for Middle Eastern Studies Chair Nezar AlSayyad, in the
conference room that he designed for the center; he is also
a professor of architecture and planning. Photos by
East 101: Q&A with Professor
Nezar AlSayyad, chair of UC Berkeley's Center for Middle Eastern
talks about the Middle East's political and cultural diversity,
women's rights, why Arab states oppose Iraqi regime change,
and why Islam is here to stay.
15 October 2002
By Bonnie Azab Powell, Public Affairs
BERKELEY - With the U.S. Congress authorizing the use
of force against Iraq, the Middle East is on everyone's minds.
Yet few of us can name all the countries that make up the region,
or even begin to describe their histories and governments. As
part of an ongoing series about the region, we turned to one
of UC Berkeley's experts, Nezar AlSayyad, who has been chair
of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies since 1995, for a crash
course in the Middle East.
AlSayyad did his undergraduate work in architectural engineering
at Cairo University, a master's in town planning also at Cairo,
followed by another master's in architectural sciences at MIT,
and a Ph.D. at UC Berkeley in the history of architecture and
urbanism. Although directors of Middle Eastern Studies programs
often specialize in history or political science, AlSayyad's
urban history background is not that unusual: several Middle
Eastern centers in the U.S. are currently headed by faculty
from art history, architecture, or urban planning.
UC Berkeley's program, however, stands out for several reasons.
The university's curricula has included Middle Eastern Studies
for more than a hundred years. The Center offers courses in
Arab, Islamic, Jewish, and Israeli Studies as well as in languages
— among the most diverse offerings at any university.
Tell us where the catch-all name
"Middle East" comes from, and to what it actually
The Middle East is the only area-study discipline that lacks
easily drawn geographic boundaries, as in Latin American or
Southeast Asian studies. The Middle East is the "middle"
of what and "east" of where? Of course, it’s
east of Europe — east of the former empires that colonized
it — although technically it's also south. The reason
they called it the "middle" is because they also had
the "Far" East.
The issue of what actually constitutes the middle is still up
for debate. When the Soviet Union collapsed, we in Middle Eastern
Studies suddenly inherited all its southern republics. Why?
Because the people in those republics speak Turkic languages
and in terms of culture, are much closer to Turkey than to Russia.
So at least according to the U.S. Department of Education, which
funds most Middle Eastern Studies centers, the borders of what
we called the Middle East extended all the way from Morocco
in the far west to Uzbekistan in the east, and from Chechnya
in the north to Sudan and Somalia in Africa.
Without a common geography, language,
ethnicity, or even religion, what
unites this group of countries?
Like much of the Third World, it's a very specific history
and heritage of colonialism, institutions that were left behind
by either the British or the French when they colonized these
countries. There's also no doubt that Islam is another factor
that in a sense unifies the Middle East. Although Islam is not
the religion of all countries in the Middle East, nor does the
presence of Islam make a country Middle Eastern, by and large
the history of the Arab empire does happen to be also a history
of the Islamic empire. And it is an empire that extended in
a very short time, less than 200 years, to encompass precisely
this territory that I am talking about.
there are Middle Eastern governments that are very dictatorial,
such as Saddam Hussein's. There are governments that are
oppressive. There are also ones that are trying their best.'
—Professor Nezar AlSayyad, CMES chair
Another defining similarity is the nationalist struggles that
many of these countries have engaged in to free themselves from
their colonizers. But this last point is connected to something
else, which is maybe a fourth factor: the emergence of a particular
geography of political structure. Much of the contemporary Middle
East is divided into specific nation-states with international
borders that they did not choose, that were imposed as a result
of international deals the British and French made with tribes,
monarchies, and other regimes earlier in this century. Again,
the Middle East is not an exception in this regard — much
of the third world was also carved up the same way, but I think
you see it more in the Middle East.
You also have to remember that most Middle East countries did
not receive their independence until the 1950s and 1960s, unlike
other regions such as Latin America, which became independent
at the turn of the century and have had time for both unsuccessful
and successful experiences with self-government. In the Middle
East, that's really not the case. In these countries we have
gotten to see only two, maybe three generations of self-governing
elite. Egypt, throughout its entire modern postcolonial history,
has been governed by only three men. So has Saudi Arabia.
And yet their governments are very
different. Of the Middle Eastern governments, which are the
least and most stable — that is, enjoy the greatest degree
of acceptance among their citizenry?
Well, that depends on what you mean by "stable." Certainly
in the U.S. right now, there are people who do not accept the
legitimacy of the last election's results. Does that mean the
U.S. does not have a stable government?
In the Middle East, there's a considerable range. There are
governments that are obviously very dictatorial, such as Saddam
Hussein's. There are governments that are oppressive, because
they have social or political structures that oppress the population,
either using religion or other forms of social control.
There are also ones that are trying their best. Morocco has
liberalized quite a bit, both in terms of its democratic institutions
as well as its political structures. Today, one can talk about
Morocco, and even Lebanon, as democracies. It's a strange kind
of democracy, because it has ethnic and religious representation
almost embedded in its constitution, but there's absolutely
no doubt that it is a democracy.
would also point out that some of the governments that do not
necessarily give political rights to their citizens, or that
don't have a structure for political rights yet, have often
afforded their citizens a decent level of social and economic
rights. It's very difficult to think of the United Arab Emirates,
for example, as a place where there's democracy. But in reality
citizens of countries like Qatar or the United Arab Emirates
have possibly more press choices. They hear our CNN, the BBC,
and their own Al-Jazeera. And they can make up their mind about
what to believe. That is indeed a form of free press.
Afghanistan, many Americans seem to believe that Islam equals
repression of women. Can women work freely in
most Middle Eastern countries?
Even in Saudi Arabia, women are free to hold jobs. But there
are social traditions and specific conditions in some Arab countries
— like many others in the third world — that have
not allowed women to work or to be full citizens. However, in
others like Egypt, for example, women have held jobs since the
1920s and a woman served as cabinet minister as early as the
terms of voting, in the case of Egypt, women have the same rights
as men. In Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, they do not. Aside from legal
rights, there are a lot of social pressures that inhibit women's
progress. For example, in Iran, the legislature recently passed
a law that allows women to get a divorce. But the implementation
of this law still has major obstacles along the way, mainly
because their religious leaders have the right to veto it, and
they will do everything that's possible to block it.
most citizens of the Middle East desire democratic government?
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