First-Year Studies: Place, Landscape, and Identity in the Middle East


What does it mean to “belong” to a place, and how do people’s sense of belonging affect their worldviews? All too often, the Middle East is portrayed in Western media as a place defined by perpetual conflict and upheaval. By the same token, prevailing interpretations of Middle Eastern history and society tend to present the region’s inhabitants as intensely ideological—at once primarily motivated by, and inured to, oftentimes violent struggle in the service of broad political forces for change (of which Islamism represents perhaps the most commonly cited example). In this course, we will attempt to challenge such widespread conceptions of the Middle East as a hyperpoliticized region by approaching it through an entirely different optic—the relationship that various Middle Eastern societies have forged with the places and spaces they inhabit. How have different environments and landscapes—from the Sahara Desert and the ancient and continuously occupied cities that dot the region (such as Baghdad or Damascus) to the lush Nile valley—shaped the way that people in the region think about their identity? How have denizens of the Middle East negotiated their local identities with broader regional geographies, and how did the onset of imperialism and nationalism affect this dynamic? How has a fundamental concern with place, landscape, and identity been represented in Arab, Persian, and Turkish literature and art over the centuries? What is the proper relationship between geography and history, and how can an exploration of this relationship help us make better sense of the experience of various Middle Eastern societies? This course will provide a broad overview of Middle Eastern history from late antiquity to the present, focusing throughout on people’s subjective relationships with the varied geographies of the Middle East as its central framework for unpacking the region’s diversity and complexity.