Things I Wish Americans Knew About the Middle East

Recently I went to a talk by an academic and journalist who specializes in Middle Eastern politics.  This journalist has spent the last decade living in the Middle East and as part of her research she interviews people from all over the spectrum in Middle Eastern politics– from activists involved in the Arab Spring and the Muslim Brotherhood to jihadists.  Her talk, which really was more of a discussion that invited questions and input from the small audience, delved into a lot of various issues in the Middle East right now, and I left the talk thinking, “This is the kind of information I wish everyone in America knew.”

Some of the things she mentioned were things I already knew.  Some were things I had never heard of, or had heard of but didn’t understand on any sort of deep level.  Here is a brief list of things that I think would be surprising to most Americans– some of them are things that came up in the talk, and others are things I’ve only learned myself in the past few years and wanted to pass along.

Many of the jihadists and people recruited by ISIS aren’t “good” or overly observant Muslims.  A lot of the jidahists that have emerged in Europe, especially, are petty criminals or people who do things like drink, take drugs, or sleep around that are “haram” (forbidden) in Islam.  They tend to be more driven by a desire for violence and revenge, or a search to belong to/be accepted into a group, than religious piousness.

The #1 indicator of whether or not a young Muslim man would become radicalized is whether or not he grew up in a Francophone (French-speaking) country.  Researchers think this is because of the strict secularism laws that exist on those countries, including a ban on headscarves, that has made some Muslims feel oppressed.

Only 2 countries have enforced headscarves/covering laws (Saudi Arabia and Iran).  However, 15 Muslim countries have had or currently have laws *against* headscarves.  Turkey is one of those countries– women covering their heads was not allowed in schools, universities, or public service positions until 2013.

The boundaries drawn in the Middle East are completely arbitrary and relatively new.  They were made France and Britain after WWI, when the Ottoman Empire (which controlled much of the Middle East at the time) lost the war.  The random splitting up of territories didn’t take into account how the locals felt about it, and ended up in a lot of the in-fighting between different ethnic groups and sects that we see now.

“Muslim” and “Arab” are not synonymous.  If someone is an Arab, it means they’re from one of the countries on the Arabian peninsula or Northern Africa.  There are lots of Arabs who aren’t Muslim– there are plenty of religious minorities living in those countries, including Christians.  Alternatively, there are lots of Muslim countries, and lots of Muslims, that aren’t Arab.  Fun fact: Indonesia is home to the largest percentage of Muslims in the world.

… Related, not all Muslims speak Arabic.  Turks speak Turkish.  Iranians speak Farsi.  Afghanis speaks Pashto and Dari.  Pakistanis speak Urdu.  Bangladeshis speak Bengali.  … And so on.  Also, this is not a complete list by any means; all of these countries have other languages and dialects as well.  But they definitely do NOT all speak Arabic.

There are no camels or deserts in Turkey.  When people learn that I live in Turkey, a lot of them seem to picture some sort of vaguely Arabic landscape that looks like Morocco or Saudi Arabia.  Nope.  Turkey has lots of different climates due to all the mountains in the country, but a lot of the country is very green and humid and fertile, and there is not a single desert to be seen anywhere.  Also, we don’t do our weekly grocery shopping at the Grand Bazaar.

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It also snows in Turkey– this was the view out of my apartment window in Istanbul this past winter.

There has been a LOT of Western, especially American, meddling when it comes to Middle Eastern governments, leadership, and power struggles.  We had a hand in the Iranian Revolution in 1979.  We funded and armed the group that would become the Taliban (and are currently funding the weak Afghanistan government that is now fighting against the Taliban).  We are currently arming the Syrian rebels to fight against the Syrian government and the Kurds in Northern Iraq to fight against ISIS.  These are just a few brief examples, but basically the US has a long history of choosing a side that supports our own interests without really thinking of the long-term consequences or how it affects the people living in those countries.

There are different “levels” of devoutness for practicing (and non-practicing!) Muslims.  I don’t mean that there are set levels and they choose one, but Islam is the same as most any other religion, especially such a big one– some believers are very strict, some aren’t, and there’s everything in-between.  Some Muslim women dress modestly, some don’t; some Muslims don’t drink alcohol and some do; some fast during Ramadan and some don’t; some pray five times a day, and some don’t.  And there are also Muslims who consider that their cultural identity but who aren’t actively practicing.

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And before I end, one more thing to perhaps challenge the perceptions you have of Islam: the picture I used for the cover photo of this post was taken in Spain, at the Alhambra Palace in Granada.

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We’re Bad at Celebrating our Anniversary… and That’s Okay

My husband and I haven’t had much luck in celebrating our wedding anniversary.  Granted, we’ve only had two chances, but both times were kind of a failure.

For our first wedding anniversary we were on opposites sides of the world, separated after the failed military coup in Turkey.  He was in Istanbul and I was in the US, waiting for my visa to be approved.  The separation was largely unplanned (as was, obviously, the coup, at least on our part) and the day was, quite frankly, depressing as hell.

This past anniversary– two days ago– both of us forgot about it until mid-afternoon.  We had flown into Istanbul the night before from the US, missing a night of sleep in the process, and we were jet lagged and disoriented.  I slept until 1pm that day.  My husband called me from work around that time, we chatted, neither of us remembering that it was our anniversary.  I remembered maybe a couple of hours later, and at some point, he called back and was like, “Uh, I forgot about something earlier…”

We celebrated by snuggling on the couch and going to bed early, after talking a bit about how gift-giving is relationships is kind of overrated anyway.

And that’s totally fine.

For starters, our anniversary was always going to be a little muddled.  We got married three times: once by officially signing the papers at the courthouse in Istanbul and getting our “Uluslararası Aile Cüzdanı” (International Family ID), and then by celebrating with one wedding in the US and one wedding in Turkey.  (Yes, I know we’re spoiled.  But with all the logistical difficulties of having an international marriage, it’s nice that it comes with some perks too!)  All of our “marriages” happened on vastly different days– at the beginning of August, the end of August, and the beginning of October.  So, we took the courthouse date– the day we officially got married– as our anniversary, but apparently we’re not very good at remembering it.

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And then we went on our honeymoon the following February, because why not stretch out the celebrations for six months? (Okay, the real reason was my work schedule. But it sounds fancier the other way.)

The real reason, however, that not doing very much for our wedding anniversary doesn’t bother me is that we already felt married by the time we actually *got* married.  Our lives didn’t magically change after that day; it truly just feels like a piece of paper, something official to let other people know what we already knew.

The anniversary of our first date always sticks in my mind, and holds a lot of meaning for me– that is a day that definitely did change my life.  And I knew pretty early on that we’d get married.  I know that some of my family members (ahem) were pretty appalled when I moved to Turkey with him when we had been together less than two years and weren’t even engaged yet, but I never had any doubts.

Recently we went back to North Carolina to see friends and we visited some of the places that, in our minds, were instrumental to the early days of our relationship.  We went to the cafe where we had our first date (an awkward couple of hours of chit-chatting over lattes), a diner where we got breakfast often, and, maybe the best one, the spot on the University of Chapel Hill campus where we used to sit on weekend mornings, drinking coffee and eating donuts (bought from the now-closed Krispy Kreme on Franklin Street) and people watching.  Both of us have strong associations with that perch under the trees; it’s more or less where we fell in love that first spring and summer that we dated.

Anniversaries are nice, and a good mile marker of sorts– it’s fun to see the years pass by with the person you love and have chosen to spend your life with–but so much of romance exists in the quiet everyday moments, some that you don’t even realize at the time, like how good it feels to have a relaxing Sunday binge-watching a TV series together or, sometimes, the simple act of drinking cheap coffee out of styrofoam cups under the green canopy of a college campus.

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