What do we mean when we use the term ‘Middle East’? It is a difficult term, for while it has been in common usage for a little over a century, the region encompassed by it has taken several different forms over that time. Certainly the region that Australians and New Zealanders define as the Middle East today is very different from the Middle East of the early twentieth century. The term also has its roots in military and strategic concerns, and has never reflected the diversity of the region's cultures, languages, religions and peoples.
It is important to note that all of these terms – Near East, Middle East and Far East – are European constructs. For there to be a Middle or Near East, they had to be east of somewhere, and that meant east of Europe. For centuries the region had simply been ‘the East’, but as Europe became increasingly involved in the region in the nineteenth century, more detailed definitions were required. The result of this closer involvement were the Eurocentric terms Near East, Far East and Middle East.
With the Near East linked to the Ottoman Empire, it is logical that the term fell out of favour after the First World War and the Empire’s dissolution. Yapp notes that “the Near East became gradually engulfed in the Middle East as the latter term began to be used to include the Arab states which emerged from the Ottoman Empire.” By the time of the Second World War, the Near East had faded from use, its territories subsumed by the Middle East, which was then only defined against the Far East – usually meaning such places as China and Japan.
During the Second World War, British Middle East Command (under which the New Zealand Division served) had a broad view of what was included in the Middle East. Military definitions of the region encompassed everything from Tunisia in the west to Transjordan in the east; from Greece in the north to Sudan in the south. During the war, New Zealanders and Australians ranged far and wide, across Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Palestine, Transjordan, Syria, Iran and Iraq. They experienced (and reported back to their families) the diverse landscapes, languages, customs, foods and clothing of these countries, despite the homogenisation of the term 'Middle East'.
My dear Home Folk,
So begins Tressie Madden's first letter home to her family in Melbourne in January 1904. Tressie had been sent to Egypt, and to her doctor-brother Frank, by her family who were concerned about her poor health, and her letters describe a social whirl in a bustling, exciting, cosmopolitan city.
For over a year, we have been 'visiting' early-20th-century Cairo, and other cities, villages, camps and farms, through our research. Through the letters, photographs, diaries and souvenirs sent home, we've been able to glimpse the experiences of Australians and New Zealanders who travelled to the region we call the Middle East. Josh has focussed on the writings and photos of New Zealand soldiers and nurses who served in the Middle East during the Second World War. He has discovered a rich range of views influenced by soldiers' fears and homesickness, sense of adventure, knowledge of the Bible and education in Classics. Soldiers and nurses photographed scenery, sites, and local peoples; they shopped and ate at stalls and cafes, as well as in the homes of locals. There will be more from Josh in the coming weeks...
For my part, I have been surprised at how many versions and reflections of the Middle East appeared at home in Australia and New Zealand. The souvenirs and presents bought by those who were overseas were worn - and worn out - and displayed, and decoration, new architecture, cinema, novels and fashions were all influenced by 'Eastern' glamour. (White) Australians 'discovered' the outback and became much more aware of the desert in their own country, drawing comparisons with other 'desert peoples'. And immigration, from Lebanon in particular, meant that even small-town Australians and New Zealanders had contact with Middle Eastern peoples. All of these versions of Middle Eastern cultures, no matter how partial or filtered through other lenses, shaped Australasians' ideas of what the region was, and who lived there.
In the coming months we'll be posting snippets from our research for you to enjoy. Feel free to get in contact with us, or to leave a comment on one of our posts.