So much of the Middle East’s regional identity, at least as an outsider, seems to be crafted or defined by the lack of water in its vast deserts. In media, pop culture, and history lessons, we hear far more about the significance of the desert than anything else. But all that the desert is for the Middle East, water is just as powerful of a socio-political and historical force.
I recall an evening in a popular café in downtown Amman—a city filled with Palestinian refugees and the children of Palestinian refugees and their children—when a group of elderly musicians struck up a set list of traditional Palestinian folk songs and ballads (for lack of a better description). They recalled a life next to the water, a life of fishing, exploration, and freedom. It was a life most of the audience had never known. The entire room was in or close to tears: not just for the turbulent national history it recalled, though that was certainly part of it, but also in mourning for the lost traditions of a life alongside the water.
As much as identity in the Middle East is defined by aridity, harshness, and desertification, as much as the harsh natural climate reflects the turbulent political climate, there is a distinct cultural calmness that reflects a deep abiding connection to water. Water everywhere exists just outside the conventional space-time continuum: water, at least in the Middle East, suggests promises of a better future, and it teases us with a better alternate reality.
People’s relationships with water, and its role in crafting individual identities, is as varied as the presence of the scarce resource itself. Water is sustenance, a requirement of life, but it is also revenue and recreation. From surfing in Haifa to scuba-diving and snorkeling on the Sinai Peninsula, from both sides of the Jordan river to the Yarmouk River to the ever-dwindling Red Sea, the Tigris and Euphrates and the Nile delta, from sustenance to escapism, the Middle East is as much a story of water as it is of deserts.
Human interaction with water in the Middle East is not unique: around the world it is sustaining and recreational at the same time. But in the Middle East, its promise of freedom and the future, its potential as an escape from the everyday, makes it perhaps a perfect identity for the Middle East.