For current students and faculty/staff

Library Event Highlights Rich Traditions of Middle East

Roots and Culture Take Stage at Wings of Knowledge Talk

Skyline of the Old City at the Western Wall and Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Israel.

As educator and cultural consultant Mohamed Defaa describes it, the Middle East is a complex, even elusive geopolitical concept, a region profoundly altered by European Imperialism.

Defaa, who is originally from Morocco, joined the NHTI Learning Commons Library Feb. 1 and Feb. 8 to discuss the roots and manifestations of the region’s fraught relationship with Western powers and to encourage appreciation of its aspirations and rich traditions and cultures.

“That part of the world became a puzzle, where the interests are shared between very few countries,” including France, England, and Italy, Defaa said during a Zoom presentation that included slides depicting historical events and figures. “And look how divided and decomposed this territory became.”

As Defaa described it, European powers devised countries based on political interests, creating tribal divisions that led to unexpected hostilities — and alliances.

“They created Iraq, and they did not know that the tribe living in Iraq was related to the tribe that was living in Jordan. So, when Americans hit Iraq, people from Jordan went to fight in Iraq.”

In the 18th and 19th centuries, European powers competed for control over vast oil reserves in the region. British oil companies gained a firm foothold in Iran. With the election of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh came sweeping social and economic reforms, including nationalization of the oil industry. This angered the British, who withdrew from the Iranian oil market. Britain then appealed to the U.S. for help, leading to a CIA-backed overthrow of Mossadegh.

In these and other instances, according to Defaa, Western powers at times supported autocratic leaders in the interest of stability, while the majority of the population suffered from poverty and political corruption.

It was police corruption that prompted Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi to set himself on fire in 2010, Defaa said, setting off what has become known as the Arab Spring. Protests moved from Tunisia to Egypt, Libya, Syria, and beyond.

“Most of the Arab world had seen those young people standing in the middle of the streets and staying there for months,” he said. “This movement basically changed the horizon of most of those countries — for a moment.” Lack of robust support from democratic countries, he suggested, greatly hindered the movement.

In addition to understanding what lies behind strife in the region, Defaa urged fuller appreciation of the region’s diverse traditions, cultures, and many languages, which include Assyrian, Berber, Coptic, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, and Maltese.

“The beauty in the Arab and the Muslim world is seen everywhere, in the food, the music, in the art, in the poetry. There are so many movies, so many books to read about this part of the world. I encourage you to explore that and enjoy what this civilization is offering to the rest of the world.”

Some of Mohamed Defaa’s viewing recommendations: For Sama  and Children of Heaven.

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The Wings of Knowledge speaker series, hosted by the library, was launched in 2001 in conjunction with the opening of the Learning Commons building. This program facilitates close interaction between the College and its surrounding communities. The cultural events promoted by Wings of Knowledge are free and open to the public. They encourage us to explore ideas in the humanities and social sciences and help the College fulfill its mission to enrich the intellectual lives of our learning and geographic communities by promoting life-long learning and fostering robust relationships between our institution and members of our city, county, state, and beyond.

For more information and to see upcoming Wings of Knowledge Events, visit our Library page and Events page.


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