These days, the Middle East garners nonstop attention from the world; conflict, struggles, and other hardships continue to plague the region. Most of us understand vaguely what the constitutes the “Middle East” and such, but it is imperative that we understand more fully the nature of the crises and history of the region if we ever hope to live to see the day where there might actually be peace. Fundamental to understanding the region is understanding the differences between some key terms used to describe the people, places, languages, and ethnic groups, similar to explaining differences such as Race vs. Ethnicity or Spanish vs. Latin American.
Middle East / Middle Eastern
First, we must tackle this set of terms, as we’ve used it already in the intro. The Middle East is a region, revolving around the countries which surround the Arabian Peninsula, the large peninsula to the northeast of Africa that is a western part of Asia.
The countries that make up the Middle East vary slightly depending on the source, but usually consist of: Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Northern Cyprus, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Some sources, including the CIA World Factbook, categorize even Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia within the Middle East, though most disagree with this. A Middle Easterner is a person from the Middle East.
One point often forgotten these days is that there are several countries, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, that are not included in the Middle East; these countries, as well as Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, and even Djibouti and Somalia have been referred to in the past as part of the Greater Middle East; however, this term went out a while ago, as it was deemed too Eurocentric and insulting.
Arab / Arabian
“Arab” is an umbrella term for a panethnic group of people, a people that comprise many different ethnicities within, sort of like saying “Southeast Asian” or such. Generally, and even more-so presently, the Arab peoples consist of the peoples of the member nations of the Arab League. The Arab League is a group of 22 nations and territories that formally formed back in 1945. However, being an Arab is much more an ethnicity, so there are people who live in the Arab countries that do not consider themselves Arabs, such as the Kurds.
Arabs are not necessarily Arabians. Arabians are those people who are from the countries of the Arabian Peninsula. The Arabian Peninsula is now home to Arabic peoples, so you could say that Arabians are Arabs, but not all Arabs are Arabians, since many live off of the peninsula. The Arab peoples are united by an identity of a shared culture and history; most speak Arabic, which is a language and not meant to refer to the people, though you could say “Arabic-speaking people.”
Persia / Persian
Persian can refer to a people of Iran and a language, but when referring to people, Persians are Iranians who speak the Persian language (Farsi). The term historically meant “from Persis,” which is around Pars, Iran, north of the Persian Gulf. With this definition, not all Iranians are Persians, but all Persians are Iranians, nationally.
However, some now designate Persian as a panethnic group (like the Arab people above), and use it as a demonym to define all people of Iran. If you are unclear, it is probably safer to call out someone from the country of Iran as an Iranian.
To confuse you more, I’ll mention one final thing: since we stated that the origin of the term “Persian” originally meant someone from Persis, many Iranians often use Persian to make a locational distinction, rather than an ethnic one. Thus, there may be non-Persian people (who don’t speak Farsi) who Iranians deem Persian, based on them being from the Persian region – again, maybe just use “Iranian.” Good luck ;)
• This is part of our ongoing series, “Versus: ‘What’s the Difference?’” With this series, we aim to promote a better understanding and love of the differences that make us unique while at the same time casting out doubt; hopefully, this will make us better travelers, better citizens, and better people. For more, check out the “Versus: ‘What’s the Difference?'” category »