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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 within 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. The Middle East is a true melting pot that has been simmering over thousands of years, with new ingredients constantly being added.
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 as a tapestry of intermingled ethnic threads, the broad bands of color representing the larger groups would 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 (often called Berbers in the West), Abkhas, Laz, Lur, Azeri, Bakhtiari, 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 (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.
This essay is a section of the chapter called "Change in Practical Ideologies: Self, Gender and Ethnicity" from the book The Middle East: An Anthropological Approach, by Dartmouth College Professor of Anthropology Dale Eickelman.
Daniel Bates of Istanbul Bilgi University and Amal Rassam of Queens College of the City University of New York consider communal identities in the Middle East from an anthropological perspective. A discussion of ethnicity, race, language and religion is followed by discussion of communities such as the Kurds, Maronites, and several others.
This essay by Joseph Maïla, a Lebanese political scientist and Dean of the Institut des Sciences Économiques et Sociales of the Institut Catholique in Paris, is a historical survey of the status of Christian Communities in the Arab countries since the pre-Islamic era.
The French colonial legacy left an indelible mark on the countries of the Maghreb, especially Algeria, but also Morocco and Tunisia. Farida Abu-Haidar explores the manner in which authors from this region use French to write texts that "inscribe a Maghrebian identity." In their hands, French is transformed with new words, new styles, etc.
This is the introduction to a book dealing with the use of "Classical Arabic" and "Dialectal Arabic" and the registers in between in Egypt. Written by an anthropologist, the book examines the role that language plays in culture, politics, religions and the general organization of Egyptian society.
In this interview conducted in the summer of 2002, Halim Barakat, novelist and professor of Sociology at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University, elaborates in some detail on many of the ideas discussed in his essay “Arab Identity: E Pluribus Unum”.
Poet, scholar and critic Ammiel Alcalay discusses the Jewish population of the Middle East from a historical perspective. He outlines the interactions between Arabs and Jews throughout history as well as the disruption caused by competing Nationalists agendas in the 19th and 20th centuries. He also addresses the status of Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) Jews in Israel today and the work he has done on Mizrahi literature.
In this interview Rachid Aadnani, who teaches Arabic Language and Literature at Wellesley College, discusses the relationships between the varying forms of Arabic, from dialectal to the Classical, as well as the interaction between Arabic and other languages. (13.67 MB)