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'.