environmental history

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.

GIFs, Archives, and Riverscapes – Process and reflections on Floating Archives

By artist and contributing writer Jacob Rivkin

What are the subtle histories embedded into each landscape? Floating Archives asks Philadelphians to consider our beloved “hidden river” as a source of narratives that tell of the ever-changing borders between land and water. (The original name for the Schuylkill River comes from the Lenni Lenape, Tool-Pay Hanna, which translates to Turtle River. The moniker ‘hidden river’ originates from the name given by Dutch settlers in Pennsylvania.) Some stories show us who shaped the river, and the funds and materials they used to harden its edges. Other stories are more difficult to surface, obscured by centuries of persistent structures of power and displaced ecologies of humans, animals, and plants. Floating Archives playfully and vividly reminds us of these submerged histories.

Floating Archives was a public art intervention on the lower Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. The project was supported through the Mellon Artist-in-Residence program at the Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities, in collaboration with Bartram’s Garden and the Science History Institute. On three Saturday evenings in September 2018, hand-drawn animations based on archival materials were projected on a screen suspended between two canoes. As these floating silent images present traces of the past in vibrant color, they invited us to see still other rivers, as they were, as they are, and as they could be. Specific animations were projected as Floating Archives approached the place that each original image referenced, creating a spectral layering of landscape, history, and wonder, both literally and figuratively. These drawings and animations also provoke us, in times of rising waters and changing coastlines, to consider the labor, capital, and energy that have and will shape the river’s future course.

1. Floating Archives Dusk

Floating Archives on the Schuylkill River, 2018

The inspiration for Floating Archives originally came from making animations for a film on the history of taxidermy, and its contemporary alternative scene, with the Distillations podcast at the Science History Institute. The film, Death and Taxidermy, included animated explanations of the history, process, and personal stories involving taxidermy. The section on history included conducting research on advances in scientific methods of preservation and the buildings and landscapes where these scientific developments occurred. The process of reimagining physical actions and motions of people and animals in these historical spaces proved to be very enjoyable as an artistic practice. I started thinking about how I could bring this sensibility to my own independent research as an artist.

2.Taxidermy

Clip from Death and Taxidermy, 2016

My work as an artist addresses how we experience and internalize the idea of landscape, and by association, wonder. These include creating devices that record the multi-sensory elements of a landscape through creative coding and physical computing, speculative biological systems, and films which explore the awakening of sentience and complexity within digital images. As an active canoer on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, I started thinking about the viewscapes created by the flow of water and the edges that border the river. Taking this as my lead, I started combing through digital archives and was led to reading Redemption of the Lower Schuylkill by John Frederick Lewis from 1924. This book, or perhaps manifesto, which contains a passionate argument for how the river in that time could be improved in cleanliness and recreation, is also filled with photographs and historical images of the river. This is where I would start the process of creating the animations for Floating Archives.

The process for creating animations is as follows. I find an image that contains some portion of the Schuylkill River – this can be a photograph, etching, or drawing. All of the images came from archives or images that were digitized. This was necessary because I made most of the drawings and animations while participating in an arts residency at the Fine Arts Work Center during the winter of 2018 in Provincetown, MA. I then study the image for clues of what kind of industry, recreation, labor, or leisure may have taken place there, if it is not immediately apparent. This image is imported into a computer program specifically for hand-drawn animation. The image is cropped to either focus on the action or create a more visually engaging composition. The layer the image is placed onto is then locked, and the opacity is reduced to about eighty percent. On a new layer above, I use a digital pen and tablet to trace over the contours of the image below using a bright pink color with a two-point wide mark. This is so I can more easily delineate between the old and new background and ensure parts of the image below are not missed. A new layer is then created that contains the character or objects that are moving. Separating these different elements out of the image allow for further applications of independent motion or effects. The last elements to animate, also on separate layers, are the atmospheric effects of water, clouds, and smoke. The line drawings of the background layer and animation layers each receive its own independent color layer as well by using a paint bucket to fill in the outlines of the layer above. The process of creating several layers of images, motion, and color allows for the quick rearrangement of timing and compositing because less erasing and drawing is involved than if every image were on the same layer. For example, erasing the outline of a figure begins to erase the color and lines of the background. In the end, a final seamless two-dimensional animation is created.

4. Process animation-1

Animation is an accessible medium of communication. By translating archival images, many toned by the hue of time, into hand drawn animation containing consistent lines, weights, and vibrant colors, the original cultural currency imbued in the image is transformed into a source of contemplation, more playfulness, and less cultural gravity. The sense of seriousness contained within the original image can become a barrier for imagining the embedded narratives. The language of hand-drawn animation references a childlike association with Saturday morning cartoon series and films produced by Disney, and, by proxy, increases the sense of wonder around an image.

5. GIF_shaq cat-1

Shaq vs. Cat GIF

Moreover, the animations take their inspiration from the culture of GIF (Graphic Interchange Format) animations. GIFs are a file type originally associated with rotating logos and website “under construction” signs, which now exist as a quotidian form of communication and expression in digital culture. One important element of GIF animations is that embedded image and actions are on constant repeat, looping, sometimes seamlessly, in time. Each of the animations created for Floating Archives also loop seamlessly. The resonant link between history and repetition, the constant cycle of development and redevelopment, and the ebbing transition of wilderness to the flow of culture, seems analogous to the way images through history depicting the Schuylkill River have portrayed the river as a confluence of labor, resource extraction and transportation, and leisure.

Water, progressing from higher elevations to lower ones, carries the sediment of upper creeks and tributaries to the shores and banks in the wetlands below. The movement is ever forwards. The physical history of a distant, yet interconnected, place becomes present for a brief geological moment, then continues its journey downstream and out to the vast ocean. In animation, one drawing follows another seamlessly. Images move forward sequentially in time to reveal the illusion of movement and convey meaning embedded into each frame. Yet, we cannot hold onto a particular image, as its meaning is conveyed by the images that came before and the images that come afterwards. By placing water and animation, these two vehicles of motion and meaning, in proximity to each other, Floating Archives can offer, for perhaps longer than a moment, a fleeting perspective of history and landscape illuminated by projection, streetlamps, and glimmering reflections in the river below.

7. Floating Archives, 2018 - Main Image Still - 72ppi(2)

Floating Archives, 2018

Jacob Rivkin is an interdisciplinary artist living and working in Philadelphia, PA. He is a former Fulbright Fellow, a recipient of the Visual Arts Fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and teaches Fine Arts courses at the University of Pennsylvania. His animations have screened at the Japan Media Arts Festival in Tokyo, Japan, Animation Block Party in Brooklyn, NY, Vox Populi in Philadelphia, PA, and the Peephole Cinema in San Francisco. His sculptures have been exhibited at the Vancouver Art Gallery in Vancouver, BC, The Chemical Heritage Foundation Museum, Philadelphia, PA, the Arlington Art Center in Arlington, VA and Julius Caesar Gallery in Chicago, IL. He previously worked with the Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities as an Ecotopian Toolmaker in 2017 with ecological designer Eric Blasco. Their project, the Bio Pool, was described by the Philadelphia Inquirer as “a giant Brita filter for the Schuylkill River.” It continues to filter water and be a habitat for cattails and red-winged blackbirds near the public dock at Bartram’s Garden.