A Continent Divided

On a recent visit to Turkey, I was struck by how often people felt the need to constantly remind me how amazing it was that one country could span two continents. Somehow, I missed the glory in what seemed an unremarkable geopolitical happenchance, at best, and a regrettable display of internalized Orientalism, at worst.

Instead, I wondered, should the Middle East be its own continent?

Ideally, we should abandon the idea of continents altogether, turning from the familiar, but distorted, Mercator projection to a Dymaxion map. The commonly used Mercator projection developed in 1568 maps the globe on a rectangular, flat surface which stretches vertical distances. Conversely, the Dymaxion map, developed by former Harvard poetry professor and visionary, R. Buckminster Fuller, projects Earth’s surface onto a polyhedron, minimizing distortion. Not only do Dymaxion maps more accurately represent geography, they also avoid placing countries in accordance with the north-is-good, south-is-bad formula implicit in the tendentious original Mercator. In fact, in 1974, Dr. Arno Peters developed a new projection specifically in response to the inherent racism he saw in the Mercator projection, which disproportionally represents the Northern hemisphere with respect to the Southern one. The segregation of continents is more than a physical issue; it creates ideological and cultural divides so great that linking the two continents now seems to be Turkey’s biggest accomplishment.

Terms like the “Global South,” the “Third World,” and even the “Middle East” are emblematic of the politicization and division of our present geographic world-view. The “Middle East” is itself a relational term: middle to what? Clearly, the Middle East, or the region commonly referred to as Middle East-North Africa (MENA), is defined by contemporary politics rather than a geographic relationship. In scholarship, the term is often clarified with a list of included countries—something unnecessary for conventional continents such as Asia. Yet the media, policymakers, and military strategists alike use the term as is, relying on an assumed contiguity that is remains officially undefined.

Continents have become classifications of convention, rather than strict geography. If continents were simply “continuous bodies of land,” as defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, there would be only four—America, Antarctica, Afro-Eurasia, and Australia. Since that is not the case, it is clear that “continent” now includes national political borders, language isoglosses, and historical circumstances. For example, although Greenland is physically closer to North America, it is a Danish province, and thus a part of the European continent.

Aside from total erasure of the idea of continents, the next best answer—at least at present—is for the Middle East to become its own continent. Given the pervasiveness with which continental discourse both describes and shapes our understanding of the world and its peoples, one can only assume it is here to stay. Thus, I would argue, it is in the Middle East’s best interests to become a full-fledged continent—not because I agree with the cultural and ethnic essentialism that often follows suit, but because the contemporary landscape requires a solidarity beyond solo nation-state politics.

Geographically, the Arabian Peninsula is already a subcontinent, as physically isolated as Europe is from Asia. A continental Middle East would mean added political strength—both in terms of international opinion as well as an increased sense of internal solidarity. Moreover, and more importantly in my mind, it would implant the distinctiveness of the region in the minds of children from the age of their first geography lesson. It is embarrassing and unjust that Middle Eastern nations must continue to identify themselves with respect to Europe and in accordance with its geography, given the brutal legacies of colonization and exploitation at its hands.

It is monumentally paradoxical that campaigns for independence and sovereignty are finalized with the erection of borders and the drawing of demarcation lines. But within the system of representational geopolitics that we have, power requires a discrete entity that can itself wield power. A discrete entity does not, however, necessarily require cultural assimilation; were the region to proclaim its collective autonomy, each nation would have to join willingly and in a way that respects the linguistic, ethnic, economic, and political diversity that the region contains.

Though it does nothing to overturn the fundamentally problematic notion of “the continent,” a continental Middle East would do much to change the external and internal perceptions of the region, starting at the elementary school level. It would provide geopolitical unity, while counteracting the Eurocentric paradigm that for generations has shaped our worldview. Our nomenclature is long overdue for a change, and what better way to shake things up than a continental shift.

Nadia O. Gaber ’09-’10, a Crimson editorial editor, is a history and literature and women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Kirkland House.