From the "Uncivilized," with Love
Updated: Mar 9
In the midst of chaos, there is often a beauty that shines through. In the case of the invasion of Ukraine, the destruction and blatant disregard for international law was met with international unity and rescue efforts. Nonetheless, it was also intertwined with the demeaning and dehumanizing terminology towards Middle Eastern and North African peoples. So I pose these questions: What does it mean to use the destruction of one people for the support of another? What does it mean to watch in idleness for decades as people of color suffer, but jump to the rescue of Europe in days? What does it mean to refer to the Middle East as "uncivilized" and "uneducated," when Western intervention left the Middle East in shambles? What does it feel like to be selectively human?
The truth is, most of the western world has no idea what beauty lies in the Middle East and North Africa. How could they? Every depiction of the Middle East and North Africa centers around a yellow sky, dust clouds, camels, and maybe an Ak-47 or two. There is no depiction of Lebanon's Cedars or Faraya Mountain, no explanation of the taste of nabulsi knafeh or zaatar, and no description of freedom. There is, however, rampant links to terrorism, reports of women being forced to wear hijabs or burkas, and a clear misunderstanding that no forms of modern transportation exist in the region.
The media will not depict Palestinians being forced out of their homes for new settlers, the beauty of Jordan's history, or the lives people in Syria led pre-2011. And, really, why would they? There is much benefit in depicting the Middle East and North Africa as a hub for barbaric civilizations deserving of their fate. If the Western World doesn't see the humanity in the region, the wars can continue, the exploitation of oil can continue, and the blatant violation of human rights and international law can continue.
We all watched the terrorism of 9/11 change the world and our safety. Thousands lost their lives in that attack, and millions in the Middle East paid the price for it. Innocent Iraqi and Afghan civilians died, while millions watched it happen and pretended it was necessary for the war against terrorism. Cities and entire civilizations were destroyed. Millions were forced to flee as refugees and were received with contempt and abhorrence. The effect of 20 years of war in the Middle East is much to blame for what we see today. Today, war in the region is expected, it is normalized, and it is widely accepted. And though these dehumanizing opinions may have been hidden for years, with the invasion of Ukraine, it became unapologetically announced. If you don't believe it, it is easily referenced by NBC, BBC, and Al Jazeera English. Kelly Cobiella of NBC exclaimed proudly, " these are not refugees from Syria, these are refugees from Ukraine...They're Christian, they're white, they're very similar.", Congressman Abascal of Spain stated, "Ukrainian refugees are welcome, Muslim refugees are not", Daniel Hannan of the Telegraph wrote, "Ukraine is a European country. Its people watch Netflix and have Instagram accounts, vote in free elections and read uncensored newspapers. War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations.", and (this was my personal favorite) Ukraine's former deputy general prosecutor claimed, "It's very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed."
Would such remarks be accepted if they were about black Americans, Latinx migrants, Asian citizens, or any other ethnic population? Would blatant dehumanization of any other ethnic group have been allowed on international media?
We are deemed "uncivilized" and "uneducated," yet you forget that the coffee you drink every morning originated in Yemen, the University that granted your degree was first founded in Morocco, algebra came from Iran, and hospitals were started in Egypt. You also forget that Middle Eastern and North African civilizations would have withstood the test of time were it not for the bombs dropped on the lands following interventions from the West. You forget that the MENA is the source of the hummus you consume, and the reason tacos in Mexico were invented. You forget all that because it is convenient to do so. It's easier to forget the humanity and influence the MENA has had on your lives because it bears a lesser burden. Otherwise, you would have to remember the millions of Palestinian children killed under apartheid; the millions of Yemenis facing famine; the millions of Syrian refugees left stranded in the seas; and the millions of Afghans abandoned in the hands of the Taliban.
Ask yourself, when was the last time you advocated for Palestine and Yemen publicly or when was the last time you thought about visiting Giza or Petra? For many, the answer to these questions is never.
I am, first and foremost, a Lebanese-American citizen. I have watched the MENA region face death and destruction, and I have seen human beings lose their lives' work in the blink of an eye. I have seen suicide bombers wreak havoc on civilizations, I have seen an illegal occupation and apartheid lead to the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian race, I have seen Syrian refugees be refused access to basic rights, and I have seen an ethnicity of intelligence, poise, love, creativity, and life undergo more hardship than the West could imagine. Through all these events, the most important theme I have seen is perseverance. Through chaos, through destruction, through war, and through famine, the Middle East and North Africa have persevered. And now, MENA will bear the international apathy it has been subjected to this week and carry on persevering.
The people who live in the last places - the people who are most neglected and least valued by the larger world - often represent the best of who we are and the finest standard of what we are meant to become. This is the power that last places hold over me, and why I have found it impossible to resist their pull. - Greg Mortenson