Problematizing a Virtual Space
WHEN THE FIRST television network started broadcasting in Tehran in 1958, its adopted motto was “The first private television in the Middle East.” For many Iranian viewers the novelty of the new medium brought with it the idea that their country was a part of a larger region called the Middle East. Iranians aside, this of course was not the first encounter with the term. One can find references in geographical textbooks of the 1950s to the oil fields of the Middle East, or to the war time Anglo-American Middle East Supply Center established in 1941 to aid the Allies’ war effort in the region. The 1956 Suez War was often labeled in the headlines as a Middle East crisis, while the luxuriously produced journal Aramco World, first published in 1949, displayed glimpses of the region’s natural beauty and material culture. The accidental way the Middle East nomenclature entered our geographi cal horizon enabled many specialists in the West, beginning especially from the late 1950s, to increasingly identify themselves with the nascent field of Middle East studies, then barely distinguishable from Oriental studies or Islamic studies.
Decades of scholarship and teaching about this region and its history, society, culture, and politics does not seem to have resolved the Middle East as a puzzling entity. Under its rubric we teach courses, organize conferences, publish books, define our field, and wage academic brinkmanship. In the harsher world of geopolitical realities, real conflicts have been fought in the Middle East, from World War II and the Arab-Israeli conflict to the Persian Gulf wars and Afghanistan. Such conflict seems indelibly tied to the notion of the Middle East as a playing field for the Cold War, which involved, often inadvertently, many of the countries of the region. The often unfavorable view of the