Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The (In)validity of Labels

Whenever I tell people that I am getting a master's degree in a discipline called "Near Eastern studies" I am often met with confused stares. I then clarify that Near Eastern studies at NYU is more or less the same discipline as Middle Eastern studies; the differences are semantic. We call the masters program "Near Eastern studies" and the PhD program "Middle Eastern studies". Every now and then I'll be asked by friends or acquaintances what the difference is between the "Near East" and the "Middle East", but instead of getting roped into a discussion of the Eurocentrism inherent in the coding of geographical regions and the history of Orientalism, I try to change the subject and enjoy the rest of my day.

But for us students of Near Eastern studies - or Middle East and Islamic studies - the problematic nature of these labels sometimes gets under our skin. I know at least a few students at the Kevorkian who visibly cringe whenever they hear the acronym "MENA". MENA, which stands for Middle East North Africa, takes the arbitrary nature of labels to new levels. After all, what are the countries comprising North Africa? If you were to look on a map, you could say: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Yet for some reason, Egypt is rarely acknowledged to be in the "North Africa" category. Instead, Egypt seems to be universally accepted as part and parcel of the "Middle East". Meanwhile, the term "al-Maghrib" is usually used to refer to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. So what happens to Libya? Why isn't it included in the Maghrib?

This reminds me of an argument I got into with a colleague this past summer at the CASA program in Cairo. While talking about Algeria's performance in the World Cup, he noted that Algeria was the only team in the tournament from "the Middle East". I rudely cut him off and said that I wasn't sure if Algeria was in the Middle East. This colleague was a graduate of a particular university in the South known for its pretension, so I wanted to give him a hard time anyway. I simply recommended that he replace "fii as-Sharq al-Awsat" with "fii al-3alam al-a3rabi". The professor sided with my suggestion, and the issue was settled.

But it wasn't. Perhaps it never will be. Until it is, we graduate students of Near Eastern studies can continue debating the (in)validity of these labels.


Katie said...

Brian, I really enjoyed this article. I was hoping that you could go into deatail on the eurocentric view many people have on the middle east and/or near east.

Brian said...

Thanks Katie. The reason that the label "Middle East" or "Near East" is Eurocentric is because they are labelled so in relation to Europe geographically. Southwest Asia is the "Middle East" only if you're standing in Europe and your other reference point is the Far East. A more accurate term would be Western Asia or Southwest Asia.