07. Central & West Asia, Teaching

Maps & the Middle East

Maps & the Middle East

The funniest thing about attending extended (week-long plus) PD is that you are supposed to walk out knowing more information that you know going in to it, and although that is usually the case, it does not feel like you know more when you leave. I think this is because, as a high school teacher, encountering professors and content area experts you feel like a teenager learning to drive from your dad again: a little intimidated, frustrated, nervous, in awe of the miracle of making a 2 ton block of metal move, but also itching to get out on “the road” on your own (aka your classroom).

Considering how many extended PDs I do, I must be addicted to the constant reminder that I truly know nothing. But admitting you need more information is the first step in learning is it not?

QFI booksQFI mosque

This summer I went on a week-long summer institute at Duke University. The topic was certainly an intimidating one: the Middle East. I mean where do you even start with that!? Well we started, day 1, literally shattering my concept of what was “the Middle East.” Apparently it doesn’t really exist, at least not how you or I think it does. As a history teacher, I knew how fraught with violence, colonialism, and misunderstanding 20th century Middle Eastern history was but I never thought to question the region’s title as part of that Western narrative. Honestly, that first session, Mapping the Middle East by Professor Akram Khater, reframed and shock my ingrained expectations of the Middle East.

Our first lecturer was not asking us to throw out the nomenclature, but he made us aware about the power geographical terms have when we discuss historical or modern events. He gave us one GREAT example that really drove this home: below are maps of the SAME area.

  • the Holy Land
  • Israel and the Occupied Territories
  • Palestine

Same area, but do the maps & titles really frame a neutral “truth”? I would say hell no! The first one focuses on the historic and religious importance of the Levant (a much more neutral term for this region of the Middle East) this map takes us out of modern history into an “idyllic” time thousands of years ago. How about adding in the idea of who’s “holy land” it is: Jews? Christians? Muslims? The answer is all three, but who do you think the map benefits? If you poll your students, who do they think the Holy Land is referring to?

holy land experience jesus

P.S. it totally doesn’t help that I live right outside of Orlando where there is a hooky theme-park called The Holy Land Experience that is run by a Christian group.

Moving on to the political maps: using the terms “Israel” or “Palestine” is essentially politicized, they are not neutral terms. And without going in to too much detail the gist of the situation is this: the modern nation-state of Israel was created post-World War II as a “homeland” for the Jews but that mean kicking out the Muslim Palestinians who were living there to make room for the diaspora fleeing Europe post-Holocaust. During our Duke program we also had another fantastic presentator, Shai Tamari from the UNC Center for Global Initiatives, who broke down the way we speak about Israel and its relations to its neighbors.

partition of palestine map

Read more: The Diversity of the Islamic World

Like any region, the “Middle East” is bursting with complexity, diversity, and shifting national/international identities. Using the term “Middle East” isn’t inherently bad but you should be aware of certain baggage that accompanies the terms. As a high school World History teacher, am I going to have this grand philosophical discussion with my students about the inherent issues of this colonial-loaded American verbiage? No.

But I am going to point out how these terms are not neutral. Maps are not neutral. They are made with a particular aim for how viewers are supposed to organize the world. And personally, I like bringing a little bit of 21st century disorder to my classroom. 😉


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