The Middle East in the Midwest: Displacing Violence, Managing Space

By Randa Tawil

Aerial photo of Chicago’s South Side. From

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?

30 Years of Central American Immigration

By Cristina Moreno

Immigrant activists march in front of the White House in Washington on Dec. 30,2015 to protest upcoming raids against Central American children by the Department of Homeland Security. From

2016 dawned with anxious anticipation as neighborhoods across the United States braced for impending immigration raids. The Department of Homeland Security specifically targeted Central American adults and children who arrived in the United States in 2014.1 Yet, the impacts of these raids rippled across citizen and immigrant communities. The raids amplified the national debate regarding the fate of recent arrivals from Central America, however, this is not the first time this nation has faced this question. Nearly 30 years ago, the United States deported recent arrivals from Central America back to countries in the throes of civil war. Looking back at this policy decision and its eventual reversal in 1990, which temporarily stayed the deportation of Central Americans, provides an answer to the moral dilemma of today.

Roughly 30 years ago, the citizens of El Salvador endured a bloody civil war and negotiated a dangerous reality by maximizing their opportunities for survival and success. One of these options included escaping to the United States. In 1980, at the onset of the civil war between the government and guerrilla forces, roughly 20,000 people in El Salvador died in war-related deaths.2 Throughout the 1980s, President Reagan refused to grant Extended Voluntary Departure to nationals from El Salvador in the United States.3 Extended Voluntary Departure or EVD was an executive act of prosecutorial discretion that would temporarily give low priority to deportations to certain countries. President Reagan’s refusal to grant EVD meant nationals from El Salvador could be forcibly removed back to the violent reality they had just attempted to evade. Meanwhile, asylum approval rates lagged. In 1984, 328 people from El Salvador were granted asylum, while over 13,000 applicants were denied.4 This created a precarious situation. Few legal avenues to safety prompted a wave of undocumented migration from El Salvador. These arrivals faced an uncertain fate given the Reagan administration’s choice to send nationals from El Salvador back to war.

In 1985, Representative John Joseph Moakley introduced H.R. 822 to temporarily stay the deportation of Salvadoran nationals due to the moral imperative demanded by extreme civil strife in El Salvador.5 He laid out the moral imperative clearly by saying, “each of us knows what is going on today in El Salvador… Right now we are sending people back to a war zone. It is wrong”.6 This bill pointed out the failures of the asylum process in El Salvador and the necessity of considering migrants from El Salvador as war refugees. This bill which became known as the Moakley-DeConcini bill never passed.7 Activists and church leaders continued to forge coalitions in recognition not only of the moral imperative to support refugees fighting for their lives, but also in recognition of the benefits of welcoming refugees to the United States. Nationals from El Salvador bravely shared their stories inspiring national action. These coalitions recognized the talents, skills, and hard work brought by refugees from El Salvador and the ways in which refugees fuel the nation with their vigor and determination. In 1990, Representative Moakley issued a report that outlined the atrocities ordered by government forces on their own people arguing once again for the United States to recognize the extreme civil strife that propelled the recent arrivals to journey north.8


Rep. John Moakley holding the 1990 report on the murder of Jesuit priests in El Salvador (AP photo). From

In response to this pressure and after a consensus formed in Congress, President George H.W. Bush signed the 1990 Immigration Act.9 This law temporarily granted Salvadoran nationals relief through Temporary Protected Status. Receiving Temporary Protected Status or TPS was not a path to citizenship, neither was it a path to any kind of legal stay in the United States. It was simply a temporary stay from deportation and a work permit to be renewed every two years.  Since then countries facing natural disasters and war have qualified for TPS, most notably, Honduras, Haiti, Somalia, and Sudan.10 As a result of this program, Salvadorans have become the third-largest Latino group in the United States, shared their talents and labor, and continued to rebuild their country back home.

The conditions in the Northern Triangle today echo the conditions faced in these countries nearly 30 years ago. Representative Moakley’s description of an El Salvador where “death and destruction continue to be a fact of life” is now applicable again not only to El Salvador, but also to Honduras.11 In El Salvador and Honduras, the number of homicides now approximate the number of war-related deaths witnessed at the end of the civil war in El Salvador.12 Organized criminal forces pose a significant disruption to civic life. This threat was clear and dramatically visible in July of 2015 in El Salvador when Mara 18 violently interfered with public transportation and effectively hampering bus routes.13 The extreme civil strife has once again become a daily reality in Central America. These urgent conditions warrant deeper reflection and consideration of our nation’s treatment towards Central Americans who come to the United States seeking safety.

President Obama’s response towards new arrivals from Central America mimics that of President Reagan. By increasing immigration raids, newly arrived Central Americans face deportation and in many cases a high probability of death. The threat to civilians in the Northern Triangle is different than it was 31 years ago, but the result is the same, a daily negotiation with extortion, disappearances, fear, and death. The conditions are no secret, neither were they secret in 1985.

In 1990, the United States eventually acknowledged the threat faced by Central Americans and responded by instituting Temporary Protected Status. This program invested in communities and ultimately reflected the strength of the democratic process in the United States. Our nation’s leaders once recognized the moral, social, and economic imperative to halt the deportations of newly arrived Central Americans whose countries burned from civil violence. Can our leaders do the same now?


1. “Statement by Secretary Jeh C. Johnson on Southwest Border Security | Homeland Security,” accessed February 22, 2016,

2. Elisabeth Jean Wood, Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador (Cambridge University Press, 2003), 9.

3. “Central Americans and Asylum Policy in the Reagan Era,”, April 1, 2006,

4. “Hearing before the Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and International Law on the Committee on the Judiciary House of Representatives Ninety-Ninth Congress First Session on H.R. 822: Temporary Suspension of Deportations for Nationals of Certain Countries,” November 7, 1985,

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7.Austin Sarat and Stuart A. Scheingold, Cause Lawyers and Social Movements (Stanford University Press, 2006), 106.

8. Clark, Fred, “Fred [Clark?]’s notes providing an overview of John Joseph Moakley’s involvement in El Salvador,” Moakley Archive & Institute, accessed February 26, 2016,

9. Ibid.

2. Elisabeth Jean Wood, Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador (Cambridge University Press, 2003), 9.

10.“Temporary Protected Status in the United States.”

11.“Hearing before the Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and International Law on the Committee on the Judiciary House of Representatives Ninety-Ninth Congress First Session on H.R. 822: Temporary Suspension of Deportations for Nationals of Certain Countries.”

12.“Intentional Homicides (per 100,000 People) | Data | Table,” accessed February 22, 2016,; Wood, Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador.

13. Elahe Izadi, “Driving a Bus Is a ‘death Sentence’ in El Salvador’s Capital City,” The Washington Post, July 31, 2015,


Co-edited by Pedro A. Regalado, a PhD student at Yale University’s American Studies program, and Philip McHarris, a PhD student at Yale’s Sociology and African American Studies programs, The Urban Opus is intended to provide rising scholars and anyone interested in issues of race, class, and politics with a platform through which to discuss these evolving themes. As an interdisciplinary venue that seeks to impact the discourse surrounding race, place, and inequality, we welcome submissions by those attempting to contribute to these pressing discussions.

Submissions for publication should be sent to