By Tania Bhattacharya
The Middle East is the chosen destination for Indian expatriates, more than any other region of the world. An estimated seven million people of Indian descent can be found working and living in countries like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, and Bahrain. The mentioned states lie along the coast of the Persian Gulf, which has endowed them with the epithet of ‘Gulf Nations’.
While a fair number of Indians can distinguish between an Arab Gulf nation, and Iran, most are not aware of the distinction between the Gulf and the Levant. They are of the opinion that the Arab dominated areas uniformly share the same topography, climate and culture. This is hardly true. Levant refers to a territory that is distinct from the countries bordering the Persian Gulf. The former is instead located along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, and has displayed an independent streak over matters of culture, and religion, since time immemorial.
West Asia, or the Levant, is mottled with a diversity of cultures and languages. Greco-Roman civilizations have left an indelible imprint on the collective psyche of the Levantine. Roman charioteers, its legions, and later, its gladiators, had once used the Levantine lands as their playground. As a result, West Asians consider themselves closer to the Greeks next door, than to their fellow Arabs in the Gulf. Interestingly, long before the Greco-Roman vassal states had mushroomed in the Levant, the area was home to an Indo-European peoples, closely related to the Aryan-Indian demographic of South Asia. Powerful kingdoms where the rulers and inhabitants spoke a form of Proto-Sanskrit, once dominated the West Asian landscape. The Hittites of Anatolian Turkey was such a community. Considered as one of Asia’s most brilliant ancient products, this kingdom has left behind considerable archaeological remnants, which can be used for joining the dots that lead from it, to the Kassite emigration into South Asia, through Pakistan’s Sindh, and north-western India. Not long after the rise of the Hittites, other Indo-European empires began to appear nearby, like the Mitanni, and the Hurrians. In time, these great domains would decay and crumble, forcing their inhabitants to seek greener pastures elsewhere, notably, eastward where the fertile plains of modern Sindh and Punjab are today located. Genetic tests have established an overlapping of genes found among people of north-western India, Pakistan, and West Asia, which should not come as a surprise to history buffs.
The vacuum left behind by the demise of Indo-European West Asia, would be filled by other ancient states, before the Semitic element – already present along the coast of Israel, Lebanon, and Palestine as the Canaanite and Phoenician domains – made itself visible by way of spilling into its neighbouring regions. At the eve of Islam’s birth, the Levant, and North Africa, were teeming with a healthy diversity, where languages, tribal loyalties, and cultural idiosyncrasies, flourished and jostled each-other for space. After Prophet Mohammad inspired his followers with an evangelical zeal, the language carried by the Islamic scriptures – Arabic – began to make aggressive changes to the identity of the Levantines. Those changes have remained largely in place, till current times, sometimes existing harmoniously with the underbelly of non-Arab loyalties, and sometimes taking issue with it.
But the Arabizing of the non-Arab people of the region, has created a standardization, that must not be encouraged any further. If humanity wishes to preserve its heterogeneous heritage, it must carefully protect the positive peculiarities of indigenous communities.
Levantine ancestral bequeathing can be summed up as the following:
The Hattian (it refers to an ancient Anatolian civilization, in Turkey)
The Circassian (the North Caucasus)
The Kemetic (Egyptian)
These multitudinous elements have classical roots and even today, among the academics of the mentioned communities, an allegiance toward the indigenous identity can be spotted. Turkey’s defunct Etibank is a fine example. Monikered after the Hittite empire’s memory, the naming of this Turkish bank, was an attempt to consolidate the non-Semitic nature of the Turkish identity.
While some of the diversity has been lost to time, much of it is still a vibrant presence, existing in defiant undertones that wish to see themselves separate from the forced homogeneity of the dominance of Arabic.
However, it is impossible to belittle the language of the peninsular Arabs – birthplace of the Arabic tongue – due to its sheer tenacity, and complexity. The Nabateans that have been the progenitors of Arabic, were imbued with creativity and sophistication. They have left behind their legacy in the form of some of West Asia’s most iconic monuments, such as the temples of Al Lat, Al Uzza, and Al Manat at Petra, in Jordan.
At present, from among the inventory of sub-cultures within the Levant, the surviving ones would be all, but the Hittite, and the Kemetic. The Lebanese lay stress on being descendants of the illustrious Canaanites and Phoenicians. The Kurds and the Yezidis are fighting a battle of attrition with the murderous forces that have besieged them. The Circassians are challenging the expansionist nations at the periphery of the North Caucasus to win independence along linguistic and cultural lines, and the Armenians and Assyrians, are trying to create awareness about the Ottoman Holocaust, in which millions from among their communities, as well as the Greeks, were massacred by first the Ottomans, and then by the regime of Turkey’s first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Most Turks including the top brass of the country, do not acknowledge the persecution and ethnic cleansing of the Levant’s Christians, as of now.
Turkey’s Uralic-Altaic linguistic heritage, in combination with the latent ancestral idiosyncrasies of the Levantine communities, must ensure that West Asian cultural diversity, can resonate with admiration from its fans, both at home and abroad.