalusia) for a long and influential time.  That’s why communities even in the Spanish-speaking Southwest were administered by a mayor called an alcalde (Arabic “judge” or القاضي [al-qāḍī]).  That’s why Spanish-speakers exclaim ojalá, “I wish!,” reflecting the Arabic  وشاء الله (wa-šā’ allāh; “may God will it!”).


Even the designs of the tiles look Middle Eastern.  And the basket designs, though undoubtedly American Indian in many cases, would fit strikingly well in the bazaars of Aswan, Egypt.  I’ve eaten in several Mexican restaurants where the decor — and most especially the hanging tin lamps — could have come right out of Morocco or even further east.



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