Trading in Stereotypes about the Middle East

Trading in Stereotypes about the Middle East December 6, 2016

Take a look at this exchange I came upon on twitter:


In other words, CBS News posted an article about a Syrian girl, Bana, who has been using twitter to tweet about life in Aleppo, with a picture of the girl holding a handwritten sign begging Assad and Putin to stop the bombing, and a twitter user from Illinois responded with “wait so there’s bombing happening all around and someone has time to create floral display and to tweet in non traditional clothing.”

I’ve blocked out the twitter user’s name and profile picture in the image above because this post isn’t just about one person. I’m not writing this post to pick on someone who almost certainly has a far smaller platform than I do. Rather, when I saw this tweet, it felt emblematic of how little I’ve found many Americans know about the Middle East. Too many Americans trade in stereotypes and have little in-depth knowledge about the Middle East in general and individual countries specifically. This is a problem.

Let’s start with the most basic point—that floral display was almost certainly there long before the bombing started. Before the war, Aleppo was a thriving city with a population larger than that of Chicago. It has shopping malls and hotels and hospitals and universities. There is no “thou shalt not have floral arrangements during a bombing” rule because people aren’t going to just throw out their nice things, their furnishings, and so forth, when the bombing starts.

It’s not as though Aleppo was a post-apocalyptic war zone before the war.

Second, in contrast to the assumption made in the tweet showcased above, Bana is dressed the way most children in Syria dress. This is how Syrian children dress:

Children around the world wear “western” clothing for the same reason Americans began buying their clothing instead of making it themselves—it’s mass produced and inexpensive. Anyone who thinks the world’s children dress in the same clothing their ancestors wore before the advent of mass production hasn’t been paying attention.

Third and finally, it makes sense that wars are now tweeted. All you have to have to access twitter is a smartphone and an internet connection. What with solar chargers and satellite phones, that’s possible from virtually anywhere. Lots of people in Syria (and other war zones) had plenty of money before the war started, and technology prices are dropping anyway. The idea of tweeting from a war zone is not so far fetched at all—and would certainly have happened during WWII had twitter been around at the time. Tweeting from a war zone is a way for people to get the word out.

According to the CIA World Facebook, Syria is home to 17 million people and 14 million cell phones. No, that was not a typo, they really have that many cell phones.

As for Bana, her father is a lawyer and her mother is a teacher who studied English for three years at a language institute, according to the BBC. It’s not as though people living in the Middle East are all beduins, or unskilled workers without formal education. Many areas of the world, including the Middle East, have thriving cities with advanced economies, high rises, and everything you’d expect to see in a modern city. We’re not talking about something frozen in a century-old past.

While I was in college, I took a class in the history of the Middle East. I will always be glad I took that opportunity. There is a lot Americans have to learn by studying the world around them more broadly. Many Americans have little more than a cursory knowledge of the world outside of the U.S. I would argue that we Americans have an added duty to learn about the world outside our borders, given the impact U.S. policy frequently has on other countries.

Today, at this sad moment in its history, we perhaps ought to start with Syria.

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