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Bishara’s work examines the European concept of ‘the Middle East’

What is the Middle East? Who coined the term? From which perspective is the region ‘Middle’ and ‘East?’

For Fahad Ahmad Bishara, incoming William & Mary assistant professor of history (Fall 2013), the European conception of what constitutes the ‘Middle East’ is a fascinating topic.

Dr. Bishara began his university studies at University of Southern California around the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. These events shaped his studies in international relations and journalism, placing them within a new Middle Eastern framework skewing towards Persian Gulf studies.

After graduating in 2004, Bishara went to work for the Gulf Research Center, an independent think tank in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he became interested in learning more about cultural connections between the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean Basin, East Africa, and the rest of Arabia.

This interest led him to the University of Exeter a year later, where he attained a master’s degree in Gulf studies and found natural economic, social, and cultural connections between the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf.

These connections indicated that the Persian Gulf was oriented more towards the sea and India, rather than inward towards the internal Middle East. For example, price changes in India affected the economy of the Persian Gulf more than the price changes in Cairo did.

“The grain prices in Baghdad would mean far less to merchants from the Persian Gulf than, say, a drop in the price of dates in Karachi or Bombay,” explained Bishara. “The major Middle Eastern urban centers were too far away from the Gulf to matter; the Subcontinent and East Africa, however, were important frontiers for economic life in the Gulf.”

For Bishara, studying the Persian Gulf region also allowed him to investigate the trans-regional Islamic connections across the Indian Ocean. As part of his doctoral program at Duke University, he conducted on-site research in Oman, and found many Omanis with strong East African and Indian ancestry. This research then led him to Zanzibar, an island off the east coast of Africa.

“Zanzibar is as part of Middle East history as Cairo,” said Bishara. “The conception of ‘the Middle East’ is a Cold War phenomena, a conception from the State Department.”

Zanzibar was an Omani colony for about 200 years in the 17th and 18th centuries, and in the 19th century it remained a major trading center for Omanis. To this day, many in Zanzibar and other East African communities identify themselves as Arab, not African.  

For Bishara, Zanzibar became an even more interesting case study when he considered that Oman could not have funded its excursion into Zanzibar without significant financial assistance from Gujarati communities in India. Moreover, Balochi mercenaries, part of a Muslim community in the state of modern-day Pakistan, procured slaves for the Omani noble family in East Africa.

Bishara stressed the importance of understanding these trans-regional connections when studying the Middle East.  

“How we delineate the boundaries of our study determines what we see and what we can't see,” said Bishara. “The idea of ‘the Middle East’ blinds us to processes that take Omanis to East Africa, brings Indians to Basra, and locates Yemenis from the Hadramawt in Southeast Asia, all while lumping together Bahrain and Morocco as though they ought to make sense as part of a broader unit. They don't.

“People in ‘the Middle East’ and elsewhere in the world inhabit alternative geographies, and if the task of the historian or social scientist is to make sense of their world then we have to start with their sense of place. This sometimes means ‘the Middle East’ as a category makes sense, but at other times means that we have to replace it with something more imaginative.”

For students in an increasingly globalized world, it becomes imperative to appreciate that a simple delineation of other regions in the world is impossible. To navigate the globalized world successfully, the connections between various societies like those in the Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean Basin, and East Africa must be understood.

And when they are, it might just become apparent that the world has been interconnected for far longer than many would imagine.