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The Middle East doesn't exist

On Friday 2 October journalist Sander van Hoorn starts his lecture series ‘The Middle East doesn't exist’, which was organised by the Leiden University Centre for the Study of Islam and Society (LUCIS). ‘If all goes well, people will understand the Middle East that bit less after my lectures.’


Journalist Sander van Hoorn: 'Ik blijf een eeuwige buitenstaander.'
Journalist Sander van Hoorn: ‘I remain the eternal outsider.’

‘It seemed like a good idea at the time to give these lectures,’ laughs Sander van Hoorn. From 2 October anyone who is interested can listen to his explanation of the origins of IS, propaganda and the difference between the Sunnis and the Shia. He is sitting in his office in Beirut, which is where he produces his daily report about the Middle East for the NOS-Journaal news programme. Via Skype he and Petra Sijpesteijn (director of LUCIS and Professor of Arabic) look ahead to the lectures.

What basic knowledge do you expect the audience to possess?

Petra Sijpesteijn: ‘What strikes me is that the biggest misunderstanding about the Middle East is about the number of groups in the societies there and the overlap between them. The Dutch have the tendancy to compartmentalise. Perhaps this is a legacy of the pillarisation of Dutch society.’ 

Sander van Hoorn: ‘Exactly. Communities in Syria may disagree but they do live together, not because this is enforced, by the government for instance, but because that’s the way it is.’ 

PS: ‘It’s very difficult to get this nuanced picture across.’ 

SvH: ‘If all goes well, people will understand the Middle East that bit less after my lectures. I myself learn something new every day.’ mensen na mijn lezingen net iets minder van het Midden-Oosten. Ik krijg zelf ook nog dagelijks nieuwe inzichten.’

What is the relationship between news reports about the Middle East and academic research into the region?

Petra Sijpesteijn: 'Geschiedschrijving vertelt eigenlijk alleen het verhaal van overwinnaars.'
Petra Sijpesteijn: 'Geschiedschrijving vertelt eigenlijk alleen het verhaal van overwinnaars.'

SvH: ‘The speed is very different of course: something happens and I report about it in the news that same evening, and try to make a first attempt to interpret it. The great disadvantage here is that I’m more likely to make mistakes because I lack facts or opinions. And you lack distance: I’m never free of the Middle East. If I’ve spent a week reporting from Syria, afterwards I’m back in the supermarket in Beirut, where Syria is the main topic of conversation too.’ 

PS: ‘Scholarship is slower, which is why you establish different links between events. History books only tell the story of the victors. You don’t focus on lesser facts and the losers, whereas this is the kind of story that Journalism does tell. The aim of this lecture series is to give the public a view of the Middle East that comes from someone on the ground, someone who actually lives in the region.’ 

SvH: ‘I’m going to explain the difference between the Shia and the Sunnis from this ‘on-the ground’ angle, namely from the perspective of the caretaker of the apartment complex where I live.’

Petra, what do you as an academic think of the daily news reports on the Middle East?

PS: ‘As a historian my attention is always on the source of news. What’s the point of showing a mobile phone film on television if you don’t know who has posted it or what his motives are? All sorts of things are claimed, but the bigger picture is missing.’ 

SvH: ‘The Dutch media go for the easy option when it comes to reporting about the Middle East. They prefer to show someone with the gift of the gab, but the observations made generally lack context. The discussion in the Netherlands of the situation in the Middle East is consequently becoming one-dimensional.’

Sander, you said that you hope that the audience will actively contribute to your lectures?

SvH: ‘My Arabic is decent, but I can’t follow a whole news show. I’m reasonably familiar with Islam, but am certainly no expert. However much I get to know the region, I remain an eternal outsider. I would say to anyone who can shed light on a certain topic during the lectures: "Feel free to help me out."’ 

Sander van Hoorn’s lecture series ‘The Middle East does not exist’ starts on Friday 2 October at 3.00 pm in the Oude Sterrewacht in Leiden. The series comprises five lectures, the last of which will be held on Monday 9 November. Registration is not necessary, but seats are limited.


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