MIDDLE of what? EAST of where?

By Bethany Kehdy in Identity, Terminology

June 1, 2024

“Where are you from?” asked an immaculately dressed man with an unidentifiable accent and a lazy eye that instantly reminded me of my teenage crush, Rufus Sewell.  “Lebanon”, I replied. “Lebanon, Pennsylvania?”, he sought to clarify. After all, I have an Americanesque accent. “It is a country in West Asia… on the East Mediterranean coast” I replied. “So it’s in Europe?’” he continued. “It’s considered in the Middle East!” I blurted. He nodded, likely wondering why I had not just said that in the first instance. I grinned while feigning amusement as an internal monologue ensued. “Hmph”, I vocalised in typical Lebanese gesture, “the Middle East… the middle of where and east of what exactly?”

From “Middle East”, to “MENA” to the “Arab world’, a plethora of terms have been applied to describe the territories that fall within the western portion of the Asian continent and parts of North Africa1, which,  depending on the source, can expand to include countries between Turkey and Pakistan – the latter, having been included in the 2004 Bush Administration’s non-sensical creation – “The Greater Middle East”, which included any Muslim country, irrespective of its geo-point as if, and setting aside for a moment the absurdity of the construct, the Middle East and Islam or Arab identity, are always mutually inclusive. For now, I’ll shelf the complex discussion of Arab world versus Arab identity as it deserves its own discourse, focusing instead solely on the term “Middle East” and associated nomenclature, including MENA and the more recent WANA (West Asia and North Africa) and SWANA (South West Asia and North African). I will make the case that it is crucial that we embrace new terminology, such as “West Asia and North Africa,” so that we may better understand, appreciate and engage with this fascinating region and give it and its people a chance to progress. First of all, it is geographically accurate. Secondly, it is inclusive and more broadly reflects the region’s rich cultural heritage and historical significance. Finally, it provides for decolonised speech and political neutrality.  

To begin to understand how such an ambiguous term – the Middle East – became so ubiquitous, we must take a carriage ride some one hundred plus years back to when the British Empire covered four-fifths of the globe. As Turkey – itself a Western bastardisation of “Türkiye”, which has recently been remedied – was referred to as the Near East in the context of India and China being the Far East (both terms that have fallen out of relative usage), an official at the British India Office determined that the “Middle East” would be an appropriate moniker for the region falling in-between, capturing the modern day countries2 of Palestine (Israel), Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Iraq.  

But what if we look at the Middle East through a Chinese or Russian lens? It is very clear in this context that this swathe of land does not fall in the middle of anywhere but is instead West Asia, or even South West Asia. In Istanbul, it will be noted that references are made to the “Asian” and “European” sides – not the European and Middle Eastern sides. Everywhere else in the world, we observe the application of cardinal directions– North, East, South and West. We hear of North America and South America (where more semantics lurk with the usage of Latin America), of Western and Eastern Europe, of North and South Africa, of Asia-Pacific and Central Asia, and even South-East Asia but we do not hear of South or West Asia3, the geographically accurate term for the so-called “Middle East.”  

Ironically, while the term Middle East is a relatively modern concept dating back to the nineteenth century, exact translations of this term have regrettably been adopted into the languages of the various inhabitants themselves, be it Arabic, Farsi or Turkish. Today, the Arabic translation “Al Shark el Awsat” for example, is not only used in local and international politics but also business, where local and multinational companies use the term and its more elaborate acronym, MENA or Middle East and North Africa. However, the ‘indigenous’ territorial terms and regional distinctions of “Maghreb“ 4, “Bilad-al-Sham wal Mashriq” and “Al Khaleej” remain in colloquial use too. In fact, the older generations take any opportunity to remind us that before the imperialists divided up these ancient and sacred territories according to their whims (I apply the undertone most often used), the people of these lands co-existed in relative peace (no less than was historically the case globally amongst indigenous peoples), journeying freely across the borderless territories. And while in use for over a thousand years, these terms too, were once ‘modern inventions’ (albeit more geographically accurate) evolving under Islamic conquest and expansionism succeeding previous empires, in turn subduing previous identities and narratives. What of Byzantium and the Persians? What of the ancient civilisations and empires of Sumer, Akkadia, Babylon, Assyria? Empires come and go, some fizzle out only to re-emerge, some fall to the sword of their conqueror, their legacies, if they’re lucky, transcending ink on paper. As the Netflix Rise of Empires: Ottoman series’  mellifluous slogan puts it, “for one empire to rise, another must fall.”

Like a lingering dance of chess, it is no other than the slow fall of this great Ottoman Empire to the European imperialist and colonialists that gave rise (metaphorically) to the Middle East.

In the famous words of 14th century Arab historian, sociologist and philosopher, Ibn Khaldun; “conquest, consolidation, expansion, degeneration and reconquest are recurring features of history and empires”. Shouldn’t it be time we accept this fact of human history, by accepting our most recent history, our imposed identity as the Middle East and move forward? Is the argument for adopting new terminology and designations like West Asia, WANA or SWANA a case of “woke-ness gone mad”?  

Putting aside the smaller argument that the term Middle East is an Anglo-centric, colonial geopolitical term with no perception of geo-point; the larger argument I’d like to make is that this term reeks of stigma, prejudice, stereotypes, racism, erasure and colonial supremacy. It is a term associated with war and conflicts falsely perpetuated in the media as such with little mention of – or consideration for – the layered history. It reflects a narrow lens on bloodletting, ironically, in large part a consequence of the meddling of the very European powers that forcibly and arbitrarily divided an area for geographical control, resource theft, insouciantly seeking to resolve one tragedy, the Holocaust, but in so doing, creating another, namely the Naqba (the Catastrophe) of the Palestinians.

To lean on Ibn Khaldun once more; “Throughout history many nations have suffered a physical defeat, but that has never marked the end of a nation. But when a nation has become the victim of a psychological defeat, then that marks the end of a nation.”

The term “Middle East” is like an old screen that flickers black and white; It blurs our identity (and location), depriving us of our own self-identification, self-determination and self-worth. It is reductionist, limiting and disempowering. It mandates a manipulated narrative and a future that continues to be owned and pup-petted by foreign powers rather than our own authentic and diverse narrations of our inter-dependent ethnicities, rich cultures and profound history. In fact, one could argue it’s the very reason there remains so much confusion, negative perceptions and (selective) erasure of the region’s incredible contributions to humanity.

Geography interacts with politics, economics and psychology. It is time we engage with the region using terminology that not only accurately acknowledges its geo-point but also allows us to better reflect our own self-images, our national, ethnic and linguistic distinctions and nuances, also using more rooted nomenclature for our subregions to mirror internal historical and present paradigms and challenges so we may solve for a fair future. A shift in terminology can assist us in disengaging with the negative stereotypes, racism and discrimination we are buried under, ridding us of the imposed psychological shackles and the consequential constraints. By adopting accurate and untainted terminology, we pivot how the region is framed and open it up to be seen more for its complex realities than its stereotypes.    

Creating shifts in terminology has occurred time and time again in history. The adoption and normalisation of the term WANA is an important topic and timely discussion that affects everyone beyond the borders of the cradle of civilisation as this region remains of paramount influence today and no doubt the future. It is a conversation that is growing more and more on the ground and amongst diaspora, across generations and manifesting in different forms; whether you spy it in academia, contemporary arts, regional activism or in the tales of older generations reminding us of past nomenclature. It is not woke-ness gone mad, it is not idealism and nor is it over-complicating an issue unnecessarily. After-all, the UN and Canada have already begun adopting the term WANA. Will you be next to do so?  

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  1. Note that I chose to say parts of North Africa. Another geographical misconstrue, North Africa in this sense is only referring to the coastal North of Africa. ↩︎
  2. These were territories on maps but they were never full-fledged countries with borders. The indigenous people of these territories made up of a rich diverse number of clans, tribes and sects lived side by side for millennia following age old rules and customs of interaction ↩︎
  3. The word “South” is another geopolitical term, often associated with lower-income, under-developed countries and has become loaded with negative connotations. In my opinion, it’s important to use “West Asia” and not Southwest Asia, especially if we are geographically including countries like Morocco which is as West as Spain or Armenia is as north as parts of France for example. Also, historically colonial countries have monopolized the word “West” and all the positive connotations that come with it. It’s time we afford ourselves the same narrative especially when it’s geographically accurate. ↩︎
  4. Maghreb: literal translation is where the sun sets and encompasses North Africa. Khaleej: The gulf, Bilad al Sham wal Mashriq: territories of the North (of Yemen) and where the sun rises; ‘The Levant”, which encompasses modern day Palestine (Israel), Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq and parts of Turkey. ↩︎

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