By Randa Tawil
I have always hated the phrase, “the Middle East.” People love to talk about it, to solve its problems, to throw their hands in the air over the intractable nature of its conflicts, but if you ask where exactly it is, what distinguishes it as a geographical space and where its borders are drawn, most people can’t really tell you. Seeking out experts does not help much either. The United Nations, the World Bank, and the US government all define region’s borders differently—stretching and contracting their regional definitions from Morocco all the way to Afghanistan. An investigation into the nomenclature is even more baffling—it can be referred to as the Near East, the Middle East, the Orient, and the Arab World depending on whom you’re asking. If the Middle East is a constructed space, what kind of function does it serve? I propose that the Middle East, as a constructed space, is a foil through which the United States can displace its own violence and present itself as a coherent and self-contained geo-political unit. I suggest that as the United States constructed itself as an ordered and cohesive geo-political and cultural space, the de-colonizing world became its opposite: disordered, vulnerable spaces lacking the modernity of the United States. The Middle East is a spatial narrative that needed to be both evident and ambiguous. Its construction tells us much about how Americans understand and relate to the globe spatially.
I thought a lot about this idea this summer while conducting research at the University of Chicago. The university is a contained, highly securitized space in an otherwise economically depressed area of Chicago. In fact, the university employs a private security force second in size only to the Vatican. This year there have been more than 2000 victims of gun violence in Chicago. This area is controversially known by some as “Beirut by the Lake,” in reference to the racial tension that has structured city politics, or “Chiraq,” a contested term used to describe the violence often associated with the city (more on that controversy later). In the middle of this landscape referenced as the Middle East, exists one of the best museums chronicling and categorizing the region: The Oriental Institute at University of Chicago. And so, walking through “Chiraq” towards some of the best artifacts collected from the region, I wondered how these two ways of ordering space connected to the larger narrative of the Middle East in the United States.
In the first half of the 20th century, both the social space of the United States, as well as its position in the world, changed rapidly. In cities like Chicago, immigration from abroad as well as Black migration from the South created intense anxiety over how the United States could function as a cohesive space. As Edward Said argues in Orientalism, the interwar years also presented a moment of European anxiety, as anti-imperialism threatened European control of the world. Indeed, anxieties about the assimilation of immigrants and political dissidents were overarching fears and contentions, nationalized in the sensational trial and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927. These changing spaces provoked a “civilizational anxiety” which turned to the study of other cultures and peoples. At University of Chicago, Robert Park developed the school of sociology that conducted its research on the “Asian Question” and the “Negro Question.” The same institution established the Institute for Oriental Studies, led by the Egyptologist James Breasted. In this institute “art, archeology, political science, language, literature, and sociology, in short all the categories of civilization, shall be represented and correlated.” The creation of a way to study the region, then, correlated with both development of social science, the idea of scientific knowability of peoples and the world, and intense anxiety about peoples in the United States. As empires shifted the sovereignty of space and migration shifted the makeup of space, Western scholars reasserted that their expertise could be used to understand discrete spaces and cultures, their own as well as the world’s.
The institutional racism around the University of Chicago persists in our present moment. Racist housing practices, police brutality, and economic deprivation has worked together to split Chicago into two economic extremes: an affluent and mostly-white Northside, and a poor and mostly-Black Southside. From 1983-1986, Chicago’s racial tensions boiled over after Harold Washington, a Black man, was elected as mayor. The white alderman formed a coalition and voted down all his reforms. This political gridlock created on racial lines was termed “Beirut by the Lake” by the Wall Street Journal and the phrase caught on. Through this discourse, the political failures of Chicago, its divided landscape and deep-seeded racial hatred was imagined not as a story of the United States, but rather a story of the Middle East.
In 2015, Spike Lee released a film titled “Chiraq”—a term coined by Chicago rapper King Louie in 2009 in a song entitled Chiraq Drillinois as a way to articulate and imagine the violence of the Southside. The term has been contested by many Black Chicago residents as inaccurately depicting life in Chicago’s Black neighborhoods and many of them critiqued the film and its framing of Chicago as “Chiraq” for presenting an inauthentic depiction of life in Chicago’s South and West Sides. In this way, the articulations “Beirut by the Lake” and “Chiraq” (as conceived by Spike Lee) doubly-displace the violence of the US state; they inaccurately depict both the political and racial origins of violence both in the Middle East and in Chicago, conjuring imagined landscapes of both areas that hide the real history and meanings of their respective violence.
It is difficult to describe the walk between “Chiraq” and the Oriental Institute. Even now, I think of them as different worlds, different planets. I could say it’s like walking from Dwight Street to Calhoun College here in New Haven. Perhaps confronting the spaces we live in, the segregation and racialized economies that define our cities, will allow us to see ourselves and the rest of the world in more clear ways. Because, in the end, how can we know what Middle East is when we seem to have no language to describe the space here in the United States?