ABSTRACT

Anyone who has studied even a little bit about the Middle East today has had the following conversation: Someone: Wow, the wars in the Middle East are constant. They are always fighting each other, and it seems as though it’s been going on forever. You: Well, not exactly forever, and not with the same sides. Someone: But I mean, it goes back to the Bible, doesn’t it, and long before? You: Not exactly. And yet you remember the first Middle East war you paid

attention to, back in 1967, when you were a freshman in college. The television was full of the build-up to the war, and both sides were talking tough. The television made it seem as though the clash was inevitable, and the outcome appeared to be headed toward allout nuclear war, in which the United States would be pulled in as Israel’s existence was threatened, and the Soviets would join as the Arabs’ well-being was under attack. But it was the end of the quarter. And you were invited over to

the house of your young instructor, Alan Kimball, who would go on to make a career as a Russian specialist at the University of Oregon. Much later you would remind him of this day, which he had forgotten. The whole class was worried about nuclear war, and the television

did, in fact, show the tanks grinding across the desert. But Kimball

said, “In my lifetime I have seen this happen two times already.” He referred to the wars around the independence of Israel in 1948 and the Suez Crisis of 1956. “And it hasn’t resulted in nuclear war. You just need to take the long view. The great powers are involved, but they are not suicidal, and the Middle Eastern powers aren’t either. It will eventually work itself out.” Kimball was right about that particular war, even though in the

very many years since the problems that created that war and the problems that war created have not all been resolved. Is that because the divisions run so deeply into history? Certainly there are new factors that do not go back so very far, like nationalism and the very existence of great powers that could intervene militarily. These particular struggles are not eternal ones, but there were others, many others, that defined how people in the region thought and think about themselves and each other. Here we will try to sort some of those out, though, no matter how superficially we try, we will not get up to 1967 of our era. The chapter title here is a riff on Raymond Carver’s 1981 collec-

tion of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which was a meditation on the things love can mean to different people. Carver did not conclude that love meant any one thing, and he did not imply that love was really self-serving, though it always involved some sort of gratification. By the Ancient Near East we mean the same thing as the Middle

East but in ancient times, down to the invasion of Alexander the Great. Middle East is a term coined by the American naval writer Alfred Mahan in a 1902 article. He wanted to differentiate the regions of what most people then called the Orient, the East. The Middle East did not include the Far East, meaning China and Japan, and it also did not include India. In fact Mahan was talking about “Middle” in the sense of latitude, not longitude, and implied that what today we call the “Northern Tier” of the Middle East was a separate entity that ought to be considered separately, including the modern countries of Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan. His term caught on, and now all the languages of the region refer

to it as the Middle East. The term Near East probably originated in Russia, where people were concerned for the East, the Orient, but especially those areas near to themselves, meaning Iran and Afghanistan, Armenia, and Turkey. But the term Near East persists

among scholars of the ancient world and means the whole area. The Orient too continues to be used, but it can be very extensive. And you will meet people in the Middle East who will say things like “You may not be able to understand us; we are Orientals.” In the Western universities we still have institutions called Oriental Institutes, and the American Oriental Society, and those do encompass the scholars of the entire area, but these terms are relics of an American and European attitude that lumped the cultures together as “not us.” They may still be “not us,” but there are definitely distinctions to be made. Students have told me, when they saw the titles of my books, that

I needed to change them all to the Middle East, so people would know what we were talking about. But we do not do that, and in fact we persist in a terminological unclarity. Near to what? Near to us, in Russia and the rest of Europe. This seems unfair and culturally insensitive. Some suggest we should speak of Western Asia, which is more or less correct, but do we mean to include Egypt and the rest of North Africa? Most discussions of the ancient region do include Egypt, although the study of Egypt has evolved in different ways from that of the rest of the region. What really were the boundaries? In ancient times geographical

edges were not so important as centers, and so it is frequently difficult even to define political entities the way we do, by geographical features or imaginary lines on the ground. For ancient times we should not think in terms of borders but centers, and so we speak of clusters of places that seemed to be culturally similar. The centers we are concerned with start in ancient Iraq. Southern

Iraq was called in the first millennium Abr Nahrain, “across the two rivers” in Aramaic, then the common language of the region, and when the Greeks arrived and asked where they were, this got translated into “Mesopotamia,” “Between Rivers.” What this meant was not necessarily the area between the Tigris and Euphrates, but the area beyond the big bend in the Euphrates as it descends from Turkey through Syria and into Iraq. This whole region was a cultural unit in very ancient times. Consequently the term Mesopotamia, like Middle East, is slippery and expansive. The northern limit, though, is the Taurus Mountains in southern Turkey, and the eastern is the Zagros Mountains, which are shared between Iraq and Iran.