“Churchill’s Hiccup”

KAREN CULCASI – “Maps and Might,” Part II: Now more than ever it is important to explore the world from a cartographic perspective.

This interview marks the conclusion of our two-part series on “Maps and Might.” (Here is the first part) Although maps are often seen as products of diplomacy and posturing, not tools of those endeavors, Professor Culcasi explains how the map of the “Middle East,” itself a term born from dubious cartography, has been shaped politically and culturally by the Euro-centricity after the First World War.

Professor Monmonier discussed the use of territorial labeling to decide the political future of a given territory. Is the term “Middle East” an accurate descriptor for the region; who determined the location of the modern “Middle East”?

The situation is complicated. We divide the world into global regions, such as Latin America, East Asia, Eastern or Western Europe. The term “Middle East” falls into this collection. But what is complicated about the Middle East is that it does not have a geographical reference; every term we use to divide the world is descriptive of that place’s physical location. When talking about the “Middle East,” we need to ask the question: “in the middle of what East?” When we talk about Central America, for example, we start with “America,” and we are describing its central part.

The “Middle East” does not have that starting point. The term originated in 1900, used specifically in reference to British politics. Broadly, “East” was used to describe anything that was to the British Empire’s East; “Far East,” “Near East,” and then the “Middle East” — it was quite literally in the middle of Britain’s East.

Is this an accurate descriptor? It is if you are looking at it from a British-centric perspective. It is not an accurate term whatsoever if you are living in Cairo. When asking about the accuracy of the term, it is crucial to determine the perspective.

What have been the ramifications of the western-drawn Middle East map in the region; how have the western-labeled charts been a source of conflict?

Within the region, the western-centric terms are not used topographically cartographically. It is a term that westerners have given to the region. Politicians in the region will use this term when discussing issues of interest to a western audience. But as a topographical term it is meaningless, and it is not used within the regional context.

Have maps been used as ‘weapons’ in the Middle East, that is, have cartographers used maps to muddle space and claim territory, such as during the Israel/Palestine conflict when Palestinians resurrect villages that do not exist, and Israelis label place-names in Hebrew?

We must use the term “weapon” cautiously, since it implies conflict and bloodshed. Maps, though, have certainly been used to stake claims to territory. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been the most illustrative example of how maps can be used in this manner. Looking at the region more broadly, there are two other territorial conflicts where maps are used to obscure borders and stake claims.

The first example is often overlooked in the West, but is very much a part of Arabian political culture. What do we call the body of water that is immediately south of Iraq, west of Saudi Arabia, and east of Iran? We call it the “Persian Gulf,” but in 22 Arab countries, it is called the “Arabian Gulf.” Many countries have had harsh relations with Iran, which was known as Persia until the 1930s. By calling it the “Persian Gulf,” cartographers imply that the Iranians “own” the gulf. Consequently, many maps drawn in the region refer to this body of water as the “Arabian Gulf.”

Another place where boundaries being used in a confrontational manner is the area at the very Southeastern portion of Egypt. If you look at any map published in the United States, the Egypt-Sudan border not straight; in the very Eastern corner it juts out very roughly into Egypt — an area called the Hala’ib Triangle — with the outcrop belonging to Sudan. However, all maps produced in Egypt portray the border as straight, because there is a conflict about that territory. This is a complicated argument: who controls the area, Sudan or Egypt? Most international organizations consider this territory as part of Sudan, and the people who live there call themselves Sudanese. Egypt claims that territory because there are important natural resources there.

How have the colonial borders — drawn somewhat arbitrarily in the early 20th century — divided ethnically cohesive groups of people along national lines?

In many respects these borders were arbitrary, but in some cases they were quite deliberate — the politicians knew where the oil was, for example. These borders are generally arbitrary for the people who live in the region.

One interesting example of European influence is somewhat of a cartographic “oddity” along the Jordanian border that is called “Churchill’s Hiccup.” The boundary of modern-day Jordan has a very random ‘arm’ to the East. Nobody has ever been able to figure out how the shape was created — there is no natural riverine or mountain boundary, nor is there any sort of village or town. Historians muse that Winston Churchill, while drafting Jordan’s borders, was trying to draw a straight line, but hiccuped, causing his pen to jump off to the left and then down right. The point illustrated here is how arbitrary these borders are, but also how much European influence went into their creation.

In terms of dividing ethnically cohesive groups, the situation is again not so simple. The whole idea of an ethnic group is a problem, since there is often no clear beginning or end to any such group, and they often blend together. Nevertheless, the most important, distinct “ethnic group” could be the Kurdish. The Kurdish people are spread throughout Eastern Turkey, Northern Syria, Northern Iraq, and Northwestern Iran. There was, in 1923, a treaty with Britain that created a country called Kurdistan. That treaty was never ratified, and the Kurds were ultimately divided between these four countries. Today the Kurds are often referred to as “the world’s largest nation without a state.”

There are other groups, such as the Nubians, who are divided between Egypt and Sudan, and the Berbers, although they are too spread out to make the same distinction. In each case, these groups are not “Arab.” The Kurds speak Kurdish; the Berbers speak Berber.

Did the geographic division of the Middle East create an environment in which nationalistic fervor would emerge and flourish later in the 20th century?

The countries of Jordan and Iraq have only existed since the 1930s. Yet, Iraqis and Jordanians are passionate about their national identity. These boundaries absolutely have an impact on national identity and nationalistic fervor.

People have adopted these identities. Jordanians, for example, do not want to be Syrians. Egyptians do not want to be Jordanian. The situation today is an amazing example of how nationalism is not some kind of historic, biological identity. It is something that people construct; it is very modern.

The “Arab Identity,” which is much broader, has become incredibly strong as well since the Europeans created their boundaries. In the 1950s and 1960s there was a movement called the “Pan-Arab movement,” which sought to unify all the Arab populations across the western-drawn boundaries. In fact, from 1958 to 1961, Egypt and Syria were united as one country, under the banner of being “Arab.” This movement was in large part a reaction to the European-drawn boundaries. Indeed, the western-drawn boundaries fostered nationalist fervor, yet at the same time helped to promote a broader Arab identity.


KAREN CULCASI is an assistant professor of Geography at West Virginia University. Her research focuses on critical geopolitical examinations of contested places and identities in the Middle East.

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