Defining the Middle East

The region we are covering spans from Morocco to Afghanistan, and is unified by many cultural and linguistic ties, as well as many shared worldviews that are reflected in the religions of the region, as well. The list of countries we include in our definition can be found in the chart on page 6, and a detailed definition can be found in chapter 3 (“Defining the the term ‘Middle East’”).

The diversity of the Middle East is the main learning outcome we intend for our readers because the region is often spoken of in monolithic terms. However, humanity also is unified by many shared experiences of the human condition. To think critically about other parts of the world, engage with both similarities and differences: recognize that interconnectedness doesn’t mean uniformity. Saadi Shirazi (1210 – 1291 A.D.) had some wisdom on this subject (Payind’s translation):

“Humans are organs in the same body, created from the same essence If one organ feels pain, the other organs will not restrain. If you are indifferent about the sufferings of others, you shall not deserve the name ‘Human.’”

While differences lie at the core of human experience, humanity remains united in many ways. Sometimes differences can be contentious, or politicized, especially with regard to the Middle East. These are difficult issues, but it is very important to discuss them, and learn from people and places that are different from you. Differences do not need to lead to conflict or the inability to communicate.  Develop the habit of taking different perspectives into account; gain what Robert Hanvey called “perspective consciousness” (1982), and you will become resilient enough to engage with different perspectives.

Individuals in the Middle East often represent an amalgam of communities.  The mother tongue, the DNA, and the geographic location of “home” come from personal and family history that may include a wide array of different religious or sectarian affiliations, individuals who speak/spoke Arabic, Aramaic, Hebrew, Yiddish, Kurdish, Persian, and/or Turkish, for example.  While experts of the region can guess what someone’s religion is through name, etc., it can be very difficult to tell, even for insiders, from such superficial indicators what a person’s cultural heritage is exactly. Even as we strive to be inclusive in this book, there are many groups we neglected, such as Druze, ‘Alawite, Samaritan, and others, that we hope the reader will investigate upon learning about the region’s complexity.

The geographic area we are covering expands beyond common definitions of the Middle East, which do not always include Central Asia (Afghanistan) or North Africa (Morocco). We include Turkey which is in a liminal space with regard to cultural and geographic boundaries, resting on the border between Europe and Asia. Its predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, was comprised of many of the countries that are what we now consider part of the “Middle East”. Turkey, Arab countries and much of the Balkans were born out of its ashes. These countries do not define the region, however, as Iran, Afghanistan, and other countries within the Persian cultural sphere are hugely influential. We include all of those areas because of shared history, common languages, and the practices of Islam which have been a powerful cultural force in the area. The term “Middle East” is contested, and its definition has changed dramatically over time, and depending on context. Chapter Three addresses the related issues and gives our definition.

The theory and information herein is intended as a filter incoming information you encounter. Understanding the diversity of the region is the best starting point for developing this analytical lens, and for breaking down the narratives and images which are prominent in entertainment, advertising news media and other official, and unofficial, sources of information one may encounter on a daily basis. Learning about daily life in the Middle East, and languages, beliefs and historical contexts for it encompasses the major aspects of identity each individual from the region possesses.


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Keys to Understanding the Middle East Copyright © 2016 by Alam Payind and Melinda McClimans is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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