The Middle East has been, for thousands of years, a crossroads not just of trade goods but also of peoples. The movement of many different ethno-linguistic groups into and throughout the region has created an enormously rich diversity of languages, cultures, and ethnicities. Every society in the Middle East has had layer upon layer of people leave their mark upon its cities, landscapes and cultural heritage.
While most people think of the Middle East as being Arab, the demographic reality is much more complex. Arabs are indeed the largest ethnic group in the region, but they live in more than 20 Arab-majority states, and as minorities in even more. Three other major ethnic groups are Turks, Persians, and Jews—each of these are associated with both a language and with a state in the region—Turkey, Iran and Israel, respectively. The Kurds, on the other hand, have a distinct language and culture, but no state—instead, they are spread among Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran.
If we think of the ethnic makeup of the Middle East, there are prominent, majority groups and a plethora of smaller, diverse communities speaking a variety of languaes, all with different histories, traditions, and geographical concentrations. Of the former we can include speakers of Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Hebrew and Kurdish. Interwoven with these broad bands are many colorful threads representing smaller ethno-linguistic groups, including the Amazight people (often called Berbers in the West), Abkhas, Laz, Lur, Azeri, Yazidis, Gilaki, Mazandarani, Baluch, Armenian, Assyrian, and many more.
The map of these ethno-linguistic groups is not congruent with the borders of the modern states of the Middle East. For example, while we may think of Iran as Persian-speaking, in fact almost half of the country’s population is made up of dozens of ethnic minorities—although many speak Persian as well or better than their heritage language. Turkish may be the official language of Turkey, but there are also many Turkish speakers outside its borders.
A note on race and ethnicity
One has to be careful to distinguish between “race” and the concept of ethnicity as an identity defined by language, kinship ties, and culture. The American idea of race, based primarily on skin color, is of relatively little use in understanding the Middle East. Ethnicity, too, can be a very difficult concept to pin down, although perhaps its largest determinant is language. For example, an Egyptian who identifies as Arab may well have Bedouin, Nubian, Egyptian, Greek, Armenian and/or Jewish ancestors, from a variety of faiths, cultures, and lifestyles. She may be an Arab, but that identity does not necessarily separate her sharply from others in the region with whom she shares ancestry and history as well as many elements of culture.
Similarly, there can be great diversity within each ethnic group. Amongst Hebrew speakers, amongst Amazight communities (Berbers), amongst Turks—whichever ethnolinguistic group we examine—there are differences in appearance, in socio-economic class, in how people earn a living, in religious observance, etc. As with all groups, it is important to avoid making generalizations.