Topic: Middle Eastern Cultures and Historic U.S. Bias
Speaker: Deena Essa, Graduate Student in the Department of Jewish, Islamic, and Middle Eastern Studies (WashU)
We were excited to learn from Deena Essa, a current Graduate student in the Department of Jewish, Islamic, and Middle Eastern Studies department.
Her talk began by addressing that the term “Middle East” is a subjective one – as Deena said, “middle of what, east of who.” The subjective nature is important to address because what regions, and which peoples, are included in the term is dependent on who is crafting the map and what their personal interests for doing so are. Thus, maps of the Middle East can be devised through lenses including faith, ethno-linguistics, and politics, though it should be noted that none of these can be decoupled from the impacts of colonialism.
As such, you can find a variety of maps of the middle east including ones that label the region as:
Figure 1. Variety of maps of the Middle East. Image sources: jonespools.info, Jewish Virtual World, and Lonely Planet
Whichever way you draw the map, the region and the people who live and have history there share commonalities but are also incredibly diverse.
Figure 2. Languages in the Middle East. Top: Languages of the Greater Middle East. Bottom: Arabic Dialects in the Middle East. Image sources: Wikipedia, forum.nationstates.net
From a linguistic perspective, Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic are all Semitic languages and come from a single linguistic ancestor. While over time, these languages have become unique entities, some characteristic similarities remain – including that they are both written/read right to left. While the Semitic languages have their roots in this region of the world, as mentioned previously, the colonial influences are so deep that in many countries European languages (ex. French, English etc.) are incorporated into everyday vernacular. Additionally, Arabic and Islamic calligraphy have been used in art forms since antiquity, and modern twists on this artform continue to be developed including use in murals and new multi-lingual typographic fonts.
Figure 3. Distribution of Religions in the Middle East. Image source: https://www.dartmouth.edu/~gov46/det-dist-religions.gif
The people of this region identify with many ethnicities and faiths. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are among the faiths practiced by people living in the Middle East. It should be noted however, that the Arab (ethnicity) world is not synonymous with the Muslim (religion) world. Deena pointed out that nearly 20% of Muslims are Arab, but that the vast majority of Muslims do not live in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Additionally, while there are common tenets within and amongst each faith, it is important to remember that the practices and traditions are diverse and personal.
Figure 4. Popular food map in Eastern Mediterranean. Image Source: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/07/15-maps-that-dont-explain-the-middle-east-at-all/375350/
Many restaurants throughout the world label themselves as “Middle Eastern” but what does this really mean? Common food items throughout the region have countless regional variations and these foods are very much linked with national, ethnic, and regional identity. The popularity of Middle Eastern cuisine can be both a way to learn about and celebrate the diverse cultures of this region but can also become entwined in cultural appropriation. For example there have been a number of debates about who invented hummus and falafel; conversations that can get deeply personal not only because food is closely intertwined with identities, but also because sharing cuisines while ignoring history, politics, and conflicts can be deeply problematic.
Music, like food, can be used to celebrate tradition and culture. Mixing of old and new styles can give homage to the history of the Middle East, while also serving as a platform to share ideas, offer critiques, and to express oneself. Artists like Mona Haydar, a Hijabi Syrian-American feminist rapper and chaplain, and Israeli Eurovision winner Netta Barzilai are using their talents to showcase diversity in this region and to challenge historical norms or bias.
Figure 5. Economic and oil maps of the Middle East. Image sources: https://www.visualcapitalist.com/map-sums-economy-middle-east/ and W.W. Norton
The foreign policy relationship between the United States and the Middle East is a complicated one and in part is determined by economics and oil. Additionally the U.S. has had overt and indirect policy and action around government, power structures, and leadership in the Middle East.
Domestically, the side effects of long-term xenophobia, racism, fear, and misunderstandings of people have led to a number of discriminatory policies including the so called “Travel Ban” or “Muslim Ban” that President Trump enacted in 2017. Such policies written in the name of “national security” to protect “Americans” hurt not only people wishing to immigrate and make America their home, but also Americans domestically who felt hurt and othered by this legislation.
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