The Middle World

The Middle World

Perhaps the most fascinating and important area of the world is what we’ll dub the “Middle World” (to borrow a term from Tamim Ansary). This is not really a coherent region, but encompasses the parts of Eurasia (and Africa) between Europe and East Asia. I include in it the following regions: the Middle East and its appendages (North Africa, the Horn of Africa, the Balkans, and the Caucasus), Russia, Central Asia (including western China), South Asia, and Southeast Asia.

As I noted before, this is an entirely disparate region. However strong my interest in both Europe and the Orient, which often surpasses my interest over many parts of the Middle World, it is the Middle World that I have dedicated myself to in my intellectual life and as an expert, especially the “core region” (the traditional Middle East and South Asia). Why?

Other than my own personal interest, I believe this region ought to be studied because it needs empathy and deep understanding from its own perspective. There are many advocates and lovers of various European and East Asian cultures in the West (I myself am an Anglophile, a Francophile, and a Japanophile) but not as many for the civilizations of India, Persia, or the Arab World, and perhaps even fewer for the countries of Central Asia. The histories and stories of these places need to be told more often, to larger audiences.

What really makes the Middle World notable is that unlike the regions to its east and west, the Orient (East Asia), and the Occident (Europe, and later the Americas), it was never isolated or walled-off enough to develop its own distinct civilizations in a bounded way. While there are many unique civilizations in the Middle World, there is a great deal of mixing and heterogeneity between them. Tribalism, multiple religious communities, and linguistic diversity characterize this entire area, with multiple civilizations often mixing into one another. Yet trade and the distinctiveness of the civilizations to the east and west shaped this region into a whole in some ways.

In terms of culture and development, the modern Middle World hasn’t embraced the rational, bureaucratic modernism the Western and Eastern worlds have. The Orient (East Asia) and the Occident (Western Civilization) have more in common than initially meets the eye, though there are obvious differences in attitudes toward a variety of social and political issues. But what they have in common is their ability to transcend (but maybe not forever) many of the characteristics of traditional civilizations still evident in the Middle World. By this, I mean the tribalism, the domestic maneuvering, and the patrimonialism that characterizes the societies of much of this region. I remember once asking someone why they preferred studying Central and South Asia instead of East Asia, to which the reply was “East Asia’s too calm, whereas Central Asian countries are sort of bubbling.” I think this captures, in essence, the fascination that some people have with the Middle World.

But the Middle World isn’t static. It is changing rapidly, and one of the great stories of our century will be watching it make peace with the modern spirit of the times while also retaining some traditions and casting off others. This change is the cause of much of the angst that permeates the region. It is wonderful to watch. The countries and intellectual lives of many Western countries or a country like Japan have all settled in a way that cannot be said of much of the Middle World, where ideas and possibilities for the future are still being explored.

The Middle World is thus an area, or group of areas worthy of interest because of its past, much of which still needs to be explored and conveyed to a wider audience, as well as its cultural gems (food, art, music, and the like) and the fact that the societies of the region have a sort unique fervor or passion to them at the present.

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