A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for the ‘maps’ Category

maps and mortality.

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 30, 2009

Excuse me, but there’s something wrong with your map, I was told the other day.

Well, first of all: it wasn’t my map. I was speaking about the Middle East in the 1960s and 1970s with a group of students, and had “borrowed” the 1976 map accessible via the University of Texas at Austin’s Perry Castaneda online map collection – a tremendous resource for any map nerd.

This is the map I was using (and yes, I fully credited UT Austin):

middle_east_pol_1976Back to my corrector.

What do you see that looks wrong? I asked, thinking: he must have seen the “U.S.S.R.” and missed the whole “The Middle East in 1976” caption. Annoying, but at least an easier question to address than, for example, What’s that diamond-shaped “Neutral Zone” between Iraq and Saudi Arabia? which to be quite frank is a mystery to me as well.

But my questioner wasn’t vexed by the lingering presence of godless Communism. Nor was he troubled by small diamonds, neutral or otherwise.

This map shows two Yemens, my corrector said.

There were two Yemens, I said, but they have been united since 1990.

There were two Yemens? another student asked. Really? asked a third.

A roomful of eyes looked at me, shocked. And I looked back.

I should have been happy that at least they all knew of Yemen, and could find it on a map. Instead, I just felt that it was time to stock up on a more powerful anti-wrinkle cream.


Oscar Williamson, at Queen Mary University of London, wrote in with a much-appreciated explanation of the map’s little diamond:

The diamond was the Iraq – Saudi Arabia Neutral Zone. Historically the main political unit in the area was based on tribe, rather than territory. Since the tribes moved about, fixed borders were impractical. However, the British really liked maps and in 1922 insisted that Ibn Saud define his northern border. He didn’t want casual inter tribe conflict to be interpreted as acts of war, so the Neutral Zone was created, with enough cartographical significance to satisfy the British and the practical irrelevance to prevent the unnecessary formalities of interstate wars over tribal slights.

In 1981 Saudi and Iraq signed a treaty to divide the NZ between them, but the legality of this treaty is debatable. Treaties have to be lodged at a public depository, such as the United Nations Secretary General, but neither party did this, or indeed informed anyone of this change to their territories. The NZ officially ceased to exist when Saudi Arabia deposited this and other treaties with the UN in 1991, partly to stop CNN referring to bits of KSA as Iraq.

Fascinating. And who knew that we would have CNN to thank for clearing up a messy little border issue?


Posted in Arab world, maps, research, Texas, time, Yemen | 7 Comments »

Defining the Middle East

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 19, 2008

Yesterday MESH (the Middle East Strategy at Harvard blog) had what seemed to be a delightfully time-wasting post on online quizzes about the Middle East.

I didn’t find any time to waste yesterday, but while stuck on a phone call this afternoon, I decided to try my hand at two geography quizzes aimed at testing my ability to correctly identify each Middle Eastern country on a map: Geo Quizz Middle East and Rethinking Schools’ Map Game.

Some of my errors were totally my fault. What was I thinking, forgetting about Libya? Or putting Oman where the UAE should be?

But others I would argue were the fault of the designers, and the general US tendency to leave “Middle East” as an ill-defined catch-all region.

What was Pakistan doing on these map quizzes? Why was Mali included?

Should North Africa be included (or central Africa, for that matter)? Should the ‘stans?

The two quizzes each listed roughly 35 countries as belonging to the Middle East. I find this fascinating, but I wish they had included a working definition of the term. Is it geography that connects all these countries? Culture? Religion? Language? When the scope is this broad, it seems to me that what they end up sharing is simply the “middle-ness” of being in the catch-all bin.

Anyway. Take the quizzes and enjoy – and if you do better than I did on in Africa and Central Asia, chalk my request for a “working definition” up to sour grapes 🙂 .

Posted in education, internet, maps, research | 1 Comment »

Consumer equity: GPS in Lebanon

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 15, 2008

When I flew to Damascus in November 2005 to spend a few pre-Christmas weeks visiting friends and favorite haunts, my friend M eagerly showed me his new car. Not being a car person, I’ve forgotten the brand, but it was one of the “big three” that meet Levantine standards for understated luxury: BMW, Jaguar, or Mercedes.

People here call it the alligator, M told me, grinning.

Your car? I asked, puzzled. I wasn’t criticizing: after all, I named my high school car “the Sharpei” (as in, “so ugly its cute”). And the vintage Chevy pick-up I drove whenever I was home for the summer during college was known as “Marvin”. But M didn’t seem like the type to name his car – and nor did his friends, the beefy, self-confident men of Damascus’ old Sunni merchant families.

Not my car, M explained, frowning a bit at me. The model. People call it an alligator because of the headlights and the hood. Everyone wants this car.

Oh, I said, nodding and trying to sound deserving of my good fortune at getting to ride in it.

The car was plush, and it certainly did glide through the city streets (although to be honest I’m not sure that “gliding” accurately describes how alligators move, at least on land). But in my mind it had one major, major flaw.

M’s alligator came with a built-in GPS console. This was 2005, so think first-generation GPS, the type that required the user to insert a CD with road information for the relevant country. (American users may never have had this experience – I believe that most early GPS cars sold in the US came with the CD pre-installed. But Europeans, who might have been more likely to drive to neighboring countries, probably did.)

Please insert the country CD so we can get started, the GPS voice would say each time M started the car, while the display flashed the same message. Every few minutes, the voice would repeat itself.

Can you turn it off? I asked M.

Oh, M said. Does it bother you?

Well, in a way. The voice was annoying, but I suppose it was a reminder to M’s passengers that he had bought not only the latest but also the most deluxe model.

For me, the voice was a reminder that all customers – even luxury customers – were not created equal. I don’t think that there was a CD for Syria – so M and other alligator drivers were stuck with the trappings of luxury, but without the reward.

GPS technology has improved over the past three years, with self-updating systems that offer flexibility and entertainment. Put on the sexy voice so diamond can hear it, my friend K said to her boyfriend J recently as we climbed into their SUV and headed to Brooklyn. It was a sexy voice – and a very funny one. I have another friend who chooses to GPS in Spanish, so his son can learn the language. (His vocabulary may be somewhat restricted, but he will be very good at giving clear directions.) And I understand that many GPS’es offer celebrity voices – when K & J aren’t laughing at the bedroom voice helping direct them to IKEA, they usually take directions from John Cleese.

But my friends in Syria and Lebanon were still driving without electronic help – and using their GPS displays for nothing more than to indicate what radio station was on. So yesterday I was delighted to see that in Lebanon, at least, one can now drive with GPS:

(Thanks to the Daily Star for this advertisement.)

Of course, driving with GPS is really only an improved version of driving with a map – something that no Lebanese person I know would willingly do.

Even H, who is generally pretty mellow about my weird American habits, draws the line at using maps. Last weekend I handed him three, detailing different possible routes to the Berkshires, and asked him to navigate.

Maps? he asked me. Are you serious?

Midway through the drive, he looked at the by-then crumpled up pieces of paper and frowned. If you had told me six months ago that I would be back in American AND READING A MAP, I would have laughed in your face, he said.

H was much happier once we got lost and had to actually start asking people for help. This is the real way to drive, he said, smiling. See? You just ask people.

So I’m not sure how well NavLeb will sell – but it gives me an idea for an ad campaign. If the NavLeb’ers can convince people that driving with GPS is just like having a local villager in the car with them, every step of the way, it might be a very big seller. All they need are a bunch of old men from the day3a to provide the voices 🙂 .

Posted in advertising, Americans, Arab world, Arabic, Beirut, Damascus, friends, humor, Lebanon, maps, traffic, travel, words | 6 Comments »

Palestine in vogue

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on July 24, 2008

In addition to books like Sami and the Time of the Troubles, which I mentioned yesterday, the magic boxes that my parents sent earlier this week also contained six months’ worth of magazines.

I love magazines. Well, not all magazines – I can do without the celebrity-chasing ones. But food magazines, travel magazines, and fashion magazines are all guilty pleasures – as in, I feel a bit guilty reading them rather than more substantive fare, but the pleasures are totally worth it.

The April 2008 Vogue included a feature on local beauty products from around the world, including a mention of olive oil from Palestine:

Woo-hoo Vogue! Its been my favorite fashion magazine since I was 13 and stumbled across old copies in my aunt Sparkle’s living room. I love the elegance of the clothing it showcases and the quality of the writing in its articles.

And I love its “fashion forward” matter-of-fact recognition of Palestine, too.

Posted in Americans, fashion, Israel, maps, Palestine, vanity, women, words | 3 Comments »

desert love

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on July 17, 2007

I have the anonymous arabist to thank for this laugh-out-loud hoot of a website:

Sheikhs and Desert Love: a Database of Romance Novels

and no, its creators did not develop this site as a joke. Visitors can search by title, author, publication year, topic and theme, editors’ choice and … country.

Yes, country. The site creators have created a clickable map of “fictional Arabia” so readers can search for novels from their favorite, mostly non-existent countries. I’ve copy-pasted the image here (but for the full clickable experience you must visit the site):


Its well worth a visit, not least for editor’s choice reviews like this one, for Diane Dunaway’s 1982 Desert Hostage:

The novel, which spans two generations, is searing hot. Beginning with Englishwoman Anna’s capture by a powerful desert sheik, the story unfolds to tell the story of her son who is born during her captivity–though unbeknownst to anyone but Anna, the boy is not the sheik’s biological son. Raised as an Arab, Karim soon finds himself on a mission of revenge when the sheik is murdered by an English soldier, Clayton. He vows to avenge his death by detroying Clayton, as well as his family. The story takes a sharp twist when the very woman he falls deeply in love with, Juliette, is the daughter of the hated Clayton. Naturally he imprisons her in his harem, but his feelings for Juliette run deep. There is no way she could just be another concubine destined to live the lonely harem life…and plenty of hot encounters between them make it abundantly clear that she will soon become his one and only. Good fun, and a great read!

What qualifies a book as an editor’s choice, you might wonder?

Books are chosen based on the strength of and the chemistry between the characters, the development of storylines, and the swoon factor of one or more romantic scenes. Novels with an attempted-escape-through- the-desert segment and that take place in a lavish yet remote palace are generally given high marks.

Happy perusing!

Posted in Americans, Arab world, books, garbage, guilt, holidays, maps, media, romance, women, words | Leave a Comment »

a day at the beach

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on June 29, 2007

In the past few days at least three people have asked me how often I go to the beaches here.

The truth is that I don’t go very often. The beaches that I love look like this:


(thanks to my mother for taking such a lovely photo last week, while the rest of us were lounging around in the sun).

Outfitting oneself for this beach requires only a pair of shorts (or a summer skirt), a pair of flip-flops, a beach blanket, a bottle of water and a good book.

A typical beach in Lebanon looks like this:


This beach is in Jiyyeh, south of Beirut. The one I’ve gone to more often is Edde Sands, which comes with its own map.

Outfitting oneself for this beach requires something more: a style-y bikini (which I own), designer sunglasses, a car to be valet’ed, and appropriate footwear:


Okay – I have the footwear too, but I don’t usually wear shoes like that to the beach.

I have no objection to Lebanese-style beachgoing, but … I’m lazy. I like my beaches to be as low-maintenance as they can be.

Posted in Americans, Beirut, clothing, fashion, holidays, Lebanon, maps, photography, sea, Seattle, swimming, time, weather | Leave a Comment »

time & distance

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on June 24, 2007

Last week my family had dinner with a friend of mine and his son, Lebanese-Americans both. 

Where do you live? the son asked, in between bouts of marshmallow-roasting-stick-fencing with my mother. (It was a designer bistro, complete with X&O-style make-your-own s’mores on the dessert menu. Those of you who know my mother get one guess as to who said “en garde” first :-P!) 

When I told him, he said:  wow, that’s far.

Is it? I thought to myself curiously. His grandparents live in Raouche, which I have always thought of as very far west. Nor is my neighborhood particularly far from the apartment his parents keep for holidays in Beirut.

Yes, he replied emphatically. I know exactly where you live – in Baalbek.

Well. I do not live that far from central Beirut, or whatever his reference point was. Baalbek is 30 miles away, at least.

On the other hand, the perception that I live at some time-space distance from the rest of the world is rather widely held.

For example, G insists that my apartment exists in a micro time-zone, one 15 minutes behind the rest of the city. My office, G tells me, is 6 minutes behind – closer to “normal” time, but still a bit slow.

Usually I am on the receiving end of these micro time-zone jokes – but sometimes I get to be the one doing the teasing.

Yesterday, for example, G asked: when do we go on summer time?

Well,  I said, my neighborhood started daylight savings time in April. Perhaps yours does it differently.

G lives in an area near-ish that where Brammertz, the current head of the UN’s Hariri investigation, is staying. Proximity proved an inspiration:

Perhaps your area hasn’t changed because it is on Belgian time, I suggested, smirking at my wittiness.

Pffffft, G said, before heading off to London on a business trip that I suspect will include a stop-off in Greenwich to let the time-keepers there know that time has come loose in Lebanon.

Today I am amusing myself wondering what Lebanon would be like if different areas could choose their own time zones.

Perhaps the Gulf citizens who used to vacation in the hills near Beirut would feel more comfortable if those areas adopted Saudi Arabian or UAE time.

Perhaps francophone areas like Achrafieh or (tee hee hee) Qoreitem would feel more settled in their split identities if their clocks matched those of la patrie.

And of course those who see Iranian conspiracies around every bend would keep their ears open for the sounds of ahl al-beit calls to prayer ringing out half an hour before the others.

Imagine the possibilities.

Posted in Americans, Beirut, family, friends, holidays, Lebanon, maps, parenting, time, words | Leave a Comment »

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?

Posted in advertising, al-Qaeda, Arab world, Arabic, Beirut, citizenship, Lebanon, maps, media, neighbors, politics, research, travel, words | Leave a Comment »

The south the south the beautiful south (iii)

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 21, 2007

As we passed under one of the destroyed bridges south of Saida, we saw two signs.

One pointed left and said: Beirut (in English) and bayrut (in Arabic).

One pointed right and said: Janoub (in English) and al-janoub (in Arabic).

Its so silly, S. commented. People who read the sign in Arabic know that “janoub” means “south”. Why doesn’t the English read “south”, to help those who can’t read the Arabic?

I looked at the sign more closely. Something about it did look funny.

In Arabic, “the south” is spelled like this:


This sign, however, spelled out a different word:


That missing dot makes all the difference – “al-Hanoub” means nothing in Arabic. No wonder the sign-makers wrote Janoub in English, rather than “the South”.

Posted in Arab world, Arabic, Beirut, friends, Lebanon, maps, mountains, photography, research, tourism, traffic, travel, words | Leave a Comment »

adventures in shipping: DHL and a Genius For Men

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 5, 2007

This morning I received a call that I had hoped would come today.

My parents, as always graciously picking up the pieces of my US life while I am abroad, had DHL’ed a set of airplane tickets to me at the end of last week.

I had initially wondered where to have them sent – my gym? a friend’s office? the closest university? – but my friend A. said: its a courier service. Have your parents address it with directions to your flat here, and include your mobile. DHL will call you when the tickets arrive and will bring them to you.

Brilliant! I said. As a New Yorker, I love home delivery.

I also love the Beirut DHL – though this love is due less to the company itself than to its felicitous office location (well, perhaps less felicitous these days) . It sits across the street from Sa7hat al-Najmeh, the heart of Beirut’s reconstructed downtown, and … just next to a spa for men.


When today’s DHL call came, though, it went differently than I had expected.

Please, tell me, the woman said: where is your address?

Hmmmmmm, I thought. Somehow the address my parents wrote – building name, floor, street name, local landmark, neighborhood – must have become separated from the package itself. Lucky thing my mobile number wasn’t lost as well.

I gave her my address; she took it down and said: can you be there at 4:00?

Of course, I replied, thinking: You have no idea how boring I am on Mondays. I will be home all afternoon, writing a lecture and doing laundry. 4:00 is fine.

Great, she said. We will be there at 4:00, a little before or a little after.

At 1:52, my doorbell rang.

Hello, said the man in the DHL uniform, I am here with your package.

And a lovely and most welcome package it is, especially since my address appears on it in full. Twice.

Posted in advertising, Americans, Beirut, family, home, Lebanon, maps, shipping, travel, words | Leave a Comment »