A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

What’s in a name? the Arab Conference on Geographic Names

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 31, 2007

This has been a busy period for the Lebanese Army. In addition to maintaining what appears to be at best a stand-off against the militants in Nahr al-Bared (don’t believe last week’s English language media reports claiming that the army was “pounding” the camp – the army is barely keeping up!), I learned today that its “Directorate of Geographic Affairs” is holding an Arabic place name transliteration conference. 

This sounds laughable to anyone who has not tried to look up Arabic terms in English. There are several ‘standard’ systems of transliteration, each of which attempts to address the issue of non-English sounds, doubled letters, and long versus short vowels differently. Some require special fonts; others require the capitalization of ‘hard’ letters, resulting in spellings like “marHaba”. English and French transliterations spell Arabic letters and vowels differently: Mashreq vs. Machrek, for example.

In other words, this is a serious undertaking – even if undertaken at a curious time.

Here is the notice I saw in this morning’s paper:

Beirut? Beyrouth?

The third Arab Conference on Geographic Names (ACGN), which endeavors to transliterate Arabic geographic names into Latin letters, opened a two-day session on Wednesday in Beirut. Representatives from Arab geographic and cartographic institutions attended the ACGN, as did geography experts from the United Nations. In 1971, the first ACGN also took place in Beirut, which gave the moniker “Beirut System” to the united system for transliterating Arabic names.

The Beirut System is followed throughout the Arab world, said Maroun Kharbash in an opening speech at the event.The conference will discuss establishing the Arab Cartographic Association to guarantee exchanges of geographic information in development and catastrophe management.

And here is the information available on the Army’s website:

Third Arab conference on geographic names

General information on the conference
Provisional agenda


1. The Directorate of Geographic Affairs (DAG) is organizing the Third Arab Conference on Geographic Names that will be held in Beirut on the thirtieth and thirty-first of May 2007.

Conference Objectives
2. The conference aims at discussing the Romanization system and creating standard rules for an integrated system to transliterate the Arabic geographic names to the Latin alphabet in a standard way. This system would be agreed upon in the attendance of specialized representatives of the Arab League, which paves the way for this system to be adopted by the United Nations and other international organizations as a standard system of transliteration of Arabic geographic names.

3. The conference would also discuss with the directors of the cartographic and geographic information institutions the establishment of the Arab Cartographic Association (ACA) which will be responsible of the issues of coordination among the Arab countries in the domain of geographic information and its crucial role in crisis management and permanent and global development in all participating countries. This is comparable to other regions of the world that has established geographic associations for inter-coordination between its member states like RCCAP.

Former Conferences
4. The First Arab Conference for Geographic Names was held in Beirut in 1971, which resulted in what is called Beirut Paper. This paper contains a standard system for transliteration of Arabic geographic names to Latin alphabet. This system, however, was applied in inconsistent way among Arab states.

5. This inconsistent application pushed the Arab experts to propose modifications to Beirut Paper in the 22nd Session of Experts on Geographic Names that was held in Berlin in 2002. Those experts also decided to build a new Romanization system based on the proposed modifications and have it legalized by the Arab League in order to be adopted by the United Nations during the conference that will be held in New York in August 2007.

6. The Second Arab Conference for Geographic Names was held in Libya in 2004 to materialize what was agreed upon in Berlin in 2002, but the Arab experts did not reach a final agreement.

7. During the 23rd Session of Experts on Geographic Names that was held in Vienna in 2006, the Arab experts decided to hold a conference in Beirut to decree a standard Arabic transliteration system.

8. The followings are expected to participate in the conference affairs:
a. Directors of the cartographic and geographic information institutions in all Arab countries.
b. Chiefs of associations of geographic names in all Arab countries.
c. Experts on geographic names in all Arab countries.
d. Representatives of the Arab League.
e. President of ESCWA in Beirut or her representative.
f. Chairperson of UNGEGN.
g. Secretariat of UNGEGN.

Patronage of the Conference
9. The conference is patronaged by Mr. Prime Minister.

10. Invitations were sent for each of the following:
a. Ministers of: Interior and Municipalities – Defense – Culture and High Education – Education and Vocational and Technical Training – Agriculture – Energy and Water – Finance – Tourism – Industry – Administration Development Affairs – Public Works and Transportation.
b. Directors of: Buildings and Roads – Environment – Internal Security Forces – General Security – Culture and High Education – National Education – Tourism (Director General of Archeology) – Bureau Director of the Minister of Administration Development Affairs.
c. Councils: Conseil pour le Development et la Reconstruction (CDR) – Conseil National pour la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS).
d. Syndicates: Engineers Society in Beiurt – Society of Certified Topographs.
e. Universities: Faculties of Engineering at AUB and BAU – ESGTL.
f. Companies: MAPS – Khatib&Alami – GIS Transport – HI TECH…

11. Letters were sent to the following seeking their sponsorship:
a. Locals: Engineers Society in Beiurt – Society of Certified Topographs – Lebanese University and Faculty of Engineering in private universities – Large companies in Lebanon (Khatib&Alami – MAPS…).
b. Internationals: ESRI – FIG – ICA – RCCAP – Digital Earth – ISO.

Other Information
12. You will be able to follow up with the conference last updates, arrival and accommodation details, and other organizational issues on the Lebanese Army website at

Meanwhile, in other language nerd news … 

The “situation”, as people call it reverently, has enabled me somewhat coincidentally to hear a civilian address a soldier on three separate occasions recently. The term I thought I was hearing was … watan. 

Crudely put (and ignoring a generation of tortured academic scholarship on such issues as the relationship of notions of watan/vatan in Islamic lands to those of the patria/patrie), watan means country or homeland.

I find it fascinating that soldiers are addressed as “country” – but before I posted this fact, I wanted to confirm with a former soldier friend of mine that my ears were not simply mis-hearing muwatan, which means “citizen”.

H sided with my ears, and noted that watan is used to address soldiers in uniform. Now that I know what to call the uniformed men who search my bags when I enter downtown, what do I call the mukhabarat-i guys sporting polo shirts and walkie-talkies who hover near them? khayy al-kabir?


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