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Why is the Middle East so Stereotyped in the West?
Eric Davis
Department of Political Science and Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Rutgers University
Michael Rossi
Department of Political Science, Rutgers University

LESSON PLAN: 1.4

TOPIC: Historically, what experiences have made Americans prone to view the Middle East through stereotypical lenses? How did the world's fairs during the 19th and 20th centuries help Americans shape stereotypes of the Middle East?

THEMES OR CORE QUESTIONS:

  1. How was visiting a world's fair during the late 19th and early 20th centuries similar to visiting a museum today, e.g., the Epcot Center World Showcase? How would the experiences have differed?
  2. How were Americans' views of foreign cultures affected by their visits to world's fairs? What types of attitudes did they develop?
  3. In particular, how were the many school children who went to the worlds' fairs, affected by their visits?
  4. What factors help explain why exhibits of Middle Eastern and other foreign countries were constructed in the way that they were?
  5. How did the exhibits created by Middle East countries themselves help reinforce American stereotypes of the region?

TIME REQUIRED: 1 - 3 class periods

SUGGESTED GRADE LEVEL: 9 - 12

NEW JERSEY CORE CURRICULUM STANDARDS: 1.5; 3.3-3.5; 6.5; 6.8

INSTRUCTIONAL OBJECTIVES:

  1. Administer a "regional literacy" survey to test the global awareness of students (see attachment under "Resources").
  2. Demonstrate that the concepts used to understand foreign cultures and societies are often conditioned by the visual images we see of them.
  3. Explain how stereotypical images are initially formed, and persist over time.

STRATEGIES OR METHODS:

  1. Global Literacy: The teacher gives students a set of countries, e.g., Egypt, Iraq, Germany, Italy, China, and Japan. Students are then asked to write down three to five images that immediately come to mind when they think of them. This is done to ascertain what initial concepts students think of when they are asked to think about certain societies. The teacher then distributes a short quiz testing what basic knowledge students have of the geography of the Middle East.
  2. Students are then shown images from exhibits at world's fair expositions and are asked to comment on how they interpret such images. These images will show both exhibits of Western "progress" and exhibits of "foreign cultures." Allow time for discussion of each image, and how these images were portrayed at the worlds' fairs (see "Resource" section).
  3. Discuss how certain stereotypes are perpetuated within the community that is itself stereotyped under question. Does the way outsiders view a particular community influence the way members of that community view themselves?
  4. Ask students how their own ethnic heritage is understood, or not understood, by other communities. Do they find that stereotypical images of their cultural heritage are often misconstrued?

VOCABULARY: Stereotype, stereotyping, culture, civilized, misrepresentation, "we" versus "they", "others".

ACTIVITIES: Slide show of images, links to articles on world's fairs, discussions.

MATERIALS:

  1. Reading material: Eric Davis, "Representations of the Middle East at American World Fairs 1876-1904"
  2. Global Literacy Test
  3. Links to various worlds' fair websites and image groups (see links under "Resources")

ASSESSMENT: Grade student performance on assignments given, and in class discussions.

ABSTRACT:
If "a picture is worth a thousand words", then those words must create mental images and methods of understanding among individuals. What images does one associate with "Egypt"? Pyramids? Pharaohs? Sphinxes? Camels? Mummies? What images does one associate with "Italian"? Fast cars? Gondolas? Pasta? Wine? Pizza? What are interesting to study is not just why particular images come into our minds when we see or recognize something, but how such images and thoughts came to be associated with such pictures in the first place.

Stereotypes are formed in two parts. The first is creating an image or an idea of the "other": the person, people, or community that is "not me." That is, what is it about what "those" people do and do not do that makes them distinct from "me"? The second image is a reflection on what makes "me" the person I am. More specifically, how do we create images and ideas of ourselves by looking at others?

A study into Worlds' Fair expositions in America in the late 19th and early 20th century reveals interesting examples of how Americans came to associate themselves with the larger world they were entering. There were two goals that American enterprises were seeking to demonstrate at the Worlds' Fair expositions, specifically at the 1933 - 34 Chicago World's Fair, entitled "A Century of Progress". The first goal was to place American ingenuity, growth, and power on par with the great "civilized nations" of the world: the English, French, and Germans. American progress was measured in technology, industry, agriculture, science, and ingenuity.

The second goal was to showcase the world to visitors, and highlight the distinctive character of foreign societies. The worlds' fairs, much like contemporary museums, such as the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the World Showcase at Epcot Center, were designed to be "living" museums that could provide an educational experience that taught the visitor how to properly understand, and situate, American and foreign societies in an emerging global society.

However, in addition to education, the Worlds' Fairs also sought to situate the United States, and American citizens in a so-called timeline of progression and evolution descending from great civilizations of past ages to the present. Exhibits of various countries had images and themes that seemed to have been deliberately selected to fit with an emerging American perception of the world.

Specifically, three main themes emerged from showcasing the Middle East. The first theme focused on great civilizations of age long gone: Ancient Egypt and Carthage were showcased for Egypt and Tunisia. The second theme was the Middle East as the Holy Land: Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and the Land of Christ and Moses. These were highly potent images as American religious movements were seeking to link the heritage of Christianity with the original geographic locations. The third and final theme focused on the exotic and decadent life of Arab culture and society, and offset secular trends in American society. Images relating to The Arabian Nights, the sultan's harem, and implications of a siliceous culture were contrasted with the conservative and orderly life of the "Western" man.

What thoughts may have been generated in the minds of the average American viewer? At one level, the Chicago World's Fair was meant to place America above other civilizations, and among the current leading countries of the world during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At another level, non-Western societies, specifically the Middle East, were portrayed as having once had great civilizations in the past, but as having now degenerated to native, almost primitive forms of living. Finally, the fairs emphasized strong links of America, as a great Christian nation, with the Holy Land.

Additional questions arise after examining how the worlds' fairs were organized. If great countries like England, France, and Germany were showcased for their technological progress, why was Germany not also showcased for, say, its beer, or yodeling, or Schuplattler dancing? Why was France not also showcased for its wines, cheeses, or pastries?

The larger question therefore, is why were certain images emphasized? Why was, and is, Egypt portrayed for its ancient civilization of pyramids, pharaohs and mummies, and not for its contemporary contributions? Why is the Middle East in general either portrayed at a lavish backdrop of mystery, intrigue, harems, genies, "Ali Babas", or as a primitive, suspicious, hostile, violent region? Following this, how do such images persist over time, and become socially accepted stereotypes? How do we come to accept such understandings of people, places, and societies as an almost immediate response to what we see? How do we select the words to define the visual images we see?


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