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Design Education in the

Middle East

laying the groundwork


Front Cover Photograph by Doreen Toutikian, Beirut 2005


Design Education in the

Middle East

laying the groundwork

Research proposal presented to Prof. Uta Brandes Doreen Toutikian February 2010


CONTENTS 1Where exactly is the Middle East?

2From Civilization to Pandemonium Historical Overview of the Middle East

2.1 Ancient Civilizations 2.1.1


The Invention of Writing

Sumerian Pictographs and Cuneiform Script Egyptian Hieroglyphs The Phoenician Alphabet

Other Significant Inventions

2.2 The Persian Empire 2.3

The Spread of Islam


Islamic Visual Identity

Aniconism Islamic Patterns and Geometry Arabian and Moresque Ornaments Arabic Calligraphy

2.4 The Ottoman Empire 2.5

The Rise and Fall of Arabism



The Middle East Today 3.1 Economy 3.2 Globalization and cultural identity 3.3



Literacy Rates 3.3.2 Arabic and English Language 3.3.3 Quality and international comparisons 3.3.4 Education and labour 3.3.5 Gender inequalities 3.3.6 Private Education and Future Challenges 4

Research proposal: Design Education in the Middle East


Bibliography 5

Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Peters, “Blood Borders: How a Better Middle East would Look”, Armed Forces Journal, July 2006.


Where exactly is the Middle East? In June 2006 at the height of the Anglo-American sponsored Israeli siege of Lebanon, the U.S. Secretary of State and the Israeli Prime Minister heralded the introduction and conceptualization of the term “New Middle East”, which was introduced by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in replacement of the older and more imposing term, the “Greater Middle East” -advocated earlier by the Bush administration. Indeed within the same month, Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Peters, a retired colonel of the U.S. National War Academy, drew an enlightening picture of this “New Middle East” and had it published in the Armed Forces Journal. The map (right) is his work, which was complemented with the sub title: “Blood Borders: How a Better Middle East would Look”. (Nazemroaya, 2006) In fact, this is probably a good example as to why people living outside the vague sphere of the Middle East, are never quite sure where it exactly stands. With the borders being constantly changed by the world’s ‘superpowers’, a precise and globally acknowledged geopolitical description of its borders seems improbable. On the other hand, many people would refer to this area as the Arab World, a term I personally -as well as many others living in this region- are not exactly fond of. This group of countries put together for imperialistic purposes is a patchwork of communities with different ethnic and cultural backgrounds; therefore, naming this bundle of semi-independent countries ‘the Arab World’ is unjust to the Israelis, the Lebanese, the Persians, and the Egyptians. Although the Lebanese and Egyptians acknowledge Arabic as one of their official languages, many refuse to be stereotyped as Arabs

based on ancestral and religious grounds. Whereas, the Israelis and the Persians neither share Arabic roots nor language with the others. This issue has been reason for major conflict in the region and its origin could be traced back to the ideology of Pan-Arabism, which was initiated in 1915 as a response against the oppression of Ottoman Empire. “At present, many Arabs have suspended their belief in the Arab nation, and now openly doubt whether there is a collective Arab mission. Those recently swept up by Islamic activism prefer to think of themselves first and foremost as Muslims, and do so without apology. At times, their lexicon has turned “the Arabs” into a derogatory label, implying wastefulness, incompetence, and subservience. Other Arabs plainly prefer to be known as Egyptians, Syrians, Jordanians, Moroccans — citizens of over twenty independent states, each with its own flag and own interests. Some have even taken to referring to themselves as Middle Easterners, in anticipation of an Arab-Israeli peace and a new regional order of cooperation modeled on Europe.” (Kramer, 1993) Hence, for the sake of clarity in this research proposal, we are conforming to the traditional Eurocentric terminology‘the Middle East’, first published in September1902 in the National Review by Alfred Mahan, a United States Navy flag officer. The Middle East is a territory covering 16 countries and states in northeastern Africa and southwestern Asia. The countries are: Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, the West Bank/ Gaza Strip, and Yemen. (Adelson, 1995)


From Civilization to Pandemonium Historical Overview of the Middle East

Sir John Baggot Glubb, a British general best known for leading Transjordan’s Arab Legion in the 1940s, enjoyed reminding his readers that in terms of civilization and culture, the Middle East region was in advance of Western Europe for all but the last 500 years of the 5000 or so years for which human history can be traced back. (Mansfield 1991)

Ancient Civilizations The Edinburgh Geographical Institute, 1893

Known worldwide as the Cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) has been on the map since approximately 4000BC. Much of the aspects of our daily lives can be traced back to the innovations of the Sumerians, Assyrians, and Babylonians- the peoples of Mesopotamia. Moreover, the Empire of Egypt and the following civilizations who dwelled within the area known as the Middle east between 4000BC and 1000BC, have also contributed greatly to the very beginnings of present life. The invention of writing is often considered the beginning of communication design history (Meggs 1983) The creation of tools, such as the wheel and the seeder plow, were the some of the first objects in human history that were designed and crafted for the sake of human efficiency and convenience. The beginning of civilization also implied the foundation of urban design and architecture, as well as the implication of larger more complex systems such as irrigation and sanitation. (British Museum)


Sumerian symbols for God, head and water, 3100. BC , these developed into the early cuneic writing by 2500BC (Meggs)

The Invention of Writing “The contemporary graphic designer is the heir to a distinguished ancestry...Writing is the visual counterpart of speech. Marks, symbols, pictures and letters drawn or written on a surface became a graphic counterpart of the spoken word or unspoken thought.” (Meggs, 1983)

Sumerian Pictographs and Cuneiform Script The Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia are credited with inventing the earliest form of writing, which appeared ca. 3500B.C. The earlier system of writing began with pictographic drawings of objects, accompanied by numerals and personal names inscribed in orderly columns on clay tablets. A reed stylus sharpened to a point was used to draw the fine curved lines of the early pictographs. Beginning in the top right-hand corner of the tablet, they were written in careful vertical columns. This system of writing underwent an evolution of several centuries. A grid system was developed to contain writing in vertical and horizontal divisions. Around 2800BC the scribes turned the pictographs on their sides and began to write in horizontal rows from left to right and top to bottom. This made writing easier and made the pictographs less literal. About three hundred years later, writing speed was increased by replacing the sharp pointed stylus with a triangular tipped one. This stylus was pushed into the clay instead of being dragged through it. The characters were now composed of a series of wedge-shaped stokes rather than a continuous line drawing.

This innovation radically changed the nature of the writing; pictographs evolved into abstract sign writing called cuneiform (from the Latin for “wedged-shaped”). The more the writing evolved, the more its ability to record information expanded. The signs reached a level where they no longer just represented animate and inanimate objects, but also ideographs that expressed abstract thought. For example, the symbol for ‘sun’ began to represent ideas such as ‘day’ and ‘light’. As early scribes developed their written language so that it would function in the same way as their speech, the need to represent spoken sounds that were not easily depicted arose. Adverbs, prepositions, and personal names could not often be adapted to pictographic representation; so picture symbols began to represent the sound of the object de-


background: Detail of the code of Hammurabi, c. 1800 BC, Musee de Louvre, Paris.

picted instead of the object itself. Cuneiform became rebus writing; pictures became phonograms, graphic symbols for sounds. The highest development of cuneiform was its use of abstract signs to represent syllables. The Assyrians later simplified this system of writing into five hundred and sixty signs, however, it was still a remarkable challenge to master the cuneiform writing. Writing fuelled a knowledge explosion, which filled libraries with clay tablets on all subjects; from religion, mathematics, history, law, medicine and astronomy to commercial contracts, and even literature such as epics, poetry, myths, legends, and hymns. Furthermore, these records enabled the society to adapt to standardized measurements and weights. One of the most famous of these tablets is the first Code of Law, established by Hammurabi (1930-1880BC), which spelled out crimes and their punishment, thus establishing social order and justice. (Meggs, 1983)

The Blau Monument, early Sumerian from the third quarter of the fourth millenium BC. It is the oldest artifact combining images and writing (The British Museum London.


Egyptian Hieroglyphs By the time that the land of Egypt was unified under one dynasty, the Egyptians had already adopted some of the Sumerian inventions of Mesopotamia. But unlike the Sumerians, who evolved their pictographs into abstract cuneiform, the Egyptians retained their picture writing system called hieroglyphs (Greek for ‘sacred carving’) for almost three and a half millennia. The earliest known hieroglyphs date from about 3100BC. For nearly fifteen centuries, the Egyptian hieroglyphs were a complete mystery. The last people to use this language system were fourth century Egyptian temple priests, and they were so secretive that the Greek and Roman scholars of the era believed that this fascinating writing was nothing more than magical symbols for sacred rites. Then in 1799 Napoleon’s troops, who were digging foundation in the Frenchoccupied Egyptian town of Rosetta, unearthed a black slab bearing an inscription of two languages and three scripts: Egyptian hieroglyphics, Egyptian demotic script, and Greek; it had been written in 197 or 196 BC. The major deciphering of the Rosetta Stone hieroglyphs was accredited to Jean Francois Champollion (1790-1832). He realised that some of the signs were alphabetic, others syllabic, and some were determinatives (signs that determined how the preceding glyphs should be interpreted). After Champollion’s publication of the Egyptian Dictionary and Egyptian Grammar, Egyptologists who followed during the course of the nineteenth century were able to unlock the mysteries of Egyptian history and culture that had been preserved in this graphic-language system.

The Rosetta Stone, c. 197 -196 BC depicting the concurrent hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek inscriptions. The British Museum, London.

Inscriptions on the Cartouch of Sesostris I c. 1950 BC Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Alphabet characters have been applied beside each hieroglyph to demonstrate the approximate phonetic sounds dedeciphered by Champollion.


consonant sounds, but they never developed signs for the connecting vowel sounds; however, combining the various glyphs formed a skeletonized form of every word. Also, the design flexibility of hieroglyphs was greatly increased by the choice of writing direction; one started from the direction in which the living creature was facing -meaning that all horizontal and vertical directions were allowed. The ancient Egyptians had an extraordinary sense of design, and they were sensitive too he remarkable decorative and textural qualities of their hieroglyphs. Hieroglyphs were carved into massive stones and painted, others covered the interior and exterior of temples and tombs, furniture, utensils, clothing and jewellery bore the symbols as well. It is believed that they served decorative and inscriptional purpose, since some hieroglyphs were ascribed magical and religious values. Moreover, the Egyptians were the first people to produce illustrated manuscripts in which words and pictures combine to communicate information; the most important of which being the Book of the Dead, an ‘instruction manual’ about one’s journey into the afterlife. (Meggs, 1983) The Final Judgement from the Papyrus of Ani c. 1420 BC British Museum London.

Sarcophagus of Aspalta c. 593 -568 BC Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Like the Sumerians, the Egyptian scribes also faced difficulties in expressing certain words in visual form, so they devised a rebus using pictures for sounds to write the desired word. They also designated pictorial symbols for designated


The Phoenician Alphabet Early visual language systems including the Sumerian cuneiform and the Egyptian hieroglyphs contained a built-in complexity. In each, pictographs had become rebus writing, ideographs, logograms, or even a syllabary; but they were still far too difficult to learn for the common man. The invention of the alphabet (from Greek alpha and beta) defines a major leap in human communications. “An alphabet is a series of simple visual symbols that stand for elementary sounds. They can be connected and combined to make a visual configuration for any and every sound, syllable, and word uttered by the human mouth.� The hundreds of signs and symbols required by older language systems were replaced by twenty or thirty easily learned elementary signs. The earliest known alphabetical writings come from the ruins of ancient Phoenicia, a culture that developed in what is now known as Lebanon and parts of Syria and Israel. Situated on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea, between the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations, the Phoenicians absorbed influences and ideas from both. During the second millennia BC, the Phoenicians developed as a seafaring and merchant society with settlements throughout the Mediterranean world. Their sailing ships were the fastest and best engineered in the ancient world, and they used them to import and export various goods. They also invented a deep crimson dye which was so costly (extracted from a Mediterranean

mollusk) that those could afford it were branded as royalty. But none of those contribution compare to their major contribution to human civilization, the phonetic alphabet. Apparently, it was Phoenician ethnic pride and practical nature that pushed them to create a writing system for their own northern Semitic speech. The Phoenician alphabet is made up of 22 characters, written from right to left, and has been classified as an abjad, meaning it records only consonant sounds (with the addition of matres lectionis for vowels). One of the oldest datable inscriptions in the Phoenician alphabet is found on the limestone sarcophagus of the Byblos King Ahiram (c.1000BC).

Early Phoenician Alphabet c. 1500 BC. The twenty two letters of the first alphabetical system.


Phoenician became one of the most widely used writing systems, spread by Phoenician merchants across the Mediterranean world, where it was assimilated by many other cultures and evolved. Many modern writing systems thought to have descended from Phoenician cover much of the world. The Aramaic alphabet, a modified form of a Phoenician

prototype, was the ancestor of the modern Arabic and Hebrew scripts. The graphic forms of the Hebrew alphabet are squared bold letters with the horizontal strokes thicker than the vertical ones. Basically, the Hebrew alphabet is the twenty-two consonant letters of the ancient northern Semitic alphabet. The Arabic language also contains the twenty-two original sounds of the Semitic alphabet, plus six additional characters at the end. Both of these alphabets are still written from right to left in the manner of their early origins. The Greek alphabet (and by extension its descendants such as the Latin, the Cyrillic and the Coptic) was a direct successor of Phoenician, though certain letter values were modified to represent vowels. (Meggs, 1983) With regards to communication design in contemporary terms, it is safe to say that the origin of most graphic representations from typography and iconography to logographs, signs and symbols originated in the Middle East. So how is it that this region of the world, which preceded the rest of the world by hundreds of years with this technology, is not currently at the forefront of contemporary communication design scene? As the history unveils, it seems inevitable that socio-political and religious interventions were the cause of major setbacks from this perspective.


Illustration depicting the transformation of writing (Meggs, 1983)

Other Significant Inventions

The seeder plow, invented by the Mesopotamians, was a major technological achievement. It revolutionized agriculture by carrying out the tasks of seeding and ploughing simultaneously. Seed was dropped down the middle funnel into the furrow that the plow created. The ancient Mesopotamians believed that the god Enlil created the seeder plow and that the image of the plow could also be seen in the stars. They discovered that by observing the movements of celestial bodies they could measure time, which was key for planting crops and for holding religious festivals. Their astronomical observations still aid today’s scientists. The ancient Mesopotamians were a highly inventive people who created many innovations. They not only invented the seeder plow, but also developed irrigation and sanitation techniques, the “Pythagorean theorem,” the concept of zero, glass, and the arch, column, and dome. They revolutionized transportation around 3500 B.C. by inventing the wheel and were among the first to harness the wind as an energy source by using the sail. (British Museum) To strict orthodox designers, referring to tools and crafts invented and refined with different material as the beginnings of product design, is an unacceptable statement. Obviously it is easier to define product design in terms of industrialization and mass production, but let there be a modest consideration towards the fact that design -without the needs and implementations of ancient peoples- would not -in the long run- have come to existence today.

“…if we think of modern production facilities within furniture companies that are fully CNC based, we might not see the link between the traditional crafts and modern furniture production… Industrialization is a synonym for the beginning of a new era of time in terms of speed, distance, place and size. If we compare these facts with what has been happening since the introduction of computer aided design and cnc-based production we can find parallels between the changes initiated by the turn form craftsmanship to industrialization. Why should design care about these comparisons? If design evolves more and more into an interdisciplinary profession, if design wants to get deeper into its surrounding fields of its everyday „playgrounds“, design has to build up a knowledge basis similar to any of a scientific discipline. The quality of not being just an add-on, but rather a true economical and social factor within certain equations, can only be created by knowledge. Talking about tradition and innovation might imply a contradiction, but actually it defines two aspects depending upon each other!” (Bibi 2009)


The Persian Empire The Persian Empire or Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BC) was not only the largest empire to dominate the entire Middle East, but also the essential heritage that modern day Iranians still reminisce. The Persians were then masters of the whole civilized world of the time, apart from China. Persia prospered under a well-structured system of governance based on the Zoroatrianistic values of truth and justice; administration was efficient, roads were built and taxes were collected regularly. This empire is also known for the establishment of the monetary system and the postal service.


The region enjoyed two hundred years of peace and prosperity. The greatest achievement of the empire -in relation to our subject- is most certainly the city of Persepolis, as it is till today a landmark of iconic proportions. Moreover, the ancient Persians were very skilled craftsmen; the few pieces of decorative art that have survived convey detailed aesthetic sense of design.

Historic map of the Achaemenid Empire, William R. Shepherd 1923

The Persian Empire made possible the first significant and continuous contact between East and West. It was the world’s first religiously tolerant empire and consisted of a multitude of different languages, races, religions and cultures. Prior to the rise of the Roman Empire, it set a precedent for the importance of the rule of law, a powerful centralized army and an efficient and systematic state administration. However, the greatest legacy of the Persian Empire was that it demonstrated for the first time how diverse peoples can culturally flourish and economically prosper under one central government. In 334 BC The Empire fell after Alexander the Great of Macedonia invaded and defeated the Persians therefore claiming the Middle East. Meanwhile, the Roman Empire was broadening its borders. As the Christian religion spread throughout the Empire it took root in the Middle East and cities such as Alexandria became important centres of Christian scholarship. By the 5th century, Roman Christianity was the dominant religion in the Middle East. The Middle East’s ties to the city of Rome would gradually be severed as the Empire split into East and West with the Middle East becoming tied to the new Roman capital of Constantinople. The subsequent fall of Rome and the Western Roman Empire, therefore, had minimal direct impact on the region. (Wiesehöfer, 2001) Persian Achaemenid Coin: Gold Daric, c.490BC

The City of persepolis, National Geographic.

This era of Middle Eastern history is important to mention because it has formed a distinct cultural identity of Iranians today, when compared to the rest of its surrounding nations. This sense of ancient ethnic pride is not only noticeable in social context, but also in the current works of artists, filmmakers and designers. Perhaps, those earliest days of glory, remind them of the epitome of what once was a nation that enjoyed freedoms that were no longer available after the Islamic regime. Furthermore, perhaps it is the revival of what this empire represented that is primary key to Iran’s desperately called for ‘cultural revolution’.


The Spread of Islam As the 7th century came to term, a new power was rising in the Middle East, that of Islam. In a series of rapid Muslim conquests, the Arab armies from the Arabian Peninsula, motivated by Islam and led by the Caliphs swept through most of the Middle East. They completely engulfed the Persian lands and the Byzantine provinces of Roman Syria, North Africa, and Sicily. At the far west, they crossed the sea taking Visigothic Hispania before being halted in southern France by the Franks. At its greatest extent, the Arab Empire was the first empire to control the entire Middle East, as well 3/4 of the Mediterranean region, the only other empire besides the Roman Empire to control most of the Mediterranean Sea. The Arab Caliphates of the Middle Ages also first unified the entire Middle East as a distinct region and created the dominant ethnic identity that persists today. Conversion to Islam “represented the response of a tribal, pastoral population to the need for a larger framework for political and economic integration, a more stable state, and a more imaginative and encompassing moral vision to cope with the problems of a tumultuous society.” Conversion initially was neither required nor necessarily wished for: “(The Arab conquerors) did not require the conversion as much as the subordination of non-Muslim peoples. At the outset, they were hostile to conversions because new Muslims diluted the economic and status advantages of the Arabs.” The caliphs of the Umayyad Dynasty established the first schools inside the empire, called madrasas, which taught the Arabic language and Islamic studies. They furthermore began the ambitious project of building mosques across the empire, many of which remain today as the most magnificent mosques in the Islamic world, such as the Umayyad Mosque


in Damascus. At the end of the Umayyad period, less than 10% of the people in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia and Spain were Muslim. During the Abbassid Dynasty (750- 1258) expansion ceased and the central disciplines of Islamic philosophy, theology, and law became more widespread and the gradual conversions of the populations within the empire occurred. Historians still find it debatable as to what extent this conversion was forced. Many European scholars have suggested that the ultimatum given to people who chose not to convert was death by sword. However, others claim that conversion became a matter of convenience after many years of Muslim prevalence in the region. “Islam had become more clearly defined, and the line between Muslims and non-Muslims more sharply drawn. Muslims now lived within an elaborated system of ritual, doctrine and law clearly different from those of non-Muslims. (...) The status of Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians was more precisely defined, and in some ways it was inferior…In general they were not forced to convert, but they suffered from restrictions. They paid a special tax; they were not supposed to wear certain colors; they could not marry Muslim women.” Along with the religion of Islam, the Arabic language and Arab customs spread throughout the empire. A sense of unity grew among many though not all provinces, gradually forming the consciousness of a broadly Arab-Islamic population: a recognizable Islamic world had emerged by the end of the 10th century. Throughout this period, as well as in the following centuries, divisions occurred between Persians and Arabs, and Sunnis and Shiites. (Lapidus 2002)

“Conversion to Islam represented the response of a tribal, pastoral population to the need for a larger framework for political and economic integration, a more stable state, and a more imaginative and encompassing moral vision to cope with the problems of a tumultuous society.� The Spread of Islam,


Islamic Visual Identity Although the autonomous reign of a Muslim regime no longer existed after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the religion of Islam, as well its cultural aspects continued to thrive in the people of the Middle East. Even today, Islam is the still the most common religion in the region and its influences are unmistakable when it comes to the visual identity of the Middle East.

Aniconism “Everything you imagine Him to be, He is other than” (Islamic Saying) Islamic aniconism is the term used to describe the absence of icons in Islamic art. “Islam is centred on Unity, and Unity is not expressible in terms of any image. Thus, Islamic art as a whole aims to create an ambience which helps man to realise his primordial dignity; it therefore avoids everything that could be an ‘idol’ even in a relative and provisional manner - nothing must stand between man and the invisible presence of God - thus eliminating all the turmoil and passionate suggestions of the world and in their stead creating an order that expresses equilibrium, serenity and peace.” According to the fundamental formula of Islam: There is no divinity other than God, it is through the distinction of the different planes of reality that everything is gathered together beneath the vault of Supreme Unity, “once one has recognised the finite for what it is one can no longer consider it alongside of the Infinite, and for that very reason the finite reintegrates itself with the Infinite.” From this point of view the fundamental error is that of projecting nature of


the Absolute into the relative, by attributing to the relative an autonomy that does not belong to it. Muslims blame the primary source of this error in imagination, or more precisely illusion (al-wahm), therefore a Muslim sees in the figurative art a flagrant and contagious manifestation of the said error. In his view the image projects one order of reality into another. Against this the only effective safeguard is wisdom (hikmah), which puts everything in its proper place. As applied to art, this means that every artistic creation must be treated according to the laws of its domain of existence and must make those laws intelligible. The Islamic negation of anthropomorphic art is both absolute and conditional. It is absolute with regard to all images that could be the object of worship, and it is conditional with regards to forms imitating living bodies. In fact the Prophet condemns artists who try to ‘ape’ the creation of God: “in their afterlife they will be ordered to give life to their works and will suffer from their incapacity to do so.” This hadith (saying of the Prophet) has been interpreted in different ways. In general it has been understood as condemning intrinsically blasphemous intention, and therefore Islam tolerates anthropomorphic art forms on condition that they do not create the illusion of living beings. In miniature painting, for instance, central perspective suggesting 3-dimensional space is avoided. In focusing more on the intention than the deed. In the Persian and Indian world especially, it was argued that an image which does not claim to imitate the real being, but is no more than an allusion to it, is allowed; hence the absence in them of shadows and perspective. No mosque, however, has ever been decorated with anthropomorphic images. (Allen 1988)

Persian miniature painting from the 16th century CE, depicting Muhammad, his face veiled, ascending on the Buraq into the Heavens, a journey known as the Miraj. “Miraj� printed by Sultan Muhammad in 1539-43 in Tabriz. British Library


Applied Islamic pattern

Islamic Patterns and Geometry Geometric motifs were popular with Islamic artists and designers in all parts of the world, for decorating almost every surface, whether walls or floors, pots or lamps, book covers or textiles. As Islam spread from nation to nation and region to region, Islamic artists combined their penchant for geometry with existing traditions, creating a new and distinctive Islamic art. This art expressed the logic and order inherent in the Islamic vision of the universe. The wide spectrum of intellectual resources allowed Islamic scholars to quickly embrace Greek philosophy and mathematics, translating and disseminating this knowledge for posterity. The works of Euclid and Pythagoras were among the first to be translated into Arabic. The study of geometry also fed an ardent preoccupation with the stars and astronomy. All this in turn nourished the Arabic passion for creating infinite, decorative patterns. The cultivation of mathematical analysis, in particular, had a harmonising effect. Driven by the religious passion for abstraction and the related doctrine of unity (al-tawhid), the Muslim intellectuals recognized in geometry the unifying intermediary between the material and the spiritual world.

The development of this new distinctive art, in part may have been due to the discouragement of images in Islam on basis that it could lead to idolatry (anisonism). Whilst this tradition may have frustrated some Islamic artists, others took up the challenge and became the greatest pattern makers of their time. Instead of covering buildings and other surfaces with human figures, they developed complex geometric decorative designs, as well as intricate patterns of vegetal ornament (such as the arabesque), with which to adorn palaces and mosques and other public places. Alternatively, the development of infinitely repeating patterns can represent the unchanging laws of God. Muslims are expected to observe certain rules as were originally set forth by the Prophet Muhammad, characterised by the “Pillars of Faith�. In this way the rules of construction of geometric patterns provide a visual analogy to religious rules of behavior.


Applied Islamic pattern

In their simplest form all Islamic geometrical patterns are examples of periodic tiling or tessellation of the two-dimensional plane, consisting of polygonal areas or cells of various shapes abutting on neighboring cells at lines termed the edges of the tiling, and with three or more cells meeting at points termed the vertices or nodes of the tiling. The earliest Islamic star motifs were based on a star polygonal construction. Initially such a construction produces a space at the center of the figure in the shape of a regular polygon; in authentic islamic ornament, this central apace is usually transformed into a star-shaped area by the omission of one or more of the middle segments on all sides of the star polygon. (Lee 1987) Diagrams taken from J. Bourgoin, ‘Les Elements de l’art 23 Arabe, 1879

Arabian and Moresque Ornaments In his famous manuscript Grammar of Ornament, Owen Jones claims that the rapid spreading of Islam over the East with the prophet Mohammed created a new civilization that needed its own style of Art. At first Roman and Byzantine structures and buildings were adapted to their own uses; but as Islam grew to become a stronger, and more imposing religion, the need for their own style of expression was inevitable. It is argued that some of their designs were inspired by the Persians, yet generally the style they formed and perfected was peculiarly their own. In this era a visual language of a religion and political system complete in itself was prominent, entirely freed from any direct imitation of the previous style. This result is very remarkable when compared to the results of the Christian religion, which did not produce its own architecture or free itself from traces of paganism.

Al-Hambra is the epitome in which “their marvelous system reached its culminating point”; it is at the very summit of perfection of Moorish art, as is the Parthenon of Greek art.


Columns in the Court of the Lion, Alhambra, Granada, Spain.

Jones also explains where the peculiarity lies in Arabian Ornaments by hinting out a few detailed design elements that he has observed on the walls of a number of old mosques in Cairo, and the famous Al-Hambra palace in southern Spain. An important example is in the patterns of geometrical lines that the ancient Assyrians and Egyptians often used, however, in Arabian pattern one notices the first instance of the repetition of curved lines forming a general pattern enclosing a secondary form. Another example that the Moors, who excelled in the Arabian arts, had developed was the introduction of several planes in a pattern; the ornaments on the upper plane were boldly distributed over the mass, whereas those on the second or third interwove themselves with the first enriching the surface on a lower level. Such designs are commonly found in Korans today.

“We can find no work so fitted to illustrate a Grammar of Ornament as that in which every ornament contains a grammar in itself ” states Jones with reference to the title of his book. He owes this perfection to the fact that every principle, which one can derive from the study of ornamental art of peoples, is ever present in the work of the Moors, and yet each principle is more universally and truly obeyed. (It should be well noted here that the artwork Jones is referring to contains ornamental elements as well as Arabic calligraphy.) We find in Al-Hambra the speaking art of the Egyptians, the natural grace and refinement of the Greeks, the geometrical combinations of the Romans, and the Byzantines, however it is void of one charm which was the peculiar feature of the Egyptian ornament, symbolism. This is due to the fact that Islam forbade imagery, so therefore, Arabic Calligraphy -or inscriptions, as Jones referred to them, replaced them. “… the inscriptions, which, addressing themselves to the eye by their outward beauty, at once excited the intellect by the difficulties of deciphering their curious and complex involutions, and delighted the imagination when read, by the beauty of the sentiments they expressed and the music of their composition.” This last quote refers to his quote regarding the meaning of true beauty, which says: “True beauty is the repose which the mind feels when the eye, the intellect and the affections are satisfied from the absence of any want”.

Details of the Moresque patterns inside AlHambra. Jones 1910.


Arabic Calligraphy Due to the strength of the oral tradition in poetry and literature over the generations, written text was not widespread until the beginning of Islam (7th century AD). In the earliest stages, there were no rules in writing, calligraphers had their own styles, and written Arabic came to rely on its visual appearance to convey meaning before the actual sentence was read, the shape of the script held as much meaning as the content. Muslim followers of the Prophet in the 7th century believed that the holy word of God was being revealed live to them, so one reason for the aesthetic development of calligraphy was to make it worthy of its status as the sacred script selected by God to transmit His divine message, also calligraphy served as the common field for visual expressions because figurative arts were not allowed under strict interpretations of Islam. Ibn Muqlah devised a way to write the Arabic script in such a way that, regardless of the size of the pen the scribe uses, each letter will be proportionate to both itself and every other letter. He simply related every letter to the rhomboid dot drawn by the pen being used. Each letter has a set of predetermined size rules based around these rhomboid dots. The figure on top right is the letter ‘waw’ and here on the left is ‘dal’.


With the spread of Islam, clarity in the script became increasingly important, however beauty was still an essential element, in the 10th century the calligrapher Abu Ali Ibn Muqlaq consolidated and systemized the script; with his knowledge in geometry, he produced a comprehensive system of scientific calligraphic rules for writing. However, during the industrial revolution under the Ottoman sultans’ rule, the printing press was frowned upon since it held the dangers of misrepresenting the Divine Arabic script. So while Western typography continued to evolve, Arabic calligraphers decided to stick to their pens and bamboo calligraphic sticks. This caused a serious delay in the development of Arabic typography and led to the rigidity of future Arabic typefaces creating problems in bringing Arabic typography in line with Western type designs.(Boutros 2006)

Arabic Calligraphy by Shereen, Cairo 1426

Needless to mention, the Middle Eastern visual culture is primarily influenced from Islamic design. In recent years, the mysteries of Arabesque visuals have enticed the western world. Due to its confinement in this region for hundreds of years, it has not had the opportunity to travel, where other cultures could experiment with its delicate aesthetics. Designers in the middle East must redeem themselves as fortunate for having this unique visual language, and should be more curious about experimenting with it, and learning more about its meticulous nature.


The Ottoman Empire By the early 15th century, the Ottoman emirs, who made themselves sultans, were rising as the new power in western Anatolia. The Mameluks held the Ottomans out of the Middle East for a century, but systematic Ottoman conquest of the region were already in plan. Syria and Egypt were occupied by 1517. The Ottomans also conquered Greece, the Balkans, and most of Hungary, setting the new frontier between east and west far to the north of the Danube. They united the whole region under one ruler for the first time since the reign of the Abbasid caliphs of the 10th century, and they kept control of it for 400 years. Meanwhile the Europeans discovered and colonized the Americas and they were rapidly expanding demographically, economically and culturally. The new wealth of the Americas fuelled the boom that laid the foundations for the growth of capitalism and the industrial revolution. By the 17th century, Europe had overtaken the Muslim world in wealth, population and—most importantly—technology. Eventually by the 1700s, the Ottomans had been driven out of Hungary and the balance of power along the frontier had shifted decisively in favour of the west. Although some areas of Ottoman Europe, such as Albania and Bosnia, saw many conversions to Islam, the area was never culturally absorbed into the Muslim world. The Ottomans steadily retreated, and the Middle East fell further and further behind Europe, becoming increasingly defensive but weak. During the 19th century, Greece, Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria asserted their independence, and in the Balkan Wars of 1912–13 the Ottomans were driven out of Europe altogether, except for the city of Constantinople and its hinterland. By then the Ottoman Empire was known as the “sick man of Europe”,


increasingly under the financial control of the European powers. Domination soon turned to outright conquest. The French annexed Algeria in 1830 and Tunisia in 1878. The British occupied Egypt in 1882, though it remained under nominal Ottoman sovereignty. The British also established effective control of the Persian Gulf, and the French extended their influence into Lebanon and Syria. An important point to mention in the history of the Middle East is the discovery of oil, first in Persia in 1908 and later in Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf states. The Middle East, it turned out, possessed the world’s largest easily accessible reserves of crude oil, the most important commodity in the 20th century industrial world. Although western oil companies pumped and exported nearly all of the oil to fuel the rapidly expanding automobile industry and other western industrial developments, the kings and emirs of the oil states became immensely rich, enabling them to consolidate their hold on power and giving them a stake in preserving western hegemony over the region. Nonetheless, the increasing importance of the oil industry led to a growing presence of the United States in Middle East affairs. (Mansfield 1991) Many regard the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire as the slide backwards for the Middle East. Major setbacks of the Ottoman regime deprived cultural flourishing, and by the fall of the Empire, the region was tangled with numerous political conflicts, most of which persist today. The Middle East became gradually dependent on developing countries while their own social, economic and cultural resources were drained out.

The Ottoman Empire, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1997


The Rise and Fall of Arabism Arabism first arose in the nineteenth century not as a direct reaction to Western rule, but as a critique of the state of the Ottoman Empire. Their control had extended over most of the Arabic-speaking peoples for nearly four hundred years, and the Arabs had come to accept their role in the Empire; however, the Ottomans also professed Islam, which the Arabs somehow claimed as their religion first. They carried the pride of the Arab conquests, and their language being that of the Quran revealed to them by God. The decline in the Ottoman Empire also weakened the Arab-Turk bond, the Arabs slowly realized the disadvantages of being related to this dying Empire, which was being mocked as “the sick man of Europe”. The Ottomans embarked on a succession of Westernizing reforms but eventually lost their footing in the Balkans, the Caucasus, North Africa, and Egypt. This lead to the “Arab awakening”, which was fueled by Arabic- speaking Christian minorities, who were influenced by European currents and worked to transform Arabic into a secular form of modern learning through adaptation of Arabic to the modern conventions of the press, the novel, and the theater. The Arabic literary revival, centered in Beirut argued for the existence of a secular Arab culture, to which Christians and Muslims had supposedly contributed in equal measure. By elaborating upon this shared Arab legacy, the Christian minority sought to erode the prejudice of Muslim majority and to win Christians their full equality as fellow Arabs. While the Arabism of Muslims resembled that of Christians in its pride of language, it differed fundamentally in its deep attachment to Islam. It appealed to Muslims by arguing that the greatness of the Arabs resided in their privileged understanding of Islam. This “Arab awakening,” Christian and Muslim, failed to produce a trenchant social criticism or a truly modern language of politics. Ultimately it would defeat


itself by its apologetic defense of tradition and religion. This ideal of Arabism created a premature wave of debate in Europe. In 1907 the English traveler Gertrude Bell wrote: “Of what value are the pan-Arabic associations and inflammatory leaflets that they issue from foreign printing presses? The answer is easy: they are worth nothing at all. There is no nation of Arabs; the Syrian merchant is separated by a wider gulf from the Bedouin than he is from the Osmanli, the Syrian country is inhabited by Arabic speaking races all eager to be at each other’s throats, and only prevented from fulfilling their natural desires by the ragged half fed soldier who draws at rare intervals the Sultan’s pay.” (Kramer 1993) By the eve of World War I, Arabism took an even more tangible role when faced with the two challenges of Turkification and Zionism. Turkification threatened the cultural status quo. Turkish-speaking Muslims then began to construct for themselves a new identity as Turks, a trend strengthened by Western philologists and romantics. Ottoman authorities attempted to give the polyglot Empire more the character of a European nation-state by enforcing the use of Turkish at the expense of other languages, including Arabic. Zionist settlement in Palestine threatened the political status quo. Ottoman authorities tolerated the influx of Jewish immigration in the belief that it would ultimately benefit the Empire. As the pace of Zionist immigration and settlement increased, their immediate neighbors grew apprehensive about the looming possibility of dispossession. From the turn of the century, Ottoman policy toward Zionism became a matter of growing debate and criticism in the Arabic press. During World War I, the Ottoman Empire sided with Germany, prompting Britain and France to hold grasp of the Arabs and luring them in with the prospect of an independent “Arab

The Sykes-Picot Agreement 1916

Nation”. The Sharif Husayn of Mecca saw this as an opportunity for his ambitious vision of an “Arab Kingdom” for his family, and raised the Arab Revolt against ottoman rule. By 1918, his son Faysal had defeated the Ottomans –with the help of the British- and formed an “Arab Government” in Damascus. In another two years he became king of what had become the “United Kingdom of Syria”. (Kramer 1993) Although, this new ‘Arab Nation’ had brought hope of an independence, it was soon clear that there were other contradictory agendas and wartime commitments made by the French and British. The first, the so-called Sykes-Picot agreement, secretly recognizing most of the northern Levant as a zone of French privilege; the second, the Balfour Declaration, publicly supporting a Jewish national home in Palestine. Britain also had strategic and economic interests in the territories demanded by the Sharif Husayn and his sons. The contradictory claims were sorted out in April 1920, where Britain and France settled on the division of occupied Ottoman territory, which they planned to administer as separate League of Nations’ mandates. On the basis of these agreements, French forces drove King Faysal and his followers from Damascus in a brief battle in July, and imposed French rule on. At the same time, Britain began to fulfill its commitment under the Balfour Declaration by opening Palestine to more extensive Zionist immigration and settlement. Ottoman rule had been replaced by British and French imperialism, and a series of conflicts all over the region broke out. To compensate for the outrage caused, Britain moved King Faysal to Iraq and carved an emirate of Transjordan out of the Palestine mandate, which was exempted from Zionist immigration. The idea of an Arab Nation persisted

in Iraq under king Faysal; but in the fragmented societies of the Fertile Crescent, few persons referred to themselves as Arabs. Most continued to classify themselves by religion, sect, and genealogy. They were Muslims or Christians, Sunnis or Shi’ites, Maronites or Druzes, members of this or that clan, family, tribe, village, or urban quarter. They did not wish to be ruled by foreigners from over the sea. But neither did they desire to be ruled by strangers from across the desert, even if those strangers spoke Arabic. This unwillingness to


be Arab prompted the Arab nationalists to develop a doctrine that denied them any other choice; they discarded the initial French idea of a nation as a voluntary contract formed for the sake of liberty, and instead followed ideals resembling German Volk, a natural nation above human volition bound by language. To them, only the unity of the nation could restore its greatness, even if the price meant the surrender of freedom. So, Arab nationalism assigned itself the task of educating them to an Arab identity, preferably by persuasion but if necessary by compulsion. Sati’ al-Husri, Arab nationalism’s first true ideologue and a confidant of Faysal claims: “Every person who speaks Arabic is an Arab. Everyone who is affiliated with these people is an Arab. If he does not know this or if he does not cherish his Arabism, then we must study the reasons for his position. It may be the result of ignorance — then we must teach him the truth. It may be because he is unaware or deceived — then we must awaken him and reassure him. It may be a result of selfishness — then we must work to limit his selfishness.” “We can say that the system to which we should direct our hopes and aspirations is a Fascist system,” wrote al-Husri in 1930, raising the slogan of “solidarity, obedience, and sacrifice.” (Kramer 1993) This idea appealed to the army, especially its officers. It went hand in hand with a growing militarism, and the belief that only the armed forces could rise above the “selfishness” of the sect and clan, enforcing discipline on the nation. In 1932 Iraq pioneered this trend and conducted a massacre of the Assyrian (Nestorian Christian) minority, accused of infidelity to the Arab cause. Moreover, this Arab Nationalist ideology flooded the education system as well as the public arena; primary schools and universities and the rapid growth of the Arabic press all contributed to the firm hold Arab Nationalism had on the Iraqi people.


Although until the 1930s Egyptians didn’t see themselves as Arabs, and neither did the Berber speaking peoples in North Africa who only shared Islam as a common ground with the other Arabs, the resistance to British and French colonization soon caused them to also join in on the Arab nationalistic front. Paradoxically, the empires of Britain and France linked together Arabic-speaking lands which had enjoyed few if any organic ties in Ottoman times, inspiring for the first time the idea of an Arab world from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf. After World War II, Britain and France began to divest themselves of the more troublesome portions of their empires. Syria, Lebanon, and Transjordan became independent. Egypt and Iraq, their independence effectively revoked by Britain during the war, began to renegotiate the terms of British withdrawal. By now each state possessed its own ruling elite, bureaucracy, flag, and anthem. After much Arab negotiation and British mediation, the independent Arab states established the Arab League in 1945, a compromise that recognized the distinct sovereignty of each of them. In the end, independence did not alter the map drawn by imperialism. In 1948, after the United Nations authorized the partition of Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab, the first Arab-Israeli war emerged; they claimed to be fighting to uphold their brotherly commitment to the Arabs of Palestine. The war ended with Israel in possession of even more territory than had been allotted by the United Nations, and with the Arab states as reluctant hosts to seven hundred thousand Arab refugees. (Kramer 1993) The Palestine war had demonstrated that the Arabs, despite their formal independence, remained politically disunited, militarily weak, and economically underdeveloped. The new champions of Arab nationalism, fiery young colonels, now promised a social revolution that would overcome these weaknesses and propel the Arab world to unity, power, and

left: beige colored areas indicate Israeli territories during the Arab invasions presented by the green arrows in June 1948. right: the three layers of beige and brow indeicate the gradual spread of Israeli power by January 1949, and the brown arrows indicate Israeli attack over Palestinian territory.


prosperity. In the spirit of the times, they usually defined this revolution as socialism — or, more precisely, Arab socialism. (Kramer 1993) The new dispensation took two parallel forms, which became known as Nasserism and Ba’thism. Nasserism was revolutionary nationalism to the personality cult of Gamal Abdul Nasser, who enjoyed immense prestige in the Arab world after he pulled a political victory from the combined British, French, and Israeli attack on Suez in 1956. Nasserism combined a program of socialist-like reform with the idea that Egypt constituted the very heart of the Arab world. And while Nasser gave first priority to Egypt’s Arab character, at times he made Egypt out to be Muslim, African, or Afro-Asian — whatever served his particular purpose. But it was precisely that ambiguity which made Nasser all things to all Arabs, and permitted Egypt to imagine itself to be the bridge of Arab nationalism, linking the Arabs of Asia and Africa in the march to unity. Ba’thism tended to be more ideologically stringent, if only because its founders were Sorbonneschooled Syrians, strongly influenced by ideals of Nietzsche, Fichte, and Houston Stewart Chamberlain. They chose to call themselves the Ba’th, meaning resurrection, and they were “revolutionaries” as a matter of principle. Gamal Abdel Nasser being paraded in Cairo 1956

For a while it seemed that the whole world was on Nasser’s side, and the Arab world –especially- was practically in love with him. Soon the Ba’th and Nasserist partnership turned into a struggle for domination within the camp of Arab nationalism. Egypt ran Syria like a colony until 1961, when a Syrian coup put an end to the relationship. This marked a long slide for Arab nationalism. The following year, Nasser contributed on the “revolutionary” side in Yemen’s civil war. In Yemen, as in Syria, vast differences overwhelmed any remote similarity, leaving Arab to war Arab in a spirit of mutual incomprehension. Nationalist theory had promised that unity would bring liberation from foreigners, but in the hands of actual practitioners it had become a whip of domination, wielded by some Arabs over others. The number of Arabs bearing its scars began to grow, as did the disillusionment. The crisis finally broke in 1967, most assumed that they had been strengthened, not weakened, by nearly two decades of Nasser and the Ba’th, social revolution, and the militarization of politics; instead, they were defeated by the Israelis in six days. Its territorial consequences included the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza — all densely populated by. The defeat represented nothing less than “the Waterloo of pan-Arabism.” For the first time, the countries started to think for themselves and their own interests and it became possible to criticize the myths of Arabism, and to see the differences among Arabs not as “accidental” but as living realities, even deserving of respect. Lebanon’s most prominent historian, Kamal Salibi, criticized Arab nationalism for “deluding the general run of the Arabs into believing that the political unity they had once experienced under Islam was in fact an Arab national unity which they have subsequently lost, or of which they have been deliberately robbed.” (Kramer 1993) By the time communism collapsed, the Arab lands had become the last preserve of protracted one-man rule, and so


Israeli tanks in Beirut, 1982 IDF National Photo Collection

they remain today. The king of Jordan has reigned now for forty years, the king of Morocco for thirty-two years. Libya’s leader made his coup twenty-four years ago. The chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) has held his title for twenty-four years. Syria’s president has held power for twenty-two years. Iraq’s ruler has held sway over the country for twenty-two years, the last fourteen as president. The emir of Kuwait has reigned for fifteen years, the king of Saudi Arabia for eleven years. Egypt’s president has held office for twelve years. Not one of these states could be categorized as a democracy, although after 1967 they laid unprecedented claims to the loyalty of their citizens and subjects, and intruded upon virtually every aspect of society. Only Lebanon proved incapable of enhancing its legitimacy and its power over society after 1967. In this birthplace of Arab nationalism, social peace had come to depend on equilibrium between the myths of “eternal Lebanon” and “one Arab nation.” The Maronites agreed to march in step with the Arabs, so long as they could carry the flag of Lebanon; the Muslims agreed to parade behind the flag of Lebanon, provided the parade marched to an Arab cadence. By this understanding, Lebanon would supply intellectual rationales for Arab nationalism; others would provide the soldiers for its battles. For a time the equilibrium held, and Lebanon established a quasi-democratic public order and a freemarket economy. In times of regional crisis, Lebanon did its duty by words, and managed to dodge war with Israel. But after 1967, Lebanon began to lose its balance. The Muslims, wracked by guilt, demanded that Lebanon finally take up the Arab burden of Palestine, and open its southern border to attacks against Israel. The Maronites, awed by Israel’s example, thought they could turn the state of Lebanon into something comparable: a small powerhouse, armed to the teeth, defiant of the Arab world around it. In 1975, the situation exploded in civil. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, it worked even more feverishly with its Lebanese allies to remake the country in its image, but to no avail. (Kramer, 1993)

Israeli tanks and villagers of the South of Lebanon 1982 IDF National Photo Collection


The return of Islam The voice of Islam also bid to fill the silence left by Arab nationalism. Arab nationalists had always regarded Islamic loyalty as a potential rival, and had tried to disarm it by incorporating Islam as a primary element in Arab nationalism. Even the Christians among them went out of their way to argue that Arab nationalism complemented rather than contradicted the Islamic loyalties still felt by so many Arabs.

which was even more anti-western than the secular regimes in Iraq or Syria. After Iran’s revolution in 1979, many Shi’ites in Arab lands identified so strongly with its success that they declared their allegiance to the revolution’s leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, and repudiated both Arab nationalism and loyalty to the individual states in which they lived.

Said Qutb :” If the Prophet Muhammad had so wished, he “was no doubt capable of setting forth a movement of panArab nationalism in order to unify the strife-torn tribes of Arabia.” Instead, he called all of mankind, Arab and non-Arab, to submit to God. The Arabs thus enjoyed no privileged standing in Islam, of the kind claimed by Arab nationalism: “God’s real chosen people is the Muslim community, regardless of ethnic, racial, or territorial affiliation of its members.” The Islamic critique stood on the fact that the Arab nationalists betrayed their fellow Turkish Muslims in order to side with the British, who naturally betrayed them — a just reward for those who placed their trust in unbelievers. The Arab nationalists then compounded their error by abandoning reliance on God and his divine law, in order to become liberals, fascists, and socialists, in mimicry of foreign ideological fashion. (Kramer 1993) This brand of Islamic loyalty enjoyed an immense appeal among the members of two underclasses. The first was composed of Shi’ites, who enjoyed large communities in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states. Shi’ites also straddled the divide between the Arab states and Iran, many of them regarded Arab nationalism as an artificial division, incompatible with the Arab-Persian symbiosis of contemporary Shi’ism. Iran in particular was a key U.S. ally, until the revolution led by the Shi’ites who overthrew the monarchy in 1979 and established a theocratic regime,


Mass demonstration against the Shah in Tehran 1979 GDFL

Lebanon’s Hizbullah took this the furthest, professing absolute obedience to the leader of the Islamic revolution, and denouncing “the Arabs” for self-worship and their capitulation to Israel. The other underclass consisted of the tens of millions of indigents who had abandoned the countryside and flooded into the cities, and whose lot worsened as populations grew and oil incomes fell. In the slums and bidonvilles of Cairo and Algiers, not only did the doctrines of Arab nationalism sound obsolete, but the promises of prosperity made by states also rang hollow to those in the grip of grinding poverty and unemployment. (Kramer 1993)

After 1967, the only remaining Arab nationalists were among the intellectuals. They wrote in pan-Arab journals that circulated from the ocean to the Gulf. They jetted from capital to capital for conferences on the state of the Arabs. But they lacked an Arab Bismarck who would revive their ideas. Nasser had faltered, and in 1970 he died. The Ba’th in Syria, after more twists and turns, came to rest under Hafiz alAsad, a master of realpolitik who put Syria above all. For lack of better alternatives, Arab nationalists fixed their hopes first on the Palestinians, and finally on Saddam Hussein. The Palestinians were a desperate choice, since they themselves had largely despaired of other Arabs. They had hoped in Nasser who also prompted the creation of the PLO in 1964, but then the Palestinians had begun to transform the PLO into an instrument of their own. Fatah, one of the dominant components of the PLO, demanded the moral support of the Arab states, and even exterritorial zones of operation. But other Palestinian groups took a different course, announcing they would work to topple the “petty bourgeois regimes” of the Arab states as a stage in their struggle to liberate Palestine. This was the pan-Arab promise of the so-called Arab Nationalists Movement and its offspring, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), both founded by students at the American University of Beirut. Their high-strung rhetoric and hijackings made them the heroes of many Arab intellectuals who, like their New Left contemporaries in the West, demanded “revolution” now. The Fedayeen, the Palestinian guerrillas in the rock-strewn hills opposite Israel, became the symbols of this struggle; they were known as those living on the edge and citing Mao and Guevara. But although the Fedayeen sought to imitate the methods of guerrilla warfare that succeeded elsewhere, they completely failed to liberate any part of Palestine or the Arab world. So Arab nationalist enthusiasm for the Palestinian fringe waned, and endorsed the mundane demand for a Palestin-

ian state alongside Israel as a compromise. The Palestinian uprising that began in 1987 in the West Bank and Gaza was proved yet again unsuccessful, relying on stones and knives. The Palestinians would fight their own fight. The choice of Saddam as the pan-Arab hero represented an even more desperate step. If anything, Saddam had done more than any modern Iraqi ruler to cultivate a specific Iraqi loyalty, drawing upon the legacy of ancient Mesopotamian civilization. In art, architecture, and poetry, the state encouraged the use of Mesopotamian motifs, and it lavished funds upon archaeological digs and restorations. Since no loyalties had survived from antiquity (which well predated the Arab conquest), all Iraqis could be accommodated by the Mesopotamian myth — Arabs and Kurds, Sunnis and Shi’ites. After Saddam blundered into war with Iran in 1980, Iraq billed herself as defender of the eastern Arab flank against the Persian hordes — all the better to justify the demand for war loans from Gulf Arab states. (Kramer 1993) In 1990, Saddam’s Iraq invaded Kuwait, declaring it a province of Iraq. Possession of Kuwait would have filled the Iraqi treasury in perpetuity (a treasury that held a cash reserve of $30 billion back in 1980 but groaned under a debt of more than $100 billion a decade later). The U.S. responded to the invasion by forming a coalition of allies, which included Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria, and then evicting Iraq from Kuwait by force in the Persian Gulf War. The Persian Gulf War and its aftermath brought about a permanent U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf region, particularly in Saudi Arabia. Significantly, Iraq did not formally justify its invasion as an act of Arab nationalist unification. Arab nationalists seized upon Saddam as though he were a reincarnation of Nasser, and an improvement at that, for being far more reckless and ruthless. While he lacked Nasser’s charm, he had oil, missiles, nerve agents, and nuclear potential. However, despite incredible military expenditures, Saddam’s Iraq, like


map of the Persian Gulf region


the Palestinian Fedayeen a generation before, could only be “dangerous for a thousandth of a second.” In battle, the Iraqi “motor” of unification immediately broke down, and the scenes of surrendering Iraqi soldiers and burned-out armored columns recalled nothing so much as the defeat of 1967. Most of the Arab states joined the international coalition against him, to uphold a state system that had become their own, even if it originated long ago in an imperial partition. (Kramer, 1993) The New Regional Order In the war’s aftermath, the United States, the Arab states, and Israel moved to translate that victory into a new regional order that would represent the ultimate undoing of Arab nationalism. That order, Middle Eastern rather than Arab, and would include Israel as a legitimate state among states, to be recognized by all Arab states following a negotiation of peace and a definition of Israel’s borders. The new order would also include Turkey, and perhaps other states that wished to define themselves as Middle Eastern. The rationale for the idea of the Middle East, made most fully by some Cairo intellectuals, argued that the Arab nationalist vision had become anachronistic. It was ideological in a post-ideological age, and it pressed for continuation of a costly Arab cold war against Israel, although the Arabs could no longer count on any outside support following the end of the Superpower Cold War. The moment had come to shift priorities to the domestic agenda of economic growth. As the unification of Europe seemed to demonstrate, the economic future belonged to regional formations composed of many nations. These cooperated to promote economic growth and collective security, relieving economies of the massive burden of military expenditure. Arab states were also Middle Eastern states, and while they belonged to an Arab state system, they also belonged to a Middle Eastern regional order. The shape and content of that order would evolve over time; a first step would be the progress of Arabs and Israelis at the negotiating table.

The idea of the Middle East as a framework of identity faces many obstacles. It has nothing like the depth of the idea of Europe. The Middle East is a term that was first put into wide currency by an American naval strategist, who in 1902 described it as “an indeterminate area guarding a part of the sea route from Suez to Singapore.” (Kramer, 1993) Although the Middle East had just come to terms with itself, from the Western perspective it had become not just a zone of constant conflict, but also a zone of backwardness; in fact, the author David Pryce Jones stated that the Arabs were trapped in a “cycle of backwardness from which their culture will not allow them to escape”. The region was falling behind the rest of the world in terms of production, trade, education, communications and virtually every other criterion of economic and social progress. The rapid spread of political democracy and the development of market economies in Eastern Europe, Latin America, East Asia and parts of Africa had surpassed the Middle East by decades. In most Middle Eastern countries, the growth of market economies was inhibited by political restrictions, corruption and cronyism, overspending on arms and prestige projects, and overdependence on oil revenues. The successful economies in the region were those which combined oil wealth with low populations, such as Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. In these states, the ruling emirs allowed a certain degree of political and social liberalization, yet without giving up any of their own power.


In sequence, a slum in Cairo, Part of Beirut demolished after the 2006 bombings, and Doha city in Qatar.

The Middle East Today There is yet again a growing religious conservatism, even in formerly liberal and cosmopolitan cities such as Cairo, in a way responding to a ‘threat’ by turning inward and adapting religious symbols such as the veil, which some scholars have called medieval modernity. There is also a growing sense of doom in the dismantling of Baghdad, the bombings in Beirut, and the grinding poverty in the slums of Cairo and Rabat. Yet these are cities in a Middle Eastern region, which prove shocking contrast when compared to the glitz and glamour of Dubai and Doha, who are unburdened by history and free to create a whole new identity out of ‘oil money’ in the midst of what was -just few years ago- a barren desert. It seems that this whole region has become the epitome of contradiction, preconceptions, and stereotypes. Mosques, dirty slums, terrorist havens, maze-like alleyways, crowded coffee shops with older men smoking nerghilehs, and fully covered women living in a chaotic harmony with state of the art skyscrapers, modern shopping malls, loud bars and clubs, and frivolous consumerism. Most importantly it is a setting where one can observe the tensions of tradition and modernity, religiosity and secularism, exhibitionism and veiling, and hundreds of other paradoxes. Each of those aspects plays a role into the clichés of what constitutes a Middle Eastern city. Caught between a variety of worlds and ideologies, at its very essence the collective struggle to ascertain one’s presence in the 21st century is clear and vivid. In the current climate of globalization and the growing influence of multi-national corporations, the extreme segregation of social class is astounding. While the rich enjoy the deluxe luxuries of internationally catered brands with unabashed frivolity, those who can’t afford their lifestyle suffer the consequences of extreme poverty. (Elsheshtawy 2008)



In the Gulf region, some scholars believe that emerging cities are currently undergoing a massive transformation comparable to that of the twentieth century while under foreign occupation. However, this time the changes are fuelled by global capital and neoliberal economic policies. On the external level, this change has taken an urban form; the main players are real estate conglomerates and this phenomenon is best observed in Dubai. Various economic statistics indicate that the pace of economic growth in the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) is stronger that the rest of the Middle Eastern world; in fact there are several indicators of a major gap between them. Furthermore this gap appears to have widened in recent years. For example, the total population of the GCC countries was approximately 37 million in 2006, which was roughly 12 percent of the population of the Middle East and North Africa. However, the economy of GCC in the same year accounted for more than 55 percent of the US$1.25 trillion economy. The 2005 Human Development Index (HDI), which is reported annually by the UN, shows that Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, and Oman achieved the five highest scores among Middle Eastern countries. Another gap between GCC and the rest of the countries is governance, which measures six parameters: voice and accountability, political stability, government effectiveness, regulatory quality, rule of law, and costs of corruption. According to the World Bank’s governance indicators for 2005, on average, GCC countries achieved higher scores in all parameters; this has also lead to a sharp increase in foreign investment inflows. This divide in the region is of course based on oil wealth. According to the IMF, the bulk of the oil windfall will be invested in the region where projects worth

more than US$1,000 billion are planned. A study by McKinsey estimates that over the period 2005 to 2020 the Gulf is likely to have a US$750 billion or so going into investments in wider Middle East and North Africa. In the case of the Gulf in particular, these major cities are also viewed as recipients of modernity and globalization as well as focal points for an Arabic-Islamic identity. And through their mega-projects, they are in some ways setting themselves apart from the wider Middle Eastern context- deliberately constructing a separate and independent entity for themselves. That is all well; except, officials in the Gulf are turning towards western architects, and planners to plan, design, form and shape this new identity. The ‘new Middle East’ is based on Western conceptions of what the cities should look like. Arabs have disappeared from contributing to the design of their daily environment. Another side of the problem is the absence of academics and scholars from any discussion pertaining to design theory. Archaic institutional rules, which among other things actively discourage scholars from writing books, as well as the lack of any significant research library has led to the absence of the Middle eastern city from a global discourse. (Elsheshtawy 2008) Dubai at night


Globalization and Cultural Identity

Middle Eastern scholars and their defenders argue that those who want to gain a rigorous understanding about the real structure of the Arab community, they must examine issues ranging from the pervasive influence of religion and beliefs on society, to the political and economic consequences of the constant state of confrontation between Arab and the various imperialism waves passed over the region. Consequently, the Arab societies suffer vital obstacles that hurdled its development, chiefly the disarray of geographically separating related-states. One can attain better understanding of Arab cultural structure by focusing on their lack of security, Arab nationalism, the influence of religion, male-dominated social and political hierarchy, political repression, social and psychological alienation, as well as many other barriers. While Arab culture, like every other culture in the world, has no choice but to integrate with globalization, this integration in the Arab case seems likely to entail conflict, rather than accord, because the cultural values held by the globalization process seem largely paradoxical, even contradictory, to prevalent values in Arab culture. (Al Ahmad 2007) In an international conference organised by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin, on the subject of “Identity versus globalisation”, the only representative of the world of Arab culture was Pierre Abi-Saab, Lebanese journalist and editorin-chief of the cultural magazine Al-Zawaya. He defined the problem that Arabs face with regards to their identity and proposed some solutions. He claims that the Arabs feel the challenge of the threats of globalisation more than others. On the global level, when compared to Europe and the USA, the Arabs are starting from the position of a weaker culture whose existence is under threat. Arab culture came under threat long before the genesis of globalisation. The illusions that the political regimes have built up since independence


and that have existed for over 50 years now - freedom, socialism, and the liberation of Palestine - are suddenly collapsing. Arab people and political movements are worried and feel unprotected. “In reality, the term globalisation means Americanisation. Today, thanks to the channels of communication on the Internet and the Global Village, the USA has the means and the productive force to propagate a specific model that is quickly adopted by the younger generation.” But he urges this young generation to know that they have their own identity; that they should acknowledge it and be proud of it, and deal with it in their own ways. “Fundamental resistance comes with the building up of an identity; not with fanaticism, but with robust self-confidence.” He believes that the solution for the Arabs is to develop their own concept, and find their place in the world. Here, the past would no longer be a refuge, but a source of strength. Every individual, every group, party, and government is responsible for this development. They can benefit from their experiences in the past and from being open to other cultures. At present, however, they are closing themselves off from everything. “We are defeated peoples that have lost much and have been bled dry by our own regimes, our enemies, and ongoing colonialism.” “If we look at the Arab situation, we have every reason to be pessimistic. Nevertheless, we should not be too optimistic, because cultures do sometimes die out.” He acknowledges that the Arabic language is under threat and so is Arabic culture. But he calls on individuals who have cultural visions and work at a cultural level. The problem is that they are isolated; the Arab media offers them no space. “The voices that we hear are the voices of those who hold the reins. The pure voice in art, literature, theatre, and cinema is being heard. This is the seed.” The media are the greatest disaster in the Arab world at present. They must know that they can bring about a cultural renaissance. If they initiate debates

that are of interest to the younger generation, if they discuss the burning questions of this era. This is also profitable. It generates material profit and, at the same time, invigorates society and culture. “We have reached the bottom of the barrel and cannot sink any further. We must resurface. There are different ways of doing so: we can take the fundamentalist route, the national route, the progressive route and so on and so forth. Not all of these routes are right, but we must work on a new rebirth.” (Qantara 2005) On the other hand, when it comes to the same subject, Sir John Tomlinson takes a more objective and critical approach to the matter. “Globalization, far from destroying it, has been perhaps the most significant force in creating and proliferating cultural identity.” He believes that identity is a concept which lies at the heart of our contemporary cultural imagination; that it is not in fact some fragile communal-psychic attachment, but a considerable dimension of institutionalized social life in modernity. Particularly in the dominant form of national identity, it is the product of deliberate cultural construction and maintenance via both the regulatory and the socializing institutions of the state: in particular, the law, the education system and the media. (Tomlinson 1999) The deterritorializing force of globalization thus meets a structured opposition in the form of what Michael Billig (1995) has called ‘banal nationalism’ – the everyday minute reinforcement; the continuous routinized ‘flagging’ of national belonging, particularly through media discourse – sponsored by developed nation-states. He claims that many fail to see the rather compelling inner logic between the globalization process and the institutionalized construction

of identities. This, he thinks, lies in the nature of the institutions of modernity that globalization distributes. To put the matter simply: globalization is really the globalization of modernity, and modernity is the harbinger of identity. Modernity is a complex and much contested idea, but in this context it means, above all, “the abstraction of social and cultural practices from contexts of local particularity, and their institutionalization and regulation across time and space” (Giddens 1990). The examples of such institutionalization that most readily spring to mind are the organization and policing of social territory (the nation-state, urbanism), or of production and consumption practices (industrialization, the capitalist economy). But modernity also institutionalizes and regulates cultural practices, including those by which we imagine attachment and belonging to a place or a community. The mode of such imagination it promotes is what we have come to know as ‘cultural identity’– self and communal definitions based around specific, usually politically inflected, differentiations: gender, sexuality, class, religion, race and ethnicity, nationality. We ‘live’ our gender, our sexuality, our nationality and so forth as publicly institutionalized, discursively organized belongings. What could be a much looser, contingent, particular and tacit sense of belonging becomes structured into an array of identities, each with implications for our material and psychological well-being, each, thus, with a ‘politics’. (Tomlinson 1999) And in so far as globalization distributes the institutional features of modernity across all cultures, globalization produces ‘identity’ where none existed – where before there were perhaps more particular, more inchoate, less socially policed belongings. This impact might, on a narrow reading, be seen as ‘cultural imperialism’ – in that this modern


institutionalization of cultural attachments clearly arose first in the West. But, more interestingly, it can be understood as part of the cultural package, mixed in its blessings, that is global modernity. (Tomlinson 1999) In a recent UNDP-DESA report on Arab youth and the millennium development goals, young people from all over the Middle East gathered to share their views. They noted that globalization has caught the Arab heritage off guard, posing a direct threat to Arabic culture, which reflects on values, habits and traditions of young people in particular, thereby also influencing linguistic, artistic and intellectual production. This, in turn, plays havoc with institutions concerned with social upbringing, so that globalized culture becomes perceived as a direct threat to youth identity and sense of belonging. This ‘threat’ becomes even more significant with diminishing educational and economic Levels. Participants also pointed out that the cultural impact of globalization differed from one country to another, and even within each country. On the one hand, globalization can be seen in hybrid forms of music, fashion and rebellion against ‘tradition’. While the negative consequences of globalization are a source of consternation in the Arab region, media - as a global mechanism - constitutes a mix of both challenge and opportunity. The challenge is primarily to governments confronting rapid transformations in societies with the flow of socio-political information and material. But youth are also challenged by the massive influx of imagery, information and ideas through mass media which leaves them ‘caught between two worlds’ – the real conditions they live in, which, in many cases, are far from what they see, hear, and grow to expect. (UNDP 2005)


They also stressed that globalization represents an opportunity for youth to express themselves in different ways and across spatial boundaries, and thus to grow in cultural interaction and experiential knowledge. Nevertheless, whether a challenge or an opportunity or both, participants asserted that the best way for Arab youth to assimilate globalization, is to continue to harness the vehicles of information and communication technology. Referring to the “right of Arab youth to eliminate technology illiteracy”, they argued that this has the potential to become a tool to enhance Arab identity and global coalition/capacity-building to confront violence and ignorance. (UNDP 2005) The west see the issue in globalization as the refusal of the Arabs to accept modernity, the Arabs see it as the rape of their traditional values and the empirical Americanization of their peoples, and the Arab youth see it as an attractive escape. Reading on the subject, it seemed there were many opposing views between Western and Middle Eastern perspectives, but the more intriguing were the ones within an Arab scope. While some viewed globalization as a threat to cultural identity, others developed ways of taking advantage of it. While some found it crucial to hold on to their identity, others saw the benefits of ‘mixing in’. With regards to the youth, the hybridization of both cultures seemed like an optimal solution, which has proved in many cases to be somewhat difficult to implement. Identity, alas, is a personal issue. It is necessary to review the different perspectives of scholars, but for the sake of truly understanding the effects it might have on design and design education, a further look into this realm will be conducted, based on more critical, empirical, and qualitative research.


A clear indicator of ‘backwardness’ in the Middle East is that almost no substantive contributions to science, literature and the arts have been made for centuries. A recent UN report estimates that the number of books published in Arabic does not exceed 1.1 percent of world production. This number becomes even more alarming if we consider that the majority of these books are of a religious nature. (Elsheshtawy 2008) When colonization ended, a strong economic, cultural and political dependence on developed countries remained. Each country’s educational past and current experiences are different, but several important similarities exist. These similarities provide a starting point for a country-to-country comparison, and for a better understanding of some of the problems that must be solved if the educational systems are to be structurally improved. (Akkari 2004) In the Arabic region, colonial authorities initiated compulsory modern education. However, native access to formal education was limited for two main reasons: Firstly, the colonial powers did not want to equip indigenous people with the skills and knowledge to challenge their power. Restricting modern schooling and especially European-language education to a minimum of students would simultaneously strengthen the colonial administration and weaken nationalist tendencies. Secondly, the existence of a local formal education system was represented by Koranic schools. This alternative system was in competition with the colonial one not only because of its religious reference but also because of its opposition to western cultural hegemony. In the late nineteenth century, colonial European powers were promoting compulsory education and at the same time seeking territorial and colonial conquests. In France, Jules

Ferry was both the founder of the French public education system and the supporter of more colonialism. During the first half of the nineteenth century, some of the Middle eastern governments sent missions to Europe to try to emulate European ways; to modernize according to what was perceived as European technological and military advancement. The primary purpose of these early missions to the West was to learn the ways of the ‘advanced white man’, to translate his works, and to pick up his habits (Saïd, 1993). Modern schooling was one of the ways to develop this European modernism. During the second half of the twentieth century, education has been taken very much as an investment in human capital, with long-term benefits both to the individual who is educated and to the public at large. The story of education has been also the story of post-colonial government control of education for purposes of nation building and economic development (Akkari, 1999).

Overcrowded classroom in Palestine

It is well known that population growth in the Arab countries is among the highest in the world, which makes providing basic education a major challenge. However, education


systems in the region, with few exceptions, now provide basic education to most children. Opportunities for secondary education, vocational training and tertiary education are also provided to many students, particularly in urban areas. Education is compulsory through the primary grades everywhere, and through lower secondary grades in some countries. Most countries have achieved universal primary enrolment and significant secondary enrolment increases. Educational outcomes have improved. Primary enrolment shot up from 61 per cent in 1965 to 98 per cent in 1990, with particular progress in oil-exporting countries. The economic growth as well as oil incomes facilitated the task of the Arab States in expanding basic education. The World Bank pointed out that during the period 1960 to 1980 the Middle East and North Africa outperformed all other regions except East Asia in income growth and the equality of income distribution. By 1990 only 5.6% of the population in Arab countries lived on less than $1 a day-the global benchmark of absolute poverty- compared with 14.7% in East Asia and 28.8% in Latin America. And whatever the wealth, poverty was lower in Arab States countries than elsewhere. (World Bank, nd)

Literacy Rates Literacy improved dramatically from 1960 to 1995, more than doubling in every country, each starting from a very low base-rate. Improvement in literacy was larger than in any other region in the Third World. However, because literacy increases more rapidly in urban areas, countries with very significant rural populations (Morocco, Yemen and Egypt) also have lower adult literacy rates: around and above 50 per cent. Moreover, because literacy in the region (everywhere except Lebanon) is at least 20 per cent lower among women, females in predominantly rural countries.


In addition to the current 100 million or so illiterate Arabs, this number is likely to increase rather than decrease - in absolute figures - in the coming quarter of a century, to reach between 115 million and 125 million in 2025 according to forecasts by the UNESCO. The simple reason is that demographic growth outpaces – and will most likely continue to do so - the increasing rates of literacy. Egypt, for example, as the largest Arab country, witnessed a decrease in illiteracy rates to 48.6% in 1995 compared to 55.4% 10 years before and 61.8% 20 years before. Doubtless, Egypt is achieving certain relative progress in combating illiteracy. But due to its high population growth rate, the absolute number of illiterate people is increasing, even if the rate of illiteracy decreases. Furthermore, access to newspapers, books and libraries is still limited in the region not only for lack of resources or readers, but also because of a strong political control on printed materials. Access to newspapers varies widely in the region from 15 copies per 1000 inhabitants in Yemen to 110 copies per 1000 inhabitants in Lebanon (UNESCO, 1998a). If we reach the primary tools of what has come to be called “the electronic culture” of the globalized era, that is, computer and internet use, Arab cultural readiness seems very poor. Available figures – they are growing continuously – show that while the world, up until the end of 1997, had more than onethird of a billion computers, the Arab world’s share was not more than around 2.3 million computers. This means that the Arab world, which demographically represents around 4.3% of the world’s population, does not have more than 0.61% of the world’s computers. The percentage drops to less than one per 1,000 when it comes to Arab subscribers to the Internet. While more than 40 million computers in the world were connected to the Internet in the beginning of 1999, their number

in all of the Arab countries was not more than 31,000. (Al Ahmad 2007)

Arabic and English Language For those who do not suffer from the consequences of illiteracy, another issue seems to be growing regarding the language. In many, if not most countries in the Middle East the second language is English. In several of these Arabicspeaking nations, English has become a pervasive language, especially in the economic and business sectors. Additionally, children in these countries often begin learning English during their formative years, and English is increasingly becoming the medium of instruction in many schools, colleges, and universities where Arabic is relegated to a secondary status. Although formal Arabic, fos’ha, is taught throughout the Middle East, there is rarely any excitement involved in learning Arabic. Students find it more difficult trying to learn Arabic especially when it is compared to the colorful, entertaining textbooks and materials of English in addition to English’s creative and constantly updated pedagogical approaches and methods. Although we cannot be certain that the Arabic language, Arab identity, or culture can or will be lost or lessened through the continual focus on global English, it is a concern. As more and more Arabic native speakers communicate in English, even among themselves, we may discover that the place of Arab identity is no longer held entirely in the language of Arabic, if it ever was. Most of us today are aware that global English comes with some positive and negative attachments in terms of its effects on other languages and speakers of those languages. With all these attachments to the language, it is probable that those Arabic native speakers, who use English as a global language have in some way

been touched by more than just the language in terms of their identities, their cultures, and their native language. (Al Issa 2009)

Quality and international comparisons Some international comparative studies on the quality of education in terms of the acquisition of knowledge, attitudes and skills are available, yet only Jordan has participated in recent international assessment studies. In the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) for 1999, Jordan was near the bottom in mathematics and science in the international assessments and a national Jordanian assessment found that students were not meeting learning objectives in Arabic, mathematics and science (World Bank, 1999). However, we observe that most of the countries participating in international comparative studies are industrialized countries. Thus it may be misleading to compare educational performance of countries with different levels of economic development. International comparisons of quality, of both inputs and outputs, are extremely difficult. This is because education systems differ substantially not only in the structure and content of their learning, but also in their objectives. The cultural component of education, its social objectives, is least susceptible to comparison, indeed to any form of quantitative measure. If we consider completion, the Middle East and North Africa have one of the best rates among the developing countries. Almost 93 per cent of all youngsters who enter primary school are able to complete the cycle and move to the secondary level compared to a percentage below 70 in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America (UNESCO, 1998b).


The standard indicator of expenditure on education as a percentage of GNP shows that Arab countries spend over 5 per cent on education, the highest percentage of GNP among all countries. Despite their financial resources, several countries in the Middle East have been unable - or, more accurately, unwilling - to convert national wealth into extended opportunities for basic education. In some cases, the gap between education performance ranking and income ranking is of extraordinary dimension. Among the bad performers are Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman.

Education and labour The connection between education and employment is still lacking. In Egypt, the rewards of education in terms of access to more productive and remunerative employment is becoming increasingly precarious. Open-unemployment has been steadily rising in the last two decades to reach 14 per cent of the labour force in late 1992 and that unemployment has been concentrated among young, new entrants to the labour market with secondary vocational degrees. The next highest rate of unemployment is among university graduates. In general, women are those who suffer the most from unemployment.In this context, the education system does not contribute to improving the average Egyptian’s earnings prospects in the labour market. Only university education results in a sizable return over the previous stage of education. Schools, specifically primary and preparatory levels, do not produce marketable skills, hence the high rate of unemployment among this category. According to Fergany (1995a), the conditions of schooling, in conjunction with the socio-economic situation of the pupils in these levels, do not allow them to pursue further their education and to acquire a higher level of training in formal education. Therefore, education appears to have low private returns.


Inequalities within each country The least privileged and the poor are those most strongly affected by the precarious situation of the education system in the Middle East. In Egypt, The number of working children between 6-14 years of age is estimated to be 1.5 million children, representing an average of 12.5 per cent of the population in question. Furthermore, the rate of working boys is 13 per cent while that of girls is 12 per cent. The alarming dropout rates from basic education are a symptom of the declining quality of education. A large number of pupils attend double and triple shift schools, in over-crowded classrooms, with no sanitary facilities, with poor educational materials, low quality of teaching, and poor future returns. All these factors cannot render education attractive even to the most ambitious pupils (Fergany, 1995a). Several factors contribute to the dropout phenomenon in the Middle East: a) the inadequate quantity and quality of elementary and secondary schools; b) the excessively long distance from home to school, which is a particularly important obstacle for girls in rural areas c) the lack of parent responsiveness to the laws mandating compulsory schooling, in light of the low private economic returns of schooling d) the inability of schools to offer an attractive environment to children e) the economic difficulties of some families who are forced to put their children to work early.

Gender inequalities Dispelling the myth that there is an automatically negative correlation between Islam and gender representation in schools, Islamic states increased the share of girls in school

by about 2 per cent in the first half of the 1990s, four times the overall rate for developing countries (Watkins, 1999). In the Islamic Republic of Iran, a high-level political commitment, backed with adequate resources, improved gender parity in primary schools: since 1986, the primary school enrolment rate of girls has climbed from 80 to 96 per cent nationally. Even in rural areas – where enrolment rates are lowest for all children – girls’ enrolment rate has gone from 60 to 80 per cent in the past five years (UNICEF, 2000). The female literacy rate in Arab countries is only 44 per cent, compared to 68 per cent for males. Still, most Arab countries have succeeded in reducing gender gaps in enrolment and completion rates far more successfully than South Asia or sub-Saharan Africa, and are projected to achieve gender equity in literacy, with a literacy rate of 70 per cent, in about 2010 (Watkins, 1999).

In Egypt, the consequence of poor national educational services at the basic level, combined with poor socioeconomic conditions, are increasingly excluding girls from basic education. It is estimated that about 600,000 girls in the 6 to 10 year age group do not attend school. Nearly 81 per cent of the excluded girls are in rural areas with the majority from Upper Egypt (Fergany, 1995b). Gender and social class inequality in access to education is not a recent phenomenon in Egypt. However, recent conditions and recent figures confirm the steady intensification of inequality over the years. Gender discrepancy in education widens the sociocultural gap between the two sexes. Under such economic conditions, with the increasing rate of dropouts, and the lack of credibility of the educational system, a further gap between formal and informal education is created.

Private Education and Future Challenges Private participation includes both provision and finance. Private provision of education varies widely within the region. Private schools outnumber public ones in Lebanon but are very limited in others countries. On average, private primary and secondary enrolment s are lower than the world average for lower-middle income countries. As in most developing countries, pre-university private education caters mainly to a high and middle-income urban clientele. In Jordan, Lebanon, and West Bank–Gaza, the private sector plays a substantial role in higher education (World Bank, 1999).

It is necessary to note the presence of different missions and foreign embassies, which run their own schools, principally serving the children of the specific community. Many are open, however, to certain social, local categories. The religious system has mostly been developed by minority communities: Jews in North Africa and Christians in the Middle


East. This system is particularly efficient, mostly thanks to external financial contributions. Privatization and market-oriented reforms, particularly in primary and secondary education will not contribute to improve the performances of the educational system in the Middle East. However, many of the countries of the region have experienced decades of educational centralism combined with little concerns with socio-cultural productivity of schooling. Many educational systems in the region suffer from bureaucratic structures that emphasize a top down approach to learning. Through the production and diffusion of textbooks, ministries of education implement rigid curriculum centered on memorization and dictation as everyday activities. It is important to stress that the need for further and broader educational reform in the Middle East is inextricably linked to continued economic and political reforms. Today’s students must be taught the technical skills that are needed to function effectively in tomorrow’s world. Moreover, they must be taught the problem solving, cooperation and critical thinking skills that are needed to build democracy and citizenship. Several countries in the Middle East are failing in granting educational access to all their social groups. They include the poorest countries in the region, as well as some of the richest. (Watkins, 1999). The Middle East region is at a crossroads in its educational development. The region is characterized by inadequate research and development for knowledge creation and limited communications infrastructure. It accounts for only about one tenth of one per cent of the world’s research and development spending, less than any other region save subSaharan Africa (World Bank, 1999).


Educational research is particularly limited in the region and not integrated within the international research networks. Recent reports from the SERI (Southern Educational Research Initiative) have reviewed educational research activities in all Third World regions except the Middle East and North Africa (SERI, 1996). Regional organizations, such as ALESCO (the Arab League Education, Culture and Science Organization) or ISESCO (the Islamic Education, Science and Culture Organization) must work to establish strong research programs as well as to build partnerships with international organizations. Since each country’s experiences, culture, and history are different, each country of the Middle East will have to devise its own plan for educational reform. No one model is likely to work everywhere. Nevertheless, there are some issues which all countries must deal with: Gender, regional and social inequalities in schooling, illiteracy, weak relationships between education and economic, community involvement and the role of the private sector In its outcomes, the ‘Arab Human Development Report 2002’ warns that “Arab societies are being crippled by a lack of political freedom and isolation from the world of ideas that stifles creativity.” The report remarks that while oil income has transformed the landscapes of some Arab countries, the society remains “richer than it is developed.” Productivity is declining, research and development are weak or absent at all, science and technology are dormant. Actually, intellectuals fee a stultifying or sometimes repressive political and social environment towards the free world of the west, where they can perform and erect better future. (Al Ahmad 2007)

Research Proposal


Research Proposal: Design Education in the Middle East Design can never exist in vacuum; it is influenced by many other disciplines, as well as social, cultural, political, historical, and other factors. It goes without say that design, compared to the Western world, is still at its earliest phase of development in the Middle East. The current issues or problems that prevail in the implementation and conception of design could be traced to the formation designers receive through their design education. Within the past decade, design has reached centre stage in global issues. Institutions and universities providing design courses in the Middle East have become more aware of its importance to the country’s development. However, current curricula do not meet the needs of the region, nor to they present substantial comparatives to the Western world. A number of debates surround this issue, some of which are the following:

. Design education is usually single disciplinary. A stronger

emphasis is placed on graphic/ communication design, and no significant development in product/ industrial design. There are naturally logical reasons for this: the lack of economic and manufacturing infrastructure, the lack of any substantial export of products, and perhaps even aftermath of the aniconistic anthropomorphic nature of Islamic visual culture.


Design education programs are direct copy-pastes of those of Western universities and institutions, most of which have become outdated. The danger in adopting programs which were specific to a certain timeframe and region is the lack


of cultural and social sensitivity, as well as the irrelevance to the current issues of the region.


As the Middle Eastern students receive a foreign design education, and perceive Western ideals and lifestyles as superior to their own, they mimic their design styles and visual culture. Along with the effects of globalization, design students try to conform to Western visual language, while almost completely disregarding their own. Here, not only is the Middle Eastern cultural identity at stake, but also the self-confidence of designers when they compare themselves to Western designers.


Another point, which takes the previous two even further, is the blame on the poor educational system provided by Middle Eastern schools. Most curricula are based on teaching the student to memorize rather than develop creative solutions for problem solving.

. As many Middle Eastern students are not well equipped

enough with the Arabic language, and usually find it easier to speak English or French. Communication designers have given very little attention to experimenting with Arabic typography and developing it (with the exception of Iran). Recent projects have been conducted to breach the gap between Latin and Arabic typography; still, it is not a skill widespread enough in the region.

. Most design students are most likely to go abroad for con-

tinuing their education. Graduate degrees in design exist to a certain degree, but usually not advisable. Moreover, most would rather immigrate to Western countries as the chances of employment with a respectable salary, as well as a considerable position as a designer are more likely.


Students who graduate as designers and remain in the Middle East work almost entirely in advertising. In fact, that is what a degree in graphic design is meant for. Very few design studios survive, and multidisciplinary design company are unheard of.


There is no Middle Eastern design council to mediate and research among the design schools. There are no significant sources of funding for design projects. Only recently has there been the foundation of MEDEA (Middle East Design Educators Association), but the region has not witnessed any action from them yet.


And finally, within the past few years, there has been some growing western interest with regards to design from the region; many western designers seem to be fascinated by arabesque design and Arabic calligraphy. The Middle East has not yet seen this as an opportunity to shine. Perhaps if there were more means for interaction, both sides would benefit. There are currently very few exchange programs in design education between Arab and Western countries. There are

hardly a handful of workshops and conferences worldwide providing an interactive medium for intercultural or crosscultural collaboration for international hybridized design. This research proposal aims to take these points into account and research them further to, if possible, provide some adequate solutions or suggestions. As the Middle East is very wide, I suggest four case studies from each corner of the Middle Eastern world, who have also been somewhat involved in the design scene, and have a number of internationally acknowledges design schools: Tehran/Iran, Cairo/ Egypt, Beirut/Lebanon, and Doha/Qatar. Various research methodologies are necessary to understand the actual problems in design education in the major universities. Students, lecturers/professors, and alumni are the main target of research. The outcome of such a research is still unclear. A customized program that fits the social and cultural needs of the Middle Easter society, or cross-cultural interactive workshops/ exhibitions/ conference are all possibilities. The whole world is aware that the Middle East is in desperate need of a cultural revolution. If the Arab intellectuals and artists have yet not succeeded in bringing forward this transformation, then perhaps it is time for the designers to find their own way of making it happen.


Bibliography Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya , Plans for Redrawing the Middle East: The Project for a “New Middle East”, Global Research, November 18, 2006

John Tomlinson, Globalization and Culture, Polity Press in association with Blackwell Ltd. 1999

Roger Adelson. London and the Invention of the Middle East: Money, Power, and War, 1902-1922. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995. p. 22-23

Ahmad Al Issa, Global English: Issues of Lnaguage Culture, and Identity in the Arab World, Journal of Educational Sciences, 2009

Martin Kramer, “Arab Nationalism: Mistaken Identity,” Daedalus, 1993.

UNDP Arab Youth and the Millenium Development Goals, executive summary, 2005

Philp B. Meggs, A History of Graphic Design, Allen Lane Penguin Books, London, 1983

Fergany, N. (1995a). Strategic Issues of Education and Employment in Egypt. Cairo: Al-Mishkat Center for Research and Training.

Peter Mansfield, A History of the Middle East, Penguin Books 1991

Fergany, N. (1995b). Summary of Research: Enrolment in Primary Education and Acquainting Basic Skills in Reading, Writing and Mathematics. Cairo: Al-Mishkat Center for Research and Training.

Josef Wiesehöfer ; Azizeh Azodi (translator) (2001). Ancient Persia. London, New York: I.B. Tauris. Ira M. Lapidus. 2002, A History of Islamic Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Terry Allen, “Aniconism and Figural Representation in Islamic Art”, Five Essays on Islamic Art, Occidental (CA), Solipsist, 1988 A.J. Lee. Islamic Star Patterns. In Muqarnas IV: An Annual on Islamic Art and Architecture. Oleg Grabar (ed.) Leiden: E.J. Brill. 1987 Owen Jones, The grammar of ornament London: Quaritch, 1910 Mourad Boutros, Arabic for Designers,Mark Batty Publisher 2006 Yasser Elsheshtawy, The Evolving Arab City: Tadition Modernity and Urban Development, Routledge New York, 2008 Hussein Al Ahmad, Globalization and the Third World Communities: Is it a Negative Cultural/Economic force? Case Study: Middle East, International Communication and Culture Forum, March 2007. Pierre Abi Saab, “ Arab Culture was under Threat before Globalization”, interview in -Dialogue with the Islamic World- 12 March 2009


Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism. New York: Knopf. 1993 UNESCO (1998a). Arab States Telecommunications Indicators. Paris: UNESCO. UNESCO (1998b). Rapport mondial sur l’éducation. Les enseignants et l’enseignement dans un monde en mutation. Paris: UNESCO. UNICEF (2000). State of the World’s Children 2000. New York: UNICEF. World Bank (nd). Claiming the future. Choosing prosperity in the Middle East and North Africa. Washington, DC: The World Bank. World Bank (1999). Education in the Middle East & North Africa: A strategy towards learning for development. Washington, DC: The World Bank. Watkins, K. (1999). Education now: Break the cycle of poverty. London: OXFAM. Dr. Abdeljalil Akkari, Education in the Middle East and North Africa: The Current Situation and Future Challenges, International Education Journal Vol 5, No 2, 2004 Sven-Anwar Bibi, ‘You better start swimming- Or you will sink like a stone’ Tuesdaytalks- Koeln International School of Design, 19.01.2010


Design Education in the Middle East  

A research proposal on the background behind the various issues in design education in the Middle East

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