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The Armies of Mohammed
Reach California

from The Reeducation of a Turd Peddler
by John Henry Peabody

AFTER ALL THE DEEP RAIN of the last few days, I took a walk out back of Maude Hanson’s property. Maude’s was butt up against Fornay land, about a quarter mile from the old mission site.
   The long driveway towards her house was still unpaved and supposedly part of the Camino Real. Most everywhere else in the state, the old camino had been paved over with a modern street or freeway, but some places—like up in San Juan Baptista where you can amble two hundred yards or so—the Camino Real was still two ruts worn in the ground with yellow mustard in the Spring amongst datura on either side of the stretch.
   The rain had cleaned the dust off of everything, mostly, but along the trails and dirt roads it turned the dust to mud before mixing it up like cookie dough. I put on my boots, drove up towards the property and got out to stretch my legs.
   I must have been only twenty yards down the trail, skipping chocolate pools of water and melty edges, when I saw an odd piece of metal sticking out of the slop. I was hit with a flash of excitement. After years of reading about such things and hearing stories, was it really true?
   I knelt down and ran my thumb over the back end of the piece. It was only a third or so out of the mud. I pushed my fingers into the fudgy earth and slowly wiggled the rest of it out.
   It was nearly complete, rusted, damaged from two hundred-odd years of weathering, but essentially identifiable. The swirling lattice of metal work, meticulous and narrative, surrounded a crescent and star formation in the middle.
   I had found a Moorish spur! Indeed, sticking from the earth was a fragment of Arabia in California, the far West route of the armies of Mohammed come to my home state.

   In many cases, the horsemen who came with the Spanish to the New World were Arabs—Moors, specifically, from their six-hundred year presence in Spain. Although they had converted (rather than die), they were still outsiders. So they took their exemplary horsemanship and gear—like the spur I had found or la Jineta, the Muslim cavalry saddle—and signed on for a new life in a new world.
   California was full of Moorish presence but people didn’t notice.

La Jineta, the Muslim cavalry saddle.

  As an archeologist, nine-tenths of my work is to notice (a product of wondering). Plus, don’t forget, our team name at El Fornio High School was the Moors.

   I became even more interested in the notion of Arabic influence in California through the rise of anti-Arab sentiment in the early 1980s, while I was an undergrad at UCSB.
   Much like the contemporary conservative, misplaced disdain for France—a country that underwrote our revolution and gifted us the Statue of Liberty, where both Franklin and Jefferson lived and learned to drink wine—people began bashing Arabs while continuing to use Arabic words, concepts, place names and foods, without even knowing it.
   While in the greater Los Angeles area, if you’re going to drive your Cadillac Seville to Alhambra from Malaga Cove to get ice cream while your daughter studies her algebra, you are riding the coat tails of Arabic influence in California.
   Do you want to stop for alcohol at the Oasis Lounge with the Moorish tile work?
   Yes, “alcohol” is an Arabic word (the fifth essence), and the tile work is part of Islam’s prohibition on narrative face and body depiction. Think of all that tight geometry wrought so wonderfully in the name of Allah up and down the coast of California. Build me a movie theater.
   It didn’t come from Ireland.
   Last year I bought a black and white photo at the swap meet of Fritz Lang, the German exile film director. He’s sat between two gentlemen in suits, each wearing a Fez, one with the outright word “Islam” embroidered on the frontispiece of his columnar cap.

Fritz Lang, the movie director, sits between two "Shriners," a.k.a.
members of “The Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine”

   They are Shriners, also known as The Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. And mostly likely Freemasons.

   The Shriners got their start in 1870, after one of its founders, William J. Florence, a rather successful actor in his day, saw a play put on by an Arabic diplomat in Marseilles. As a Mason, Florence thought it would be fun to mimic some of the Islamic imagery and structure he saw in the piece for the secret fraternity which, as an offshoot of the Masons, he and another Mason brother sought to create. Through the organization, their thinking went, relationships between men of certain ethnicities for both fundraising and business activities might flourish.
   Every hear of the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles?
Auditorium was a term landed upon only after the casual use of the words “temple” and “mosque” were used by—let’s slog through it again—“The Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine.”
   Eventually the terms “temple” and “mosque” were abandoned. But the thematic work was done. While this was many years before Edward Said developed his theory of Orientalism where “The Other” is made to be exotic, even fictionalized, because they are inherently not known, the Shriners, like the spur in the mud, were another example of the overlooked presence of the Armies of Mohammed in California.
I walked the spur back to the car, rinsed it off with water and headed to the historical society to show Lo.
You never know, it might belong to one of her relatives.


Copyright © 2010, The El Fornio Historical Society
          Contact John Graham at

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