Friday, February 25, 2011

East is East and West is West, but where are they?

All the ruckus in the Middle East has got me thinking. Not about peace, or even sanity, in the region—that's too much of a conundrum for my brain. No, I've been thinking of the interesting—to me!—question of why in the world we call it "the Middle East."

I know the "Far East" designates China and Japan and their neighborhood. Then there's the Middle East, an area with which we are all too familiar by now. So, if it's the middle, what's on the other side? True, one hears about the "Near East" now and then, and it would be logical to conclude that some lands to the west of the Middle East must constitute the Near East. Except there isn't any land to the west of the Middle East. There's just the Mediterranean (Middle Earth) Sea.

North Africa, you say? Where much of the current excitement is taking place? No. Listen to your favorite newscaster or read any news outlet. All that trouble? They say it's taking place in the Middle East.

It gets worse. In the Associated Press Stylebook, "Near East" is essentially a synonym for "Middle East." According to Wikipedia (yes, I know), the definitions and delineations of "Near East" and "Middle East" shifted around a lot until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 so confused geographers and the British military—which had adopted and tried to tame these terms—that everybody just gave up on "Near East" and everything from the Caucasus to the Atlantic shore of Africa became the Middle East.

Apparently diehards at the United Nations continue to use the phrase "Near East," by which they seem to mean the Levant only, but they are not any more influential in matters of language than they are in matters of diplomacy.

I won't even get into the hyper-sensitive objections that calling anyplace at all "East" is Eurocentric or Occident-centric or some such. I mean, we have to able to call these areas something or how can we even begin to have a "peace process" there?

Well, I hope that clears up any lingering questions about that region's name. Fittingly, it is just as much a confused mess as the Middle East itself. I know I feel better.

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