Understanding the Middle East

This semester I am taking a course entitled “The Middle East Since WW1,” and it has had a profound influence on how I look at the world. Western society has come to dismiss the Middle East as a backward and war-torn region, and both Arab and Muslim identities are often viewed with suspicion. The unfortunate reality is that enduring conflict and violence are true characterizations in many Middle Eastern nations. However, the course I am taking explores the historical foundations of these conflicts, and aims to paint a different picture from conventional stereotypes. For example, I previously had no idea how influential Western nations were in drawing the borders of modern day Middle Eastern countries. Many problems stem from such interference by the West, which continued in the form of imperialism for many years, and yet people assume that the region is “backward” because of an inherent problem with Islamic, Arab, and more general Middle Eastern identity.

Taking this course has shown me that despite the many problems the region has faced throughout its history and continues to face today, the Middle East is home to an incredible mixture of ethnicities, cultures, and religions. These people have unique identities and cannot simply be placed into a single box under the broad label of “Middle East,” which is to deny the true nature of the region. I believe that if more people took the time to learn about its history and development, it would humanize the conflicts that many people dismiss as simply more problems in a problematic place. There would be greater understanding and less prejudice, which is exactly what our world needs in the global effort for peace.

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GEF Day

I was unable to make it to any of the Global Engagement Fellowship Day events last year, and I was so excited to be able to participate this year! I attended the presentation on how to apply for the Peace Corps and for a Fullbright Grant, and both speakers did an excellent job of walking us through the process. The Fullbright speaker also talked about his personal experience as a recipient, having been awarded a grant to do research in South Africa. When he spoke about options for the kinds of research and projects that recipients could choose to pursue, I was thrilled when he mentioned a musician friend of his who pursued a project based on musical performance. I came into college as a Ballet Performance Major, and although I have since added a degree in International Studies, my first love will always be dance. I intend to pursue a path based on movement after college, and it would be amazing if I am one day able to combine my interests in dance and international studies through a Fullbright project.

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Gender and the Arabic Language: How Dialect Impacts Women

Several weeks ago I attended a lecture given by OU Professor Manata Hashemi on how the politics of identity relate to language ideology. The process of nation building and modernization in the Middle East has led to widespread erasure of ethno-linguistic variation in the Arabic language. Because of this, variations in the dialects of the countries are increasingly scrutinized, and the use of words unique to different versions of Arabic imbues communication with meaning beyond simple communication.

Hashemi’s research focuses specifically on how the use of the standard Arabic language versus Arabic dialects has impacted women across the Middle Eastern region. One of her most recent studies focuses on how the convergence of language has been used to shame women by associating this usage with sexuality. A Moroccan woman’s sexual identity may be questioned, for example, if she is heard speaking Gulf Arabic rather than the Moroccan dialect. This is due to the fact that sex-tourism has become a reality in Morocco, and women may be seen as trying to attract men visiting from the Gulf based on how they use language. Pop stars and other famous women may also be questioned for speaking in a non-native Arabic dialect, which is viewed by many as “cultural treason.” It is believed that a woman who speaks this way is trying to increase her own personal prestige in the region while abandoning loyalty to her native country.

Although I was previously aware that women face a host of discriminatory practices in many Middle Eastern countries, I did not realize that something as seemingly benign as language could have so great an impact on a woman’s status. The way we communicate reveals a great deal about who we are. But for many Middle Eastern women, it also plays an essential role in determining their position in society and the degree of respect they are shown. For them, choosing words means choosing an identity.

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I Shall Not Hate

Theatre is a powerful medium for telling stories. Going into the production “I Shall Not Hate” – The Story of One Man in the Larger Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, I was expecting to be presented with dark themes and difficult topics; I am no stranger to the violence and hatred that has divided the Palestinian and Israeli communities for so much of their shared history. I was unprepared, however, for the raw power of this particular story, which left me shaking, caught between wanting to run from the theatre screaming and to burst into tears.

Izzeldin Abuelaish is a man who has every reason to hate. He is Palestinian, and because of this grew up as the “other”. Palestinians have to jump through many hoops to be able to live their day-to-day lives. Checkpoints, curfews, constant questioning of identity and motive, and lack of access to basic services have dehumanized the Palestinian people. Despite growing up in this environment, Abulaish never gave up on the idea of peace and became a doctor in order to help people. Then, in 2008, He tragically lost three of his daughters and a niece when an Israeli tank fired at his home. Despite this seemingly insurmountable tragedy, he has refused to embrace anger and revenge. He continues his work as a doctor and has set up a foundation to honor the memory of the girls.

Abuelaish has transformed a lifetime of hardship and an incredible tragedy into a call for peace. Despite having to fight every day for his identity and his integrity, and the brutal deaths of so many loved ones, he has never lost faith in the hope for a more positive future. He continues to reject hate.

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Deal or No Deal: A Lecture on the Iran Nuclear Deal

Joe Cirincione is the president of a global security foundation that focuses on the elimination of nuclear threats, and gave a lecture back in January on the most Iranian nuclear deal signed in July of 2015. Relations between the United States and Iran regarding the production and maintenance of nuclear weapons has been a source of continual tension for many years. The agreement reached regarding the future of Iran’s nuclear program was a monumental moment in global relations. It represented the power of compromise in an increasingly polarized and tenacious world, and it was hoped that the efforts of the international community in constructing this deal would generate more peaceful relations among nations. The importance of this deal in an increasingly threatening global environment, a world with an arsenal of nuclear weapons powerful enough to destroy our planet, cannot be stressed enough.

One of the other major points that Cirincione highlighted, however, was that this deal was in no way a blanket solution for all of Iran’s specific problems. Its implementation did not lead to a change in regime, human rights abuses were not addressed, and there was no attempt to reform poor regional behavior. But what the deal did do was prevent Iran from building extremely dangerous weapons, and was implemented in such a way that was satisfactory and (at the time) seemingly sustainable to all parties involved. While this should be celebrated, there is much work still to be done and the fight for peace and security in Iran, in the Middle East, and in the larger global community continues.

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Scrabble with a Shmear

Last night the Hebrew Club held its final event of the semester: a game night complete with bagels! Hebrew scrabble has been a halmark of the Hebrew club events since I have been involved with it, and my love for scrabble in English has easily translated to a love of the Hebrew version. Even when I was in the early stages of learning Hebrew, I was surprised at how many words I was able to put together. Even if they were short little words, being able to recognize the letters and connect them to create a word validated the fact that I was truly picking up the Hebrew language. After all, being able to utilize a language in real-life contexts is the most important aspect of learning. Now, having completed almost three semesters of Hebrew, I find myself even more astonished at how many words I am able to think up with the scrabble tiles. Playing with other Hebrew students in a friendly, relaxed environment makes it seem like we are just a casual group of friends playing a game together, rather than students using it purely as an educational experience. The best part is that it ends up being a great combination of fun and learning. And of course, when you have a bagel to nosh on, it makes Hebrew word building even more of a blast.

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International Bazaar

The international bazaar held on the South Oval was an amazingly vibrant gathering of people with different heritages from around the globe. Tables were set up by region or specific country, and showcased elements of the languages, foods, and crafts from these places. Walking up to each table, I had the feeling that I had traveled a great distance and was arriving in a new place; each country has such a unique character, and the organizers of the event did an incredible job in setting up the bazaar in such a way as to let these personalities shine through. I was particularly fascinated by the students who were offering to write people’s names in Persian characters, as it reminded me of my own zeal in showing my friends how their names look in Hebrew characters. There is something beautiful about seeing your own name represented in a different way. I think actually being able to visualize how one’s name would look to people of another culture also creates a sense of interconnection among those who come from diverse backgrounds.

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Arabic and Persian: Language, Food, and History

Several Fridays ago I attended an incredible event that was a joint effort between the Persian and Arabic language studies programs, in which professors from both departments spoke about their respective language and its role in the history and culture of the Middle Eastern region. I had no idea that both languages used the same alphabet; this seemed incredibly strange to me until I realized that the romance languages share a common alphabet, so why shouldn’t languages from another region draw their words from the same letters?
My interest was definitely piqued in wanting to learn and understand these beautiful languages. I speak somewhat fluent Spanish, and it was interesting to learn that many words in Spanish actually derive from Arabic. I am also learning Hebrew, and can hear similarities between the Hebrew and Arabic languages when I listen to spoken Arabic.
Another element of the lecture was food; there was a delicious array of dishes from both Arabic and Persian culture. Mediterranean cuisine is my all time favorite, so I was familiar with many of the foods laid out. However, one that I had never tried before was a Persian saffron pudding, which was tinted yellow and had hints of rose in its complex flavor array. The head of the Iranian Studies Department spoke on the topic of food from the Middle Eastern region, and about some of the eating habits that differ from our habits in the Western world. She highlighted the importance of community in Arabic and Persian-speaking countries, where people really take the time to sit down together to share a meal. And although in the West we are big on sitting in chairs around a proper table, it turns out there are many health benefits to eating on the floor, which is typical of how people eat in the Middle East.
The final topic talked about was tea. I was fascinated to learn that Middle Easterners were originally religious coffee drinkers; however, with the advent of the silk road, tea became a very common and important commodity in peoples’ lives. When I was in Israel this past December, I often drank black tea with fresh mint. I was delighted when I saw a table with pots of tea and a fresh bowl of the fragrant herb, as it transported me back to my own journey to a country of the Middle East.

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A is for Arab

How is it that the Arab people have come to be so pointedly stereotyped in the United States? Jack Shaheen’s exhibit entitled A is for Arab: Stereotypes in U.S. Popular Culture explores this question, displaying examples from books, cartoons, movies, and other elements of popular culture that highlight the distorted and yet widely accepted categories that we have come to sort Arabs into. Far from viewing Arabs in the light of their rich cultural history and traditions, our society sorts them into harshly defined categories connoting negativity and fear. Most often these categories take the form of the deranged villain, the enslaved harem dancer, and the greedy, powerful Sheikh.

What is perhaps most disturbing is how young we are when we first begin to consume media that promotes Arab stereotypes and anti-Arab prejudice. When we first watch a movie such as Disney’s Aladdin, we are not simply gazing upon a beloved childhood film, but absorbing twisted representations of the Arab race. All three of the major categorical stereotypes are present; Jasmine and her exotic beauty are confined to her wealthy father’s luxurious palace, with the insidious Jafar lurking just around the corner to put his evil plot into motion. Just as the movie itself has come to be acknowledged as a family classic, so too have the stereotypes portrayed in it become accepted household notions of who Arabs are.

Even though anti-Arab sentiment rose sharply in the United States after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which perpetuated the image of the Arab terrorist, the negative representation of Arabs has roots that extend much farther back in history. Even as many Arab countries in the Middle East were fighting for freedom and the implementation of democracy during the mid and late 20th century, the portrayal of Arabs in American media remained highly stigmatized. Rather than identifying with the peoples’ struggle for liberty, United States media instead depicted the Middle East as a war-torn and backwards region, whose citizens were either crazed fanatics that committed heinous acts of violence, or were weak and powerless civilians.

In recent years, universities and other academic institutions have expanded studies and programs related to the Middle East and Arab culture, and have begun to cultivate outreach programs aimed at shattering prejudice and redefining how Americans think about the Arab people. As Shaheen claims, it is up to the next generation to write the fresh stories that will ultimately help to re-shape our thinking and understanding not only of Arabs, but of the incredible diversity of colors and cultures throughout the world. Perhaps with these new narratives, we will finally begin to see our neighbors not as threats, but as a diverse part of our community.

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Turkish Politics

As a part of Oklahoma’s 2017 Teach-In, speaker Soner Cagapty, of the Turkish Research program at the Washington Institute, presented a lecture on the current crisis facing Turkey’s political system. It was striking to learn how deep the roots of Turkey’s democracy go. Turkey has has had free and fair elections for seven decades; for reference, that’s longer than Spain has had free elections. The accusations that the last elections in the country were rigged therefore do not come lightly. There is a growing trend of authoritarianism throughout the country, and more and more opponents of the government are being jailed and silenced. Cagapty emphasized that this trend was not due to a fundamental breakdown in Turkey’s vibrant democratic institutions or civil society, but rather the leadership of its current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Despite major accomplishments in stimulating economic growth and transforming Turkish infrastructure and living standards in the early years of his presidency, Erdogan has become corrupt in his attempts to mold Turkey into his own image.

Most fascinating was Cagapty’s discussion of Turkish youth and their role in the future of the country. Erdogan lost the recent referendum in the 18-32-year-old age group by a huge margin, indicating widespread disapproval of Erdogan and his policies among youth. Were a charismatic leader to emerge to represent this generation and fight for the return of fundamental democracy, Cagapty believes the direction of the future could be rerouted to heal the fractures within Turkey’s government and give the power back to the people. The fact that youth have the potential to create such important change goes to show that we should never doubt our individual role in politics, even if we are young.

Cagapty’s passion for Turkey was very apparent; he spoke of how he has been writing books on the country for more than 20 years, and that he truly loves this work. His charisma shone through when he quickly added that he “also loves yoga.” The combination of the wealth of knowledge Cagapty had to offer and his engaging speaking style made this lecture both educational and extremely enjoyable to listen to.

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