- Is There a Middle East? The Evolution of a Geopolitical Concept Edited by Michael E. Bonine, Abbas Amanat, and Michael Ezekiel Gasper
The short answer to this book’s leading question is an assertive yes. There is indeed a Middle East. Edited by the late Michael Bonine, a geographer, Abbas Amanat and Michael Ezekiel Gasper, both historians, Is There a Middle East? The Evolution of a Geopolitical Concept brings together an impressive array of scholars with wide-ranging areas of expertise. Through ten rich chapters (divided into three sections), this book illustrates how the term, the idea, and the framework of the Middle East has been constructed as an abstract geopolitical (and economic) entity over the last several decades. As the editors briefly outline in the preface and introduction, the book follows the evolution of the concept of the Middle East, but also seeks to problematize it and to examine the impacts of its construction.
The first section of this book addresses the multiple ways that the term “Middle East,” as well “Near East” and several others terms, have evolved. Tracing its usage in several European languages in the nineteenth century, Yilman posits that it was the Eastern Question, or European geopolitics of the weakening Ottoman Empire, from which the Middle East emerged. With great detail, Yilman shows that the Middle East is a Eurocentric construction that emerged from geopolitical discourse. Adelson’s chapter furthers Yilman’s point by arguing that the term gained widespread acceptance in the United States and the United Kingdom as a geopolitical relic of the post-World War II and Cold War eras. In the third chapter, Bonine adds a geographical analysis by summarizing the fluctuations of geographical delineations of the Middle East in world-regional geography textbooks, atlases, and maps. In the final chapter of this section, Rouighi provides an in depth study [End Page 710] of how different institutions within the Maghrib use this Eurocentric concept. He highlights that the concept is not widely adopted, but when it is used, it generally refers to somewhere east of the Maghrib.
With the premise of the book well established in the first section—that there are incredible variations and ambiguities of this term, of its Eurocentric origins, and the lack of internal adoption—the second section provides depth and detail on various constructions of the Middle East. Khazeni’s chapter looks at the inclusion and exclusion of Central Asia as part of Middle East showing how boundaries became fixed on maps only in nineteenth century amid the great imperial rivalries of Britain, Russia, and Persia. Sood examines vernacular geographies in the eighteenth century through the writings of merchants working and living around the Arabian Sea. His rich discussion shows that geography was relative; there were no clear boundaries, frontiers, or states. In the third chapter of this section, Varisco considers how the Holy Land, as a geographical precursor to the Middle East, was perceived by pilgrims. Varisco stresses, in contradiction to Edward Said, that this region was idealized as a utopia and hence not inferior to Europe. The last chapter of this section draws on environmental history to debunk myths that Arabs mishandled and degraded the land. In her analysis, Davis provides an impressive and much-needed critique of some foundational stereotypes of the Middle East, whilst critiquing the colonist narrative that was used to justify their control of the “fragile” land and people.
The third section of this book then moves on to examine the contemporary Middle East from a global perspective. Gelvin provides a political economic history of the region, underscoring the global connections of the economic order. Hazbun’s chapter similarly examines global connections but through a critical geopolitical lens. His chapter is a sustained discussion that addresses how the discourse of Middle East “exceptionalism” (that the Middle East is inherently different from the West) has framed public and official understandings of post-9/11 geopolitics and justified American...