Residents of Yuma call themselves Yumans, a playful claim to embody a universal set of common traits. And yet, like the Saguaro cacti that populate their native Arizona, they are unique to this area. Yuma and its people should not exist, let alone thrive. The town is in the Salton Basin region of the Sonoran Desert, a sandy land that averages only 3.5 inches of rain a year. Most Arizonans, however, do not see the romantic nature of a town–a genuine Brigadoon–emerging where it should not be and dismiss Yuma as a backwater. “Why are you going there?” I was asked more than once, when I told residents of Phoenix or Tucson that I was to visit this southern place. For residents of these cities as well as Scottsdale, a suburb where some of the wealthiest people in the US reside, Yuma is no more than a pit stop on Route 8 as they make the six-hour trek to San Diego.

Yuma has a singular identity premised in part on a complex history leads residents to now fight Starbuckization tooth and nail. There, I discovered unexpected beauty in a place that others cast aside as remote and boring as well as an opportunity to reflect upon and emotionally excavate happy memories of own past.

Yuma’s arid hinterland is a foreign country, or, more accurately stated, it plays one in the movies. In the opening scene of “The Road to Morocco,” for example, the third of the seven “Road to…” films of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, the Yuman Desert acts as a backdrop. After the American castaways swim to the shore of North Africa, the director pans on sand dunes in what is purportedly the Sahara Desert. The actors in this popular film, however, are not traipsing across the westernmost region of the Maghreb, a place too costly for film crews to travel in 1942, especially since German troops then controlled the region. Instead, director David Butler established the film’s open air set an hour west of Yuma, at the Imperial Dunes.

The dunes in “The Road to Morocco” and other Hollywood films capture what I call the “sexy” desert. When most Americans imagine such arid regions, they think of an erg, a landform where one finds windswept hills with waves of silky yellow sands. The only erg in North America is in the Sonoran Desert, which extends from Yuma to Imperial, California. These Algodones Dunes are the environmental setting desired by directors who shoot a film purportedly set in the Arab world. The ergs are–to maintain the Hollywood metaphor–the Marilyn Monroe of desert landscapes. In North Africa, Moroccan and Tunisian hucksters are aware of these American stereotypes, and tourists often find young men dressed as guides in native robes offering to take them up and down a sandy hill on a camel for money. When I travel to Africa, however, I do not seek out the ergs. I fell in love with the craggy moonscape in variegated shades of endless browns that represent the bulk of this arid region. As a northeasterner from Connecticut, a state known for lush green forests, I find the unfamiliar scenery fascinating.

I was in Yuma as an historian of the Middle East and North Africa, and my task was to use the local archives in order to examine Hollywood representations of the Islamic world. Cinematic images of Arab lands lead inevitably to discussions about authenticity, though a cursory look at correspondence among studio executives leaves me surprised at how such conversations unfold. In Paramount Pictures, for example, there was no expression of concern that the plotline of “The Road to Morocco” was premised on the existence of a kingdom of a scantily clad princess and her servant girls who take orders from a vicious bandit and an addled astronomer. Instead, they focused attention on putting forth a realistic portrayal of the Sahara Desert. There was great concern that Bob’s character, Orville, and his ostensible friend, Jeff, who would sell him to Arab slavers, rode a camel with two humps.

This species, you see, is found exclusively on the steppes of Central Asia, and not North Africa, which is home to the single-humped dromedary. Expressing no fear of stereotyping Arab people, the director worried instead that American audiences would rebuke him for misrepresenting Saharan fauna by including the Bactrian camel.

As the two comedians climb on the back of what they label a Moroccan “taxi,” the director broadens the shot to include the Algodones Dunes outside Yuma. It is a familiar site to fans of classic films, because approximately three dozen movies have used these same dunes as a stand-in for an Arab desert. Some of Hollywood’s biggest A-Listers have travelled across its sloping sands. Ronald Coleman marched across them playing a member of the French Foreign Legion in “Beau Geste,” a fêted film produced by Hollywood moguls Jesse L. Lasky and Adolph Zukor in 1926. Forty years later, Universal Pictures remade this glamorous treatment of colonization, and it, too, shot the film’s desert scenes outside of Yuma. Rudolph Valentino (“Son of the Sheik,” 1926), Gary Cooper (“Morocco,” 1930), Myrna Loy (“Man of the Nile,” 1933), John Wayne (“Three Musketeers,” 1933), Tyrone Power (“Suez,” 1938), Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer (“The Garden of Allah,” 1936), and Henry Fonda (“The Immortal Sergeant,” 1943) have all walked Main Street, a quaint thoroughfare running through Yuma’s historic Old Town.

I travel regularly to desert locales in Africa, and this has led to unforgettable experiences. In Djenne, Mali, a fortune-telling blacksmith foretold the failure of my first marriage. In view of this Sahelian town’s Great Mosque, a towering adobe wonder, and in the company of seven djembe players, I cried because I had to admit—to them and to myself—that I did not want to sacrifice chickens that would make that relationship work. In Nefta, Tunisia, I witnessed the slow suffocation of an oasis that could not manage the local population growth in conjunction with burgeoning numbers of foreign tourists. In southern Morocco, I wandered through Ourzazate’s hinterland, one of the Sahara’s northern gateways, listening to playful shaabi music with Kathy, a fellow American traveler, as well as our Tashlhit-speaking driver. When I travel to Islamic Africa, commonplace errands, like buying a loaf of bread or taking a bus, seem an adventure. Unfamiliarity–with the local traditions and behaviors and street signs and currency–leads to a heightening of the senses.

Yuma too is a dusty desert town that encourages the traveler to understand something new about the world and her place in it. Americans of European origin founded Yuma in the 1860s, and their descendants now operate the multi-billion-dollar agribusiness that surrounds the urban center of 93,000. There is a large Mexican population in Yuma, which is only eleven miles from Los Algodones, Mexico. Neither the founding families, who want seasonal migrant workers to cross the Mexican border, nor the large Mexican-American community, who want members of their family to come and go freely, seek restrictive immigration policies. There is also a large native population. The Fort Yuma-Quechan Tribe have a sixty-eight square mile reservation just outside of Yuma. As I eavesdropped on the conversations in Yuma, I was surprised on two different occasions to hear a discussion of tribal politics–lineage and its bearing on power, the effects of Indian Boarding Schools–by white folk like me, not native Americans. And so, in Yuma, a Hollywood stand-in for an Arab desert, I–a Northeasterner who has adopted the Midwest as my home–found a new set of cultural challenges that left me as sensitive to my surroundings and as open to new experiences as any of my travels in Islamic Africa.

Yet, I surprisingly came across familiar foodstuffs of Islamic Africa in the form of Medjool dates. Dates are one of the most important agricultural products grown by Yumans. 2,700 acres are devoted to their production. This Medjool date–plump, soft, sweet–is native to North Africa. Its Yuman presence reminds me of my summer in Mauritania in 1998. The Getna, or date harvest, occurs in July, just before the rainy season, when the palm trees are heavy with fruit. Barefoot Mauritanians scale the trees to cut down the treasured clusters. Medjool dates came to Yuma, a woman in the Sanguinetti House Museum gift shop explained, when a disease struck North African palm trees in southern Morocco. There were global fears that this particular date, the most prized of the hundreds of different dates sold in Arab bazaars all over the world, would become extinct. Eleven healthy Medjool date palm offshoots from the pre-Saharan Sahel were sent to the US, forebears of the date palms in Yuma’s fields. As I find boxes of fresh dates in a store, I am reminded of breaking the Ramadan fast with Muslim friends, for this expensive treat is a favorite hostess gift.

If things are not of their place in Yuma, neither are they of their time. American myths–in particular, the Gold Rush prospectors from the 1890s–refuse to remain in folkloric tales recounted to young children or examined by students in history classes. Two tall and lanky men sat next to me one day at the Arizona Historical Society, as I looked through local newspaper clippings about silent films shot in Yuma. I couldn’t help notice their long beards and fairly unkempt appearance, especially since one had a dead rattlesnake wrapped around his cowboy hat. These researchers perused old diaries and then spent an afternoon taking notes and jawing about their finds. They were, the librarian later explained, prospectors on the hunt for undiscovered gold mines. There are rampant rumors of lost gold mines near Yuma. In one, it is said that a man died before he could reveal where he had struck gold. These modern day hobos live out of their car and search for the missing mines by way of archival materials and physical on-the-ground prospecting. Sometimes, while walking in a national park, one encounters them leading a burro and holding a sieve as they track down rumors by sifting in local streams. Indeed, a Google search reveals a host of gold prospecting sites linked to Yuma.

Much like a Fellini film, the unexpected is everywhere in the Old Town, and I felt off kilter that first day there. Yuma is a twenty minute drive to the Mexican border, so I anticipated a burrito at a Tex Mex joint for lunch. Instead, my first venture off the grounds of the Hilton Garden Inn led me to a brauthaus in the Old Town. An abandoned wedding chapel marks the start of Madison Avenue, eerily empty as I walked along it. My research at the local archives would later inform me that Yuma was once a destination, back before Vegas, for Hollywood stars who wanted to fly off and have quickie wedding.

Unfamiliar with the southwest, I found myself fascinated with my walk down a narrow street that locals must have considered fairly nondescript. Prickly pear cactus and other desert succulents adorned the small plots of the rundown adobe houses that I passed. The temperature, though nearly winter, had reached the eighties, and I wished I had Googled Yuma temperatures before my trip. I found out too late that Yuma is officially identified as the sunniest and the warmest city in the US. While Yumans, who are accustomed to intense summer heat, often wear sweaters when it is 80 degrees, I found my long sleeve shirt uncomfortable attire.

Three blocks from my hotel, I encountered an incongruent feature in this otherwise taupe adobe town in the form of a brash blue and white storefront. As I approached, the sound of polka music became louder and, at least in my mind, more insistent. An accordion collapsed and expanded in that distinctive rapid rhythm while deep voiced men boomed out lyrics in German. On the corner next to Das Bratwurst Haus, a six foot tall blowup Santa danced precariously under the desert sun. In retrospect, the sighting of a Southwestern Santa dancing a polka would have offered an ideal moment to check the sky for an equally Felliniesque view of a statue of Christ being transported by helicopter to a Roman aqueduct.

The last time I had eaten at a brauthaus had been in 1983, after my grandmother’s funeral. In Yuma, I experienced a wave of nostalgia, unexpected homesickness and loss that drew me toward the polka music and so my maternal grandma’s German roots. Like other immigrants, my German-speaking grandmother had set aside her national culture in the 1940s in favor of a more standardized American identity. And yet, her heritage had seeped through to my generation in ways it will not to my niece and nephew. When I was young, for example, polkas were played at every family wedding, and my mother and her cousin Jerry, who had practiced its steps in the basement of my grandma’s house in Queens, danced to this music, bending their knees and kicking out their feet in ways the septuagenarians no are longer able.

Sitting in the brauthaus filled me with an unexpected need to embrace my heritage and prove–to myself and to the chef owner of the restaurant–my German roots. I looked for the familiar and was gratified to find material objects that reminded me of my grandmother’s house and also placed my past in historic context. The brauthaus had lace curtains, which reminded me of the tatting Grandma White had done. The doilies that she made, I remembered, were everywhere in her house. As I noted the decor, the clock struck noon, and a cuckoo popped out of a small door.

Like those doilies, cuckoo clocks are German household staples, and I could see my grandmother pulling the pine cone pendulum to make her clock run for another twenty-four hours before sitting down for Sunday dinner.

Food is often the last of the cultural traditions to disappear among immigrants. The language changes as does the mode of dress. But at home, one tends to cook the dishes one ate as a child. As a historian of foodways in the Arab world, I know this detail. I have examined cookbooks as archival texts that reveal the history of Arab immigrants via food, an expression of belonging and acculturation. I have often chastised my mother both in my capacity as a historian and as a granddaughter, because she threw out the set of hand-written recipes that my Grandma White brought with her to her marriage. My mother insists the cooking techniques would have been of little use, since they included obsolete delicacies like marinated beef tongue that one never cooked, just left in a brine on the kitchen counter for several days. I may never have prepared one of those meals, I explain, but what a treat to have family traditions recorded in my grandmother’s handwriting.

My mother cooked suburban food of the 1970s, such as tuna casserole, but, as I sat in Das Bratwurst Haus, I remembered my Grandma White’s German specialties, which she prepared for holidays. She always made sauerbraten and a memorable goulash. I conveyed this to the chef-owner, a short and stocky woman with a heavy accent that lets me know she recently immigrated from the Old Country. Sitting at one of the laminated pine tables, she informed me that her restaurant was open only during the winter months to serve the 90,000 or so snowbirds who come to Yuma in their RVs. Apparently, they like goulash, too, because she told me that she had just posted on Facebook her decision to prepare this labor-intensive dish the following day. (When I returned, I discovered I was a goulash aficionado. I judged her dish prepared “incorrectly,” for she used spaetzl, clumps of flour and egg, instead of egg noodles, too much tomato flavoring, not enough paprika and the meat was diced too small).

As it turns out, this nostalgic wave of temporal dislocation was not yet at an end. I walked east to Main Street and happened upon a stored named Timeless Elegance Antiques and Collectibles. A busy professional of limited means, I do not normally let myself peruse antiques. But today, I left myself open to new experiences. As I walked into the shop, I set aside a historian’s desire to study objects within the context of a given time. Instead, I longed to practice the paranormal craft of psychometry so that I might convey the personal story of each relic merely by holding it in my hands. Cheap knickknacks in bright primary colors were seductively placed next to more expensive collections of muted aqua Teco Pottery. The shelves tumbled with plates and glasses and ashtrays and gravy boats.

I decide to carry my sentimental tribute to Grandma White a step further by purchasing a piece of Roseville pottery. Before closing in 1953, the Roseville Pottery Company produced basic household wares–bowls, vases, planters–that were not expensive and not yet considered collectibles. My grandmother bought four planters one year on a family vacation, and my mother gave them to me after she died. In the tradition of Roseville pieces, they are blue with raised white irises. Five year ago, I added a vase to this set. That day in Yuma, I decided, I resolved to add another piece to the collection as I strolled through the cluttered aisles.

I couldn’t immediately find Roseville pottery and asked the owner if this Ohio-based company was absent from her southwestern shop. She assured me that the snowbirds who gather every winter in Yuma bring “all their treasures to me.” Pointing to a hutch, I saw a set of about twenty bowls and vases, all with the distinct Roseville pattern. I chose a small round vase of an earthy brown with green stems and white flowers, perhaps gardenias. As I returned to my hotel with the pottery, I felt a swell of unanticipated contentment.

Yumans provided constant surprises, and so Being Yuman became for me a shorthand for “being present” within the temporal and spatial fragmentation cultivated by this dusty Brigadoon. The past and the present merged as I studied history and as I also allowed myself to reflect on my personal identity. I found beauty in a site dismissed as a pit stop by others. In Yuma, I discovered not just an alien place but pieces of myself.


Stacy Holden

Stacy Holden

Stacy E. Holden is an Associate Professor of History at Purdue University in Lafayette, IN. Her research and teaching focus on the modern Middle East and North Africa as well as American engagement with these regions. To understand how Americans have imagined the Arab world, both in the past and the present, Dr. Holden is now traveling in the footsteps of Edith Wharton, who visited Morocco in 1917 as a guest of French colonial authorities.