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Middle Eastern Cultures and
Middle East: A culture area
• A historical development – not a geographic
• Example, Muslim groups from Morocco to
Pakistan and Turkey to Sudan – a huge
complex area whose cultures have been
formed by mixing people, languages, way of
life, and religions.
• A conglomeration of areas interconnecting
Africa, Asia, and Europe
• Middle East vs the West: a political
Culture area: Impact of geography,
language and religion
• Three ways of life – nomadism, peasant
agriculture, and urban commerce – in arid and
semiarid lands, combined with the wide
adoption of Arab culture and Islam have
developed a “ culture area”
• 4 “great tradition” civilizations: for example
“patriarchy” varies from agro pastoralism and
Islam in middle east to caste system and
Hinduism in India, with rice agriculture and
Confucianism in China, and with feudalism and
Christianity in Europe.
Map Exercise
• How many countries can you fill in?
• Answers at:
Now, look up the capitals!
Defining the Region Geographically
and Culturally
• “Near East” (colonial term) or Southwest Asia,
North Africa, and some or all of Central Asia,
because of historical contact, colonial
experience, cultural affinity, and
contemporary politics.
Bounded by natural barriers of mountains,
desert, and bodies of water.
• Varieties of Muslims in Africa, India, Indonesia
What is regional culture or a
culture area?
• Groups of people that have been neighbors
for long periods of time, since they are
culturally, genetically, and historically related.
Thus, the Middle East/North Africa is treated
as a regional specialization, despite links with
Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and
Another interesting study of the diaspora of
peoples from this region.
Importance of the Middle East
• The civilizations of the Fertile Crescent
(Mesopotamia) and Pharaonic Egypt were the
first to develop agriculture, writing, codified
law, and complex social structure.
• The Golden Age of Islam brought advances in
mathematics, astronomy, literature, and
philosophy to Europe, Asia, and Africa.
• The dominant monotheistic traditions of
today were all originated in the Middle East
Contemporary Issues in the Middle
East of world importance
• Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
Resource problems: e.g., petroleum, water,
• Ethnic tensions (e.g., genocide in Sudan,
oppression of Kurds)
Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Rise of Islamist states and fundamentalist
• Globalization involves engagement between
different traditions, not a simple economic
• secularization and secularism may be
distinctively modern, possibly Western
historically, but important to understand in
the Islamic context (refer to having legal,
governmental, or other societal 'spaces' not
ruled through religion)
Anthropological Issues
• Anthropology focuses on culture (worldview,
customs, behavior, art and artifacts, ritual,
etc.), society (kinship, marriage, status and
social stratification, age and gender, social
interaction), and the relation between the
concept of the person and the group. We are
interested in the ecological adaptation of the
people, and of course their history and current
• Sources of Confusion
Sources of confusion
• Terminology: Semitic, Arab or Arabic, Muslim
(or Moslem, Islamic, Mohammedan, etc.),
Persian; “tribe”
Stereotypes and misconceptions:
Middle Eastern people in the post-9/11 world
(confused with South Asians, too)
Not all Middle Easterners are Muslims or
Arabs; not all Muslims are from the Middle
East (most are in Indonesia, in fact!)
Terrorism reporting pretty negative
• Religion is an important part of people’s
Language and Ethnicity
• Great language families: Afro-Asiatic, IndoEuropean, Altaic
Cultural history (migrations, contact, and
settlements) corresponds to language
Trade linked entire region from ancient times;
Greek, Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Indic, and
European colonial unification
Strong ethnic, tribal, cultural, local identity
Important Topics in the
Anthropology of the Middle East
• Role of the family and larger kinship units
Status of women
• Impact of nomadic pastoralist tradition
• City versus country culture
Customs related to power, such as patriarchy,
authoritarian leadership, versus nonhierarchical emphasis of Koran
Tension between local culture and panArab/pan-Muslim movements
• Polygyny is associated with Islam, but is
strongly cultural.
• Valuable resources
• Internet sites: