In my senior year of college (1963) I spent the summer on campus, during which time I took a course called “The Near East.” It was a relatively new term at that point in history, identifying a geographical and cultural region which was just beginning to become familiar to westerners. Although everyone knew about Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, the idea of grouping them and other neighboring countries (not well known) into a named region was a new idea, one filled with mystery and ignorance.
It strikes me now that the very term, Near East…and then its eventual term, Middle East…was, in itself, an unfortunate term, in that it presupposed that the geographic center was in Europe…everything east of it being relative to Europe. That’s a proud concept, one which assumes that everything that counts is found in the western world, and that others in the “Near/Middle East and the Orient” are dependent upon Europe and America.
It was clear from that course that some scholars were beginning to understand that there was a rumbling in the Middle East that might portend significance in the near future. The authors of the text we used (The Near East by William Yale) were seriously aware of the fact that these rumblings amounted to something requiring attention. Like the rumblings of a woman in labor, the eventuality was the birth of a being that was going to require close attention. The text noted the significance of oil as being a product that was going to dominate the economic scene and that it was only a matter of time before global policies of major countries were going to be dominated by the production and marketing of oil. In 1963 that seemed like an overstatement, but it wasn’t long before the prediction became prophetic.
The Middle East has become a place of hope and fear. Not only has oil and its marketing become dominant, but the rise of Islam and a lack of trust in western nations and Christianity and Judaism have followed. Terrorism has found its homeland in the Middle East, although the diaspora of terrorism is widespread, capturing parts of Africa, South America, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Today the world governments are dominated by the effect of terrorism and its impact on major powers, including the United States. Alliances have changed their configurations and are jostled to respond to the economic factor of oil production and the military implications of terrorists.
It is ironic that this same region of the world is the place from which have sprung the great religions of the world. In this Holy Season we recite romantic beliefs about “the Holy Land” as we observe the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and remember the miraculous events related to Chanukah. They are beliefs that speak of hope and promise. They are Middle Eastern traditions.
The collision of hope and fear brings us to a place where the Middle East is more than a romantic imagination of westerners who look to an undeveloped and insignificant part of the world. To the contrary, the region is central to all diplomacy and economic planning. It is also central to religious and philosophical thinking. Remembering a time when the convergence of the Tigris and the Euphrates dominated the world of trade and the Nile was seen as a central passage way of shipping for the world’s goods, there is a sense that the Middle East may be rediscovering itself. Methods of significance may have changed, and fear may be more dominant than hope. But it is up to the world to take this region seriously and grant to its people the significance they deserve and require.
Map Credit: www.history-map.com.