Ever since I matriculated in the master’s program at N.Y.U. last fall, I have been plagued by a simple but terribly perplexing question: Why does one study the Middle East? (or as Princetonians , Britishers and old colonial hands (there is an incredible overlap between the three) like to call the region, the “Near East.” For me, the term Near East evokes nostalgia for colonialism, the Persian Empire, and the Moslem rule of Andalusia. Only the former name of Zimbabwe, Rhodesia, has that same evocative effect on my supple, post-postcolonial imagination. I know full well why I’m interested in the region, though my future employer (http://www.mamouns.com/) would not be thrilled if I disclosed my oh-so-practical motivations in a public forum.
Since I know my own motivations, I have begun to frame the question in terms of others desires and interests: What is it that motivates others to study the Middle East?
I believe one’s response to the question “So, why are you interested in the Middle East?” reveals a great deal about his/her assumptions, ideological persuasion, and thought patterns.
Below are a number of possible responses to that question:
Question: “So, why are you interested in the Middle East?”
Response: I want to combat the assumption/stereotype that there is a distinctly Middle Eastern (read: Muslim) impulse towards patriarchy by liberating Middle Eastern (again, Muslim) women through new exegesis of Qu’ranic texts and by writing a revisionist history of Medieval Syria. Specifically, I am focusing on the ways in which Medieval Syrian women subverted gender roles by using a flat iron pan instead of a round pan while preparing hummus.
Good luck. Perhaps you’d like to use Saba Mahmood for your theoretical framework. It’s not as if everybody else and their cousin Khadija are not reading her in an effort to “problematize” some construct or another. Another suggestion: use Foucault- talk about how the patriarchical Syrian state was able to project its power into the domicile through an official discourse regarding proper hummus preparation. But do yourself a favor: While you are busy problematizing gender, agency, Medieval Syria, patriarchy, Islam, Arabness and other “overgeneralized” categories, remember what Orientalism and neoconservatism have taught us: answers about the Middle East are always incredibly simple and intuitive. Question: Were Syrian women oppressed in Medieval times? Answer: Yes, they hated our freedom and our way of life back then.
Response: I believe the Middle East is a region of great strategic interest for the United States and will be important for the next decade to come.
We all know the national security students because of their incredibly myopic view of region and their insistence that the region’s history, politics, and conflicts must be seen through the prism of American foreign policy interests. For the national security students, terribly-accented Amerrabic, references to entire countries as the “theater of operation” and a CLI scholarship in Cairo are musts.
I have a suggestion for these students: study Urdu and focus on Pakistan. No country will give you more street credibility with the Agency than that delightful mix of chaos and South Asian Spice. (see: Salam Khalid’s seminal article: The Karachi Bazaar: Spice Market or Gendered Post-Colonial Space?) Unlike other countries in the region which may be stable in the next five to ten years (Iraq, the Palestinian territories (soon to be Greater Israel)), Pakistan is guaranteed to help you stay employed.
Response: I am interested in Middle Eastern literature and arts.
My answer: How quaint. Me? Before a dinner party, I prefer to read half of an Orhan Pamuk book so that during the event I can reference the former glory of Istanbul, mention Mahmoud Darwish and “the cause,” and then ask the question: “But the real question is: CAN THE SUBALTERN SPEAK” as loudly as possible. Literature students, the work you are doing on Safavid Poetry is just as important as the work being done to end poverty in Africa and the work done by Human Rights Watch on human rights abuses in Gaza. Therefore, you have every right to condescend to political scientists and to speak about your research with an exaggerated sense of self-importance.
These are just a few common answers to the question we are all asked at family get-togethers, dinner parties, and job interviews. In general, a little more self-reflection, self-deprecation, and an awareness that we are not saving the world (literature students) is needed in the field. Let us take ourselves seriously but also be able to laugh at the institutionalized modes of thought and orthodoxies that pervade the field. Only then will we be able to approach an understanding of how those Syrian housewives were able to take a simple cooking implement and subvert the gendered hierarchy that defined Medieval Syria.