The Middle East through a personal lens


You had questions and thoughts about the Middle East, and MESA (Macalester’s Middle Eastern Student Association) has some answers!
MESA put its little green box in the SPO several weeks ago and has been collecting questions and thoughts from Macalester community members pertaining to the Middle East. We enjoyed a great response and learned a lot about Macalester’s views and interests on Middle Eastern issues. Many great questions were submitted (along with some slurs and comments that we will not list here). The following five questions were chosen because we felt that they could be best addressed by our personal experiences and insights. The views expressed in these responses are those of individual MESA members only, and do not necessarily represent the views of MESA as an organization, of other organizations at Macalester, or of any peoples in the Middle East.Respondents are:
Zeid Habbayeb ’11 (Jordan/Palestine) [email protected]
Majd Khabour ’11 (Jordan/Palestine) [email protected]
Yacoub Shomali ’13 (Jordan) [email protected]
Omar El Zoheiry ’13 (Egypt) [email protected]
Hossein Alidaee ’13 (US/Iran) [email protected]
Tarik Hindi ’13 (US/Palestine) [email protected]
Madiha Bataineh ’12 (US/Jordan) [email protected]
Shahar Eberzon ’12 (Israel) [email protected]
Evgenia Jenny Grinblo ’11 (Israel) [email protected]
Mina Tehrani ’11 (US/Iran) [email protected]

What does MESA do? How do the members identify themselves with the group?

MESA: MESA’s purpose is to stimulate discussion within its group members and introduce the Macalester community to the culture of the Middle East through various events such as “In The Kitchen with MESA”, concerts, Movie Week, Cultural Shows and the SPO Initiative 2010. The cultural group represented by MESA includes people from of all member states of the League of Arab States, as well as Cyprus, Israel, Iran and Turkey. We also try to remind people that the Middle East exists beyond the breaking news on CNN, and that people who live there do so at times of war and at times of peace. We try to incorporate some political issues through panels and share our personal perspectives as “insiders” and “outsiders” of the various cultures in the Middle East. Keep an eye out for a big event that is coming up in April: “Candle Night: Thinking about the Middle East” which will be dedicated to the people of the Middle East.

What’s the best food in the Middle East?

MB: Middle Eastern food is very diverse (and delicious), but labneh with oil and za’atar (or mint) is my personal weakness. It’s more of a breakfast food, but then again, I’m more of a breakfast person.
JG: In Israel, I enjoy how much dairy and veggies we eat. Things are fresh and we like to shop at markets. I also adore fish and seafood, and there is plenty of that on the coast, where I live. Of course, hummus is the staple food when I think of a “Middle Eastern” food, but ingredients such as olive oil, spices, and meat are also very common.

SE: Lafa…

MK: The best Jordanian dish is “Mansaf” and the best Palestinian dish is “Musakhan.”

MT: Further north, Iranians tend to eat basmati rices and stews…my favorite is ghorme sabzi. The staple food of Iran, though, is bread. You should try Nan Sangak.

What is your general opinion towards women (those of the Arab world)? From the students at Mac, those who identify with the Arab Middle East, I get a chauvinist vibe. Confused.

MB: They move their body like a cyclone. Shakira, Shakira. Ok, just kidding. From my experience, I think men in the Middle East respect women even more so than western guys.

JG: I like to think that both the U.S. and Middle East have chauvinism, only here it’s covered up and implicit, and at home things are said to your face. Gender discrimination is an age-old phenomenon and as far as I know, not many cultures have escaped it.

ZH: I can see how someone can view men in the Arab world as being chauvinistic, but I don’t think students at Mac display that.

MT: Let me clear up that first, there is no “general opinion,” and second, Middle Eastern people include women! This question treats the identities of “woman” and “Middle Easterner” as separate. As a person who is both, I wish, when I make a critique, that my words would not be interpreted as a denunciation of Middle Eastern culture at large. I wish that I wouldn’t be asked to choose. Speaking from my personal experience in Tehran, I’d say that there are good and bad things. Like women around the world, we have to deal with being sexualized when we don’t want to be; in that respect, for example, the hijab is both good and bad. When I talk about the bad things, I am not calling for outside intervention or liberation.

Do you have airports in the Middle East?

MB + MK: No, we fly first class on camels we breed on our oil fields. It’s a long journey, and the camels get tired. We’ve gotten a lot of crap from animal activists groups…

JG: No. We get dropped off from the sky as the planes fly over our countries. We get special Mossad training for that.

ZH: You think Disney just came up with the whole flying carpet thing out of nowhere? We need to get around…

MESA: Just kidding. Of course we do, and seaports too.

Can education be the way to modernize Middle East and libratize (sic) the people? To make it more open to outsiders?

JG: Middle Eastern people do not need to be modernized. What needs to be understood is that the Middle East has a rich history and culture. Middle Eastern culture is not ‘backward’, and therefore doesn’t need help to move forward and join the “civilized” world. Many customs and practices in the U.S. are on par with Middle Eastern oppressive occurrences. The only thing making the Middle East seem ‘behind’ is the way it is presented in the West.

MB: If the people feel oppressed, “liberation” needs to come from within. The thing with education, though, is that it gives social instruction to young, and therefore vulnerable, people, and what is “right” social instruction can be very differently defined from country to country. To encourage capitalism, and democracy, and consumerism, etc., may not always be viewed as positive learning. So yes, education may be a good way to start, but we have to be careful what we wish for. “Modernization” as defined in the West is not a universal standard of progress. An education emphasizing an understanding of human rights and universal values such as equality and kindness, and justice, etc. is ideal, but priorities from within a state can be different. As for the second part of the question, contrary to the ways in which the media has represented the Middle East, Middle Easterners are generally very open to outsiders. Jordanians are very hospitable, and guests come and go like boomerangs. People like to gather, and they enjoy the company of new friends and “outsiders.” In Jordan, couchsurfing has become popular too. Invite a stranger to crash.

ZH: I completely agree with Jenny. I don’t see many of these “modernized” countries doing so outstandingly for themselves that it should be set as a standard for all countries.

TH: I don’t completely agree. While it’s true that the Middle East is given an unfair bad rap by the media, I don’t think we should discount the value of the freedoms people can enjoy in a more liberalized environment. Gay rights, women empowerment, freedom of expression are all arenas that education has a powerful influence over. Of course, I don’t advocate that the West needs to somehow “educate” Middle Easterners on the values they should hold, but rather that Middle Easterners can use education as a powerful tool to give all of the people of the region a voice.
SE: The first problem with this question is that it assumes that something has to happen from above to change the bottom, where in fact this has proven to be use
less. I agree that a lot more needs to be done regarding the Middle East and human rights, it’s not perfect, no place is, including the U.S., and education is the way to fix this. But the drive needs to come from within, from the people themselves, with the help of outside supporters such as the U.S. The solution requires patience and an understanding that the world shouldn’t divide into “west” and “non-west,” “modern” and “non-modern.” Many countries in the Middle East might not be defined as “western,” but are modern countries.
MK: Freedom of expression and other social freedoms already do exist in much of the Middle East to a certain extent. For example, contrary to public belief, the wearing of the hijab is a personal choice many women make. As in all cases, there are exceptions, but in general, personal choice is highly regarded within Middle East society. Of course, there’s always room for improvement.