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Reading the Middle East – Stanford University Press Blog

Cultivating textual literacy in the classroom challenges dominant narratives around the region.

Middle East

At almost any moment of the day, images and headlines from and about the Middle East bombard us: battle scenes from Aleppo and Mosul; characters on NCIS tasked with debating the nature of Islam as the detectives simultaneously hunt down a Muslim terrorist; Facebook friends posting news articles about the status of Middle Eastern women; beheadings in Saudi Arabia; Miranda expounding on the “niqwab” (yes, that’s how she pronounced the word) in Sex and the City 2; refugees being rescued en route to Europe; rallies in support of victims in Paris and Orlando; trailers for American Sniper and Zero Dark Thirty; and on and on. These images and messages come through as fragments, mostly passively imbibed, often broadcast to attract support for a show or a film or a politician, with the Middle East merely acting as a convenient tool to tell a story relevant only to America. However, these fragments collectively construct a cohesive narrative of a region defined by faith, wracked with conflict, seething with female oppression, dangerous to us, and requiring our salvation. Harking back to Edward Said and Orientalism, it is a place away from here but imagined primarily through our own society’s lens.  

Images and headlines from and about the Middle East bombard us. These fragments collectively construct a cohesive narrative of a region defined by faith, wracked with conflict, seething with female oppression, dangerous to us, and requiring our salvation.

Is any of this radically new? At its core, no. As Melani McAlister and others have written in the Said vein, the narrative of the Middle East produced by Americans has frequently addressed America’s concerns above all else. American missionary work in Lebanon and Egypt gave credence to the view of America, a City on the Hill, a bastion of religious reform and new opportunities. “Garden of Allah” displays in late 19th century department stores sold the exotic Orient as a pathway for women wishing to escape the confines of American Victorianism. The difference between then and now, I believe, is about degree given the proliferation of venues available to disseminate these narrative elements. The reality is that the proliferation of sources on the Middle East has changed the way I need to teach the topic within the classroom.

When I first began teaching in the 1990s, students knew little about the Middle East and my job was to offer up a world of the unknown. After 9/11 students came to class with a lot of information but of a superficial variety; in those years, I had to spend a good deal of time on the unlearning process before learning could take place. Now, I find that the massive quantity of information disseminated has made the unlearning process unmanageable. I face what I have come to call “default positions” in the classroom. By this I mean that students see the films and TV shows, hear the news broadcasts, and listen to the political candidates and despite their fragmentary nature the cohesiveness of the message steers students into pathways for conceptualizing how “we” see the Middle East and its people. I try to cut across those defaults in the classroom and our discussions cut against that grain but those messages and images never cease. The American-Middle East image machine has far more power than I can counteract and I see its narrative reemerge in papers and exams throughout the semester.

When I first began teaching in the 1990s, students knew little about the Middle East and my job was to offer up a world of the unknown. After 9/11 students came to class with a lot of information but of a superficial variety.

New and newly invigorated disciplines such as Security Studies and Histories of War and Diplomacy tap into the student desire to know how “we” have become embroiled in and endangered by such a place. These fields are all worthy of study because of the reality of contemporary relations between the Middle East and America and they are clearly attracting students, as evidenced by their large enrollments and the excitement evinced by students for such inquiry. They are not merely tapping into the newest sexy trends; associated scholars have written monographs and policy papers to establish the research and analytical methodologies for these approaches. Furthermore, the American liberal education system thrives on competing pedagogical paradigms in the academic and classroom realms. Nonetheless, I am frustrated because these fields have so successfully enveloped categories of analysis—such as gender, labor, politics, education, and the media—under the umbrella of security that it has made it difficult to convince students that topics—such as gender, labor, politics, education and the media—have validity outside the security and American frame. I have to entice students to be curious about how gender or labor or education are fascinating topics in their own right.

I have been experimenting with a host of methods to attract student interest and to re-validate alternative frames. I tried in my book, A History of the Modern Middle East to use rulers, rebels, and rogues as intertwined actors. My goal from the beginning was to integrate both the large and small political players into the narrative of Middle Eastern history, to complicate how the governors and the governed have interacted throughout history. Political leaders never completely governed separately from the peoples under their control; nongovernmental actors could not ignore the state institutions in their lives. I return century to century, decade to decade, to the actions and ideological positions proffered by monarchs and presidents, and also by slaves, religious clerics, provincial notables, urban merchants, students, professionals, workers, peasants, and army officers as examples of how rulers, rebels, and rogues forged Middle Eastern history together. The story takes place almost exclusively within the geography of the Middle East.

A History of the Modern Middle East

In other efforts, I spend a lot of time showing students how to effectively critique the many images and frames presented to them so they can analyze the power that underlies their production. To teach this point, I often discuss the Middle East as an access point for understanding how our perceptions and knowledge about a place can be guided by a plethora of seemingly disparate sources. When presented with images and texts, I find that students initially hone in on whether the information conveyed in the source is right or wrong, with little consideration for why it is vitally important to identify authors, potential audiences and socio-historical contexts as a precursor to examining content. For example, Instagram and Twitter messages appear to be relating on-the-ground reports of events in Syria and Iraq—and many are—but they could just as easily be produced by Washington, DC PR firms paid for by the Saudi government. Scenes from American films, Palestinian hip-hop videos, and images of architectural monuments throughout the region can become avenues for exploring representations of authority, rebellion, and artistic accomplishment.

Again, this is not new. We as teachers have always told students to engage texts critically; students are supposed to learn how to think independently while in college. I am returning to this old-fashioned process of deep textual analysis because so many sources inundate the students that they easily read them as white noise, reinforcing narrowly drawn representations of the Middle East. I can’t stop the texts from being disseminated and the region will no doubt be a continuing wellspring for such production, but I can encourage my students to keep a critical eye open over all available sources. Recognizing the importance of this action, I hope, will make them more judicious consumers of the images and texts that surround them. Understanding that the agency behind the image should be interrogated is also a valuable tool for making sense of the many different methodologies taught in the classroom as well.


Start reading A History of the Modern Middle East »


Betty S. Anderson is Associate Professor of Middle East History at Boston University and author of A History of the Modern Middle East: Rulers, Rebels, and Rogues.