The problem of misconceptions about the Middle East

Coming to Edinburgh was an exciting experience. It is the first time I’ve lived anywhere other than Istanbul. It was a new, beautiful city with a new culture. Yet one of the new experiences I’ve had so far is hearing about the misconceptions people have about Turkey. And I think that some daily life encounters I have, hint to a greater problem about the perception of the Middle East as a region.

Some questions and assumptions I received since September are if I had to wear a headscarf in Turkey if I knew Arabic if Arabic was the second language of Turkey. Turkish has a Latin alphabet and is not “like Arabic”. Every single time I mentioned that it was snowing in Istanbul back in Winter, people were shocked, as they thought it didn’t snow in Turkey and that it was a hot country all-year. (For clarification, Turkey has four kinds of weather. It snows in the Winter and it has ski tourism. It’s also right under Russia and next to the Balkans so geographically it is impossible for it to be hot all year).

I was talking about my concerns with a friend of mine and mentioned the Middle East generalisation and how people think that Turkey has deserts etcetera. And then he told me, “But Turkey has deserts. I’ve been there and the places I’ve been to were very desert-like.” I tried to explain to him that the area he meant was a grassland, which is another biome. That I studied environmental sciences (ignoring the fact that I would probably know if we had any deserts) and the characteristics of that area, such as its soil, don’t fit the desert biome.

He insisted that it doesn’t have to be full sand and it was a desert.

In this incident this person is not harbouring racism, in fact, this is a person that is against any discrimination. The problem with this incident and the rest of the questions and assumptions I receive is that all these people I’ve encountered are decent people that are strictly against any discrimination. They try to be as open-minded as possible and learn as much as possible. But maybe the problem with that is sometimes we believe that we are so enlightened, cultured and knowledgeable about the problems of the world that we can’t think of a scenario where we may be wrong. We unintentionally ignore the fact that what we learn in school, from others and from media can be incomplete, even if what we learn is the truth of a region, such as the hijab being compulsory or the presence of terror organisations in some Middle Eastern countries. These are single sides of regions that have very diverse experiences and cultures.

People ask me these questions because they usually have an idea about what the Middle East is like. And I appreciate that they ask me questions and try to learn what it actually is like, please don’t get me wrong. My point is that these questions and assumptions didn’t appear in people’s heads randomly. It’s an accumulation of everything they’ve heard of the Middle East, which is not much. Something may be a fact about a country but if it’s not presented with the rest of the facts, it can be misleading. This has a lot to do with the homogenous representation Western media has regarding Middle Eastern countries which is very problematic. But it is also symptomatic of a larger issue about the homogenised views about regions such as the Middle East from a Western perspective. In the age of globalisation, I think that people are responsible to be more aware of the rest of the world and question the information and beliefs they have.

Turkish culture sometimes overlaps with its neighbouring countries and sometimes it doesn’t. Although the majority religion is Islam, it also has other religions and beliefs. It has arid areas but also forests, snowy mountains and beaches. The Middle East is not one language, geography, culture, race, ethnicity, religion, political view or experience.

Image: dckf_$êr@pH!nX via flikr

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