Arab-Americans cry foul over California high school mascot

Coachella Valley High School’s Arab mascot is cause for concern among Arab-Americans

Coachella Valley High School has everything you'd expect on a Southern California campus: palm trees, sunny walkways, outdoor lunch gazebos and a seemingly endless stream of chatty teenagers to soak it all in.

What might catch you off guard, though, are its towering murals that depict scenes more likely to be found on the pages of “One Thousand and One Nights” than the walls of a high school building. Among them, a man and woman dressed in tiny vests and harem pants sitting atop a textbook-turned-magic carpet.

The art is part of a campus-wide infatuation with the Middle East, or fantastical notions of it, in which men are barbarous, women are harem girls and magic lamps exist.

In fact, the school calls itself the Coachella Valley Arabs in sports and even features an Arab as its mascot — which has led to a firestorm of controversy in the Arab-American community.

"The mascot is basically an angry ‘Arab’ head — hooknose, long beard, headscarf and all," said Abed Ayoub, legal and policy director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).

He insists that the school's mascot and other "offensive" imagery — including its use of harem girls in marching band parades and a belly dancer halftime show — are classic examples of Orientalism, a term coined by late scholar Edward Said to describe Western depictions of Middle Eastern, North African and Asian societies as backward and inferior.

Ayoub said that in nearly 10 years of working in civil rights he has never encountered a more egregious case of stereotyping. "And what makes it worse is that it's coming from a school district," he said. "They’re supposed to be teaching kids to respect other cultures."

Appalled, Ayoub sent a letter last Friday to Coachella Valley High School's superintendent, describing the mascot as "harmful" and "demeaning" to the Arab-American community, and insisting that it no longer be used. On Wednesday, the ADC began circulating a petition among members and supporters, asking them to do the same.

But persuading Coachella Valley High School to drop its mascot, which appears on everything from gym uniforms to center circle on its basketball court, may not be easy.

Its history runs deep.

‘A faraway land’

The community's fascination with the Middle East dates as far back as the late 19th century, when U.S. Department of Agriculture officials and entrepreneurs went on expeditions around the world in search of crops that would thrive in the U.S. They traveled to the Middle East — mainly North Africa — and brought back date palm shoots, which they planted in various parts of the country.

Where they flourished was the Coachella Valley, an area which is just a couple of hours east of Los Angeles and now produces 95 percent of the dates grown in the United States.

"They really don't grow anywhere else very well," said Sarah Seekatz, a historian and Ph.D. candidate at University of California Riverside who has studied the date industry in her native Coachella Valley.

The crop's success filled the region's desert landscape with towering date palm trees, which inspired locals to market themselves as an American oasis. This tenuous Middle East connection inspired a frenzy of Arabian fantasies that continue to this day — including festivals (Date Fest), architecture (turrets) and town names (Mecca).

All of it was reinforced by a popular culture shaped by new archaeological finds like the tomb of King Tut, blockbuster desert films such as "The Sheik" and widely read literature, including works by "Lawrence of Arabia," Seekatz said.

There were even plans in the 1920s for an Arabian-themed hotel and shopping complex.

"Local boosters were trying to get people to come to the region and imagine escaping to a faraway land like the Middle East," she said.

They planned on bringing people on camelback "to experience the foreign look of the Middle East without leaving California."

However, efforts to turn the Coachella Valley into an Orientalist tourist destination never quite took off, as Palm Springs quickly overshadowed the nearby area as a playground for the rich and famous. But Arab stereotypes, bolstered by the tall tales of returning entrepreneurs, stuck.

"It's ingrained for people who have been there for a quite a while," Seekatz said. "They grew up with it. They’re not thinking about it."

They're also hesitant to change.

‘Proud of it’

David Hinkle, 69, graduated from Coachella Valley High School in 1961. He and his wife headed the board of the alumni association for years, and he is proud to have been one of the Arabs.

"I don’t think it can be viewed as offensive," he said. "I don’t think the images they have now are offensive."

He pointed out that the mascot has evolved over the years from a turbaned Arab on horseback carrying a lance, in the 1920s, to a young man in a fez holding a scimitar and an old man with a growling face and gold tooth, in the 1950s. The mascot changed again in the 1980s, after a group of Saudi Arabian visitors suggested the fez be changed to a hijab.

"Their reasoning was that Saudi Arabia was no longer under French rule; therefore, Saudi Arabians no longer wore the fez as their headdress," reads an explanation on the alumni association’s website.

Of course, the story may not be entirely accurate — as the hijab is the headscarf of Muslim women, the French never occupied Saudi Arabia and the fez, which originated in Morocco, owes its popularity in the Middle East to the Ottomans.

Nevertheless, Hinkle insisted that the high school’s mascot is not demeaning.

"I don’t think it's meant to be insensitive," Hinkle said. "It's been that way for 50 or 60 years."

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, some people wanted the name changed, he said. But not because they found it offensive to Arabs; he said they didn't want to be associated with “terrorists.”

"And during the first Gulf War, there was concern over whether to use the Arab imagery because a lot of people didn't want it because it would be anti-American," he said.

The current threatening caricature probably reflects changing U.S. views of the Middle East — from an exotic land of romance to a breeding ground of “terrorism,” "greedy oil barons or general bad guys in film," Seekatz said.

"While, the CV mascot image may have been changed to appear a more fierce sports opponent, it may also reflect the wider national reworking of the Arab stereotype."

Hinkle doesn't see it that way. He is proud to have played in the first football game between Coachella Valley High School's Arabs and Indio High School. Their mascot: Rajah, a bearded man wearing a Sikh-like turban.

Hinkle is not alone. Art Montoya, class of '56, said in an email, "I have heard very few comments on our mascot name. Each time that I heard it, it came from a shallow-minded person that I never took serious."

"We have been Arabs since the 1930s and are proud of it," Montoya wrote.

After almost a century of embracing the “Arabian Nights” fantasy, "I'm not sure that people are really spending a lot of time thinking about" how offensive it might be, Seekatz said.

"It's important to have a dialogue about it. It's an important first step."

‘Serious discussion’

Darryl Adams, superintendent of the Coachella Valley Unified School District for three years, said he did not see Ayoub's letter until Monday, but immediately scheduled a telephone conference with him to discuss the Arab-American community's concerns.

"I look forward to discussing the matter," he said. "I definitely understand the sensitivity of it. We need to make adjustments and work together."

As an African-American from the deep South, Adams said he is sensitive to racial stereotypes. He admitted that when he first saw the school's "Arab" mascot, "it raised an eyebrow for me."

Alluding to other popular mascots, Adams said any that represent people always run the risk of stereotyping.

Most recently, the Oneida Indian Nation, a Native American tribe in upstate New York, took the NFL's Washington Redskins to task for its name, which the tribe said is a racial slur.

In a radio ad, tribe representative Ray Halbritter said, "We do not deserve to be called redskins. We deserve to be treated as what we are – Americans."

The controversy erupted into a national dialogue over offensive team names and mascots, including the Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians. Even President Barack Obama weighed in on the debate, saying he would "think about changing" the Washington Redskins' name if he owned the team.

Ayoub said he welcomed similar discussion, and is hopeful for an amicable resolution to Coachella Valley High School branding itself as "Arabs."

"The fact that this is not malicious leads me to believe that we can reach some sort of understanding and agreement with the school board and city as to a name change and change of mascot," he said.

"I think the first thing is to have the opportunity to meet with the school board and other decision makers directly and explore the options on how we can resolve this."

Despite opposition from some alumni, Ayoub may have a partner in Adams, who believes there are better ways to recognize and be proud of the Coachella Valley’s Middle Eastern heritage than with a mascot that could be deemed offensive.

"I will recommend to seriously have a discussion with the school and community," Adams said. "This is America … We should not be having this now." He intends to raise the matter with the school's Board of Trustees on Nov. 21.

If anything, Adams said, he views this latest controversy as "a great educational opportunity for our students" and a lesson in racial sensitivity.

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