Monthly Archives: September 2016

Finding Aleppo in a War-Torn World

The deep frustration at being able to map the Syrian civil war around Aleppo–combining the actual inability to map the factions in the conflict, and the actual unmappability of the deeply unsettling destabilization of civil society in the five-year civil war which is waged by outside actors, as much as by the Syrian government–has sapped confidence in the ability to negotiate a cease-fire or indeed to find a civil solution to a conflict that has both created an ongoing flow of refugees and destroyed civil society in the region, as well as an equilibrium of power.  And the more we are frustrated in being unable to map the conflict and its descent into inhumane violence, the more violent it has become and the farther removed from being able to exist again as a country.




Any theater of war is extremely difficult to endow with coherence in a map–one speaks of the “fog of war” to describe the clouded experience in the confusion of military conflicts.  But the difficulty of gaining purchase on the extent of the destruction of the ancient city of Aleppo that is particularly troubling–and troublingly matched by the difficulty of mapping or imagining the targeting of the city and Aleppo’s inhabitants and the refugees who have left the city.  The failure to describe, document, or respond to the costs in the sustained aerial bombardment in recent months seems an abdication of ethical responsibility before such escalated destruction that almost fails to acknowledge its scope.  The terror of aerial strikes against civilians have led to the targeted destruction of schools and hospitals in the rebel-occupied regions of the city hard to imagine, as a besieged city is isolated from the world.  While we don’t have access to the maps and plans that were used during the sustained engagement of rebel forces in Aleppo, and have rather watched screen-shots of the diminishing areas of the region “held” by “rebel forces” over months, those very images distance us from the human rights tragedies that is occurring on the ground with the dismantling of public health care and social institutions, as if extending so many false possibilities of the tenuous grasp over territory of opposition groups.  With unclear data on suffering, deaths, refugees or destroyed buildings in the encircled city, we map territory as the clearest index of the balance of war, but ignore the scale or scope of its ongoing bombardment and destruction, as the country has not only “gone dark”–



–but the city destroyed under unimaginable sustained assault.




News wire sources have tried to “map” the extent of those lines areas held in the heavily bombed city, to be sure, in recent months.  But the absence of clear lines of jurisdiction or control of a battle that is increasingly waged from a move–but shown as if it were a land war–echoes the military divisions of cities in ways that seem incommensurate with the suffering or mischaracterization of the actors of the war, and the lack of limits with which the Assad regime has enlisted foreign help to destroy its former cultural capital and economic hub, as if trying to efface the opposition that it has for so long successfully tarred by their association to ISIS and the Islamic State–and as a media blitz has tried to portray the battle in Aleppo as a fight against ISIS rather than a defining moment in the escalation of military forces against one’s own people by Bashar al-Assad.

Even though the aerial attacks on Aleppo began as early as July 2012, the escalation of attacks by Russian bombers that began to target buildings and humanitarian supplies with intensity from July 2016.  While we were in the midst of the farce of our recent American Presidential election, we have watched maps of the Syrian conflict at an odd remove, depicting the city the city as a multi-colored sectored region, as if a point of stasis in slippy map of sovereignty, as much as a focal point where five different forces seem to lock horns.  The disservice of these opaque colors seem to erase and to be done such a deep disservice with Microsoft Paint.  And as we do so, we can only fail in an attempt to chart the intensification of suffering that is only like to increase in coming months, as the shrinking green lands held by rebel forces have depicted the so-called “situation in Syria” in increasingly disembodied fashion.


syria97410fps.gifThomas Van Linge/Newsweek/@arabthomness


As we watch the layers of colors, trying to map the levels of conflict from an empyrean remove that has echoed the official policy of not putting “boots on the ground,” we fail to account for the destruction of houses, massive departures of residents, targeting of humanitarian assistance and destroyed infrastructure and human services in the city.  The layers with which we discriminate a war-torn city set to conceal terrifying human costs in the rather terrifying palette of pastels in its curious camouflage, as if to hold out hope for an amicable solution, but to erase the destruction of civilian lives, hospitals, residences, or food and needs supplies that tried to arrive in the light green rebel-held areas of the city that suggest an island around the Citadel of Aleppo.


Rif_Aleppo2.svg.pngNovember 1, 2016/Kami888


For the limited information about Aleppo’s continued destruction by aerial attacks as well as bombardments makes the extent of the human costs its destruction increasingly difficult to render with coherence.  This absence of this coherence perhaps leadt some twenty-nine million to be struck by viewing the dazed five-year old Omran Daqneesh and the tragically bloodstained face from which he gazes somewhat stoically and looks at his bloodied hand–as if dazed to be transported from the scenario of violence in which he lived to what seems a setting of sanitized medical care, his blood-stained face contrasting to the clean orange cushions of an emergency ambulance.  The transferal of Omran from the battlefield like context of Aleppo to the emergency health care vehicle show him dazed not only at his change of context, but almost in shock of being in a controlled ambulance in which he sits, if a sign of hope, is also emblematic of the inability or difficulty to bridge the controlled context of medical and clinical care of the Emergency Medical Services and the rubble of the besieged city, almost the negative image of a controlled environment:  the image circulated by Aleppo Media Centre was emblematic of the dissonance between the emergency services and the onslaught of bombs where civilians are targeted daily amidst the rubble of the besieged city, so that the dazed look of poor Omran seems a substitute for our own helpless bewilderment at the war crime of the sustained aerial bombing of Aleppo’s buildings, health care providers, hospitals, and inhabitants.


Screen Shot 2016-11-21 at 11.36.14 AM.png


If the image is manipulative–and difficult to include in yet another post on Aleppo–its power seems to derive from the failure we feel between inability of the child who touches his hand to his head, to take stock of his head injury as he tries to process the loss of his family, after being carried by an emergency worker into the new setting of an ambulance.   The image was so poignant it was shared so widely all over the world on Facebook, as we searched collectively for an emblem of good, of one child rescued from the violence of Aleppo–as nine million Facebook users tried to transcend the broken windows, destroyed buildings, and slim hopes for the survival of Aleppo’s citizens, increasingly targeted in inhumane ways to which we are so unable to respond.

For if there is a lack of any coherent purchase on the city’s destruction on such an unprecedented scale of its bombardment, even for the Syrian Civil War, the saving of one child after his family was lost allowed the survival of a child to exist in the blood-streaked face of the five-year-old Omran Daqneesh that circulated globally on social media seemed finally to locate a “face of the Syrian Civil War” against the city’s dire destruction.  Indeed, the actual improvised settings of health care in eastern Aleppo–


624143740-graphic-content-wounded-syrians-are-seen-on-a-table-in_1-jpg-crop-promo-xlarge2Thaer Mohammed/AFP/Getty Images


–continued as bombs continued to strike the neighborhoods and where the living and dead lay beside one another in emergency rooms that lacked adequate medical supplies.  The absence of medical assistance or facilities, even as Bashar al Assad rejects the last proposal proposed by the United Nations for a local truce that recognized any claims to separate sovereignty of rebel forces, if it was not armed, arguing that it was a violation of “national sovereignty,” seems to have invited an endgame of increased military raids, as the “area held by rebel forces” has shrunk in recent days to a small region curving around the medieval fortified Citadel, sandwiched between advancing regime forces.




The garishly bloodied face of Omran, the sole survivor of an air strike on his family home in Aleppo’s rebel -held territories, seemed a ghost, but served as a respite from images of the dead, and his transport to an ambulance from the horror of Aleppo seemed a promise of the future.  The image posted by the Aleppo Media Center provided little orientation to the actual struggle, but the apparent shock of the contrast of Omram’s evident transport, his face and T-shirt covered in dirt and blood, to safety offered more than a reprieve from image of dead children:  seated in an ambulance, fingering his bloodied head, his place provided a bizarre juxtaposition of a world of safety and medical supplies who had moved from the bombing of his family’s building in a war-torn city we can barely map.  The arrival of the child into a setting of Western safety almost seemed an image of the precareity of saving a child out of its destruction, and preserved an odd ability of hope even as airstrikes would soon hit four hospitals in east Aleppo, and continue to target civilians.

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Filed under Aleppo, data overlays, human rights, Syrian Civil War, Syrian Free Army

Bombed Out Landscapes over Time

At the start of Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon described the sudden arrival of an ethanol-fueled V-2 rocket that struck the zero Greenwich meridian, in a volley of ballistic missiles whose targeted strikes and explosions brought to life something like a new world.  “A rocket has suddenly struck.  A terrific blast quite close . . . :  the entire fabric of the air, the time, is changed–the casement window blown inward, rebounding with a wood squeak to slam again as all the house still shudders.”   The sudden impact of the V-2 at the zero meridian also punctuates time, and crossing a zero threshold of how we register external stimuli in wartime.  Re-reading Pynchon and looking at the recently released hand-colored detail used to render the extent of building destruction caused by rockets and aerial raids in the Bomb Damage Maps created in wartime London, archival documents that track the relative degree of local damages the city endured over two years.

But even when considering the extent of damage of London neighborhoods, so clearly antiquated are the maps to remind one of the extent we’ve continued to cross further thresholds in the continued onslaught of bombs in the London Blitz impinge on the zero threshold of Lt. Tyrone Slothrop’s consciousness in war-time London while he is stationed abroad with allied intelligence–at the same time as the new degree of bomb warfare raise the threshold of acceptable violence for the world.  For the first section of Gravity’s Rainbow, “Beyond the Zero,” describes the intersection of Slothrop’s unprecedented premonition of the arrival of V-2 rockets that enter the perceptual threshold of the military man and the new threshold of violence in war-torn Europe.  Whereas Pynchon explored the threshold of attention of the arrival of bombs across the landscape of war torn London for Lt. Tyrone Slothrop, the graphic response to the punctuation of space registered in the meticulously colored maps of bomb damage.  The maps force us to consider to the thresholds of violence and attention that the scale and violence of subsequent bombing raids have almost mercilessly continued to cross–providing a chilling record of the reaction to their sequence in historical “real” time.

The painstaking hand-colored detail used to render the scale of local destruction that the city suffered appear to provide a record of coming to terms with the “new normalcy” of wartime attacks by aerial bombers and, from 1941, the scourge of V-2 rockets, as much as they reveal the scale of the destruction of local buildings in an apparently objective way.


2004Bomb Damage Maps/London Metropolitan Archives/City of London Police


We map place to know where things lie but when we map bomb strikes, we map an erasure of place, tracing the outlines of how space was once occupied by place.  Maps might try to take stock of the devastation of bombings and air raids–but they can only hint at the scope of what occurs on the ground, and the varieties of maps made to understand the impact of the early ballistic missiles that arrived in London’s Blitz give their viewers an inescapable premonition of the scale  of the increasing number of maps made since World War II that attempt to comprehend the blasts of rockets from drones–even in their antiquated hand-drawn form, they are unavoidable premonitions of later data maps that tally the scale of strikes against sites in Afghanistan, Waziristan, and Pakistan, or the explosive rockets and bunker buster or cluster bombs that demolished Aleppo–even as we fail to fully map the consequences of their destructiveness or understand the threshold each event has surpassed.

Thomas Pynchon began Gravity’s Rainbow by describing the strike of one of the V-2 rockets that hit London in scattershot plots from 1944 in “sudden demolitions form the sky,” from the arrival of V-2 impact at Greenwich, 000 longitude–the zero meridian.  The location immediately raises the question of whether their arrival can be mapped to reveal of any notion of causality.  Despite attempts to find some causality in their pattern, the proposition that “Things only happen” as we accommodate to their occurrence increasingly seem evident.  For despite any attempts to parse their distribution by Poisson distributions, the arrival of V-2 rockets lack causation.  The destruction of their sudden arrival is emblematic of a new order of terror–a new threshold of terror that is shattered by the scale of bombing targeted civilian populations in World War II, and shattered the era that preceded it in ways that can never be clearly mapped or given logical structure, try as hard as we may.

Pynchon had confessed his discovery of consulting period-specific Baedecker guides found in Cornell University’s bookstore for research, and systematically “looting the Baedeker for “all the details of a time and place I had ever been too, right down to the details of the diplomatic corps” in a story set in Egypt–so “Could Willy Sutton rob a safe?”–for atmospheric passages in stories–his account his a map of the threshold of bombed out wartime London.  The precognition that Slothrop feels about the place of the arrival of each V-2 rocket–a sense of their arrival impacts his threshold due to his conditioning, trace the psychological landscape of these early ballistic bombs, that in itself pushed past the zero threshold of subjects in wartime.  And they map a threshold we have remarkably continued to traverse.  If used to spin further apocalyptic narratives haunted by “our common nightmare The Bomb” that Pynchon described as haunting his fiction and so much else, the maps provide something like a palimpsest of these fears.  Long before searching for reactions before “this slow escalation of hopelessness and terror in the few ways open to us,” the record of a titration-like destruction of the cityscape that the Bomb Damage Maps reveal provide an amazing contemporary, if quite cartographically removed and antiquated, Baedeker to place within the expanding mental landscape that can be compared to Pynchon’s account of Slothrop’s attempts to grasp the shifting landscape of the Blitz.


Bombed out london from St Pauls


1. Serviceman Tyrone Slothrop is stationed in London with the unit “Allied Clearing House, Technical Unit, Northern Germany”, a branch of Allied Intelligence where he is charged to look in ruins to search for survivors amidst the burning rockets frequently fired at the city’s inhabitants, and examine the rocket-bomb disasters that dotted the city, as if to find life in death.  At the time of his searches, “A lot of stuff prior to 1944 is getting blurry,” and he is haunted by “the notion of a rocket with his name written on it” (25), and is left to wonder to himself “how he got into investigating V-Bomb incidents” (24).  While such maps are most often retrospectively recreated from data about past strikes, as information of the extent of bomb dropping is revealed, the creation of a map of ongoing damages and destruction of bombing raids recorded in real time during the London Blitz, in an attempt to take stock of the first targeting of civilian populations, and indeed as a daily tally of the scope of destruction to try to create a record of the extent of the damages that the city had endured–in ways that seem to map the paths of the first guided missiles to target densely inhabited areas.  Did they create a logical distribution, or how finely could their arrival in fact be defined from such a spatial remove?  Or was it that the shock of these explosions had utterly removed one across a threshold of experiencing life in ways that eradicated not only buildings, but any possibility of return?

Although we had little knowledge that the strikes were indeed noted in a day-by-day fashion, the mapping of damage, if geared to the local buildings, provide a particular rarity of assessing the impact of dreaded rockets as they hit targets in the city, revealing something of a pattern that the English Home Ministry sought to understand to grasp the elusive logic of the deadly attacks.  The record of their impacts may have created a sense of survival, but also show, as Thomas Pynchon slyly suggested in the quotation that begins this post, the changed sense of time and space they create.  “Will the Postwar be nothing but a series of events, newly created one moment to the next?  No links?” Pynchon asks in Gravity’s Rainbow, resulting in the “end of history?”  How exactly can the scale of this destruction be mapped, and the caesura that bombs impose on history be seen as anything like a continuum?

The deliberate design of pastels that assess the geographic distribution of bombed-out buildings that were impacted by the fast arrival of unmanned bombs London in the Blitz can’t help but recall the collection of paper stars Pynchon describes as created by Tyrone Slothrop in his spare time.  His mapping of the sites of sexual encounters while overseas uncannily mirrors the damage of rockets that started to strike after 1944, creating greater panic than the bombs previously dropped by Luftwaffe planes–and maps a distribution of death, tracing the distribution of the arrival of V-2s over the city and the new geography it creates in the cityscape.   Slothrop made the map to track his own exploits with a diligence best described as “booblishly conscientious,” but was easily mistaken as a curious attempt to track such “sudden demolitions from the sky” which might reveal some foreknowledge of the strikes.  Rather than list the dates of bombing, the map Slothrop makes curiously precede them–since they rather track those few moments in his idle nights when “he can save a moment, here or there” of sexual intimacy amidst the surprise rocket strikes that hold London in fear.  Slothrop has himself become exasperated when searching ruins, lucky to find victims alive, but “obsessed with the idea of a rocket with his name written on it.”  There is not a clear ethanol-fueled rocket he has in mind, but the targeting of civilian populations haunts him as a new image of war, and leads to his odyssey across much of occupied Europe and to Berlin, after he leaves the asylum to which he is initially committed by the Army.

Tyrone Slothrop is both filled with a level of “operational paranoia” but seized by sexual excitement he uses a chart to try to map.   Slothrop remains mightily puzzled by the sexual excitement that seems always to arrives as if reflexively or indeed spontaneously–“well Great God where’d that come from?”–shortly or days before the arrival of one of the V-2 rockets that are raining on London–the result of particular psychical sensitivity of Pavlovian proportions to “what is revealed in the sky.”  Hoping to resolve the conundrum, Slothrop between air raid missions pastes colored paper stars on a map of the city, not to try to find a pattern amidst the heavy explosions and thunder-claps of V-2 bombs in 1944, but to record the memories of each encounter, that seems  to track his encounters, but is noticed by superiors to curiously correlate with the very sites where they have destroyed the city’s buildings and populations, as of to present the bombed out city as a sort of personal demonic laboratory.  The rockets, the first guided ballistic missiles to be shot from launching pads at civilian targets, which arrived faster than the speed of sound.





2.  Slothrop’s enigmatic map becomes less an argument than a compelling question in the office of statisticians at the start of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.  For the ACHTUNG office is in the process of mapping sites where V-2 rockets struck, attending to their distribution in order to determine as to whether the strikes have an inherent pattern or explanation of the new reality of war.  Whereas Roger Mexico thinks they follow a Poisson distribution, we find that they register little pattern beyond the personal experience by which young Slothrop was psychically conditioned–raising the question of the nature of causality that becomes a leitmotif of the novel.

Is it Poisson or Pavlov, and are we in Slothrop’s head or feeling the impact of the war?  The scale of tracking bomb damage across the city reveals another sort of assiduity to track these demolitions that suddenly arrived without warning from the sky, whose distribution Allied Intelligence is trying to understand as a logical distribution on a map that sorts out thedivides London into 576 individual squares of ruled at one kilometer scale, an “ink ghost of London,” as if hoping to deduce some logic from the distribution of sudden daily deadly strikes–despite the existence of statistical equation to describe the distribution, he knows the bombs must simply be understood as discrete events, rocket strikes in red circles of  growing shape without predictive value;  the Poisson equation enigmatically suggests how many squares will be destroyed by a number of hits, as if to give some inner logic to the distribution of rocket strikes that could presumably save lives.

While the scale of damage is most often mapped in an attempt to lend closure, coherence, and comprehension to an ongoing destruction of war, as if to lend some clarity to the fog of war itself as it is experienced on the ground.  The maps of bombing raids and bombed out landscapes or cityscapes aim to impose a sense of often unwarranted closure in their implicit promise to fix meaning to ongoing events.  Often, the mapping of damages in images are repressed, as the war’s violence cannot be communicated to civilians save, perhaps, after these horrendous and terrible events that effectively track a changed relation to place.  For the continued air attacks of near-constant losses, the shift from bombs dropped from fighter planes to shot V-2 rockets, which arrived in the city even before their sound was audible, created a distinct ratcheting up of unease, only early evident in actual Bomb Damage Maps that the Home Survey Office drafted during the war.


3. In order to take stock of such explosive events, the Bomb Damage Maps derived from attempts of the Ministry of Home Security to collate damages sustained during bombing raids in London and England, as if in an attempt to understand the logic of enemy attacks on the Home Front, first focussing on London, Birmingham and Liverpool but by September 1941 expanding to the United Kingdom.  The mapping was a sort of respite from the daily onslaught of violence.  Despite the considerable melancholic sense of loss pervading images of bombed out landscapes, as in the header to this post, there is a detectable sense of brave resilience of the Bomb Damage Maps–as this one of Soho–spoke to the need to maintain composure, perhaps, as well as faith, as V-2 rockets shot pell-mell down on the capital–in ways that could scarcely be fixed by the circles that note their impact on the below Bomb Damage Maps drawn up from 1940 and kept in the London Metropolitan Archives, which included the sites of V-2 attacks that racked the city in destructive ways from 1944,–marking sites of impact by open circles of different diameter for V-1 and V-2 rockets that obliterated buildings across the city, coloring buildings deep purple to designate the extent of damages as “Beyond Repair” or black to designate “Total Destruction.”   The images made to assess local losses provide a basis to meditate on how we map bomb damage, comprehend its extent, and how aerial strikes change urban landscapes and our relation to them.


Mayfaire; SohoBomb Damage Maps/London Metropolitan Archives/City of London Police:  Kings Cross




Waterloo detail bombs.pngDetail, Waterloo Station/Bomb Damage Maps/London Metropolitan Archives/City of London Police



Over five hundred and seventeen V-2 rockets fired from overseas exploded in London during the German blitz of the city of London at the end of World War II from September, 1944.  After V-1 bombs dropped in quick succession by some three hundred airplanes had killing upwards of 2,500 civilians, a shower of hundreds of bombs over hours shook the entire city almost without interruption, virtually covering the city during the Blitz.



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Filed under aerial bombardment, bombing raids, Gravity's Rainbow, Vietnam War, war crimes

Hostile Homelands

As an unnamed Palestinian looks wistfully at the sheer concrete that bisects Jerusalem’s West Bank, from atop his hilltop perch, it is hard to note what goes through his head.  But the Separation Barrier built to divide Palestinian residents of Jerusalem from Israel can only be regarded with resignation if some stoicism.  The rewriting of the border by the eight-feet tall wall is the most recent manifestation of the sovereign defense of Israel as a state and territory by imposing boundaries built to defend Jewish settlements that have expanded beyond earlier territorial boundaries into the regions of Judea and Samaria–in an apparent attempt to refute a two-state solution, or to place a roadblock in its path, and deny his homeland.  The deep persistence of such mental maps, and indeed the defense of untenable borders seen from a single perspective of the Israeli state seems the greatest obstacle to such a two-state solution and may threaten the future of the Israeli state.

The silence of the observer seems to mirror not only the fate of a two-state solution for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence–the hope to share land with two states for two peoples–but the unilateral nature of the expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank, but of liberalism in the Middle East.  The problem of mapping the relation of territory to states is particularly acute, given the difficulties of mapping the spatial imaginaries of Israeli settlement onto a map of the Jewish nation that is able to accommodate non-Jewish inhabitants as equal citizens.  In an era of increasing border boundaries–and of the belief that stronger border walls will only strengthen the notion of the nation–the construction of the Separation Barrier seems the latest illustration of the deep tensions within the unilateral mapping of a spatial imaginary onto a territorial map in order to create a flawed image of the Jewish nation as a nation state.  So methodically has the Israeli state at times undertaken to erase a signs of settlement of Palestinians in areas that the HOSM resistance of remapping blocks, buildings, and signs of Palestinian presence in the contested territories of the Gaza Strip has proceeded by careful remapping against the sustained Israeli military interventions with names as Operation Protective Edge, in attempts to preserve its settlement by dense numbers of refugees, Palestinian authorities, and Jewish settlements.



Gaza Strip


Given the deep historical layers of claims to Jerusalem–long the center of a Jewish spatial imagination cultivated in the diaspora–the concrete claims to nationhood of fixing a boundary about biblical lands transcends local politics, and reaches to an almost timeless problem of defining Israel’s status as a nation state, at least how the expansion of claims to contested frontiers of the state have emerged.   The Separation Barrier takes its place in the series of monuments whose construction was fueled by religion, cultural memory, and claims to statehood as they were repeatedly historically rebuilt.  The man surveying the sheer concrete Separation Barrier contemplates his relation to a newly drawn map.  As the window for a two-state solution rapidly contracts, the prominent boundary built through the West Bank, expanding the effective territorial bounds of the Israeli state, can be seen as the most recent projection of the Jewish nation onto the city’s mental space. For as much as preventing the motion through space of Palestinians with nearby homes, the wall is an act of territorial occupation.  The man’s contemplation of the barrier captures a tension of relations among Israel’s settlers and the Palestinian residents.

The Separation Barrier is of course the most recent defensive projection and registration of the mental space of Israeli Jews who long settled the region–adopting a colonial relation to its settlement in what were often or always tortured ways–and the culmination of a long tradition of mapping Israel as a state.  For the Barrier defends not only territory, but a privileged mental space about Jerusalem, unilaterally expanding the boundary of Israel as a nation-state by aggressively defending the settlements.  To unpack that history may be an attempt to keep that window open a bit longer.  For although the weighty and imposing “Separation Barrier” constructs as an impediment to transit, the ability to be map their creation is to question their permanence, and to give greater prominence to the manner in which boundary crossing was endemic to the region–from the Balfour Declaration to the Ottoman state’s occupation of the city of Jerusalem whose fortress city was once surrounded by a moat.  The Barrier is a symptom of a remapping of the settlement of the West Bank and East Jerusalem–the proposed site for the capital of a future Palestinian State–by drawing new territorial boundaries  in defiance of the United Nations, and an affirmation of the indivisibility of the city as a capital.  Narrating the city’s settlement demands resolving the full rights of its inhabitants, and the problem of boundary crossing that it raises–and seeks to present–raises a problem of narrating a tense and highly symbolic relation to place, as much as defining boundary lines around the city’s walls.

Indeed, what ethical relation the Israelis are able to adopt in relation to the Separation Barrier that is now treated as a defining feature that exists to defend and preserve the historically transmitted notion of a “Eretz Yisrael“?  For in echoing the stone wall built to sanctify the biblical city, and repopulate and purify its Jewish community, one is tragically and farcically invited on a mission of time travel; seeing the wall as restoring the nation proceeds on a flawed assumption of the identity of the Israeli nation and a Jewish nation.  As such, it joins how the city’s many monuments are prompts of the past, which transform the many sites of burial, walls, and headstones into triggers of a deep relation to both interior and geographic space that are difficult to untangle.  This post detects the crucial role maps both physical and mental play in the complex excavation of a historical memory of the settlement of Jerusalem and the Holy Land in A.B. Yehoshua’s 1993 classic Mr. Mani, an exploration of the psychology of settlement, and the difficulties inherent in the project of translating the abstract notion of the Jewish Nation to the boundaries of a state:  while the novel is often read as an account of Sephardic diaspora, reflecting the author’s own family, the problems are not only of mapping a nation, but perhaps of the persistence of maps that problematically don’t include people or actual habitations to imagine one’s relation to a territory.  And the idealized relation to space without people that maps create are central to the current problem of the settlements, as they are to the possibility of a two-state solution, as Yehoshua’s intervention was made to show.


1.  The panoramas that French photographer Auguste Salzmann devised to document the ancient buildings of Jerusalem for a European audience received significant praise in the Annales Archéologiques for instilling a spiritual relationship with the sacred city through a modern technology, as the erudite reviewer of his photographs judged them worthy of display in sacred sites as churches and seminaries in 1854, suggesting the strong interior value of the photographic panoramas as of “living Jerusalem” although they focus on ruins, rather than human activity, to the degree “there is no description that inspires thoughts more numerous or more profound,” so overwhelming were these sites in the Old City as the hilltop view from East Jerusalem.


DP131233.jpgSalzmann, Panorama of Jerusalem from the East, Metropolitan Museum of Art


The excavation of the layers of Jerusalem as a site of living history is illuminated by Israeli novelist A. B. Yehoshua, who has excavated a deeply personal and intensely psychological relation to place among the men in a family of diaspora Jews who arrived in the city in the late eighteenth century, in ways that map the spatial imaginary of Jerusalem for its current residents as much as archeologically excavating historical structures of the city’s walls in the Jewish imagination.  For Yehoshua suggested the arrival in the city from the diaspora posed an immediately fraught question of translating its spatial imaginary into the actual religions and peoples who lived in the geographic place, which resulted in the parallel transition  of the abstract identity of the Jewish nation–granted the habitation of Egypt and Israel in the scriptures–to a bounded state.  The problem of this translation was evoked by Yehoshua in other contexts, but the tensions play out in his novel Mr. Mani. “The question of boundaries is a major question of the Jewish people because the Jews are the great experts of crossing boundaries,” Yehoshua once mused:  they become masters of establishing them at their own peril.  After fearing that a territorial state would deprive Jews of a unique “ability to see the world, to move in the world, and to contribute to the world,” the dangers of restricting Jerusalem to the Jewish people or Jewish state are most sharply placed in evidence by the mania of building boundary walls in a deluded attempt to purify the people as a nation.

Indeed, Yehoshua’s Mr. Mani, a postmodern pentateuch that situates the 1982 war with Lebanon that defended the territorial boundary of Israel’s northern frontier by crossing into Lebanese territory with a great loss of young soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces, traversing the boundaries of their state for the first time in particularly bloody ways in response to an attempt to assassinate an Israeli ambassador in London, the novel situates the context of the conflict in the deep conflicts between a spatial imaginary of a Jewish nation that is difficult to translate into the boundaries of Israel as a state, and returns to excavate the underlying tensions of this translation in the deep memories and spatial imaginaries rooted in the burial sites of Jerusalem itself:  as if to excavate the conflicts between a spatial imaginaries of nationhood against the image of the identity of a Jewish people, Yehoshua partially reconstructs the genealogy of the men of the Mani family, through partial perspectives at select points of history, moving from the Mani present on the island of Crete, Homer’s “Island of the Gods” and home of the most ancient Minoan civilization, as a German paratrooper engaged in the island’s bloody airborne occupation in 1941 lost 6000 young soldiers in their attempt to secure the southern boundary of their Reich, through the Mani who attend the second Zionist conference from Jerusalem, with hopes to build a state around his hospital, his father who had sought to seize the Ottoman lands from the English with Palestinians, his father who sought to create a Jewish state while attending the second zionist conference from the hospital he ran in Jerusalem, and whose ancestor pursued the dream of converting Arabs to the Jewish faith.  The obstinate optimism of building such walls, or mapping such a country, seems transmitted across generations, echoing the biblical image of Nehemia’s rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls.




The walls that were historically mapped around Jerusalem were never restorations of a community, however, but betrayed a deeply uneasy conflict that lay in the lack of mutual recognition of inhabitants of the land.  Ursula K. LeGuin has noted that “The worst walls are never the ones you find in your way.  The worst walls are the ones you build yourself,” and the Separation Barrier is less a claims to the integrity of Jerusalem than impassible structures for Palestinians.  For building such a boundary wall through inhabited parts of the city has not only compromised rights to residence of many, as the boy may seem to contemplate, but recapitulates sustained conflicts over national claims to rights to inhabit a homeland:  the  Separation Barrier is a boundary of recent creation, but seems to transform the unconscious status of the city as a promised space, outside national borders–the city on the hill, treasured in the collective unconscious as a site of future residence by those generations living in sovereign states–into a barriers to transit or movement, symptomatic of surveillance states which spatialize their boundaries in ever more visible ways, as if to define them for their residents as much as outsiders, by confounding the notion of a homeland with a territory, and guiltily opposing a homeland to its former inhabitants.  Yehoshua’s Mani often tragically repeat claims to territorial ownership that the Separation Barrier seems to repeat perhaps with greater blindness to its consequences.

No map is neutral,” but the project of wall-building about nations has expanded with mythical proportions to defend Jewish and Israeli claims to the land.  But whereas the biblical figure Nehemia rebuilt Jerusalem by rebuilding its walls to restore its greatness and purify its community, bisecting Israel’s peoples by a cement wall of division creates a map of apartheid which sullies the notion of cohabitation by dividing the peoples living in the Holy Land from the nation of Israel.  Indeed, if walls are in the news, the poured concrete wall in Jerusalem aggressively projects a spatial imaginary onto the map, in the name of self-defense, by mapping the nation’s presence onto the land in ways that its residents are prevented from forgetting.  Nehemia’s wall is cast in the Bible as a wall of renewal and rebirth for the nation of Jerusalem, but the national defense of Israeli claims to the West Bank conceal the deep contradictions within the forceful assertion of the presence of the Jewish people to its residents, and seems built to prevent the notion of a future Palestinian state through a systematic accelerated settlements designed to annex multiple settlements in the West Bank–renamed Judea and Samaria to invest importance in their ties to the Jewish state by returning these regions to their biblical Hebrew names.

If I had to define Zionism by one word,” mused Israeli author Yehoshua, “I would say boundaries.”  In collapsing the settlement of Jerusalem over time in a microhistory of five generations of men in the Mani family, Yehoshua’s novel offers a readers a map of the shifting relation of Israel to its borders of Israel across generations, asking us to inquire about the translation of the notional map of a Holy Land preserved in the Mediterranean diaspora.


thomas-coexafp-gettyThomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images


2.  The perpetual and current contest for who will name Jerusalem essentially returns to the fraught question of mapping a spatial imaginary onto the actual inhabitants of that space, and resolving any discrepancy in the authority of a map.  The anonymous hilltop observer stands in an almost existential relation to the city’s current division.  He observes the city as if to survey the particular obstinacy of its construction.  The deep ties to place that it asserts are difficult to unpack, but its defense of ties to place and to the space of the nation are so directed toward exclusion–and the defense of claims to a fixed territory in a form of a desire for time-travel raises questions of the violence of its claims.  Indeed, it responds to a shadow-map not only of the city, but of the shadow map that underlies it, and to Jerusalem’s place in the boundaries of that sharply contested map–




–which takes the West Bank as a basis for a Palestinian State, even as it is almost built in order to be contested, and almost tauntingly demands to be redrawn yet again.


Daniel Bar-On.pngDaniel Bar-On


The historical mutation of a sense of Israel as a nation-state unfolded in a sense of privileged relation to it space oddly emerged out of a diaspora identity, foreign to the transmission of ties to territory–and which imagined the notion of the “Jewish Nation” as having ties to the region by analogy to a nation state.  For Israeli author A. B Yehoshua, the  psychical attachment to the city that long stood in conflict with its inhabitants, and long concealed deep tensions between the attachment to an almost hidden, historical topography particularly dangerous in how it erases the multiethnic nature of its inhabitants:  his novel about how five generations of the fictional Mani family traces to the effects of migration from the existence of diaspora to an entity with boundaries to be defended–as if a thought experiment about the transmission of an imagined privileged relation to place and territory.  The demand to defend space has become so strong to hide or conceal the occupation of a land in which Jews are almost destined to stand in uneasy relation to as they bear the weight of the translation of a history of border crossing into the defense of a state’s fixed frontiers and the defense of its boundary lines.  Even while Yehoshua has described the tortured state of relations to Palestinians as extending back to Jews’ first settlement of the region during the diaspora, when the notion of belonging to a “Jewish nation” was construed in primarily religious terms, particularly difficult to ever translate into the context of a modern nation-state–and to take as a basis for Israeli nationality.  Yet the wall seems to impose a notion of national identity on Palestinians that forces them to accommodate a spatial imaginary of the Jewish state.


Coex Coex/AFP/Getty Images


3600040131.jpgJerusalem-area settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim, December 2016. Olivier Fitussi


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Filed under border barriers, Jerusalem, Jewish diaspora, national borders, Two-State Solution

The Arid Region of the United States and its Afterlife: Beyond the 100th Meridian

The map may not be the territory.  But it powerfully orients relation to the territory–and to the presence of water in the land, as well as the land itself.  Indeed, the mapping of how the “Arid Region” of the United States could be settled by John Wesley Powell created as the second Director of the United States Geological Survey, a post he held from 1881–1894, but which he had first expansively described in 1878.  The United States Congress followed Powell’s recommendation to consolidate the western surveys into the new U.S. Geological Survey, and he long sought to create a map capturing the fragile water ecology of the American West.  The completion of his classic report on the region first suggested a new relation to the distribution of water in the region in ways that would best serve all of its residents, and in his later map, he tried to articulate so clear a relation to the region’s future settlement.  Powell’s view on the need for systematic irrigation of the region stands in almost polemic relation to the place that the western states held in the spatial imaginary of the Homesteading Era:  indeed, his insistence that led to the charge to undertake a systematic irrigation survey of lands in the public domain of the wester United States in 1888, long a topic for which he had agitated, and his map of the region reflected a demand to integrate a topographic survey, hydrographic survey, and engineering survey of the region.  Perhaps the map offered a new sense of the territory, if “territory” includes the waterways that would be able to adequately irrigate all open lands.


Arid Region of US


For the reception of Major John Wesley Powell’s attempt to map what he called the “Arid Region of the United States” reveals both he difficulty in mapping the relation of water to the land, and the appeal that a piece of paper might gain over time.  The detailed map provided something of a ground plan and register of how the arid region might be best inhabited, and of the relation to the land and landwater of a region’s inhabitants.  And it provides an early recognition of problems of water management and distribution in the western states–captured in its naming simply as the “Arid Region” as if to set it apart from the plentiful water in other regions–that later eras began to appreciate in ways that Powell’s contemporaries were less able to see in his ambitious attempt to reorganize the management of its regions around its multiple inland watersheds that he had hoped to canalize.  For Powell’s ambitious 1890 remapping of lands west of the 100° meridian in the United States tried to encompass their unique aridity and to pose a solution for its future inhabitants with special attention to its drainage districts–as discreet riverine watersheds.


Arid Lands ReservationsArid Region of the United States (1890); detail


The best practices that motivated Powell’s map as a basis to orient the government to the land’s groundwater.  The distinctive scarcity of water in the western states became evident in a time of sustained drought, giving unexpected currency to how Powell’s map reoriented readers to the “Arid Region of the United States.”  The brightly colored map to which the explorer, geographer, and anthropologist not only dedicated an extreme amount of attention in his later life, and of which he became something of an evangelist, suggests a early recognition of the scarcity of water and its management, in an era when there is a specter of considerable anger around poor practices of water management in much of the western states, tempered by an expectation that groundwater would be available for farming and irrigation.

The rivers in the United States are quite widely distributed, leaving much of the western plateaux at a distance from riverine waterways–


Western Rivers.pngTim Sinott


–and the image of Virgin Land so deeply ingrained across that regions settlement that its unique character of low rainfall and widely dispersed water sources was erased in the spatial imaginary which replaced the detailed map Powell of the administration of groundwater in the western states that Powell had created with his surveying team as a guide to the region that he knew so well, and which he sought to communicate when he became second director of the United States Geographical Surveys (1881–1894).  The governmental office did not give him authority to organize , but to create a new map that might better organize the nation to the lesser rainwater in what was known as the Great American Desert.  For Powell attempted to re-orient homesteaders to the imperative of western migration through the map, by organizing water administration and the future prospect for canalization in order to grow prospects for the irrigation of the region and its future farmlands that have considerable ethical power to speak to us today.

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Filed under climatology, data visualization, drought, environmental stewardship, water management