Thursday, August 16, 2012

Garden of Eden - The Middle East 101

(part 4 of 5, find image credits here)

So, where exactly is the Middle East? In 1902 it was said to be "the area between Arabia and India". I think the top 3 countries that would come to most minds in the United States would be Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. Wikipedia breaks down the history of the term and provides this map, which includes Saudi Arabia, northern Africa and parts of "the Stans" (Afghanistan, Pakistan, KazakhstanUzbekistan, Turkmenistan, etc.). The modern term "the Greater Middle East" includes a lot more African countries but does not include Turkey, for example. For my purposes, I'm generally referring to all of the above. Although there is a broad range of cultures and religions that span such a huge area, I think they share characteristics (and sometimes politics) that put them under umbrella prejudices in the eyes of others. 

To give you a better idea of how broad this area is, here is a list of the main people groups in the Middle East: Arabs, Turks, Persians, Jews/Israelis, Kurds, Assyrians, Arameans - Syriacs, Egyptian Copts, Armenians, Azeri, Maltese, Circassians, Greeks, Turcomans, Shabaks, Yazidis, Mandeans, Georgians, Roma, Gagauz, Berbers, Mhallami and Samaritans. The most common languages are Arabic, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Balochi, Dar, French, Greek, Georgian, Hebrew, Kurdish, Pashto, Persian, Somali, Berber, Tigrinya, Turkish and Urdu, and religions include Islam (in its many forms), Judaism, Christianity, Baha'i, Yazdanism, Zoroastrianism, Mandeansim, Druze, Yarsan, Yazidism and Shabakism. Don't feel too bad if you haven't heard of half of the above terms - there are certainly many that I know nothing about. 

Although I don't think it's wrong to use a general term like "the Middle East" and even ascribe a certain image to it that wraps up some of the larger generalities, everyone knows that we get into trouble in any are of life when we assume that if one slice of the pie is bad (or good), that must mean the entire pie will follow suit. The way I see it, there are some common threads of attitudes that run through many Middle Eastern countries - to my relatively untrained eye, the peoples of this region are tough, fierce of spirit, and passionate (which often translates into quick to anger), but it would be wildly inappropriate to write them all off as terrorists or threatening in general because of it. In fact, as my mom described to me recently, many people in the areas near eastern Pakistan where my family was, had no idea who Osama bin Laden was or that there was a war going on, post 9-11. It's one of those places on Earth where there are pockets of people who live our their entire lives apart from the rest of this planet, and that should illustrate in a very small way why it would be unfair to throw all our anguish and despair at war and genuine injustices on the American people as a result of terrorism on "the Middle East" or even a country or even a village that harbored or bore a terrorist. Let alone individuals in the Middle East or immigrants to the United States from the Middle East. [below image from Ramadan 2012, by the Boston Globe]

At our church, Element, here in Santa Maria, California, we've been going through the book of Genesis and recently hit the beginning of the story of Ishmael. This story is very dear to me and gives huge insight into my views on the Middle East. I also believe it has very important historical roots when it comes to the Middle East. I'm going to summarize some of the most important points, in my eyes, but if you want to read the whole thing directly from the Bible yourself, the part concerning Ishmael begins in Genesis 16. For a little background at this point, God had already promised Abraham that he and his wife Sarah would have a son who would lead to descendants as numerous as the stars. But as Abraham and Sarah both got pretty far up there in years, they became restless, took things into their own hands, and long story short, Hagar, Sarah's servant, becomes pregnant with a son by Abraham. Needless to say, this doesn't end up making Hagar or Sarah very happy, since Sarah wanted to raise a son as her own, but this child is awkwardly not really hers. Sarah treats Hagar so harshly that Hagar runs away, where she is met by an angel of the Lord who tells her to return to her master's household and name her coming son "Ishmael", which means "God hears" [her pain]. The angel also promises that Ishmael's descendants will be more than can be numbered as well. Genesis 16:12 (NLT) says, "This son of yours will be a wild man, as untamed as a wild donkey! He will raise his fist against everyone, and everyone will be against him. Yes, he will live in open hostility against all his relatives." 

I know this won't carry weight with people who don't believe in scripture, but to me, this story is the underlying reason for why Ishmael's descendants (who populate the Middle East, along with those of Isaac) continue to "raise their fists against everyone." By no means does being from this region make you ornery or militant, but I do think there is a heritage of wildness as the angel prophesied. It's not wrong or bad, but it is difficult to get along with. Later on (17:17-22), as God is telling Abraham again about how numerous his descendants will be, Abraham asks for God's special blessing on Ishmael. God responds that his plan is still for Sarah to have a son of her own, but that he will also honor Abraham's request and bless Ishmael as well, though the fulfillment of his covenant will be through Isaac.What I love about the story of Ishmael is that he is loved by both Abraham and God, despite the handful that he is. He too, is a son of Abraham and blessed by God, and other than the prophesy of his wildness, there is very little in the Bible about what kind of man he was. It does not say he was a terrorist or an evil person and I think that is imperative, historically, when it comes to looking at the Middle East with a tender heart. Yes, there is a bloodline of "living in hospitality against all [their] relatives" but that does NOT equal wickedness or suggest that they are less loved by God. 

To my knowledge, all the more you ever hear about Ishmael after chapters 16 and 17 (in which Ishmael is one of the first in history to be circumcised, as a mark of God's covenant with man) goes down in chapter 21 which is equally heartbreaking and redeemed as the previous debacle. When Isaac is born and hugely celebrated, Sarah is enraged that Hagar and Ishmael taunt him (fair enough) and demands that Abraham send them away. (21:11) "This upset Abraham very much because Ishmael was his son." But God tells Abraham to do as Sarah says, because Isaac is indeed the one "from whom his descendants will be counted" , but that he "will also make a nation of the descendants of Hagar's son because he is your son, too." Repeat the whole wilderness scene where Hagar and Ishmael are about to die, but God rescues them. (21:20) "And God was with the boy as he grew up in the wilderness. He became a skilled archer, and settled in the wilderness...." And that's about all you ever know about Ishmael, the father of the Middle East. At the risk of repeating myself, I'll say again how precious a story this is to me: although Ishmael was not "the chosen one", through no fault of his own, God was faithful to him and blessed him and cared for him as Abraham's son. If that isn't reason enough for you as to God's heart for the Middle East, I don't know what to tell you. 

There you have my version of the history of the Middle East, as well as what I'm referring to when I say "the Middle East." The next installment should be to most fun! I am going to give you a virtual tour of some things I love about the Middle East - food, traditions, landscapes, fashion, etc. Don't miss it! 

1 comment:

  1. Really great article! Learned a lot :)


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