Middle East

views updated May 17 2018


MIDDLE EAST. The Middle East is that part of Western Asia extending from the eastern Mediterranean coast of Turkey and Syria, through the desert to Iraq and Arabia, and to the East through Iran to the Caspian, the Caucasus, and the Black Sea. Into Africa, it includes Egypt, and, by some accounts, Arab North Africa. This area comprises mountains, deserts, fertile plains irrigated by grand rivers, and seacoasts. Climatically, the Middle East ranges from the temperate Mediterranean coast, to the extreme heat of the arid desert areas, to snowy mountains. This variety of terrain produces a wide range of food ingredients.

The Population

The ecology of these lands fosters different modes of adaptation. Nomadism was a prevalent form of existence for much of the history of the region, and remains so on the margins. Equally, the region saw the earliest agricultural settlements and the first cities in human history. Indeed, the contrast and conflict between nomad and city dweller is an ever-present theme in the culture, lore, and politics of the region from earliest times. Ethnically, it embraces Arabs, Persians, Turks, Kurds, Armenians, and, until recently, Greeks, as well as many pockets of ancient ethnicities and religions. Jewish communities, many of ancient ancestry in the region, partook in this ethnic diversity, most of them now settled in the state of Israel, which also includes many European and African Jews, creating a melting pot of diverse cultures and cuisines.

Islam is the majority religion in the Middle East and enters into the constitution of many of its cultural elements, including food and drink. There are many Christian communities, of diverse denominations, and their religious prescriptions of feasting and fasting have also left their mark on food culture. Ancient religions and sects persist in some quarters, notably the Zoroastrians of Iran, as well as many sects, such as Baha'i, professing syncretistic combinations of old Persian religion with Islam and Christianity.

History and Culture

Successive conquests and rule of different empires have shaped the civilizations and cultures of the region, and led to the common themes in its culture that we find today. The ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt were subject to subsequent conquests and incorporation in wider empires, starting with the Persians and the Greeks, then the Romans, including Byzantines, which Hellenized much of the region. The Muslim Arab conquests established a vast political entity, soon fragmented, but retaining common cultural elements. The Islamization of much of Iran and the Byzantine Empire brought these elements of older cultures to shape the emergent civilization, notably its culinary elements. The last empire to rule the region (before European colonial rule) was the Ottoman, which also included much of southeast Europe, creating a wide cultural synthesis of Turkish statecraft, Arab religion, Persian culture, and many elements from the territories under its control. This synthesis included the food cultures. An important epoch in the history of the region, which also affected food culture, was that of Arab Spain, from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries. Moorish Spain created its own cultural synthesis, which is evident in Spain and North Africa to the present day. Spain and Morocco never came under Ottoman rule, and this exclusion, as well as distance from Ottoman lands, has left its traces in the distinction of Moroccan food culture.

Ingredients, Techniques, and Cooking Media

Cereals and breads. Cereals constitute the bases of the Middle Eastern diet, historically and today. Wheat and rice are the major and preferred sources of staple foods. Barley is common in the region and is an ingredient in cheaper bread, and millet and sorghum are used in a few places to make porridge and gruel. Maize became common in some areas, notably the Black Sea coast of Turkey, as well as in parts of Egypt. It is made into a kind of cake and eaten as bread. A wide range of breads are baked, mostly from wheat, but also in combination with barley. Bread is generally leavened. Flat breads are the most common. Naan in Iran, pide in Turkey, khubz or 'aysh (more of a generic term for bread) are all similar forms of flat bread made from leavened and risen dough in an oven. In Iran and many Arab lands as well as in Anatolia, a tannour or tandir is the most common oven: an earthenware pot built into a wall or freestanding, is fired with wood or charcoal, and disks of dough are stuck to its sides until baked, usually soft with crisp edges and a bubbly surface. Modern, industrial ovens are becoming more common for large-scale commercial production, which include both flat breads and European style loaves. Another kind of flat bread, called lavash in Iran and Turkey, or khubz saj in Arabic (also saj ekmegi in Turkish), is cooked over a concave iron pot, a saj, much like Indian chapati. Bread is a universal staple in the region, eaten, in one form or another, by all classes and groups, practically at every meal.

Another common use of wheat is in the forms of bulgur (Turkish; in Arabic, burghul ) and couscous. Burghul is cracked wheat, made by partially cooking the wheat grains in water, drying it in an oven or in the sun, then breaking it into pieces, in different grades of size. It is used as a staple in a wide area covering Anatolia, Syria, and northern Iraq. Typically, it is cooked in water, with flavorings, much like rice. It is also used in making meat pies, kibbe /kubba (see below), and as an ingredient in salads, notably in tabbouleh, with chopped parsley, tomato, lemon, and oil. Couscous, almost exclusive to North Africa, where it is a staple, is made from rolling semolina grains (mostly durum wheat, but it can be barley) in flour, to make a kind of cross between grain and pasta. This is typically steamed and served as a base to meat and vegetable sauces. Another wheat product is firik or frik, cracked green wheat, sometimes from burned fields, to give a smoky flavor. It is used much like burghul, but considered finer.


Rice is produced in particular parts of the region with suitable climate, soil, and water. Notable rice-producing areas include the Caspian provinces of Iran, the delta of Egypt, and the marsh area of southern Iraq (before its recent drainage). In the areas where it is produced, rice can be a staple, to the extent of making bread from its flour in southern Iraq. Elsewhere in the region, rice was considered a luxury item to be eaten on special and festive occasions. Burghul /bulgur in wheat-producing areas was considered a cheaper substitute for rice, such as the bulgur pilavi of Anatolia (pilav originally referred to rice).

There are many types of rice produced and consumed in the region. Varieties that cook into separate grains (ruz mufalfel ) are the most valued, and aromatic varieties are also prized. Traditional varieties in Egypt and Turkey were mostly round or boat-shaped grains, much like Italian rice, while in Iran and Iraq, mostly slender, long grains were grown. In recent years, however, much of the rice consumed in the region is imported from North America or the Far East. Basmati rice from India-Pakistan is highly valued: it is aromatic and produces the desired separate grains. Cheaper long-grain varieties are common.

There are a number of different cooking procedures for rice. Iran boasts the most elaborate and refined rice cookery. The standard procedure there is for the rice to be washed in several changes of water, ostensibly to remove the starch (it is not clear that this operation is necessary with modern rice varieties), then it is soaked in water for at least one hour, but preferably for much longer. It is then drained and thrown into boiling salted water for a few minutes, until grains are just cooked, at which point it is drained (much like cooking pasta), then returned to the pot over some fat, oil, or melted butter; the pot then is covered with a cloth and a lid, and left over a low flame for at least half an hour. Known in Iran as chelow, this plain rice is served under grilled meats (chelow kebab ) or with meat/vegetable stews (khoresht ). More complex rice dishes are called polow (pilaf , used in Turkish for all rice dishes). When the rice is drained after boiling, it is then layered in the pot with meats and/or vegetables and/or sauces, as well as nuts, currants, or other dried fruit in some dishes, and always with some fat or oil, then covered and steamed as with chelow. These methods of cooking are also followed in some communities in Iraq and in Anatolia. More typical methods of cooking in Turkey and the Arab world involve covering the raw rice (sometimes after washing and soaking) with just enough water to cook it, adding salt, and perhaps aromatics, as well as oil, then boiling until the water is absorbed, at which point it is covered and allowed to steam. More complex rice dishes are prepared by first frying the raw rice in oil or butter, sometimes with onions or other aromatics, then adding water or stock, sometimes with meat or vegetables, and allowing it to cook in the same way.

Oils and Fats

Butter and clarified butter (called ghee in India) are, traditionally, the preferred medium of cooking for those who can afford them. Olive oil is prevalent in the Mediterranean coastal areas. It has many nonculinary uses, such as in making soap and as a lighting oil (which is how it is mentioned in the Qur'an). It was used for cooking predominantly by Christians and Jews. Christians use it during Lent, when meat and dairy products are excluded, and Jews use it in place of animal fats such as butter to avoid mixing meat and dairy products. In regions where olive oil was not prevalent, as in Iraq, Iran, and most of Egypt, Christians and Jews used other oils, mainly sesame.

In Turkish cookery a whole class of vegetable dishes is labeled zeytinyagli, a reference to olive oil. These are usually eaten cold. In the refined cookery of the urban upper classes, butter was used for cooking meat, poultry and rice, while oil would be used for cooking or dressing vegetables or salads.

Another cooking medium is rendered meat fat, especially that derived from the fat tail of a local breed of sheep. Traditionally much appreciated and featured in historical recipe books and manuals of the princes and the upper strata, it is now largely avoided on account of its strong odor and the health worries of consumers. In recent times, modern industrially produced vegetable oils predominate in the region, and seem to have replaced butter and olive oil in cooking. Cheapness and convenience, as well as perceived health benefits, are involved. The use of olive oil persists in particular regions, such as coastal Tunisia and parts of Aegean Turkey, where there are strong traditions of its consumption, although even there, cost diminishes its accessibility to the poorer sectors.

Spices and Herbs

Most regions in the Middle East use spices. Typically, a stew will include a small amount of a spice mixture called baharat, which includes cinnamon, clove, cumin, and coriander. Black pepper is common, and chili peppers are used occasionally, especially as a separate sauce, or as a pickle. Some dishes require specific spices, such as kamouniya, a meat stew with cumin, or the Egyptian molokhiya (see below), with coriander. Iranian cookery features a more extensive use of spices, including the pungent fenugreek leaves and whole dried limes.

Parsley is commonly used in cooking and in salads, and so is mint. Varieties of thyme are common in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, and a mixture of dried thyme and sumac, crushed sour berries, is a common breakfast item with oil and bread. Sumac is also sprinkled over grilled meat. Garlic is common to many dishes and salads.

Meat, Poultry, and Fish

Lamb and mutton have always been the favored meats of the region, with veal as a subsidiary choice in some instances, and, in other places, goat. Pork, prohibited in the religions of Islamthough there are accounts of wild boar being hunted and eaten by some BedouinsandJudaism, was also largely avoided by the Christians of the region. Beef was generally considered to be an inferior meat, consumed, if at all, by the poorer classes. This may reflect the quality of the beef it was possible to produce on the sparse pastures of the region. Beef, however, was considered suitable for certain dishes, such as harissa, a porridge of pounded grain and meat. Camel meat was consumed in some parts, but is not so commonly now.

Prominent among the meat preparations were the grilled meats, kebabs, which distinguish the region. There is a wide variety of these grills, with many regional specialties and styles. The most common are the cubed cuts on skewers, known as shish kebab in most places, but tikka in Iraq (and India). Chicken may also be grilled in the same fashion. Another common variety is kofta kebab (kebab kobedeh in Iran, or just kebab in Iraq), made from ground meat, sometimes with onions and spices, shaped around the skewer like a long sausage and grilled. A popular kebab of recent origin is the doner kebab, also known as shawarma in much of the Arab world (gass in Iraq). It is either layers of meat and fat or a shaped ground meat loaf, placed on a large skewer that rotates vertically next to a strong heat source that cooks the outside crisp. The cooked outside pieces are then sliced off and served with bread and salad. There are many other types of kebab: ribs, thin slices of meat wrapped around a skewer; small cubes of liver, kidney, and sweetbreads, sometimes alternating on a skewer with cubes of fat (kofte or liver); wrapped in caul fat, like a sausage, and many others.

Kebab is typically a street or restaurant food, served with bread (rice in Iran), salad, and pickles. It is not usually prepared in domestic kitchens. In recent years, kebab, and especially the doner/shawarma variety, have become regular features of fast-food joints in European and American cities.

Meat and vegetable stews, served with rice, bulgur, or bread, are the other genre of typical meat preparation in the region. A typical domestic meal for those who can afford meat would be a stew of lamb in butter or oil, with onion, tomato (usually as paste), and spices with one vegetable, such as okra, beans, or aubergine (eggplant). Often poorer families would use little meat, usually on a large bone, to flavor the stew. There are many variations on this theme, including the distinguished Iranian stew of korma sabzi, of lamb in butter and a mixture of green herbs minced fine, as well as whole dried limes, often with the addition of red kidney beans or split peas.

Offal, tripe, heads, and feet are much appreciated in many quarters. A typical broth found in practically all parts of the region is kelle pacha, made with sheep heads and feet. This is typically found at a street or specialized restaurant, which is often open all night or very early in the morning, catering to early-rising workers for breakfast, and to revelers after a night of partying and drinking.

Kibbe (Syria) or kubba (Iraq) is a genre of pie or dumpling made with meat and cereal. The most common are made with ground meat (typically lamb) and burghul, worked together like a dough, then stuffed with minced meat that has been fried with onion, aromatics, and, sometimes, pine nuts or almonds and raisins. This can either be in the form of individual small dumplings (usually shaped like a torpedo), or in slices like a cake, baked on an oven tray with the stuffing placed between two layers of the dough. In the form of small dumplings, this can also be cooked in a sauce with vegetables. One striking variation is a kibbe niyye, raw kibbe, made by pounding lean meat and burghul together with seasoning, which is then served as small dumplings, sometimes with dips of lemon juice and chili sauce. In Anatolia this genre is known as kofte, in common with other ground meat rissoles: the stuffed version is called icli kofte, and the raw one is cig kofte. In Iraq and Iran, there are versions of this dumpling made with rice instead of burghul.

Poultry. Chicken is ubiquitous in the region. Squab pigeon is eaten in some parts, notably Egypt and Morocco. Wild fowl, especially duck, quail, and pheasant, are appreciated by some, especially in the Caspian region of Iran, but also in many other parts where there is a tradition of hunting.

In the past, before the introduction of industrial production of chicken, these birds were tough, and were generally boiled and stewed, often in sauces and vegetables, just like meat. If they were to be fried, they would be boiled first (in pieces), then finished in a frying pan in oil or butter. A banquet dish would be chicken stuffed with rice or some other grain with meats, nuts, and aromatics, then stewed or baked in butter and further aromatics. Modern battery hens are tender and do not require boiling or long cooking. But old habits persist, especially in domestic kitchens, though many cooks are now roasting and frying their chickens.

In Egypt, pigeon is served grilled (after being spatchcocked, or opened flat) or stuffed, typically with rice or firik, and baked or stewed.

Wild fowl are cooked in a similar fashion as chicken. One unique dish of wild duck comes from Caspian Iran and is called faisanjoun. The pieces of duck are stewed in a sauce of pomegranate syrup and walnuts. This dish has now become popular all over Iran and in parts of Iraq, but chicken is substituted for the duck. Iranians regard it as one of their foremost national dishes.

Fish cookery and consumption tend to follow specific local tastes and styles, depending on local varieties, forms of fishery, and, sometimes, religious beliefs. Even the names given to the same fish vary widely, and in Mediterranean regions, often follow Greek or Italian derivations. Fried or grilled fish are the most common, as indeed elsewhere in the world. However, local styles are important even for simple grilling. In Baghdad, for instance, Tigris fisherman developed a method of grilling the local carp and barble (called shabbout, and highly valued, now almost extinct), by opening the fish flat, like a kipper, and skewering it on robust sticks, which are then erected around an open wood fire on the ground. This is called masgouf, and Iraqis came to consider it as a national dish.

Istanbul and the Aegean region of Turkey have a rich and varied fish culture, as does the Black Sea region. There are numerous fish restaurants and bars (known as meyhane ) along the shores of the Bosphorous, serving varieties from the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. A notable fish from the latter is kalkan, a kind of turbot that is much appreciated. They also feature sea bass, different types of bream, a kind of bonito, and mackerel. These are fried or grilled, or sealed in paper, foil, or a salt crust and baked. A typical Turkish dish is buglama, a kind of fish broth. Any of these fish or hamsi, the small anchovy-like fish from the Black Sea, are boiled in a broth of vegetables and aromatics, with oil or butter, and served in the pot. Fish stews are common elsewhere, such as the salona of Iraq, in which fillets are stewed in onions, tomato, tamarind, and other spices.

In many regions, fish is cooked or served with rice. In Iran, fried fillet of fish is served over sabzi polow, "green" rice, cooked with a herb mixture. Sayyadiya, "fisherman's dish," is typical of the Syrian coast, in which pieces of fish are fried with onions and spices, then cooked with rice. In the Black Sea region of Turkey they have hamsi pilavi, combining rice with the fried small fish. Similar dishes are found all over the region.

Seafood, in the sense of crustaceans and mollusks, such as shrimp, crab, squid, and mussels, are available in the coastal region, but not always consumed. There is a widespread religious taboo against this genre, similar to the Jewish prohibitions. It is not, however, common to all Muslims, but confined to particular interpretations of religious law. These foods are widely appreciated in Istanbul, the Aegean, Alexandria, and parts of Syria and Iraq. A typical street and bar food in Istanbul is mussels stuffed with rice, pine nuts, and raisins.

Vegetables and Pulses

Vegetables and pulses are the predominant everyday food of the great majority of the people of the Middle East. They are boiled, stewed, grilled, stuffed, and cooked with meat and with rice. Among the green leaf vegetables, many varieties of cabbage, spinach, and chard are widely used. Root and bulb vegetables, such as onion and garlic, as well as carrot, turnip, and beet are equally common. Fruit vegetables include marrow or squash, tomato, and eggplant. Bamia (okra or gumbo) is a distinctive element in the cookery of the region, appreciated for the peculiar consistency of the stews made in combination with meat, tomato, and spices, often with a sour flavoring. A similar consistency is achieved with molokhiya (mallow), a green leaf, used fresh or dried, chopped up fine and cooked in a broth with chicken or meat. This is most common in Egypt, where, traditionally, it was cooked with rabbit. Aubergine or eggplant is perhaps the most distinctive vegetable of the region, cooked and served in diverse fashions. It is fried in slices and dressed in yogurt and garlic; or roasted over an open fire, then pulped and dressed with tahini (sesame paste), lemon juice, garlic, and cumin, a dish known as mutabbal or baba ghannoush ; stuffed with various ingredients and roasted in the oven, as in the famous Turkish dish of imam bayeldi ("the imam fainted!"); pulped into a sauce for meat in the Turkish hunkar begendi ("the king liked it"); or combined with meat in various stews. Tomato, a relatively recent import from the New World (it arrived in most places in the nineteenth century), is now the most ubiquitous ingredient in Middle Eastern cookery. It is used fresh in a variety of salads, cooked, either from fresh tomatoes or as a preserved paste, in almost every stew and broth, and grilled with kebab.

Beans and pulses are crucial to the diet of the region, second only to cereals. The fava bean (broad bean in England) is original, indeed ancient, to the region. Known as foul in Egypt and Syria, and baqilla' /baqelli /bakla, in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, they are eaten green and dried. Dried, they are boiled in one of the most popular Egyptian foods of foul medames, a domestic and street food, eaten for breakfast or any other meal, mashed and dressed in oil, lemon, and chili. Similar dishes are found in all other parts of the region. The famous ta'miyya or falafel, now popular in Europe and America, was originally made from dried fava, crushed and formed into a rissole with herbs and spices, then fried. It is also made from chickpeas, or a mixture of the two. Green fava are cooked like other green beans, boiled and dressed in oil, or stewed with meat. A famous Iranian dish is baghelli polow, green fava with rice and dill, often with meat; versions of this combination are found elsewhere. The haricot bean (fasoulya ) is used fresh or dried, boiled and dressed, sometimes as an accompaniment to grilled meats, or stewed with meat. Black-eyed beans (various names, mostly loubia ) are typically used dried, boiled, often with green leaves, and dressed in oil and lemon.

Lentils, split peas, and chickpeas are widely used in soups, with rice, in salads, or with meat. Homous bi-tahina, made from chickpeas and sesame paste, is now common throughout the world, but originated in Syria/Lebanon. Lentils are cooked with rice in various dishes, notably mujadarra, found in many parts of the Arab world, as well as in adaptations of the Indian kichri. This latter, in the form of kushari, is the most popular street food in Egypt. Macaroni is added to the rice and lentils to extend its bulk with a cheaper ingredient, and the taste is enhanced with fried onions and a chili sauce.

Stuffed vegetables are a dish most associated with the Middle East in the popular mind. They are commonly called dolma, the Turkish word meaning "stuffed," but also the Arabic mahshi. Yaprak, "leaves" in Turkish, often vine leaves, but also chard and cabbage, are stuffed with rice, ground meat, pine nuts, and spices, then stewed in oil and tomato, and, less commonly, with a small amount of rich meat such as sheep's feet or breast. There is a version without meat, cooked in oil and served cold, known as yalinci dolma, or "false dolma." Many vegetables are similarly stuffed and stewed or baked, such as squash, onion, tomato, eggplant, peppers, and even carrots. There are many regional and local variations of ingredients and flavorings, such as the use or not of tomato or lemon, or the addition of sugar.

Dairy Products

Milk, fresh or soured, was commonly consumed by Arabs, with camel milk predominating in Bedouin regions. Yogurt, a Turkish contribution, is commonly consumed plain, used in cooking, used in salad dressing, or diluted as a drink (Turkish, aryan ). Butter, as we have seen, was the favored cooking medium. White cheese, like the Greek feta, is the most common in the region, the best made from sheep or goat milk, as is the much valued halim or haloumi. There are many local and little known cheeses, especially in the mountainous regions of Anatolia, Kurdistan, and Lebanon, which offer rich pastures.


Patterns of consumption depend, of course, on class, region, and communal affiliation. Desert nomads, for instance, consumed milk, fresh or soured, butter, if affordable, and dates with bread at most meals. Meat was a luxury eaten on festive occasions when a camel or a sheep was slaughtered, boiled in great cauldrons, and served on rice with copious quantities of butter, a rare delight. Rural inhabitants had similarly limited diets. Egyptian peasants, as well as the urban poor, eat a great quantity of bread (often at subsidized prices) combined with a little salted cheese and onion. Anatolian and Syrian peasants eat much cooked burghul /bulgur, sometimes with yogurt, in season with tomato. Many urban workers purchase many meals in the street from vendors of kushari (rice, lentils, and macaroni) in Egypt, foul /baqella', in that country and Iraq, boiled turnips and beets, roasted corn, kebab, and bread with everything, in many parts of the region depending on income and season.

Historically, meal patterns varied greatly, and the one feature that seems to be common to all regions and classes was a large midday meal. Most people also ate something in the evening, usually a lighter meal. Now the daily three-meal pattern is common among the urban classes, especially the more prosperous.

Breakfast, if eaten, was not usually a distinctive set of foods, but items and leftovers from other meals. Balls of boiled rice washed down with tea in Caspian Iran, for instance, or the ubiquitous foul or kushari in Egypt. Prosperous households would serve grilled meats or stews for breakfast. Over the course of the twentieth century, many of the urban prosperous and middle classes have come to regard breakfast as a specific meal, influenced by Western models. Breads or pancakes of various kinds with butter, yogurt, and preserves are often served, as well as eggs in various forms.

Lunch and supper are not distinct from one another. Which one is more substantial depends on work patterns and lifestyle, mostly now tending to the Western pattern of emphasis on an evening meal after work, at least for the upper and middle classes. Except, that is, on weekends, holidays, and festivals, when larger lunches are eaten. A typical Middle Eastern meal would consist of a stew of meat (or chicken) with a vegetable, such as beans or bamia, served with rice and bread, and perhaps a salad. Soup, fried fish, roast chicken, or grilled meat are possible additions or variations. The meal finishes with fruit, and sometimes other sweets or pastries. Historically, however, pastries and sweets were not eaten at the end of the meal, but as a separate snack or as a meal in itself. To this day, poorer people lunch on pastries as a special treat.

Eating Out

Restaurants are not traditional to the region, but have developed over the course of the twentieth century. Vendors of cooked food, however, are traditional, and continue to do good business in Middle Eastern cities. The central market areas of cities are redolent with the smells of grilling meat and onion from the kebab stalls, of kibbe or falafel frying, displays of pastries, sweet and savory. Tales of the Thousand and One Nights feature many of these cook shops and their wares. You see people standing, sitting on stools, or crouching around these stalls, sampling their wares. Historically, many urban people did not have domestic kitchens and sent out for their cooked food, as did market people in their shops and workshops, and many still do. The vendors also cater to the customers of surrounding teahouses, taking food to their tables where they are drinking tea, smoking, and playing games. Now, of course, pizza and hamburgers are added to the repertoire of street food.

The Tavern and the Meze

A type of food specifically related to drink is the meze. Drinking alcohol and drink cultures are widespread, especially in the Mediterranean regions. Historically, wine was the most common alcoholic drink, but during the twentieth century, distilled liquor (typically arak or raki ) became common, and more recently beer. Historically, most "respectable" people who drank did so at home, with friends. Taverns were rough and low-class. The making, distribution and serving of alcohol were carried out predominantly by Christiansin Turkey mostly by Greeks and Armeniansand they were usually the tavern keepers. This picture changed over the course of the twentieth century. An increasingly cosmopolitan, modern, and educated middle class patronized public places of entertainment and association, including cafes, bars, and restaurants that served alcohol. That is where the distinctive meze developed into a kind of convivial meal around the drink table. It consists of a number of small dishes (mezze is a Persian word meaning "taste"), picked at leisure: cheese, melon, nuts, various salads and dips, such as tabboule (chopped parsley, tomato, and a few grains ofburghul ), homous and mutabbal, pickles, and also more substantial items, such as grilled meat, kibbe, and sausage. The centers of excellence of meze preparations were initially the Middle Eastern cities with a strong Christian presence, such as Istanbul, Beirut, and Aleppo, but it later became more general, and meze is now widespread in Europe and America, primarily through Lebanese restaurants.

Feasting and Fasting

Festivals and fasts, mostly religious, are celebrated with particular foods, which vary by community and region.

Ramadan, the fasting month for Muslims, is the most important occasion in this respect. Paradoxically, it is the month during which food consumption increases dramatically throughout Muslim communities. Fasting is prescribed for the daylight hours, to be broken at sunset of each day, then people can eat and drink through the night, until daybreak. Breaking the fast becomes a banquet, with exchanges of invitation between kin and friends, and public banquets held by charities and associations. The cafes and pastry shops are open at night, and a carnival atmosphere prevails in the streets. Many Muslims, following the reported example of the Prophet, break their fast with a date, followed by a variety of dishes. A common Ramadan dish in many regions is harisa (Arabic), keshke (Turkish), or halim (Persian), a porridge of meat (often beef) and wheat, boiled then pounded to a paste, spiced with cinnamon and sometimes sugar, or fried onions and strong spices. Lentil and other substantial soups of meat broth and pulses are common items. Otherwise, the Ramadan table consists of a selection of the popular local foods, of rice dishes, fava beans, salads, and dips, and so on. Sweet pastries and puddings are ubiquitous on Ramadan nights everywhere, and the large-scale consumption of dates is common. A common drink for breaking the fast is that made from qamareddin, dried apricots pulped and dried in sheets, like paper, which is found throughout the Arab world.

The end of Ramadan is marked by a festival, Id 'al-Fitr, a feast that breaks the fast, during which a great quantity and variety of sweets and pastries are consumed. The other major Muslim feast is that of 'Id al-Adha , feast of the sacrifice, which occurs during the pilgrimage month, and at which an animal, usually a sheep or a goat, is slaughtered in every household that can afford it, and great banquets are prepared, with an obligation to give food to the poor.

Lent, the Christian fasting period before Easter, is distinguished by its own foods, dishes that avoid meat and dairy products. This generates a great many dishes made with vegetables, pulses, and oil, many of them described above.

Jewish Saturday meals. Every Jewish community has its typical Saturday dish, one that is prepared on Friday (Cholent) and cooks overnight for Saturday, preferably with the means to keep it hot, but with an extinguished fire. Iraqi Jews, for instance, prepared a dish of stuffed chicken with rice called tebit, "overnight." The chicken is stuffed with rice and aromatics, boiled in a broth with tomato paste and spices, then more rice is added to the broth; the whole ensemble, in a large pot, is then put over a wood fire, covered with old blankets and cushions (to keep the heat), and allowed to cook slowly overnight. At Saturday lunch, the fire will have been extinguished, allowing the handling of the food without fear of breaking the Saturday rules. Eggs were placed over the rim of the pot to cook slowly, and these were eaten for breakfast.

Ancient festivals, pre-Islamic and unrelated to the existing religions, are also celebrated with food. Nowrouz is the Persian New Year and spring festival, falling at the spring equinox in March. It is celebrated in Iran, Kurdistan, and some parts of Anatolia and Iraq. The haft-I sin (seven S's) is a tray on which seven symbolic items, all of whose names begin with the letter "S," are displayed in every household: these include apple, garlic, and vinegar. Part of the ritual of this feast is eating in the open air, which engenders many picnics in parks, gardens, and in the countryside. Another spring festival is the Egyptian Shamm al-Nasim, "the breathing of the breeze," which also requires eating outdoors and having picnics. Fasikh, the traditional dish for this festival, is best eaten outdoors, as it consists of rotted fish (usually mullet) eaten with raw onions.


Global commerce, travel, tourism, and the new media have affected Middle Eastern food patterns in diverse ways. Most commentators note the spread of Western fast foods, such as hamburgers, pizzas, and fried chickenin what has been dubbed "McDonaldization." But this is only one part of the story. Another is the region's development of standard restaurant repertoires, based largely on Lebanese styles, and the spread of these styles to Europe and America: McDonald's in Cairo and shawarma in New York. Another element has been the "invention of tradition": placed on the global stage through tourism and communications, caterers and cooks responding creatively to the demand for "authentic" national and local cuisines. Many hotels and restaurants in Istanbul are reviving a so-called Ottoman cuisine, and grand hotels in Cairo are serving foul and ta'miya, as well as obscure village dishes, to tourists. Globalization, then, does not necessarily lead to uniformity in cuisine, but to diversity, and hopefully, to creativity.

See also Africa: North Africa; Fasting and Abstinence; India: Moghul India; Iran; Islam; Judaism; Passover; Ramadan.


Basan, Ghillie. Classic Turkish Cookery. London: Tauris Parke, 1997.

Batmangalij, Najmieh. Food for Life: A Book of Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies. Washington, D.C.: Mage Publishers, 1986.

Halici, Nevin. From Sini to the Tray: Classical Turkish Cuisine. Istanbul: Basim, 1999.

Helou, Anissa. Lebanese Cuisine. London: Grubb Street, 1994.

Mallos, Tess. The Complete Middle East Cookbook. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979.

Roden, Claudia. A New Book of Middle Eastern Food, Harmondsworth, U.K.: Viking, 1985.

Rodinson, Maxime, A. J. Arberry, and Charles Perry. Medieval Arab Cookery. Blackawton, U.K.: Prospect Books, 2001.

Shaida, Margaret. The Legendary Cuisine of Persia. Henley-on-Thames, U.K.: Lieuse Publications, 1992.

Watson, Andrew. Agricultural Innovation in the Early Islamic World: The Diffusion of Crops and Farming Techniques, 7001100. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Wolfert, Paula. The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean: 215 Healthy, Vibrant, and Inspired Recipes. New York: Harper Collins, 1994.

Wright, Clifford A. A Mediterranean Feast. New York: William Morrow, 1999.

Zubaida, Sami, and Richard Tapper, eds. A Taste of Thyme: Culinary Cultures of the Middle East. London: I. B.Tauris, 2000.

Sami Zubaida

Middle East

views updated Jun 11 2018

Middle East

Nationalism is generally regarded as a recent development in the Middle East, a contingent phenomenon produced by the unique conditions of the modern era. Prior to the nineteenth century, concepts of collective identity and allegiance appear to have been defined primarily on the basis of lineage, locale, or religioncommunities of sentiment and solidarity either smaller or larger than the nationalisms that subsequently emerged. For the region's agricultural and pastoralist majority, living in largely self-contained village or nomadic communities, one's clan, tribe, or village are presumed to have been the primary objects of self-identification and affiliation. For the area's literate minority, usually urban residents and immersed in a milieu dominated by religion, collective identity was defined by a combination of locale (loyalty to one's city), polity (being a member of the ruling elite), and most vitally religion (self-definition as Muslim, Christian, or Jew). Ethnic or linguistic concepts of identity, on the other hand, were conspicuous by their absence. Terminology illustrates the point. Prior to the twentieth century the word Turk denoted a rural resident of Anatolia, not a member of the educated multiethnic elite of the Ottoman Empire. In Arab usage the term Arab referred to the wild Bedouin of the desert, not the area's sophisticated urban population.

The Emergence of Modern Nationalisms

The nineteenth century was the seedtime of nationalism in the Middle East. The region's geographic, linguistic, and religious heterogeneity has provided the basis for numerous and competing nationalist movements.

Fueled by their religious distinctiveness and their contacts with the European milieu where nationalism was becoming the hegemonic referent for collective identity, some of the region's Christian minorities developed nationalist movements prior to the region's Muslim majority. Most prominent in this regard were the Maronites of Mount Lebanon and the Armenians of eastern Anatolia, among whom constructs emphasizing their historical separateness and right to political autonomy took hold in the nineteenth century. Thanks to European assistance, Lebanon gained autonomous status within the Ottoman Empire by the 1860s. Such was not the case in historic Armenia, where an active nationalist movement came into conflict with the Ottoman state as well as with the area's Turkish and Kurdish population in the later nineteenth century, and where fear of nationalism led to the mass expulsion and massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman government in the early twentieth.

In both Egypt and Iran, distinct geographical areas existing as autonomous polities with their own ruling structure (Iran since the sixteenth century, Egypt since the early nineteenth) led Westernized Egyptian and Iranian intellectuals to assert the existence of historically unique Egyptian and Iranian "nations" by the later decades of the century. Egyptian nationalism took political form by the later 1870s, when indigenous Egyptian elites sought greater control over an originally Ottoman ruling family and the European financial domination that dynastic extravagance was producing; their movement's slogan "Egypt for the Egyptians" succinctly expresses its overall thrust. Active nationalist activity in Iran dates from the 1890s and was produced by much the same combination of dynastic incompetence and foreign economic penetration; in the Iranian case it generated a formally successful Iranian constitutional movement in the early years of the twentieth century.

For the Turks of Anatolia and the Arabs of the Fertile Crescent, both living under Ottoman rule through the long nineteenth century, the causes producing nationalism were parallel. A precondition for modern Turkish and Arab nationalism was the development of a firm sense of ethnic identity. This was stimulated in the Turkish case by the discoveries of European Turkology, the uncovering of the pre-Islamic history of the Turkic-speaking peoples in Central Asia and beyond that fostered identification with a historic ethnie distinct from both the Muslim community and the multiethnic Ottoman Empire, in the Arab case by the process known as the "Arab Awakening," the blossoming of Arabic literature and history that occurred in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. As elsewhere in the Middle East, increasing elite contact with Europe and a growing awareness of European ideas also played a role. Nationalism is a modular concept, "available for pirating" (to pirate Benedict Anderson's phrase) by all those impressed by Europe and the world supremacy its nations were able to achieve in the modern era.

The catalyst turning a heightened sense of ethnic identity into visible Turkish and Arab nationalist movements was the trajectory taken by the Ottoman Empire over the course of the nineteenth century. On the one hand, the empire's territorial crumbling as European powers established their control over its African dominions and the peoples of the Balkans gained independence raised the possibility of a similar dismemberment of its Asian heartlands, thereby generating a search for an alternative base for viable community. On the other hand, the Ottoman government itself assumed a more reactionary character by the later decades of the nineteenth century. For educated Turks and Arabs, who were absorbing the values of individual liberty and participatory politics from their European mentors, the Ottoman Empire increasingly came to be seen as an undesirable framework for modern life.

Turkish and Arab ethnic nationalism became active movements only in the early twentieth century, specifically in the "Young Turk" era (19081918). Among Turks new organizations with an explicitly Turkish emphasis (the Turkish Society, formed 1908; the Turkish Hearth Clubs, formed 1912) emerged; in the press, extravagant ideas of uniting all Turkic-speaking peoples in a ethnically based "Turanian" state were voiced; on the governmental level efforts at increased centralization emphasized the primacy of the Turkish language within the state and sometimes gave precedence to ethnic Turks (although not to the degree once assumed). Similar organizational and intellectual trends occurred in the Arabic-speaking provinces of the Fertile Crescent: new Arab societies with a political agenda (the Ottoman Administrative Decentralization Society, 1912) emerged; demands for Arab autonomy were expressed in the press; and an Arab Congress was held in Paris in 1913 to promote Ottoman decentralization. The continued drive for centralization being undertaken by the Young Turk regime ran counter to what was originally an Arab demand for provincial decentralization. By the eve of World War I, a new trend was developing in the Arab provinces as prominent individuals and secret societies began to think of Arab independence as the only way to avoid subjugation within what politicized Arabs were coming to see as an oppressive "Turkish" state.

Modern Jewish nationalism (Zionism) did not require a similar process of the rediscovery of national distinctiveness. A sense of collective uniqueness and solidarity existed among Jews well before the nineteenth century. This sense was solidified by Judaism's liturgical language (Hebrew), the rich tapestry of distinctive customs, and the shared isolation of and discrimination against Jews living in European countries. An active Jewish nationalist movement based on this sense of distinctiveness was produced on the one hand by the gradual process of emancipation and assimilation experienced by Jews in parts of Europe during the nineteenth century, a process of historical change that also involved the acceptance of modern nationalist concepts, and on the other by growing European anti-Semitism, a phenomenon that led Jews to question their future in national states where powerful movements were now defining Jews as an alien element. In direct response to rising anti-Semitism in the Russian Empire, in the 1880s Zionist societies emerged in eastern Europe and began to organize Jewish immigration to Ottoman Palestine. By the late 1890s an international organization of Jews, the World Zionist Organization (WZO; established 1897), had been founded "to create for the Jewish people a homeland in Palestine secured by public law" (its founding declaration), and in the years prior to World War I the WZO worked to encourage Jewish migration and the initial development of distinctive Jewish national institutions in Palestine itself.

World War I and Its Settlement

World War I and its settlement had a crucial impact on nationalism in the Middle East. Ottoman entry into the war on the side of the Central Powers led to Ottoman military defeat. At war's end, the victorious allies began the process of partitioning the Ottoman Empire in accord with secret wartime arrangements. The postwar attempt at Allied domination was unsuccessful in the primarily Turkish-speaking Anatolian portion of the empire, where a vigorous Turkish nationalist movement led by the charismatic General Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk) successfully resisted European domination and in the process abolished the Ottoman Empire and replaced it with the new state of Turkey (1923). Quite a different course of events were obtained in the Fertile Crescent, which Great Britain and France divided between themselves. France received a League of Nations mandate for "Syria" (initially including Lebanon, defined as a separate state in 1920), Great Britain mandates for the territories of "Iraq" and "Palestine" (the latter comprising today's Israel and Jordan). In the process of imperial partition, a nascent Arab nationalist movement that had emerged during the war and established an Arab government in Damascus was crushed by French military action. In Palestine, where the terms of the mandate allowed for large-scale Jewish immigration in order to facilitate the emergence of the Jewish "national home," the postwar settlement also laid the basis for the subsequent emergence of the state of Israel.

The contrast between the course of events in Turkish-speaking Anatolia and in the Arabic-speaking Fertile Crescent deserves emphasis. Turkish nationalism emerged successful out of the turmoil of World War I and its settlement, realizing its goal of the creation of a Turkish national state predicated on the existence of a linguistically based Turkish ethnic community. Nothing succeeds like success; Turkey has remained the object of national self-definition and allegiance for its Turkish-speaking majority ever since its creation in the early 1920s. In the Arab case a nationalist movement similar in genesis and aspiration, but geographically more vulnerable, was eliminated by European force of arms. In its stead the Fertile Crescent was divided into several artificial political units according to imperial fiat. None possessed deep roots; the reality and viability of all were to be deeply contested in the years to come.

Differential Nationalist Trajectories

The several nationalisms considered above have taken very different paths since World War I and its settlement. In Iran the territorially based nationalism that emerged in the nineteenth century remained dominant under the Pahlavi dynasty (19211979). It was never fully accepted, however, by more religious Iranians, particularly by the country's powerful Shiite religious hierarchy. In the late 1970s the religious class played a leading role in overthrowing the secular nationalist government of the shahs. In the 1980s the promotion of worldwide Islamic solidarity and international Islamic revolution became the leitmotif of Iranian foreign policy. In the 1990s, as the Iranian revolution moderated, the concept of Iran as a distinct national community again received greater emphasis. The precise nature and implications of Iranian collective identity is a contested issue at the start of the twenty-first century, part and parcel of the struggle between more liberal and more conservative Iranians.

With the creation of a cohesive independent state in Anatolia, Turkish nationalism largely shed the grandiose visions of pan-Turkic unity that had been expressed by some of its early proponents. Reified and promoted by the government of the new Turkish state during the long ascendancy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the 1920s and 1930s, belief in the construct of a Turkish nation centered in Anatolia gradually disseminated beyond the elite circles in which Turkish nationalism had been born. The post-Atatürk decades have seen intensive debate among Turks as to the orientation of the Turkish state, particularly over the question of the role of religion in public life; but the participants in these debates have by and large not challenged the existence of a Turkish nation. The one partial exception is Turkey's marginalized Kurdish-speaking population, among whom demands for cultural and political autonomy surfaced in the later decades of the twentieth century and generated a prolonged civil war in eastern Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s.

The Zionist movement realized its main goal with the creation of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948. Some religiously oriented groups have never accepted the legitimacy of a Jewish state created as a result of human rather than divine agency. Moreover, fierce debates over the internal character of the state (for example, the role of religion in public life and the relationship of the Palestinian Arab minority to state institutions), as well as over the territorial extent of the state (the fate of the Palestinian-inhabited territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip occupied by Israel in 1967), have continued to perturb Israeli public discourse. However, these debates occur among a Jewish population the vast majority of whom have accepted Israel as their national community of destiny.

Egypt was granted formal independence by Great Britain in 1922 in response to a nationalist uprising after World War I, and territorially based nationalism remained the dominant political construct in Egypt for most of the three decades of the parliamentary monarchy (19221952). Its cutting edge was Pharaonicism, an intellectual movement that posited the existence of a distinctive national character deriving from the ancient Egyptians. From the later 1930s the primacy of this locally based nationalism was challenged by voices that insisted upon Egypt's Arab affiliations and that emphasized the common problem of imperialist domination facing all Arab regions. Thereafter, both Egyptian opinion and Egyptian state policy evolved in a more Arabist direction, especially after the Egyptian revolution of July 1952. Under the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser, by the late 1950s Egypt had become the champion of Pan-Arabism. In 1958 it joined with Syria in the major experiment in Arab unity of the twentieth century, the United Arab Republic (19581961). The collapse of the UAR when Syria seceded in 1961 in effect marked the turning point in Egypt's involvement in the Arab nationalist movement. A drift away from commitment to Arab nationalism set in Egypt from the 1960s onward. It accelerated under Nasser's successors Anwar al-Sadat and Husni Mubarak, both of whose policies have emphasized Egypt as a separate political entity with its own national interests.

The fate of nationalism in the Arabic-speaking lands of the Fertile Crescent since the postWorld War I settlement has been complex. In the interwar era the new states created after the war gradually acquired a degree of reality in the minds of their inhabitants. The effectiveness of state consolidation varied from country to country. It was probably strongest in Lebanon, where spokesmen among the country's slight Christian majority expounded an exclusively Lebanese nationalist ideology focused on the country's long history since the era of the Phoenicians as a uniquely "Mediterranean" nation different from other Arabic-speaking lands. It was probably weakest in Syria, where much of the political elite clung to the vision of the united Arab state that had been destroyed by imperialist partition in 1920. Among Palestinian Arabs a distinctive local identity was on the one hand fostered by the conflict with Zionism, but on the other was undercut as Palestinians sought outside Arab solidarity and support in the same struggle.

The process of Arab state consolidation in the Fertile Crescent was uneven. Continuing foreign domination reinforced the perception that the new states created after World War I were artificial entities established to suit imperial interests. An aura of what-should-have-been hovered over Arab politics in the Fertile Crescent, a belief that Arabs had been swindled out of the unity that was their proper destiny. After World War II this disaffection with existing states and belief in the desirability of their replacement by a state uniting most Arabs blossomed into Pan-Arabism, the drive for integral Arab unity that was a central component of Arab politics through the 1950s and 1960s.

The process of territorial state consolidation was facilitated with the recession of Pan-Arabism from the later 1960s onward. Over the decades the expanding institutions of the territorial state (bureaucracy, schools, vested interests) and its new symbols (flags, monuments, national holidays) bound the population to the state and gave greater substance to what had been artificial entities. At the level of policy-making there has been a clear trend away from the pursuit of Arab unity toward the realization of state interests since the 1960s. Wider Arab nationalist sentimentsbelief in the existential reality of an Arab nation transcending existing state bordershave not totally faded. There is also an impressive degree of inter-Arab economic and cultural cooperation that has developed over time under the auspices of the League of Arab States and similar agencies. Pan-Arab issues, especially Palestine, are capable of arousing deep emotions across the Arab world. But, in the shifting relationship between the alternative concepts of local/statal allegiance and a broader identification with an Arab nation based on the bonds of language and history, the former appears to be the more prominent tendency at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

After Nationalism?

A significant challenge to nationalism has emerged in the Islamist movements that have gained prominence in recent decades. At the abstract level, the primacy of the religious bond over loyalty to territory, polity, or ethnie is basic to Islamist ideology. The formulation of Sayyid Qutb, founding father of Sunni Arab Islamism, states the position starkly: "There is no country for a Muslim except that where the law of God is established. There is no nationality for a Muslim except his belief, which makes him a member of the Islamic community" (Milestones, p. 103). In political terms, a considerable measure of sympathy, mutual aid, and collaborative action have marked the relations between Islamist activists and movements originating in different countries. From the galvanizing impact of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 on Islamist activism elsewhere, through international support for the mujahideen opposing Soviet occupation in Afghanistan in the 1980s, to the international makeup and operations of Al Qaeda in the 1990s and after, a revived emphasis on the Islamic umma (Arabic, "community" of believers) as the most meaningful community of solidarity and destiny for Muslims has reasserted itself in the contemporary era.

But this is not the whole story. Territorial and ethnic nationalism still have their advocates, ideologues, and public figures who question the political salience of the religious bond and who posit that political behavior should be based on non-religious criteria. The current division of the Muslim world into numerous states inevitably influences the practical articulation of contemporary Islamism. Many Islamist activists accept the reality of existing territorially or ethnically based states and operate within the political field determined by state structures, directing their activism toward infusing existing states with a more Islamic content.

By reasserting the centrality of a previously recessive collective identity, the Islamic resurgence of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has complicated but not totally transformed the nationalist landscape of the Middle East. Sentiments of religious solidarity coexist with territorial, local, and ethnic/linguistic nationalism. The result is a complex, crowded, and unstable universe of imagined communities in which individuals are faced with determining the relevance of alternative referents for self-definition, allegiance, and action.

See also Pan-Arabism ; Pan-Turkism ; Zionism .



Antonius, George. The Arab Awakening. London: H. Hamilton, 1938. The classic account of the genesis of Arab nationalism.

Haim, Sylvia G., ed. Arab Nationalism: An Anthology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962. A lengthy introductory essay followed by excerpts to the 1960s.

Hertzberg, Arthur, ed. The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis and Reader. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1959. A lengthy introductory essay and a wide range of excerpts from Zionist thinkers.


Avineri, Sholmo. The Making of Modern Zionism: Intellectual Origins of the Jewish State. New York: Basic Books, 1981. A probing intellectual history.

Dawisha, Adeed. Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Gelvin, James L. Divided Loyalties: Nationalism and Mass Politics in Syria at the Close of Empire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. A pioneering analysis of the relationship of elite and nonelite Arab nationalism.

Hanioğlu, M. Şükrü. Preparations for a Revolution: The Young Turks, 19021908. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. The continuation of his 1995 work.

. The Young Turks in Opposition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A detailed account of the genesis of the main Turkish nationalist movement.

Jankowski, James, and Israel Gershoni, eds. Rethinking Nationalism in the Arab Middle East. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. Essays suggesting new approaches to the study of nationalisms in the Arab world since World War I.

Khalidi, Rashid, et. al., eds. The Origins of Arab Nationalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. Studies of the development of Arab nationalism up to World War I.

Khoury, Philip S. Urban Notables and Arab Nationalism: The Politics of Damascus, 1860-1920. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983. A thoughtful exploration of the social basis of Arab nationalism.

Laqueur, Walter. A History of Zionism. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972. A comprehensive political and intellectual history of Zionism to 1948.

Lewis, Bernard. The Emergence of Modern Turkey. London: Oxford University Press, 1961. A classic exploration of Turkish political and intellectual history.

Mottahedeh, Roy. The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985. A masterful study of how religious and nationalist thought intertwine.

Qutb, Sayyid. Milestones. Indianapolis, Ind.: American Trust Publications, 1990.

Sternhell, Zeev. The Founding Myths of Israel: Nationalism, Socialism, and the Making of the Jewish State. Translated by David Maisel. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998. A revisionist interpretation arguing for the nationalist over socialist ideas in Zionism.

James Jankowski

Middle East

views updated Jun 11 2018

Middle East

Children under the age of fifteen constitute the majority of the population today in most Middle Eastern countries. This burgeoning population is challenging many long-accepted assumptions about children's needs, development, and future. In this entry we will outline the old cultural ideal of childhood and then turn to the new conditions which bring this ideal into question.

Childhood and family patterns have, until recently, been similar across religious and ethnic lines: the extended family was the fundamental unit of the society; the patrilineal model was basic to that family ideal; and childhood was seen as a time, not of play, but of learning and training for the duties and responsibilities of adulthood. Some significant differences also obtained: the ban on divorce among Christians, for instance, in contrast to Jews and Muslims, meant that the world of the child, as well as of the adult, was not always the same. But overall, similarities were greater than differences.

In the predominantly agrarian societies of the past, the primary social unit across the Middle East was the extended family, which might range in size from twenty to two hundred people, related on both sides of the marital connection, and which operated together for survival. Within this kin group, each child received identity, affection, discipline, role models, and economic and social support, ideally from birth to death. In exchange the family required conformity and loyalty from all members, beginning in early childhood. The crucial test of allegiance came at the time of marriage, when the son or daughter either acceded to or rebelled against the wishes of the family. Marriage in this system was not officially perceived as an emotional attachment between individuals (though this might develop later) but as an economic and social contract between two family groups, which was to benefit both. Although marriage was a crucial step in tying individual members to the group, it was the birth of children that conferred full adult status on both the man and the woman. Only after the birth of children were the newly married man and woman considered full members of their particular family and adult members of the wider society. Such attitudes toward marriage and children are found in Christian and Jewish groups, but within Islam they are intensified. "When a man has children he has fulfilled half of his religion, so let him fear God for the remaining half," states one of the hadith, or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Children have always been valued in Middle Eastern traditions, not only for economic and political but also for religious reasons.

The Jewish, Christian, and Muslim family systems are patrilineal; that is, in the reckoning of one's descent, kin-group membership passes through the male line on the father's side. A girl is a member of her father's family, but un-like her brother, she cannot pass that membership on to her children. In the Islamic tradition, male and female descendants of the same father inherit from him, and continue to carry his name throughout their lives. A daughter never takes her husband's surname for example, but retains, like a son, the name of the father. The patrilineal system is hierarchically organized, with the oldest male ideally holding publicly accepted authority over his descendants, and acting as the primary economic provider of the group. He remained head of the group and controller of its economic resources, including the labor of its members, as long as he lived. Without issue, and particularly male issue, the kin group as traditionally constituted could not continue. Children were on the lowest rung of the group in terms of power. But their presence was crucial, for they were the generational link to the family unit, the key to its continuation, and the living person that tied the present to the past and to the future. Hence great pressure was placed on newly married couples to produce children, particularly sons, who could carry the name and take over the burden of supporting the family. Daughters were also important, to help mothers and grandmothers and as potential brides for men within the larger kin group, but sons were of primary importance.

Specific instructions about the care and training of the child are found in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim texts. Many ethnographies document attitudes toward small babiesgreat indulgence, on-demand breast-feeding, and affectionate behavior from mothers, fathers, older siblings, and relatives. This pattern included early toilet training, often before the age of one year, and either long-term breast-feeding or abrupt weaning, the latter taking place when the next child was born. Weaning marked the end of parental indulgence and the beginning of socialization into specific gender roles. The prophet Muhammad is reported to have said, "Be gentle to your children the first seven years, and in the following seven be firm." Jewish attitudes might be summarized as "The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself causes shame to his mother" (Prov. 29:15). Discipline began long before the age of seven. Girls as young as four or five were expected to share responsibility for a younger sibling; small boys would be given responsibilities such as caring for animals in rural areas; in urban areas, the boy would be asked to run errands or help in the family business. Such expectations are still common.

Socialization for other societal norms of behavior began almost as soon as the child was conscious of others. These included respect for food, for religion, for the kin group, hospitality to guests, and above all, respect for and obedience to the authority of the father. According to the Egyptian sociologist Hamed Ammar, a Muslim, a good child is one who is a muaddab, polite and disciplined, and conforming to the values of the group. The goal of child rearing was to instill and develop reason, which was seen to be necessary for successful adult life. Jewish and Christian families had similar expectations. The child's period of socialization was also marked by ritual events, such as ceremonies surrounding birth and naming; circumcision for all boys and some girls; and successful completion of religious schooling, whether Judaic, Christian, or Muslim. Religious socialization took place in the home for both boys and girls and also in local religious schools. Although circumcision of boys was more or less universal, circumcision of girls was not. Female circumcision has no religious justification in Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, but is a traditional cultural practice found mainly along the Nile, among both Christian and Muslim groups. Girls in North Africa had a different rite of passage, an ear-piercing ceremony, held when the child was four or five years old.

The cultural ideals of the past meant, in sum, the primacy of the group over its individual members; the importance of children, especially sons, to continue and maintain the group; and the dominance of the father. Religious ideology reinforced this ideal. It began to be questioned at the end of the eighteenth century, with invasions by European powers, colonial rule, and then resistance and revolution followed by independence and the emergence in the mid-twentieth century of modern nation states.

The nineteenth and early twentieth century were periods of political and economic upheaval. European colonial rulers denigrated traditional patterns: language, traditional technology, folklore, modes of subsistence, religion (Islam, the majority religion in the area, was seen as "the stagnant hand of the past"), and social structure. However, Western influence did not, as had been expected, disrupt the patrilineal model of family or the perception of childhood as a time of learning and preparation for adulthood. Rather, as colonialism became stronger and men found their authority diminished, the family became the last refuge where traditions of child rearing, socialization for male and female gender roles, and parental authority could still operate. The only exception was the institution of the kibbutz, or collective farm, in the area which would become the state of Israel in 1948. Early Jewish immigrants had, as early as the 1920s, set up kibbutzim as conscious alternatives to the old patriarchal system that operated in the European countries where the immigrants had grown up. The kibbutz was organized so that not only economic activities were collective, but so also were child rearing, parenting, and schooling. The experiment continues in Israel today, though less than 5 percent of the population now live and work on kibbutzim.

In the modern nation-states of the contemporary Middle East, several important factors may eventually affect the traditional family system, and therefore the traditional view of childhood. The patriarchal system remains firmly in place, though movements continue for increased equality for women. Such movements, however, are focused not on destroying the family, but on giving more equality to men and women within the family. The introduction of universal free public education, mostly secular in nature, has resulted in an impressive climb in literacy rates (80 percent in Kuwait; 90 percent in Israel; 60 percent in Egypt; 90 percent in Jordan; 70 percent in Iraq). A middle class is rapidly developing in almost all countries, and the majority of people now live in cities, not rural areas. But unemployment plus spiraling inflation has led millions of men to migrate for work outside their countries and millions of women to work outside the home. Fathers are thus absent for crucial years in their children's lives, and mothers, too, are away for most of the day. Parental authority is thus no longer omnipresent. On the other hand, children are still being socialized for female and male roles. The high cost of living has led to children staying longer in their parents' residence, often contributing to family income. Young people are being forced to delay marriage, largely for economic reasons, which in turn is bringing down national birth rates. Television is everywhere, putting children and teenagers in touch with the outside world. All of these factors may lead to future change in the concept of childhood and the practices of child rearing for both boys and girls, but this has yet to be documented.


Ammar, Hamed. 1954. Growing Up in an Egyptian Village. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Fernea, Elizabeth, ed. 1995. Children in the Muslim Middle East. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Meijer, Roel, ed. 2000. Alienation or Integration of Arab Youth: Between Family, State, and Street. Richmond, UK: Curzon Press.

Rugh, Andrea. 1997. Within the Circle: Parents and Children in an Arab Village. New York: Columbia University Press.

Talman, Yonina. 1972. Family and Community in the Kibbutz. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Elizabeth Warnock Fernea

Middle East

views updated Jun 27 2018


regional name with various usages and meanings.

The usage and meaning of "Middle East" have been a source of heated debate. As early as 1949, when other terms, particularly "Near East," were still used, Winston Churchill said: "I had always felt that the name 'Middle East' for Egypt, the Levant, Syria, and Turkey was ill-chosen. This was the Near East. Persia and Iraq were the Middle East." Despite the tacit acceptance of the term by most scholars, journalists, and politicians, few specialists would deny a lingering discomfort with the two words.

Regional geographic names based upon directions are always problematic. They necessarily imply a perspectivein this case, obviously that of "the West." "The East" brings to mind the "Eastern Question" that had plagued Europe since the eighteenth century. Earlier, Europeans had used "the Levant," from the French lever (to rise), meaning the place where the sun rises: the eastern coast of the Mediterranean (or of Spain). In the Middle Ages, the favored term was outremer (overseas).

"The East," and its adjectival form "oriental," connoted in the European mind more than just a geographic locale. It evoked a world of strange customs, religious fanaticism, exotic sexual practices, and sybaritic culture. As travels and colonial activity made India, and then China, familiar, the need arose to define "East" further. By the late nineteenth century the Ottoman realm was the "Near East" in contradistinction to China and Japan, the "Far East."

It is generally accepted that the earliest reference to "Middle East" occurs in Alfred Thayer Mahan's "The Persian Gulf and International Relations," in the September 1902 issue of the National Review (London). Popularization of the new usage is credited to Valentine Chirol, Tehran correspondent for The Times who, in the title of the first in a series of articles, "The Middle Eastern Question," dated 14 October 1902, retrieved the term from Mahan's text. An additional factor in its popularization was the shifting balance of power from mainland Europe to the American side of the Atlantic. From an American point of view, everything on the European side of the Atlantic is, geographically, east. Thus, the further reaches occupied by Arabs, Turks, and Persians plausibly seemed more "middle" than "near."

Since the 1950s "the Middle East" has been the favored American term for newly founded academic institutes, programs, and professional associations, though use of "Near East" has persisted in archaeological circles and academic departments founded before World War II. The U.S. Department of State compromised with a division for "Near and Middle East" affairs.

Today "the Middle East" encompasses the lands that stretch from Egypt to Turkey and Iraq, including the Arabian peninsula, usually Iran, and, somewhat less frequently, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Sudan.

The term is in no way coterminous with "the Muslim (or Islamic) world." The majority of the world's Muslims live outside "the Middle East," by any definition. It has been suggested that "the Middle East" is best considered a purely geographical term that encompasses roughly the area of the earliest wave of Muslim conquests, stretching from Morocco to Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the later inclusion of Anatolia (modern Turkey). Others disagree, saying that such a historical definition would also include parts of Europe (such as Spain and Sicily) and central Asia.


Davison, Roderic H. "Where Is the Middle East?" Foreign Affairs 38, no. 4 (July 1960): 665675.

Keddie, Nikki R. "Is There a Middle East?" International Journal of Middle East Studies 4 (1973): 255271.

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Middle East

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Middle East Geographical term loosely applied to the predominantly Islamic countries of the e Mediterranean, ne Africa, and sw Asia. It usually includes: Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

Middle East

views updated May 23 2018


A standard Western term for the area of West Asia and North Africa. The definition is elastic, depending on who is speaking, for what purpose, and whether the context is primarily geographical, political, or cultural. It usually includes the area from Turkey to Yemen, and from Iraq to Egypt. It may also include Iran, the states of North Africa to Morocco, and sometimes Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and Djibouti. "Middle East," "Near East," and "Far East" are not neutral geographical terms, like "West Asia" or "East Asia." They are historical constructions that reflect the worldview and political dominance of those who created it in the course of "discovering" and studying the world, which after all is a globe with no central point on its surface. For the Middle East to be "east," there has to be a (conceptual) center, and that point is Western Europe/North America. The more common term was formerly "Near East" (as distinct from "Far East"), obviously in relation to Europe. The term "Middle East" arose in the United States around the turn of the twentieth century and is now, reflecting the balance of power, the dominant one in the (so-called) West.

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