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One Thousand & One Cultural Illusions: Orientalism in Coachella Valley

High & Dry surveys the legacy of human enterprise in the California desert. Together, writer/historian Christopher Langley and photographer Osceola Refetoff document human activity, past and present, in the context of future development.

Osceola Refetoff
Coachella Valley High School Mural | Osceola Refetoff

God, she was beautiful - my first image of the Orient - a woman such as only the desert poet knew how to praise: her face was the sun, her hair the protecting shadow, her eyes fountains of cool water, her body the most slender of palm-trees and her smile a mirage.

 - Amin Maalouf

Our attitudes about the Orient and Middle East have changed significantly from the 1930s when movies, books, and marketing nurtured a popular fantasy of harem girls at your beck and call. Even earlier, Hollywood fed dreams in the audiences of Rudolph Valentino as the Sheik taking you to his Bedouin tent to show you his etchings. With a Middle East rife with geopolitical hatred and religious bigotry, riding off into the Saharan sunset has lost its romantic appeal. 

sunstar.jpg
Statue & Sunstar - Riverside County Fairgrounds - Indio, CA - 2016 Osceola Refetoff

Our racial stereotypes of dark-skinned terrorists have erased what was once a romantic distortion that was labeled Orientalism by academic Edmund Said. Much serious work now examines this study of our views of Asian peoples. It was a different world in 1947 when several business people of Indio coupled marketing their excellent date crop with Oriental fantasies borrowed from Hollywood and the short story collection “One Thousand and One Nights” to create what was at the time culturally-insensitive, yet “dressing-up,” fun. It became a very successful marketing ploy. 

It was in these years that the International Indio Date Festival took shape and for the next thirty years had a musical pageant, a kitschy theatrical set, and camels galore, not to mention waitresses, townspeople, doctors, and lawyers dressed in faux Arabian Nights costumes everywhere you looked.

Date Festival
Vintage National Date Festival Brochure - Indio, CAOsceola Refetoff

Many people who do not know deserts firsthand mistakenly think: “a desert is a desert is a desert.” Certainly the Mojave Desert of California is different from the Sahara, Gobi and Iran’s Dasht-e Kavir. But think of palm trees, sand dunes, colorful clothes and engaging characters and you have stereotypes that cover all our desert fantasies, regional or international. Seventy years ago they added the pastiche of half-naked belly dancers in halter-tops. Stir in seductive and mysterious, darkly handsome men, magicians, sadistic rulers, and you have sexual fantasies that have been loosed on the shopping land. Today this vision is quite anachronistic and we easily recognize it as such. We see women from different Muslim cultures in chadors, hijab, yashmak, or at least conservatively veiled in scarves, walking down our streets. 

Arabian Mobile Park
Arabian Mobile Home Park Entrance - Indio, CA – 2016 | Osceola Refetoff

In the date market of the 1940s into the 1960s, sellers and consumers were seduced by the “Oriental” fantasies that Hollywood, Middle Eastern literature, Romantic paintings and graphic arts in general had inculcated into our imaginations. But that was then.Now only the remnants are in street names, business mottos and gimcrack Muslim architecture at the Riverside County Fairgrounds located in the city of Indio, CA.

Riverside County Mural
Mural - Riverside County Fairgrounds - Indio, CA – 2016 Osceola Refetoff

The heyday of this ersatz pop culture adoption to sell dates was in the period of after WW2 into the 1960s. By then, international diplomacy and travel, increased cultural sensitivity, and now anti-ISIS and Muslim feelings have undermined the love of the Arabian fantasy. Other forces may be at work as well. Perhaps the images have lost their appeal and been stripped of innate sexual fantasy. The iconography is exhausted in the public mind. Indio is also developing a strong Hispanic culture and population, which is now filling in for the retreating Oriental one.

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One stronghold remains for the bygone Arabian infatuation and that is the annual Indio Date Festival, now the National Date Festival and now also the Riverside County Fair.

Riverside County Sign
Sign - Riverside County Fairgrounds - Indio, CA – 2016 Osceola Refetoff

I cross Arabia Street and walk up to the gates, where the architecture is faux Oriental — influenced by many Eastern nationalities, and yet reflecting none. There are domes of no particular era, muqarnas or miniature, pointed arches and simple patterns derived from geometric, arabesque and floral designs. The security was extreme at the festival and all I could think of was the airline security that followed 9/11, a modern artifact of Middle Eastern geopolitics today.

Inside the festival was row after row of food booths. Various rides outlined against the sky, many spinning and jerking attempts to extract what had recently arrived in each rider’s stomach. Off in the distance I could see several giant construction cranes working on a major project. Indio means to move on from its Middle Eastern pandering to a modern developing desert city. Among other projects, construction is proceeding on a prison.

National Date Festival Sign
Riverside County Fair & National Date Festival Sign - Indio, CA - 2016Osceola Refetoff

I pass so many booths offering food: Texas doughnuts; Italian ices, Thai, Chinese and more. You name it; they have it.  There was only one thing involving dates and that was an Indio date dog. Nearby there was a “deep fried Snickers” sign competing for my gastronomical attention. Many years ago I had one. That fulfilled a lifetime of curiosity.

On the near horizon there is silhouetted the minaret and eastern roofs of Arabian architecture. It is actually a large and engaging set for the nightly musical pageant that has been playing in one version or another for nearly seventy years. There is wonderful stage equipment and feeling you aren’t in Indio anymore. I walk by three camels nearby that are there to give rides. Two were working while the third was lounging around on his belly. It looked like fun but my legs began to ache with the memory of an all-night camel ride up an active volcano named Taftan that crowns the Sarhad, a southern desert village of Iran where I once lived.

1001 Natchts Ride
1001 Natchts Ride - National Date Festival - Indio, CA - 2015 | Christopher Langley 

Earlier in the day these humped “ships of the desert” had been part of a camel race and that night they will be on stage in the pageant. In the distance I could see a whirling ride, one end of a giant pendulum with a long bench for about ten or twelve people. On the other end was a giant sign that stated “1001 Nacht.” The “One Thousand and One Nights” classic literature had greatly influenced the dreamers and fantasists in the 1940s. Even now, the Queen of the fair is called Scheherazade. 

The Holy Lands at the festival is one other area where this affectation for Orientalism persists. The Shields Date Gardens have paths for walking through the date palms. Recently they obtained larger-than-life statues from a closed Bible garden illustrating the most famous events of Jesus Christ’s life. For the devout it is engaging; for the rest it is mere simulacra and a synthetic imitation of a universe far, far away and long, long ago.

Coachella Valley High School
Coachella Valley High School Sign with Old Mascot - Thermal, CA – 2016 | Osceola Refetoff

Yet one cultural insensitivity often takes the place of another. What is it in human nature that attracts us to negative stereotypes of other cultures to be used for mocking and animosity? Using sex to market dates has been done before, and it can be done again. It is a common strategy today in our culture. Health is another marketing game plan that is being used; many are misled into thinking something sweet with natural sugars is healthy. The new marketing tactics for dates have yet to be tested, proved and finalized.

Indio is now up and coming; in spite of declining groundwater supply in some areas, it is straining to be a modern desert city. The date crop ranks at the top of its assets, making Indio the date capital of the United States. Now, rather than romantic fantasies, the marketing strategy is health and nutrition.

Coachella Valley High School Mural
Coachella Valley High School Mural with Genie Mascots - Thermal, CA – 2016 | Osceola Refetoff

Indio has already developed a Mission Statement and built a strategic plan for the future centered on this health focus. With the will to move ahead and the money to execute too, its renewed direction points to a very different future than a faux Arabian one for the town and its companion towns on the Highway 10 corridor. 

-C.L.

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