State Archives Speakers Series: Arabian Nights in the American Desert

California State Archives Speakers Series:

Coachella Valley native Sarah Seekatz (University of California, Riverside) will bring to light the surprising and intriguing flavor of her home region with her presentation entitled “Arabian Nights in the American Desert: The Cultivation of Middle Eastern Fantasies in California’s Coachella Valley.”

In the deserts just east of Palm Springs, stately date palms sway near a high school with an “Arab” for their mascot. Residents drive along streets named Cairo, Baghdad, and Medina, and even through the city of Mecca. Every year in February visitors to the National Date Festival cheer on racing camels, hobnob with the beauty pageant winners dressed in harem pants, and walk around the fairgrounds laced with “Arabian” architecture. These now fading references to the Middle East offer just a glimpse of the Arabian fantasies once promoted by the region beginning at the turn of the 20th century. Linking their warm climate, desert landscape, and burgeoning date industry to the romance of Arabia, local boosters harnessed a national love affair with the “Orient.”

As oil embargos, a hostage crisis, international conflict, and changing pop cultural views shifted the way America viewed the Middle East, the Coachella Valley remained steadfast in its adherence to fantastic ideas of “Arabia.” Learn more from Sarah Seekatz, our exciting speaker, whose research has been supported by fellowships from the Autry, The Huntington Library, and the UC California Studies Consortium. Her work has also been featured on CNN, NPR, Al Jazeera America,, and KQED’s The California Report.