‘Kuwait is still at war, right?’ This is something I hear all the time and is a prime example of how things in the Middle East are grouped together under damaging labels, leaving the entire region with one single story.
Challenging the stereotypes around where I am from is a constant battle when attempting to explain my upbringing. Provoking comments involving exoticism, lack of education and extremism are part and parcel of the reactions I get when I attempt to communicate where I am from with people who are none the wiser.
However, I do not blame the audience and I also refuse to believe that all people outside of the Middle East are this misinformed. I will not ask the media who report on and can often perpetuate beliefs about the Middle East to change; instead I am asking us to take control of how we are represented on a global scale.
In reference to being pooled into the same category as radicals, the Queen of Jordan recently said, ‘We have to stop letting them hijack our identities’. I believe this statement encompasses the main issue Middle Easterners face when grouped into damaging identities and labels in today’s news, which ultimately established the main focus of the ‘My Middle East’ campaign: to repossess our identities.
I know I am not alone when I feel the frustration of being casually ‘othered’, where Arab countries along with Iran, Afghanistan and India are grouped as one, considered to all have the same language, culture and current affairs.
I know I am not alone because I have sat amongst Arab audiences watching the news or films with inaccurate, generalised images being exhibited.
The frustration comes not only for our own individual country, but also for the countries grouped in with our own. We all deserve the right to be represented as ourselves as opposed to being shown images of nondescript deserts with dark-eyed men shouting in a mixture of Arabic dialects somewhere in ‘the Middle East’.
You cannot look at an entire region of the world and believe that all their women are oppressed or belly dancers, the men barbaric, with backwards thinking where everyone practices the same religion.
The bearded camel-riding man who lives in a tent in the deserts of ‘the Middle East’ pays no regard to the lawyer driving to work in Bahrain. The belly dancer that veils her face but reveals her seductive eyes bears no resemblance to the woman achieving a PhD in Cell Biology at Kuwait University. If one is depicted, then why isn’t the other? The sheikhs who deal in oil and have harems of women at their beck and call do not exist in my country, so why are they depicted as the norm?
Thus I have started ‘My Middle East’: a new initiative where people across the Middle East are being encouraged to reclaim their identities using the popular Vine app as a platform. We have created an account to challenge media stereotypes by posting content from those living in the region, to show their lives through their own lens.
On show will be first-hand accounts of what it is like to live in countries which are grouped under the heading ‘The Middle East’.
We are calling for people in the Middle East to take part. All you need to do is create 6-second videos for each of the following: your favourite place in your country, a hobby you enjoy, a meal you have had and anything else you would like to show the world about where you live and your culture.
The project endeavours to not only give people a platform upon which they can express what they love about their home, but to illustrate that we as people from the Middle East are more than simplified, and often misrepresented, stereotypes.
These tasks seem simple, but they will speak volumes. Through providing accurate depictions of our lives, we make space for a far more nuanced perspective.
This project is not just about the people participating, but also about those who are watching. A message without an audience doesn’t get very far. (We are using Vine because of how easy it is to share your life in a 6-second video while the ‘revine’ option also allows whoever is watching to share it within Vine or on Facebook and Twitter.)
Why is this initiative so important? Because it is an opportunity to remind people that ‘The Middle East’ is formed by countries that differ from each other and possess their own beauty and culture. These states are inhabited by people who are individuals and not just one amalgamated ‘identity’. This initiative is to encourage people to put on show their own individuality and that of where they are from.
Along with the Vine initiative, My Middle East is launching its first event: ‘My Middle East: Walk around Brighton’ on the 2nd of May.
We are inviting Middle Easterners and our supporters to join us as we physically label ourselves the way we want to be seen as opposed to the labels prescribed to us by the media.
Dr Jack Shaheen’s notion of the ‘filmmaker’s instant Arab kit’ highlights the stereotypes and cultural cues used by the media to make Arabs easily identifiable to Western audiences.
I am a filmmaker. I am a sister and daughter. I am an activist. I am a musician. I am not the ‘exotic belly dancer’; the women in my life are not the ‘image of suppression’ and the men around me are not ‘aggressive antiheroes’. So I am going to walk around Brighton wearing the labels I choose for myself; ultimately, if we are not represented fairly in the media, then we should go out there and represent ourselves.
If you live in the Middle East and are interested in contributing content then please email MyMiddleEastVine@gmail.com for more information. If you’re not in the Middle East but are still interested, then please help us spread the word.
You can find the Vine account here: https://vine.co/u/1198026883757912064.
You can find the Facebook page with information on the Brighton event here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/My-Middle-East/1439012443064654
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Noor Alnaqeeb is a Kuwaiti postgraduate Filmmaking student at the University of Sussex. Her work explores cultural identity and the ways in which we collect stories through our environments. She is interested in combining documentary and fiction as she did in her 2014 graduate film ‘Walk On’. Her current focus is to challenge stereotypes within the media surrounding cultural identity.
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