Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Deconstructing Stereotypes : Alternative Youth Narratives about the Middle East



The School of Arts and Sciences at AUD held workshops for students in the Cultures of the Middle East course, part of the Middle Eastern Studies Certificate, where they had to deconstruct stereotypes about the region.

The students had to contribute to the construction of alternative narratives, using diverse methods of research, media sources and creative expressions. The workshop helped the students describe the complex realities of this large region while keeping a skeptical perspective to distinguish between fantasy and reality. The course highlighted this awareness of how points of views are shaped and become critical to develop a more complex and nuanced understanding of the Middle East.

The study of the Middle East is increasing incrementally as conflicts keep the region in the headlines. However, most international media channels, the entertainment industry, and many digital/social media hubs rarely go beyond those headlines to look at the complex cultures, religions, histories, social-economic-political systems and viewpoints of the respective countries and populations under debate. Old and new stereotypes picturing the Middle East as unfriendly, dangerous, violent, bloodthirsty, backward, or exotic, mysterious, another ‘Not Like Us’, have become part of individual and collective psyches, and have allowed theories such as Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ with ethnocentrism and extreme binarism/polarization (‘us vs. them’) to flourish,” expresses Dr. Pamela Chrabieh, Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern Studies.

According to many students, the Middle East should not be defined as “a fertile environment for extremist movements”, with dictatorship and injustice as the two main features, but a “powerhouse” full of diverse energies, negative and positive, where people struggle and manage to survive just like others elsewhere, with common human fears and aspirations, and contribute to the evolution of humanity with their unique styles born of intricate mixtures of rich histories and paradoxes of deep-rooted traditions and continuously changing cultures.

The AUD Middle Eastern Studies Certificate is designed to give students an appreciation and understanding of the region in which they are currently studying and in which many will be pursuing professional careers. It is an opportunity for these students to enhance their knowledge of the cultural, historical, and political factors that have shaped the Middle East through time and to a large extent, explain the profile and texture of the current Middle Eastern landscape.

Students’ narratives were depicted on art boards, which can be summarized as follows: The Middle East does not have clear-cut boundaries, even if basic maps include Southwestern Asian countries and part of North Africa. People in the Middle East do not all live as nomads (in fact, very few live as nomads) and nomadism has both advantages and disadvantages, just like any postmodern lifestyle in the city. The Middle East is more than desert, camels and oil; it is quite urbanized and has some of the oldest cities in the world; it encompasses rich and diverse heritages and natural/human resources. The geography is diverse and includes everything from fertile river deltas and forests to mountain ranges and plateaus, snow in the winter and beaches in summer. Arabic is not the only language (there are at least 20 languages such as Persian, Turkish, Kurdish, Berber… and dozens of dialects) and the Arab identity is part of many other Middle Eastern ethnic/national identities. Islam is the predominant religion in the Middle East but the majority of the world’s Muslims are not Middle Eastern and live outside the Middle East, and other religions are also part of Middle Eastern histories and present-day cultures. The Middle East is not just one big bomb waiting to go off - violence is not inevitable in the Middle East and spaces of peace do exist, whether based on interfaith dialogue or other forms of dialogue. People in the Middle East are not uneducated and unworldly. Women’s status is not synonymous with oppression – there are different contexts, laws, applications, situations and experiences. Conflicts are part of many Middle Eastern lives, but stability, economic/cultural growth and advancement are also found in this region.



Abir said...

Dr. Chrabieh we miss you in Lebanon and at USEK. You used to organize such interesting workshops. I see that students at AUD are now the lucky ones. Good luck with your new position and hope to see you soon in Lebanon.

Dr. Pamela Chrabieh said...

Thank you Abir. Missing Lebanon and my students too, including USEK students.