Opinion //

ARBC1234: More than just the ‘Arab World’

It is important to note that individuals in this part of the world do not consider themselves ‘Middle Eastern’. It is through the eyes of the West, its operations and its framing of ‘the Other’ that the world has come to see the region in such an essentialised way.

Art by Long Huynh.

Ah, The Middle East: hot in climate but also (always) hot in the press. We’ve heard it all: from bigoted and xenophobic attitudes to admiration for its rich customs and cultures. Even then, the scent of fetishisation lingers in the air. There never seems to be an in-between for the nations of the region, which are torn between the good and the bad, yet still subconsciously perceived as ugly in any light.

We in the West think of the ‘Middle Eastern’ region as Arab-dominated and Muslim-inspired. This understanding continues today with universal use of gross over-generalisations like ‘The Arab World’ or the ‘Islamic World’ . The news speaks of it, our academic papers cling to it — and our discourse surrounding the region is very much indicative of that. Since the creation of the term ‘Middle East’ in the 1850s by the former British India Office, the term has spread rapidly and became the quick and easy fix to define an entire geopolitical region, particularly in terms of its Arab-ness and its Muslim-ness. And, to this day, it continues. 

Seminal cultural critic and father of Postcolonial Studies Edward Said wrote in his book Orientalism that it is “our role is to widen the field of discussion, not to set limits in accord with the prevailing authority.” This prevailing authority continues to be Western institutions. 

It is important to note that individuals in this part of the world do not consider themselves ‘Middle Eastern’.  It is through the eyes of the West, its operations, and its framing of ‘the Other’ that the world has come to see the region in such an essentialised way. Chuck Hamilton suggests that “the term ‘Middle East’ is imprecise, culturally and geographically biased, susceptible to misunderstanding, and therefore useless in terms of accuracy,” which is why the renaming of the “Middle East” has been such a hot topic as of late: phrases and acronyms like the Near East, Western Asia, MENA (Middle East and North Africa) and SWANA (South Western Asia and North Africa) are used interchangeably, though no general consensus has been found on the most appropriate term. All these neologisms aim to decolonise associations with the region and demystify what constitutes the Middle East, but still operate within the parameters of disagreement and conflict. 

I personally don’t side with any terminology. I feel way in over my head attempting to lump a bunch of countries together; countries of a region deemed as the cradle of civilisation, which have contributed extensively to what modern society looks like. Despite these claims, the same countries are framed by barbarism and savagery— the same countries that were at the peak of the Golden Age of literature, philosophy, medicine, mathematics, and other realms of scholarship; all whilst Europe was still, historically, in the Dark Ages. 

I do, however, find it useful to contemplate what this debate means on a smaller scale — one that has an immediate impact on people in the West with ties to the East, like me. I should note that this binary between West and East is not much help either, but for the sake of this argument, the intersection between the two realms unveils a poignant relevance of how international politics manifest in the very space of the University of Sydney (USYD). 

What began as the Department of Oriental Studies in 1918 follows a chameleonic pathway to 2023. Emphasis on certain languages and cultures relevant to global interactions with Australia has erected and destroyed multiple region-based studies at USYD. Japan and China were initial focuses, Indonesia and India arose in the 70s and 80s and battled it out until Indonesia was victorious. Its history is almost always defined by these foreign lands’ relations with Australia, as ‘subjects’ imperative for the white tertiary student to study.  European languages and cultures like Germany, Italy and French almost always kept their place at the table. 

Nowadays, within the School of Languages and Cultures, interdisciplinarity is emphasised and any study of a foreign land or tongue exists under the larger umbrella. These fields can be taken as majors and minors, and are often specific to regions such as the general ‘Asian Studies’ or hyper specific to their focus on a (former) country such as ‘Korean Studies’. The ‘Spanish and Latin American Studies’ stream is true to its name, honing in on the Spanish language as the major language of the transcontinental region, whilst also maintaining  sociological, political and cultural areas of study. In this instance, the discipline is broad but specific. The discipline is able to focus on the most spoken language (being Spanish) but the  units in other fields divvy up time and space for nations beyond Spain itself. As such, Latin America becomes integral to understanding Spain and the Spanish language. 

The ‘Arabic Language and Cultures’ major or stream, on the other hand, frames the names of its units around the ‘Arab World’ alone and fails to recognise the nuances that exist within it. I’d like to think that stereotypes and assumptions are unpacked within the units the major has to offer, but as an academic outsider belonging to the disciplines of English and Sociology, I feel that USYD has played a part in the perpetuation of the Middle East as a uniform and undistinguishable blob. An anonymous source who I discussed this concern with – who also happened to be a major in the discipline – stated that “They usually give us a disclaimer at the beginning of each unit, being like ‘this is an ARBC unit, but we still look at other countries and cases in the Middle East’. So they basically say ‘hey, we aren’t generalising an entire region, but hey, we refuse to change the name of our discipline’”. 

In the unit ARBC2671: Transnational Muslim Women and Veiling, for example, discussion of Iran and Turkey, both Muslim-majority non-Arab countries, span across weeks. The unit ARBC2681: Gender and Politics in the Arab World, examines women and gender in relation to the 2011-2019 Arab uprisings, but then immediately jumps to women and gender in ‘other’  Middle Eastern conflicts the following week. One can only assume non-Arab countries included in the Middle East are investigated there. 

I am by no means an irrational person — I understand that logistics play a big part in what a university has to offer, with funding, staffing and student interest being key in decision-making processes. What I cannot understand nor blindly accept is the blatant overgeneralisation 

By talking about Islam, you are talking about Muslim Middle Easterners. By talking about women, you are talking about women right across the geopolitical transcontinental region. By talking about colonialism, capitalism, democracy, mass migration and refugees, you are talking about a rich and shared but distinct history of nation-states that unite over the collective struggles of misrecognition, the discovery of crude oil, and a love of dancing. Whilst distinctive, these nations have shared ways of life, of knowing, being, existing. Continuing to perpetuate a global misunderstanding at a tertiary education level is feeding into the misleading mainstream narrative. 

The reality is, you cannot have an ‘Arab World’, a ‘Middle East’ or ‘Islamic history’ without the excluded places of the region: my motherland Iran, and also nations such as Turkey, Armenia, Afghanistan, Georgia, Cyprus and so on are intrinsic to the continually evolving landscape, to its cultures, languages, history and interactions with the Anglosphere. Languages, dialects, ethnicities, ‘Afro-Arab’ or North African nations with Middle Eastern histories like Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, faiths like Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism and the Baháʼí Faith that have emerged — I haven’t had the time to delve into these in this article, but let it be said that all of these factors are as equally essential when painting the transcontinental portrait we need to begin to understand.  Arab identity and the religion of Islam are only two of many shades and pigments. 

The broad framing of discipline and major ‘Arabic Language and Cultures’ is negligent, reflective of real-world misrecognition and the continued misshaping of the Middle East. I won’t accept USyd’s approach to educating Australian students in this field. For if I do, I am accepting a standard that erases my ancestry, my lineage and my familial heritage entirely. Do better USYD: rectify the inaccurate name of this discipline and explore every corner of the ‘Middle East’, like you already do. 

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