Life as an Anthropologist Facing a Conflictive Middle East
By John Mason/ Arab America Contributing Writer
From the moment my wife and I set foot in Libya in 1968, we were stepping into an environment defined by the Middle East conflict. This conflict includes the Sunni-Shia divide or to the time of the Crusades which began in the 11th century. Its modern seeds can perhaps be defined by the post-World War I colonization of the region by western countries.
Then, there was the founding of Israel in 1948, followed in 1967 by Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. Critics see this occupation as just another form of colonization that has further exacerbated the conflict.
We can’t discount the U.S. role in this arena, particularly, the war with Iraq in 2003. That war has had many repercussions, including extensive instability in the region up to this day. Our family’s life with Arab peoples has been touched significantly by one aspect or another of these events.
Our first direct experience with Middle Eastern conflict was the 1969 coup of Muamar Qadhafi, following which my wife and I were given 24 hours to exit Libya. At that time, Libyans were also hurting from the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, in which the Israelis took over the West Bank and Gaza. Second was the Ashr’a Ramadhan or 6th of October 1973 war between Egypt and other Arab countries against Israel. We witnessed that war firsthand, often sympathizing with our Egyptian neighbors or colleagues based on a mutual fear that the Israeli army would come marching up the Nile River to conquer Cairo.
Next was our experience in Libya for a second time, 1977-79, when the country had become a full-blown police state. My wife and I were the objects of 24/7 surveillance by the Libyan Mukhabarat or secret police. That was not fun. Despite our discomfort with a round-the-clock check on our lives, our children learned to play with Libyan children, using Egyptian Arabic dialect to communicate. Our daughter, in particular, took some teasing from the Libyan kids because of her Egyptian accent. As parents, we couldn’t have been prouder.
As an international development consultant, I continued to brush up against conflict situations. In Northern Iraq during 1994, I experienced the aftermath of the first Gulf War. That part of Iraq was under the British and American-imposed no-fly-zone directed at Saddam Hussein to keep him from doing further damage to the Kurds. My team and I had armed guard security from Kurdish Peshmergas or ‘one who confronts death’. Each team member had one of these Kurdish warriors assigned to him/her; our guards never strayed more than a few feet away from us.
Yet another time, I was out in Kurdistan several times in 2008-09 during the second Gulf War. Life there was a bit more secure, though not fully. In my work there, I often had to don a bullet-proof vest and from time to time even a helmet. Previously, I had never considered that as an anthropologist interested in other people’s’ lives under such conditions. Work in the Middle East over the past several years. in general, has become much more security-driven.
Today, it is not so easy as an anthropologist, or for that matter, any social scientist, to work in some of the conflicts zones occurring over significant parts of the Middle East. Syria is such a war zone. This war is complicated by Syrian nationalist, Iranian and Iraqi, and Russian and U. S. forces—all competing for one piece of the action or other. In Yemen, there is a war being fought by the Houthis, or Supporters of God, a mostly Shia-led movement in northern Yemen. This anti-government force is fighting against combined forces of Saudi Arabia and the U. S., in a horrible war that has been festering for over a decade.
These wars make almost any civilian input untenable. Of course, in a hopeful post-conflict era, we, social scientists, will be back at work in these formerly war-ravaged zones, helping to develop programs to serve the remaining citizens who had no choices during these wars but to try and survive.
After spending a considerable portion of my life over a fifty year period in the Middle East, I have a personal view of the future of that Region. In this scenario, the prospect for resolution of ethnoreligious conflicts in the Middle East is, unfortunately, bleak. Where autocracy reigns, where repression is the norm, and where few peaceful means to such resolution exist. Regional ethnoreligious conflict is occurring as of this writing will likely continue unabated. Therefore, we will no doubt be a witness in the foreseeable future to a continued cycle of violence and discrimination against minorities. And the Sunni-Shia conflict and Israeli-Arab conundrum will also continue to rear their ugly heads.
Fortunately, there are exceptions to the above scenario, in which some Arab countries are working hard to govern fairly and to accept input from their citizens. May these countries succeed and become the model for others.