Michael Ezekiel Gasper
The Middle East has become… a geographical expression
for countries whose current orientations show more diversity
—Nikki Keddie, Is There a Middle East?
SO, IS THERE A MIDDLE EAST? And if so, where is it? Is it a particular place? If not, what is it? This volume shows the ways in which the term “Middle East” seems to evoke a set of questions, or often a set of problems, more than it does a clearly delineated geographical location. These essays show how the concept of the Middle East was and is constructed and reconstructed from a variety of sources that include political/strategic, religious, and ideological elements that often have little relation to the region’s geography, culture, or history. Accordingly, this collection suggests that rather than try to define or redefine or not define the Middle East it is perhaps more fruitful to investigate the effects that this abstract category has had, and continues to have, on the way that many people in the world think and act with respect to the region. In this sense these chapters enumerate some of the links between the production of knowledge and the categories used to arrange that knowledge and their impact on the lives of the people who live there. Thus, in the main this diverse collection of essays by historians, geographers, anthropologists, and political scientists shares a concern with the effects of geographic categories on the lives that people lead and the ways that scholars depict them.1
The contributors take the question “Is there a Middle East?” as a starting point to explore how the production of knowledge has consequences in the ways people think and have thought about the region both inside and outside of it. For example, Diana Davis argues that the environmental history of the region is based on assumptions derived in part from biblical imagery of a land of milk and honey. Her chapter charts the emergence of the “declensionist environmental narrative,” which asserts that livestock overgrazing, careless