Moving Viewers Beyond Camels, Sand Dunes : Culture: Traveling exhibit about the Gulf Arab states tries to take Americans past the stereotypes. It was conceived before the war against Iraq.


What had been planned as a low-key cultural introduction to the Arab states along the Persian Gulf took on a new dimension with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

Suad S. Ammar, principal librarian for the Placentia Library District, started planning “Gulf Arab States: Beyond Camels, Oil and the Sand Dunes” months before the invasion on Aug. 2, 1990, that eventually led to war.

“It was just a coincidence that we targeted an area where the problem took place,” Ammar said recently. “The unfortunate events, however, make this exhibit more of a timely issue.”

The exhibit opens today with a presentation by anthropologist Fadwa El Guindi, who will speak on the role of women in the Gulf states and show excerpts of her film on the subject, “El Sebou.” The touring exhibit, which will move on to a dozen libraries throughout the state, focuses on the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates) and will display clothing, utensils, musical instruments and photographs.


Visitors will also be able to test their knowledge of the Gulf with “Omar the Wise,” a computer programmed with more than 60 questions about the region (the program was created especially for the exhibit).

Despite the intensive news coverage of the Gulf War, Ammar says little of it illuminated the people or the culture of the region--or its history as birthplace of some of the oldest civilizations on Earth as well as one of its major religions, Islam.

“We hope to present the public with as complete a picture of the Gulf as possible,” she says. “We want to get rid of the stereotype picture that comes to mind when a person hears about that area. Hence the title” of the show.

Ammar says the show steers clear of the recent conflict: “We need to stress that this is a cultural exhibit. We just want to introduce the people of these countries to the people of California, to create some kind of cultural awareness.” Much of the focus is on hospitality rituals, such as the elaborate coffee ceremony most Gulf peoples use in some form to welcome guests, according to Judy Dempsey, a graduate anthropology student at Cal State Fullerton who did much of the research for the Placentia exhibit.


Typically, when a guest arrives, the host will begin roasting the beans.

“That’s sort of a signal for the guest to come in,” Dempsey says. “It’s a way of welcoming the guest into the household.”

The roasted beans are placed in a wooden box ( mubarrad ) to cool and are then ground with a ringing musical rhythm in a brass mortar and pestle called a yad al-haswan . The water is boiled three times in three different pots (called dallah ) and is finally brewed in the third pot, usually the most ornate and reserved specifically for guests.

A tiny handleless cup called a finjan , which holds just three or four sips, is used to serve the coffee. An incense burner is passed around to signal the end of the ceremony.


The Gulf states exhibit has its roots in an April, 1990, display at the library about Islam, which Ammar says drew requests from other libraries hoping to borrow it. But because most items in the exhibit were on loan from personal collections, the exhibit could not travel.

This time, Ammar wanted to create an exhibition that could be loaned to other libraries, and applied for funding from the California Council for the Humanities, which in June granted $9,994. Materials in the exhibit are on loan from the Nance Museum in Lone Jack, Mo. (related story, F2), from various embassies and consulates and from personal collections.

“Gulf Arab States: Beyond Camels, Oil and Sand Dunes,” an ambitious undertaking for a small suburban library, will travel to libraries as far south as Oceanside and as far north as Oakland.

“I would like to see more of these types of things done in libraries,” says Ammar, who was born in Lebanon, holds a bachelor’s degree in Arabic literature and the history of Arabs and Islam from the Syrian University in Damascus, in addition to a master’s in library science. “I would like to think of the library as an educational learning center.”