Disappearing Spaces: Mapping Egypt’s Deserts across the Colonial Divide

by guest contributor Chloe Bordewich

In October 2016, government and opposition lawyers met in one of Egypt’s highest courts to battle over the fate of two tiny Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir. When President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi suddenly announced the sale of the islands to Saudi Arabia earlier that year, pent-up rage toward the military regime that took power in 2013 poured out through a rare valve of permissible opposition: a legal case against the deal was allowed to proceed.

In this fight, both sides’ weapon of choice was the map. Reports circulated that state institutions had received orders to destroy maps that indicated that the islands in question were historically Egyptian. In response, the government paraded old atlases before the court proving, it argued, that the sale of the islands would only formalize the islands’ longstanding de facto Saudi ownership. Enclosed in one atlas, published by the Egyptian Geographical Society in 1928, were several maps on which the islands in question were shaded the color of Saudi Arabia. Khaled Ali, the lead opposition lawyer, pointed out that Saudi Arabia did not exist in 1928. The duel of maps continued over several sessions anyway, with Ali’s team accusing the state of intentional obstruction, obfuscation, and blatant fabrication, and the state denouncing some of Ali’s maps as inherently suspect because he had obtained them abroad.

This case drew public attention to the fraught modern history of the nation’s cartography. The Map Room of the Egyptian Survey Authority (Maslahat al-Misaha), where Ali and his associates had first gone looking for evidence, has made and sold maps of Egypt since 1898. Today it abuts the Giza Security Directorate, a mid-century fortress shielded by blocks of concrete barricades and checkpoints. Though the two may be accidental neighbors, their proximity conveys a dictum of the contemporary Egyptian state: maps are full of dangerous secrets.

How does a secret become a secret? In the case of Egypt’s maps, the answer is tangled up in the country’s protracted decolonization. An (almost) blank page tells some of that story. The map in question is of a stretch of land near Siwa Oasis on the edge of the Western Desert, far from the rocky islands of Tiran and Sanafir. Printed in 1930, it features only minor topographical contours in the lower left-hand corner. The rest is white. “Ghayr mamsūḥ,” the small Arabic print reads. “Unsurveyed.”

Siwa Map

This blank space is an artifact of the Desert Survey, a special division of the Survey Authority tasked between 1920 and 1937 with mapping Egypt’s sandy, sparsely populated expanses. (The Western Desert alone comprises more than half of Egypt’s land area beyond the Nile, but is home to a population only one-thirtieth that of greater Cairo.) The Desert Survey’s lifespan coincided almost exactly with the gradual retreat of British officials from the everyday administration of Egypt: it was born just after the 1919 revolution against British rule and dissolved a year after the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty that ostensibly formalized an end to occupation. Here decolonization is thus meant not in the comprehensive sense that Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Achille Mbembe have written about, as a cultural and intellectual challenge to Western thought’s insidiously deep claims to universality, but something much more literal: the withdrawal of colonial officials from the knowledge-producing institutions they ran in the colony.

The British cartographers who led the Desert Survey were keenly aware of their impending departure. As they prepared for it, they erected a final obstacle that would leave behind a legacy of paralysis and cartographic secrecy. Repeatedly accusing Egyptians of apathy toward the desert, colonial officials parlayed nescience into ignorance. In doing so, they sowed the seeds of an enduring anxiety among Egyptians over crucial spaces that remained unmapped.

The strident whiteness of the 1930 Siwa map looked different to the receding colonial state than it did to the emergent postcolonial one. To John Ball and George Murray, the successive British directors of the Desert Survey, blank space marked an incomplete but wholly completable project. For the post-colonial Egyptian state, the same blankness was the relic of a project it could not or would not complete, the bitter hangover of projected ignorance.

The Desert Survey’s vision was already more than two decades in the making when Ball was granted his own division of the more than 4000-member Survey Department in 1920. In 1898, colonial officials had commenced the ambitious cadastral survey that would eventually produce the Great Land Map of Egypt—the subject of Timothy Mitchell’s noted essay—and Ball departed for the oases of the Western Desert with his partner, Hugh Beadnell, to search for lucrative mineral deposits. From that point forward, the Survey Department viewed each unit’s work as a step toward total knowledge of every square meter of Egypt in every form and on every scale. It was only a matter of time, officials firmly believed, until the grid they had created at the Survey’s birth was filled in.

During the first decade of the twentieth century, the Survey Authority’s ambitions were directed inward: its cartographers wanted to know what was inside Egypt’s borders, even as sections of those borders remained fuzzy. But the First World War crystallized a broader imperial vision that linked Egypt’s Western and Eastern deserts to Jordan, Syria, and Iraq and saw the management of smugglers, nomads, geology, and development as related challenges directly correlated to the resilience of British rule (Fletcher, British Imperialism and “the Tribal Question”: Desert Administration and Nomadic Societies in the Middle East, 1919-1936; Ellis, Desert Borderland: The Making of Modern Egypt and Libya).

From the moment of the Desert Survey’s founding in 1920, and at an accelerating pitch over the 17 years that followed, British colonial officials justified their continued control of the Desert Survey even as most other institutions changed hands. One way they did this was by depicting survey work as a vocation and not merely a job. As Desert Survey chief John Ball wrote in 1930:

I shall try to keep our little show going and my little band of British surveyors at work in the deserts, but am not sure of success, as it has been said that Egyptians could do it equally well and we are therefore superfluous… but I have used Egyptian effendis in the deserts and I know them. Here and there you can find one really interested in his work, but 999 out of 1000 think only of promotion and pay, and you can’t manage… intrigue when you are hundreds of miles out in the wilderness.

(Royal Geographical Society CB9/Ball, John, letter to A.R. Hinks, February 28, 1930)

Not only did the Egyptian surveyors not know how to do the work the British experts were doing, Ball implied, but they did not want to know. If they did, it was for reasons that were crassly utilitarian by British standards.

Not having the proper expertise was an issue that could be resolved by more training. But by casting the fundamental issue as one of indifference—of not wanting to know, or wanting to know only for wrong, illogical reasons—officials like Ball were implying that even providing more training would not close the gap. Consequently, officials concluded, they would have to remain until they had shaded in the last empty expanses on the desert grid.

Survey authorities, in tandem with their associates in the colonial Frontier Districts Administration, thus articulated a position that held certain kinds of not-knowing to be acceptable, even desirable, and others to signal ignorance. In late 1924, Survey Director John Ball updated the members of the Cairo Scientific Society on the Survey’s progress in mapping the unknown regions of the desert. He reveled at the “gasps” his statistics elicited from an audience shocked at how much remained unknown (RGS CB9/Ball, John, letter to A.R. Hinks, December 19, 1924). Though he smugly reassured them that the unknown would soon vanish, a report published on the eve of independence in 1952 revealed that 43 percent of Egypt had by then been professionally surveyed, 24 percent was roughly known from reconnaissance, and 33 percent was still unknown. All that remained lay in the far Western Desert (George Murray, “The Work in the Desert of the Survey of Egypt,” Extrait du Bulletin de l’Institut Fouad Ier du Desert 2(2): July 1952, 133).

The desert did not disappear after 1952, of course; it came to occupy a central place in development dreams of the Nasser era, dreams that subsequent leaders have revived repeatedly. But the various incarnations of the project, aimed at facilitating the administration of economic development zones, had little in common with the colonial quantification—fetishization, even—of the unknown.

Maps articulate uncertainty more viscerally than the many other paper documents that similarly elude researchers and the public. The result is that vast spaces of the nation still reside primarily in foreign archives – the UK National Archives, the Royal Geographical Society in London, the Institut Français de l’Archéologie Orientale—where even the parties to the Tiran and Sanafir case turned for evidence. The obfuscation that drives us to these archives is not a product only of contemporary authoritarian politics, however; it, too, has a history. The projection of ignorance left a scar, an anxiety which can only be read through its shadows in colonial archives and its conspicuous absence in postcolonial archives.

Chloe Bordewich is a PhD Student in History and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. She currently works on histories of information, secrecy, and scientific knowledge in the late and post-Ottoman Arab world, especially Egypt. She blogs at chloebordewich.wordpress.com.

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