10 Misunderstood Things About the Middle East

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After 9/11, many people in the Western World started paying more attention to the Middle East. But unfortunately, most of that attention has tended to be negative. Over the years, stereotypes and misconceptions have built up about the Middle East, and many people now have a very confused and rather narrow view of a very large and diverse region. In today’s article, we will go over 10 ways that people misunderstand the Middle East.

10. The Middle East Has More Religious Diversity Than Most People Realize

Now, it’s really hard to get into the exact numbers because what the Middle East is can be kind of ill-defined to begin with, and there are distinct regions within the Middle East as well. However, while the majority of the population in what most would consider the Middle East is Muslim, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot more religious diversity than most think. Due to hearing about groups like ISIS, or the Taliban, many in the Western World are under the impression that religious minorities either hardly exist, have gone entirely to ground, or that those who do exist are “just another form of Muslim.”

In fact, while groups like ISIS have shown, some people are not very tolerant of religious minorities, the vast majority of countries in the Middle East are pretty tolerant when it comes to practicing other religions (though hostilities obviously exist and in some cases have gotten worse in recent years). They may make state laws you have to follow based on their religious values, but historically speaking practicing other religions has typically been not just tolerated, but accepted. And for those who have heard of a Christian minority in the Middle East, they are far from the only other religion. There are many much older ones as well, such as the Yazidis, the Zoroastrians, the Samaritans, and more. Also, while the majority of the Middle East is Muslim, that does not mean the majority of Muslims live in the Middle East — that would only be about 20% of them.

9. Despite Most People Thinking Of It As Desert, Some Of The Middle East Gets Snow

Most people tend to think of the Middle East as nothing but desert as far as the eye can see, and many would hardly imagine that they would get snow, but it depends on which part of the Middle East you are talking about. Depending on where you are within the region, snow may actually be relatively common, or it may be a rarity, but still not at all unheard of. Countries like Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iran, Israel and Turkey get snow pretty much every year, especially near the more mountainous areas.

Even the UAE, although it usually only gets a little snow on the mountains near its borders, got a pretty decent amount a couple years back blanketing the area and delighting locals. In Iran, a freak snowstorm a couple years ago was so bad that it covered cars in huge drifts and clogged up traffic for hours and hours, forcing many to rely on emergency government shelters to stay warm, as their cars were running out of gas and the traffic on the roadways was stalled. When it comes down to it, the Middle East is quite a big region, with enough climate diversity for a lot of different types of weather; it just depends where in the Middle East you are.

8. Covering Your Head Is Not Always A Legal Requirement For Women

Many people think of the Middle East as one of the worst places a woman can possibly live, and while some countries certainly are less progressive than others, there are plenty of Middle Eastern countries with laws more friendly to women, and in many cases, the stricter control of women is more cultural than it is actual government enforcement. For example, Saudi Arabia is the only country that won’t allow women to drive, and recently started relaxing those laws. As for head coverings, the issue is more complicated.

Not all Middle Eastern countries have a law on the books making a woman cover her head, even if she is a Muslim (and countries that require full facial concealment are the exception); however, if a woman is part of a Muslim family who does believe traditionally in the women covering their heads, then she is likely to find very extreme social pressure to do so and likely wouldn’t even see a reason not to as she would have grown up around it.

7. What Is Considered “The Middle East” Can Actually Be Quite Confusing

One of the most confusing things for many is what is actually considered to be the Middle East. Some people include more countries farther east, and some include more countries farther south into Africa. This is complicated more by the fact that the designation was Eurocentric to begin with, and some maps will actually include different countries than others as constituting part of the Middle East.

Now, most maps do accept that Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen as part of the Middle East. However, some maps also include Turkey, due to its ties to Middle Eastern culture, as well as several North African countries for similar reasons, and expand the region to also include Turkey, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia.

More recently, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, have been included by many, even though before 9/11, most maps considered Pakistan and Afghanistan as part of Southeast Asia, and the rest as part of the old Soviet Union. And although very few maps would consider them for geographical reasons, some people even include Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and even Sudan as part of the Middle East as well, due to some small cultural ties.

6. Surprisingly (To Some), English Is Quite Common In The Middle East

While many people tend to think that Middle Easterners don’t speak a lot of English, the opposite is true. For starters, just because it’s both the second most spoken language in the world and the most used for business, a lot of people learn it because it is useful to know, so you would be surprised how many people in most countries know at least some English. But more to the point, in the gulf states especially, English is starting to become more popular than Arabic. Some recent UNESCO figures show literacy in the gulf states as being very close to 100%, but more and more often, these children are not learning to read and write in Arabic, but in English.

Especially in the places like the UAE and the more oil rich countries, many families are actually speaking English at home, and it is more common to do so the richer they are. They are also trying to push their kids being taught English at school more, but this is leading to many young ones growing up with very rich, very good schools, and still never getting a good grasp of their ancestral languages, which isn’t a good thing for anyone. This whole thing is likely a side effect of the wealth, as the families that manage to make more money likely do a lot of international business and spend a lot of time talking in English. In that respect, it both becomes a status symbol, and a tool for achieving success that they want to pass on to their children.


5. Poetry is Extremely Popular, Especially In The UAE, Where They Hold Yearly Contests

In the Western World today, except perhaps as a rap lyric, most people would consider men reciting poetry to be rather strange or even effeminate, and even among women, poetry just isn’t really that much of a thing anymore. However, in the Middle East, especially in the gulf states, poetry is extremely popular and men take part as well without any shame or worrying of looking bad in some way. In fact, poetry is so popular in the region that in 2007 a competition was launched in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, that now runs yearly, called the Prince of Poets. Thousands of people who have mastered Arabic send their own original compositions in order to achieve the coveted title.

It is also not unusual to see poetry competitions, sometimes even hosted by a government themselves. Saudi Arabia hosted a competition a couple years back that they allowed all the gulf states to compete in, with a cash prize worth $53,000. The composition was supposed to be patriotic and be about the bravery of the troops who secured the southern border of the Saudi Kingdom. They received 650 submissions, 450 of which they deemed to be within the guidelines of the competition. Today, in most of the Western World, we simply don’t really do poetry without at least mixing it with music, but in the Middle East, it is still a popular and well honed artform.

4. The Middle East May Be Against Most Drugs, But Hookahs Are Popular To Relax

Many people think of the Middle East as an entirely dry region when it comes to drugs. Many countries are known for not drinking, or smoking marijuana, and some countries even disallow cigarettes. However, in many parts of the Middle East (especially in the UAE), they have their own poison of choice that seems, if anything, to be increasing in popularity. Smoking Shisha tobacco from a hookah (a type of waterpipe) is considered by many with the habit to be relatively healthy, but it really isn’t. Research done in the UAE due to concerns over hookah use has shown that an hour session with a hookah can be about as bad as smoking 150 cigarettes.

Now, some people may consider these numbers sensational, but remember we are talking about drawing on it off and on for an entire hour. Regardless of whether that’s entirely accurate, the point is that it’s much worse for you than cigarettes and very bad for your health. Unfortunately, it is such a big thing culturally and so addictive that it is actually increasing in popularity, especially among the youth. While the Middle East tends to be quite strict on drugs, they don’t seem particularly interested in cracking down on Shisha use, even among the young — perhaps because the lawmakers in the UAE cannot put down the water pipe themselves.

3. The Average Middle Easterner Has No Particular Animosity For Western Society

Many people are convinced that most Middle Easterners, especially those who are followers of Islam, hate the West and all it stands for. However, that really isn’t true at all. In fact, the general view of most people living in the Middle East is quite complicated, and they often have a love-hate relationship with how they feel about the West, and especially how they feel about America. They do like certain things about America’s personal freedoms, and aspiration to achieve greater things and the like. There are ideals about the individual and your own path in life that many find quite interesting.

However, many also feel that the West, especially the United States, cannot necessarily be entirely trusted. This isn’t hatred or meant to be insulting; it’s just people who have been burned a few too many times, and are struggling to find a reason to put faith in a country whose actions they feel are inconsistent. Many people living in the Middle East feel that the way the United States seems to prop up certain dictators, and knock down others (depending on when it is convenient) suggests they are really only in it for the oil and other riches. This should not be interpreted as hatred or anti-West sentiment, as they do appreciate some of America’s values. They just aren’t sure whether they can believe the US really wants to be friends.

2. It’s Not Unusual To See Male Friends Holding Hands (And Other Such Touching) In The Middle East 

In many countries in the Middle East, such as Lebanon, Egypt, Afghanistan and others, it is not abnormal for men to do things that most people in the United States or many European countries would immediately assume made them gay. In fact, in Egypt, for example, you may see two grown men, or even two male soldiers, holding hands and walking down the street as if it was the most normal thing in the world. To those two men, it’s a completely normal heterosexual activity. 

The reason for this is sort of due to repression, but not exactly repression of homosexuality. Rather, many of these countries have strict laws regarding not being allowed to touch human females unless you marry them, and humans in general really don’t do well if they never get human contact. For this reason, many men in Middle Eastern countries will touch another man’s knee, or even hug or kiss him, and it is not considered homosexual behavior. This does not mean there aren’t any countries in the Middle East where you can get away with being gay in any respect, but seeing two men holding hands in a Middle Eastern country likely doesn’t mean what you think it does.

1. Iran Has A Very Complicated Relationship with Homosexuality And Transgenderism

Back in the 1980s, the Ayatollah Khomeini decreed that a man could be trapped in a woman’s body and the other way around. Since then, Iran has seen an incredible amount of gender reassignment surgeries. Iran’s own government agencies claimed that the number of surgeries went from 170 to 370 in just four short years from 2006, to 2010, but one doctor interviewed by the BBC made a much more shocking claim: He claimed that he personally alone, not including all the other doctors in the country, did a total of 200 in just one year. Now, this may seem like a higher number of trans people than is statistically likely, but that’s because most of them aren’t really trans, at least before the surgery.

You see, being gay in Iran is illegal and sodomy can be punishable by death, but it’s okay to get a gender reassignment and then the gender you want to be with will be all “right and proper” with the law. For this reason, many gay people are pushed by their doctors or parents to get the surgery to fit in, but those who do get the surgery say they usually regret it. They don’t get to live as who they really are, and some flee the country to avoid a surgery they never wanted. To make matters worse, despite having so many trans people, and pushing people to get the surgery, all evidence shows Iran is not any better at accepting trans people than anywhere else.


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