Thursday, October 25, 2018

Ahab the Arab

Having grown up overseas until my late teens, I have spent a later lifetime learning of small cultural nuggets of which I was unaware because I was not here. One of those nuggets was the phrase "Ahab the Arab" (with a long a). I have not heard it used often, and always in fast moving conversations or raucous situations where there was no real opportunity to query exactly to what it might be alluding. Just one of those small elements of the warp and weft of vernacular American culture.

Question now answered. In searching for something else, I come across Ray Stevens, a singer song-writer as well as a master of comedic novelty songs. One of his early comedic hits was Ahab the Arab from 1962.
The song portrays a "sheik of the burning sands" named Ahab. He is highly decorated with jewelry, and every night he hops on his camel named Clyde on his way to see Fatima, who is the best dancer in the Sultan's harem. Fatima is described with a modified quote from the 1909 hit, "I've Got Rings On My Fingers": "with rings on her fingers and bells on her toes and a bone in her nose, ho ho". During the ride, Ahab "speaks" (actually, produces ululations that parody the Arabic language) to Clyde. (A later version adds the advertising catch phrase "Sold, American!" to the end of one chant. This is perhaps due to a Kinky Friedman (famous for the song and album Sold American) cover version which also added those lines). The phrase was also well known to Americans from the commercials for radio's popular The Jack Benny Program, sponsored by Lucky Strike cigarettes. The program began and ended with two tobacco auctioneers rattling off prices in a rapid-fire similar to Stevens' delivery, ending with "Sold American!"

When Ahab finds Fatima in her tent, she is ironically engaged in stereotypically Western behavior: "eating on a raisin, and a grape, and an apricot, and a pomegranate, a bowl of chittlins, two bananas, three Hershey bars, and sipping on an RC Cola, and eating a Moon Pie, listenin' to her transistor, watchin' the Grand Ole Opry, and readin' Mad Magazine while she sung, 'Does your chewing gum lose its flavor?'" Ahab woos Fatima with another mock Arabic chant, this time a quote from the song "Let's Twist Again" by Chubby Checker. Fatima (portrayed by Stevens in falsetto) responds to Ahab's advances with laughter and an (English) utterance that Ahab is "crazy."

Ahab loves Fatima, which apparently doesn't sit too well with the Sultan, whose apperance prompts an escape attempt, which does succeed, because Clyde was the fastest camel in the desert, and they "lived happily ever after". (The original single version was edited and does not mention the escape attempt at all, instead ending the song with Fatima saying, "Crazy, baby!")

Double click to enlarge.

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