Thursday, January 05, 2006

Those flexible cultural divides

Today I picked up my electronic Globe and Mail and found that two Turkish teenagers had died of avian flu. According to the G&M, this made them "the first people outside Asia to die from the worrisome H5N1 strain of the virus."

This struck me as a great example of how flexible or maybe even meaningless are some of the big cultural categories we throw around so casually: Left/Right, East/West, and in this case Asia.

Presumably the fact that these unfortunate teens died "outside Asia" mean that they lived on some other continent. I guess it must be Europe. But when I was learning geography in grade school, only one little part of Turkey, Thrace west of Istanbul and the Bosporus straits. The teens in question, however, are not from Thrace or Istanbul, but from Van, directly north of Syria and Iraq, and very close to Iran as well.

You have to wonder who said that Van was "outside Asia;" was it the Associated Press? Was it the World Health Organization who released the news to AP? What exactly was the standard by which they decided that Van might be in Europe?

My guess is that they were thinking that culturally or politically or in some other way, Turkey, even the Van region, is more like Europe than it is like Indonesia. Well, that's probably true. But that still leaves us wondering exactly what the standard for comparison is: Bulgaria? Belarus? Norway? Ireland?

Now if the EU would finally decide that Turkey could join the club, even at some future date, that would settle the question politically and institutionally, at least for a lot of people. But those negotiations continue to drag on.

For historians, even student historians, this case is worth thinking about. Consider how the casual use of terms like Left and Right and East and West and "modern" for that matter can sink us in imprecision. (Don't get me started on the popular usage of "medieval.")

Exercise for the reader: Is the Republic of Georgia, directly north of Van on the map, part of "Europe" or "Asia?" And what's that big country north of Georgia, and where does it fit?


Blogger Steve Muhlberger said...

The January 6th paper version of the Globe and Mail, derived from Canadian Press instead of Associated Press, referred vaguely to cases of avian flu "on the doorstep of Europe." So I guess Van knows where it stands. Sort of.

On a more serious note, a bunch of children are sick there. My sympathies to them

3:48 PM  

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