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 of the Sonoran Desert, a sandy region 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 Tuscon that I was to visit this southern place. For residents of Phoenix and its elite suburb Scottsdale, home to some of the wealthiest people in the US, Yuma is no more than a pit stop on Route 8 as they make the six-hour trek to San Diego.
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 plays an important role. 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 this region. Instead, director David Butler established the film's open air set an hour west from Yuma, at the Imperial Dunes.
I travel regularly to desert locales in Africa, and this has led to unforgettable experiences. I had my fortune told by a blacksmith in Djenne, Mali, an eerily accurate prediction of my first marriage's looming failure. In view of this town's Great Mosque, a towering adobe wonder, and in the company of seven djembe players, I cried because, frankly, I did not want to sacrifice chickens that would--according to the blacksmith--make that relationship work. I went to Nefta, Tunisia and witnessed the slow suffocation of an oasis that cannot handle the growth in population combined with a burgeoning tourist industry that brings to it countless thousands of foreigners. I inspected pyramids in lower Egypt with a group focused on preservation practices in the Islamic world. And in Morocco, I wandered through the barren landscape that led to Ourzazate, one of the Sahara's northern gateways, listening to playful raï music and laughing with fellow American travelers 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 or street signs and currency--leads to a heightening of the senses that invites profound experiences.
And yet, I surprisingly came across familiar foodstuffs of Islamic Africa there 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 at the gift shop serving the Sanguinetti House Museum explained and as confirmed by independent research, when a disease struck the North African palm trees in southern Morocco. There were global fears that this particular date, the most prized of the hundreds of different types of dates sold in souks and bazaars all over the world, would become extinct. Eleven healthy Medjool date palm offshoots from the northern sahel were sent to the US, and these are the forebears of the date palms in Yuma's hinterland. 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 among my favorite hostess gifts.
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 from the very first day. 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. Unfamiliar with the southwest, I noted the prickly pear cactus and other desert succulents in the small plots of the rundown adobe houses lining the street. The temperature, though nearly winter, had reached the eighties, and I wished I had googled southwestern 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 often wear sweaters when it is 80 degrees, I found my long sleeve shirt uncomfortable attire.
Three blocks from my hotel, I encountered an incongruous 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 a statue of Christ being transported by helicopter to a Roman aqueduct.
Sitting in the brauthaus filled me with a sharp and unexpected need to embrace this heritage and prove--to myself and to the chef owner of the restaurant--my German roots. I looked around 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 remember now, were everywhere in her house. As I noted the decor, the clock struck noon, and the cuckoo came out. Grandma White, too, had a cuckoo clock, a German household staple I now realized, much like the doilies made by a family's elderly women.
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 scholarly detail. I have examined cookbooks as archival texts that reveal the history of Arab immigrants via food, an expression of belonging and acculturation. On a more personal level, I have often chastised my mother in my capacity not only as a professional historian but also as a granddaughter, because she threw out the set of hand-written cookbook that my Grandma White brought with her to her marriage. My mother insists the recipes would have been of little use, since they included obsolete delicacies like marinated beef tongue that one never actually 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 it would have been a treat to have family traditions recorded in my grandmother's hand-writing.
Certainly, as I sit in Das Bratwurst Haus, I remember my Grandma White never stopped cooking German specialties. Thus, we ate sauerbraten on the holidays and also a memorable goulash. I convey this to the chef-owner, a short and stocky woman with a heavy accent that lets me know she recently emigrated from the Old Country. Her restaurant, she informs me, is 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 tells me that she just posted on Facebook her decision to prepare this labor-intensive dish the next day. (But when I return, I find that her goulash is "wrong," for she uses spaetzl, not egg noodles, and the meat is diced too small.)
I decide to carry my felliniesque tribute to Grandma White a step further by purchasing Roseville pottery. Before its closing in 1953, the Roseville Pottery Company produced basic household goods that were not yet considered collectibles. My grandmother had four planters that my mother gave 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. At that time, I had grown concerned that a two-bottle-a-day wine habit signified a drinking problem, and so embraced sobriety. I brought my grandmother's beautiful--but triggering--set of wineglasses to a local antiques dealer...and traded them for a large blue Roseville Vase in that same design style.
That day in Yuma, I decided, the emotion that I felt was equally strong and so resolved to add another piece to the collection. I couldn't immediately find Roseville pottery and asked the owner if this northeastern design was absent from her southwestern shop. She assured me that the snowbirds bring all their treasures to Yuma and sell them to her. Pointing to a hutch, I saw a set of about twenty pieces. I chose a small round vase. It was an earthy brown with green stems and white flowers, perhaps gardenias. As I returned to the hotel with the pottery, I felt a first swell of unanticipated contentment.
By 13 December 2015, I had been in this border town for five days. Yumans were providing constant surprises, and so Being Yuman was becoming for me a shorthand for the mental space needed to accept the temporal and spatial fragmentation cultivated in this dusty Brigadoon. I had begun to understand how the past and the present merged not only in my studies but also in the formation of my personal identity. Here, I had started living intentionally, finding beauty in a site dismissed by others, and taking emotional risks, like returning in my mind to my grandma's holiday table. In Yuma, I had discovered not just an alien place but pieces of myself.
As the phone flashed an eerily familiar number that fifth day of my trip to Yuma--a 508 area code that signified the suburbs of Boston--I would find these vital lessons had come just in time.