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Middle East?


For most of the 20th century and on into the 21st, the words ‘Middle East’ have been synonymous with seemingly intractable conflict: the defeat of Turkey’s Ottoman empire in the First World War and the resulting loss of its colonial possessions in the Levant and North Africa; the duplicitous manoeuvrings of the colonial powers Britain and France which, after promising Arabs their freedom if they would rise in revolt against the Turks, proceeded instead to divide up the spoils between them (which is how Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan and Palestine ended up as British colonies – at best, client states – and Syria and Lebanon as French ones; the misconceived decision by the British government in 1917 to allow mass Zionist immigration into Palestine (the biblical ‘holy land’) with the express intention of creating a homeland for the dispersed Jews of the world, which sowed the seeds for fierce enmity between the dispossessed Arab population and the ever more numerous newcomers, who eventually founded their own state on land that had once belonged to other people (and that the British were surely not entitled to give away) – the Zionists variously claimed that this was a ‘land without people for a people without land’ (while knowing perfectly well that it was inhabited) or that they had a right to it because Jews had lived there thousands of years before, and hence that the present inhabitants were temporary intruders (but by that logic the whole map of the world could be redrawn); bitter warfare between the Muslim and Christian populations of Lebanon, culminating in the devastation of its capital Beirut; the overthrow of the Shah of Iran by the fundamentalist Islamic clergy that led opposition to his oppressive rule, but then established a regime that was, if anything, more oppressive and trampled on hard-won human rights, especially those of women; the rise of dictatorial political leaders in Iraq and Syria, with belated, disorganised and ill-informed military intervention by Western powers to ‘restore democracy’ (whereas it had never existed there); the destabilisation or outright collapse of these regimes without anything useful being put in their place; and the emergence of assorted rebel groups, including Islamic fundamentalists whose ugly violence has done much to bring Islam into disrepute around the world; all this against the background of the discovery around 1900 of the world’s most extensive oil reserves, making the region a magnet for foreign countries eager to maintain control of what has become the motor of their economies, and making some local states (or rather, their social elites) rich beyond the dreams of avarice. In the midst of all this, the Kurdish people, divided against their will over four different countries (Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran) that all categorically refuse to grant them even autonomy, let alone independence, have found themselves joining forces with whoever seems most likely to help them achieve their goals, which have come no nearer despite decades of fighting.

In short, if ever the world has had a ‘powder keg’ (at least in modern times), this is surely it.

But how did the region come to be known as the ‘Middle East’? ‘East’ as seen by whom? And why ‘Middle’?

The obvious answer to the ‘East’ question is ‘as seen by the West’ – i.e. by the foreign powers that have done so much to damage this part of the world. But even in its dominant language, Arabic, it is known as الشرق الأوسط (ash-sharq al-awsaṭ), in Persian as خاورمیانه (khāvar-e miyāneh, proof if ever it were needed that Arabic and Persian are quite different languages, even though they use the same basic alphabet), in Hebrew as המזרח התיכון (hamizrach hatikhon) and in Turkish as Orta Doğu – all of which literally mean ‘Middle East’. It has been suggested that this terminology is yet another result of prolonged Western influence.

Yet in the West itself it is not universally known as the ‘Middle East’. The usual German term is Naher Osten, and some Eastern European languages still use similar terms that mean ‘Near East’. The French equivalent Proche-Orient is also still common, alongside Moyen-Orient. What’s all this about?

Until the turn of the 20th century, the ‘East’ as seen from the ‘West’ was essentially divided into three parts: ‘Near’, ‘Middle’ and ‘Far’ (or, in some Romance languages, ‘Extreme’ – for instance, Extrême-Orient in French). The meaning of ‘Far East’ has never really been in doubt: the ‘far end’ of Asia, comprising China, Japan, South-East Asia down to Indonesia, and the easternmost parts of Russia (which in fact extend further east than all the rest). What it does not normally include is ‘South Asia’: India, Pakistan and all their immediate neighbours (except Iran).

Conversely, the inhabitants of China and Japan have long referred to countries west of the Arab world as 泰西 (tàixī in Chinese, taisei in Japanese, but written with the same two characters in both languages) – the ‘Far West’. It seems this name may have been invented by Jesuit missionaries as a counterpart to the European notion of the ‘Far East’; but the idea of China being the ‘East’ was well established under Mao Zedong, who famously said ‘The east wind will prevail over the west wind’ (i.e. communist China and its Asian allies will prevail over the capitalist west), and the Chinese national anthem during the 1960s ‘Cultural Revolution’ was called ‘The East is red’.

But the meaning of both ‘Middle East’ and ‘Near East’ has been far less clear – in fact, until the 20th century the term ‘Middle East’ scarcely existed. And the main reason for this was colonialism: Turkish, British and Russian. Up to the 19th century, travellers setting out eastwards from, say, Paris or Rome would first of all find themselves crossing territory held by the Turkish Ottoman empire, from what is now Romania to what is now Iraq; and for simplicity’s sake the whole of the empire was often referred to in the West as the ‘Near East’. Given that at the height of their power the Turks only just failed to capture Vienna, this part of the East was very near indeed! If we briefly disregard Iran, the travellers would then cross British India, which then included what are now Pakistan and Burma (Myanmar); and beyond that was South-East Asia, the start of the ‘Far East’. Everything in the middle effectively belonged to Britain or, further north, to Russia; the two countries ended up fighting over Afghanistan, which had the misfortune to border on both (the fighting between the two great powers in Central Asia was boyishly referred to back then as the ‘Great Game’, with typically arrogant disregard for local people’s wishes or needs). So there was a ‘Near East’ and a ‘Far East’ – but not yet a ‘Middle East’.

In the course of the 19th century, Turkey’s colonies west of the Bosphorus (‘Turkey-in-Europe’) gained their independence one after the other: Serbia, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Albania. Bosnia was snapped up by a still greedy Austro-Hungarian empire (unaware it was about to share the same fate as its Turkish adversary); and what is now Macedonia was repeatedly, and bloodily, fought over by all its newly independent neighbours. The ‘Near East’ was no longer so near (although as late as 1908 Bosnia was still officially in Turkish hands). Then came the First World War, which ended in catastrophic Turkish defeat and the collapse of the Ottoman empire. Apart from a toe-hold that included the country’s then capital, Istanbul, ‘Turkey-in-Europe’ ceased to exist. With Turkey now essentially reduced to its Asian homeland, Anatolia, the whole notion of a ‘Near East’ ceased to have any meaning; and the term fell into disuse.

But its ghost survived. Turkey was now simply Turkey; its former European colonies were all independent states; Britain and France controlled most of its former colonies in the Levant and North Africa, from Syria to Morocco (a latecomer in the scramble for colonies, Italy had grabbed the poorest coastal region, Libya, but would lose it again after its defeat in the Second World War); what was now the ‘East’ was no longer ‘near’; but a term was still needed to describe the oil-rich, and strategically ever more important, region between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.

Enter ‘Middle East’ – a confusing term, for a ‘Middle’ East implied the existence of other ‘Easts’ around it. Yet it soon became, and would remain, the name of choice for the region; and from English its use has been spreading to other languages, including German (in which reports hastily translated from English-language media increasingly refer to Mittlerer Osten rather than Naher Osten); Slavic languages are now also tending to use literal translations of ‘Middle East’ instead of the once customary ‘Near East’.

Of course, all this may seem semantic hair-splitting; but the introduction and persistence of this misleading name, even in Arabic and other local languages, surely bears witness to the West’s abiding influence on the region, and the world in general. And, despite China’s growing economic and political clout, it refers to the Middle East as 中东 (zhōngdōng). The word 中 (zhōng) appears in the Chinese name for ‘China’: 中华 (zhōngguó), literally ‘Middle Kingdom’; and the word (dōng) appears in the Chinese name of that 1960s national anthem: 东方红 (dōngfāng hóng), ‘The East is red’. So – even from China’s extreme-eastern vantage point – zhōngdōng again means ‘Middle East’.

Why not some equivalent of America’s ‘Mid-West’ – 西 (zhōng), perhaps? – to reflect the current shift in geopolitical power? I’ve borrowed 西 () from the term for ‘Far West’ mentioned earlier: 泰西 (tàixī). And when I google Chinese equivalents of American names that include ‘Mid-West’, these are the very two characters I find: 西.

Maybe Chinese isn’t so difficult after all….

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