Strange Days In Indio

We were surrounded by men in fezzes and women in harem garb, yet it was pretty safe to say that my dad--a Baghdad native--was the only real Arab at the 1973 Indio National Date Festival. The other men at this annual county fair were not swarthy sheiks but sunburned local date farmers celebrating the February harvest in this desert community just 130 miles outside Los Angeles. Ever since date trees were imported from Algeria around 1900, the sweet fruit had become a main source of revenue, and the locals developed a love affair with all that was Arab. They lived in cities called Mecca and Oasis, drove down streets named Arabia and attended schools with mascots such as the Coachella High Arabs. Indio was one of those places where American tradition happily intersected with the lore of the Middle East. At the fair, we'd whoop and holler at the camel races and marveled at the pyramid of dates in the Taj Mahal building--India? Arabia? who cared?--and ate corn dogs next to freckled kids at the "Arabian Nights" pageant. For my sisters and me, it was a chance to be in the know: "That's not how you wear a hijab," we'd say, pointing at a head scarf. "Duh!" And my dad wasn't offended by the show's imagery of flying carpets and bottled genies: it was too innocent. He called it "that other Baghdad."

Last week I went back to Indio and found it had become a different place. The date groves are now owned by corporate farms, and the fair's main sponsors were not a collective of local retailers but an Indian gaming resort and the all-conquering Dole Food Co. This year the camel races don't feature robed riders in Lawrence of Arabia headdresses but jockeys dressed in U.S. military garb. "Let's hear it for the Marines, the Navy and the Air Force," blares the cowboy-hatted announcer. The festival's one pita stand identifies its sandwiches as Greek.

One vendor booth carries picture frames decorated with tanks and gunboats and bumper stickers that read don't mess with us. The "Arabian Nights" pageant has dropped every reference to Baghdad, and resurrects lyrics Disney expurgated from "Aladdin": "They cut off your ear if they don't like your face/It's barbaric, but hey, it's home." The pageant opens with a brand-new "Salute to America": a flag is raised in front of the mosque like set while a fresh-faced girl sings "God Bless America" to a skipping CD. It was the only time the crowd leapt to its feet. In the midway's shooting gallery, teenagers take aim at a sketch of a generic Arab.

Joe Hedrick, the cowboy emcee, says he struggled with how to handle this year's event. "We want people to come and have fun, and I thought maybe... maybe seeing the Arab dress would make them feel uncomfortable. It's a strange time. What is appropriate right now?" Many of the vendors, once required to dress up Arab style, wonder the same thing. This year fewer than one in 10 wears a veil or a fez. "They used to really enforce the 'Arabian Nights' dress code," says one veteran retailer, who asked not to be named. "But not this year. People can get in free if they dress up, but even they're saying, 'To hell with it, I'll pay $7 before I'll put a head scarf on'." Jamie Ortiz is one of the few attendees wearing a tunic and turban. "Dressing up is not a popular thing since 9-11," he says. "Let's face it, it's kinda weird now, this Arab thing."

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True, all this reflects a nationwide reaction to 9-11 and to President Bush's incessant calls for war. But I couldn't help feeling that the fair was apologizing for once having promoted a place and people whose very existence is now viewed as anti-American. (Rumors preceded my arrival that NEWSWEEK might portray the fair as unpatriotic.) My family didn't trek out from L.A. to the desert in our Country Squire station wagon out of a sense of Arab pride. It was about the dates: date bread, date shakes--an Iraqi kid's dream. And if my dad were alive today, I wouldn't recommend that he come back here. The dates just wouldn't taste as sweet anymore.

Strange Days In Indio | News