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.
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.
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.
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.
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.