Robert Fisk’s ‘Racist Little Maps’ by Alun Thomas

Here it is, our first blog entry! Russian and History PhD student Alun Thomas looks at a recent article criticising maps of Syria, and muses on the potential pitfalls of maps when used to illustrate ethnic divides and conflicts. Is an image really worth a thousand words, or is a map showing ethnic divisions too simplistic – and perhaps even racist? And how does this affect Alun’s own research? Read on to find out…

Robert Fisk’s ‘Racist Little Maps’

by Alun Thomas

Robert Fisk is The Independent’s esteemed Middle East correspondent, and back on 4th March he wrote an article entitled Alawite history reveals the complexities of Syria that West does not understand. Since reading the article, whenever I sit down to work, I’ve felt Fisk standing over me and tutting.

His piece mainly deals with the complex story of the Alawite minority, to which the Assad family belongs. But its first line reads: ‘In Syria these days, we are resorting to our racist little maps.’ What Fisk means is the childlike, colour-coordinated images you often find in newspapers, which seek to explain complicated conflicts in the Middle East at a glance. One religious or ethnic group’s territory is shown clearly differentiated from another. No such map would ever be used to represent the social fabric of Bradford, Fisk argues, because that would clash with the tolerant, liberal-democratic model with which we understand ourselves in comparison to places like Syria.

On the day I read the article I was busy making racist little maps of my own. My research concerns the treatment of nomads in Soviet Kazakhstan, and Central Asia is still such a foreign landscape to me that making maps has been the only way I’ve been able to make sense of my material. Whenever an unfamiliar place name crops up in my notes, I’ve been making a photocopy of my own drawing of Kazakhstan and adding new details in slapdash pencil crayon.


My map


a map of the area I’m looking at. Wikipedia

Fisk has a point. Text can be tentative. It can include phrases like ‘it can be argued’ and ‘to some extent’. But a map is much more unequivocal. Once I’ve coloured part of north-western Kazakhstan in green and labeled it ‘Cossacks’, that’s where the Cossacks, and only Cossacks, lived. My maps look like a toddler has made them and the information they offer is just about toddler-friendly.

The difficulty I’m having is oddly redolent of the challenge faced by the new Soviet administration and its Tsarist precursor. Both had trouble making ethnic maps of a territory dominated by nomadic populations who wouldn’t sit still. Last autumn I visited the State Archive of the Russian Federation and spent hours looking at pencil drawings of Kazakhstan made by Russian bureaucrats in the 1920s, drawings just as crude and misleading as my own. Returning to Fisk, the British press’s contemporary efforts at explaining another part of the world sometimes echo the view of the old imperial powers, who carved up the Middle East and helped to create Syria as we now understand it.

These comparisons, when Fisk brought them to my attention, were initially dispiriting. I’m trying to understand the state’s treatment of nomads in the 1920s, not mimic it.

Yet I think now that my own little maps are fine as long as they represent the beginning, not the end, of my research. Drawings are useful rather than misleading if you can appreciate just how inadequate they are. My maps should be useful as long as I can explain in words that which I cannot show in images; that the ethnic composition of Central Asia was both more complicated and less important than the hue of pencil crayons can indicate.

But I’ve learnt now to be just as sceptical about the maps other people make. No matter how professional they look, most have their origins in vulgar pencil sketches made on now-yellowing paper.

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5 Responses to Robert Fisk’s ‘Racist Little Maps’ by Alun Thomas

  1. elroberts says:

    Reblogged this on eloiseroberts's Blog and commented:
    The first blog post in a great new venture I’m involved in together with other postgraduate students at the University of Sheffield. Really interesting stuff, it made me think about the use of maps in a whole new way…

  2. Ruthie says:

    Alun’s post is great. It highlights precisely the importance of studying other cultures as an academic. It is not physically possible to be an expert on the detailed historical context of ethnic groups in every country internationally (even nationally!), which is presumably why the press use these kinds of maps to generalise and give an overall picture. However, if no-one does the research and takes the time to point out the sweeping assumptions that these devices make, it allows us as readers to trivialise and compartmentalise conflicts that are complex and personal for millions of people.

  3. Alun says:

    Thanks for the remarks guys.

    Ruth, what you say is true. I think there’s a growing belief that the internet and globalisation has made the world so small that intercultural confusion and ignorance about other parts of the world is yesterday’s problem. It’s an idea to which I’m occasionally susceptible. But the issues raised by Fisk show how misguided that belief is.

  4. Pingback: Robert Fisk: Assad is winning … — State of Globe

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