Reclaiming My (Our) Regional Identity (ies)

Few days ago, I asked my students to search for the origins and use of the ‘Middle East’ expression and identify the most common stereotypes of the ‘Middle East’ and ‘Middle Easterners’. Following the plenary session where they presented their findings, we discussed the importance of deconstructing 100+ year old taxonomy and theories.

By deconstruction, I mean the way Mohammed Arkoun defined it: leaving the limitations, the rigidity and deviations from the past; going beyond the binary system where ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ are forged, and where monolithic and fixed identities stuck in a conflictual dynamic are disseminated and transmitted from generation to the next. A deconstruction that would include the dismantlement of Othering, or the processes by which societies and groups exclude those whom they want to subordinate. ‘Others’ are usually created through animalization, naturalization and infantilization, delineated in Ella Shohat and Robert Stam’s book Unthinking Eurocentrism. A deconstruction that would not be a final concept as in Derrida’s approach, but would be followed by a reconstruction process, or the individual and collective search for re-invented identities that would serve the local/regional aspirations.

‘Middle East’, along with ‘Near East’ and ‘Far East’ are Eurocentric expressions that were coined at least a century ago in Europe, then used in North America and everywhere else. Remnants of the Colonialist era… So why do many in politics, business, media and academic institutions still use ‘Middle East’? In most regions and countries, the cardinal directions are adopted – North, South, East, West and as such, we hear ‘North America and South America’, ‘Asia Pacific’ and ‘South East Asia’, even ‘ Central Asia’. We hear about ‘North Africa’ and ‘South Africa’, ‘Central Europe’, ‘Southern Europe’, etc. Yet, we do not hear ‘West Asia’ or ‘Southwestern Asia’, which is the geographically proper term for the region so-called ‘Middle East’.

Unfortunately, the independence movements of the 20th century and the ‘Arab Spring’ did not bring a change in worldviews nor in the systems of thought and communication. Personally, I stopped using ‘Middle East’ and replaced it with ‘West Asia’ or ‘Southwestern Asia’. It took me a while. Old habits break hard…

What about you?

(With my MEST 318 – Cultures of the ‘Middle East’ students – Workshop 1, Fall 2015 – American University in Dubai ‪#‎audubai‬ ‪#‎uae‬)

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  1. Wow! Never thought of reconsidering this word. I always use it. Never knew it wasn’t the product of our local populations.
    Thank you for such an information! Quite revealing!

  2. Love your work Dr. Wish I was your student. I always follow your blogs and posts. Inspiring!! As for the word ‘Middle East’, I never thought of it before. It’s embedded in our cultures and languages. We even translated it in Arabic al charq al awssat, and we use everywhere. Truly it’s hard to think of the possibility of change, but as you explained it, it starts with the individual, and little by little, others will follow, or at least start asking questions and looking for other words.
    ps: i also published this comment on your blog 😉

  3. I honestly think it will take us more than 100 years to be able to deconstruct the colonialist legacy. Anyways we are still dependent on foreign powers, and all the wars taking place in this region are financed by these powers. Populations are still subjugated, whether politically or culturally.

  4. Hello to all readers and especially from Lebanon and this region. It is indeed the time to be deconstructing systems of politics and of thought. We are buried under tons of trash. What do we need more as a wake up call?

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