History of the Modern Middle East (Richard Bulliet)

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it here before, but I love listening to audio recordings of lectures, especially of university classes. I prefer them to books because I can put them on my phone and then listen to them while walking around, which prevents me from falling asleep (something that happens often when someone with a video-game-rotted brain tries to sit down and read a book). I prefer them to audiobooks because listening to someone read straight from a book is even more boring than actually reading the book yourself. Of course there are bad lecturers who just read straight from their notes or whatever, but a good lecturer is able to deliver the same information and ideas in a more conversational style, which is more interesting to listen to and also easier to follow.

One of my favorite audio-recorded lecture series is History of the Modern Middle East by Columbia University historian Richard Bulliet. HMME was given as an undergraduate history class at Columbia in Spring 2009 (so in particular it doesn’t cover the Arab Spring). It consists of 26 lectures which are about 75 minutes apiece (for a total of a little over 30 hours). Bulliet covers a wide variety of topics related to the Middle East, but also spends quite a bit of time discussing whether the Middle East is even a real thing (see below for his answer to the question of whether Georgia is in the Middle East!).

Before I go into a more detailed review, let me say that I recommend this course without reservation to anyone who reads this blog.

strip mall ottoman fountain

The Modern Middle East

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Is Georgia in the Middle East?

Is Georgia in the Middle East? I’ve found that most people give one of three anwers:

  • The general familiar-with-Georgia public usually says “no”, the reasoning being that Georgia is part of Europe / Russia / whatever, and the Middle East is a whole other thing.
  • Nerds and people who are boring at parties will tell you that the question is meaningless because the so-called “Middle East” is a eurocentric ideological construct designed to bolster Britain’s interests in the blah blah blah…
  • Georgians themselves, as far as I can tell, don’t consider their country to be part of the Middle East mainly because of their religion.
    • Related to this, some non-Georgians say that the only thing to do look at is how Georgians self-identify, and that anyone who disagrees with that self-identification is an asshole.

Now to be fair, the nerds are basically right. The “Middle East” is ultimately a bullshit concept, and any purportedly definitive claim about its would-be borders is bullshit too. The problem with this kind of approach is how unsatisfying it is. It’s one thing to be told an answer that you don’t want to hear, but it’s another thing to be told that your question is no good from the beginning. And besides, is the term “Middle East” really completely meaningless? Does it literally have no meaning at all? I think it does have some kind of meaning, even if it is used in wildly varying and even contradictory ways, and I think there is some value in considering whether Georgia (or any other country) belongs to it.

So assuming that the Middle East is a thing, how can we tell if Georgia is a part of it? Clearly we can’t refer to any definitive borders for the Middle East, so what is there to do? In this post, I would like to look at various properties — geographical, cultural, linguistic, etc — that the Middle East presumably has, and see whether Georgia has them too. If it turns out to have enough of them, then maybe Georgia is in the Middle East. (Spoiler alert: it does, and it is.)

georgia middle east

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