Worried Lebanese

thought crumbs on lebanese and middle eastern politics

A particularly misleading and disfiguring map

Posted by worriedlebanese on 22/12/2009

Lebanon through a sectarian lens

Most people interested in Lebanese affairs must have run across a map such as this one. There is actually no way of avoiding it. One of the main features of this country is its communal composition and people are interested in seing how this translates “on the ground”…  And by this expression, they mean territorially. But what does that really mean? And how useful is it to understanding the country and its society?

I personally believe that such maps are extremely misleading. Not only do they distort reality, but they reinforce erroneous mental representations.

Here is a short list of the distortions:

– it reduces Lebanon’s diversity to a limited number of categories. In this map, you find six of the largest communities, but what about the Armenian communities, and the smaller communities such as the Alawites and 8 smaller christian communities) ?

– it draws middle-sized communal territories and gives the impression that they are homogenous while they are almost all mixed. Should minority communities be show?

– it mixes three elements without making them explicit : the demographic element (the demographic weight of the community), the administrative element (how the territory is divided into districts) and a spacial element (how the territory is used). To make my point more explicit, let’s take a couple of examples. ex1: The country is very mountainous and over half of the land is either uninhabited or cultivated. How come this land is attributed to such or such community?!  This is particularly true for the “shiite attributed territory of the Beqaa-Mount Lebanon range. About 80% of the area covered is uninhabited… How can it be attributed to the Shiite community?! ex2: A region like the Chouf underwent ethnic cleansing in the 1980s loosing for the third time in two centuries most of its Christian population. But the land property hasn’t shifted much and Christians still own a lot of property there? How does this translate on the map? On the other hand, the Sunni population has grow a lot, and it has the same demographical weight at the Druze even if it is less spread out territorially. How does this translate on the map?!

through another sectarian lens... notice the differences between the two maps that work with the same data?

– it doesn’t take into account the mobility and mental representations. People move around and their movements are conditioned by infrastructure. These elements have an effect on the way they represent to themselves and to others the space they live in. A friend of mine worked on a small sunni neighbourhood in Beirut. This neighbourhood is considered by its christian inhabitants and its christian neighbours as a muslim enclave within a larger “christian” neighbourhood. Its muslims inhabitants consider it as an appendice of a larger “sunni” neighbourhood.

– it has no political significance because the country is on one hand extremely centralised, and on the other split up by numerous patronage networks that cut across administrative bodies and carve up their own territories. This map certainly does not show that.


2 Responses to “A particularly misleading and disfiguring map”

  1. Maps , just like many other common tools, are at times taken for granted until one tries to define what is meant by that particular idea or tool.
    Maps could be abused even at the most ekementary level by implying that the realtive shape that they represent on a plane is the same as that which is on a spere. But inspite of all the problems associated with maps, we need to be clear that ultimately a map is an attempt at communication and as such it might be abused or used incorrectly.
    A map is not supposed to , neither should it, present an image as complicated as reality. It is to present a simplified image that could help the user aacquire a better understanding of the area that one is investigating.
    To go straight to the map that is in this post, although it does not convey a detailed image about the composition of the population in each segment yet they do a good job of conveying a sense of who lives where. If population density is an object that is worthwhile then the cartographer can make adjustements to convey that information also.
    Maps are a tool that needs to be used carefully but a very informative and productive one.

    • Safari shut down while I was saving my reply, and I can’t even find the draft!

      So here are my thoughts on the question.
      Cartography is in no way innocent, you know that as much as I do. Modern cartography isn’t about geography, it’s not a tool meant to guide you in a region. It’s about sovereignty, imposing a specific representation or image of reality. And this is exactly what the maps that I have posted do.
      What I found interesting in them is that they rely on the same data which is based on the electoral rolls (that do not reflect where people live but where their paternal great-grandfather or that of their husband’s was registered), projections based on demographic shifts provoked by the war (mostly ethnic cleansing but also refugee settlement), and “land” attribution (for those areas that are largely uninhabited). But withstanding their common roots, they are extremely different. This just shows how that with the same data, you can represent many different types of sectarian territories. You can expand the shiite one to make it more dominant or more threatening, you can shrink the christian one to claim that the community’s weight or strength is diminishing or that it is more threatened. You can link territories together, consider that one is mixed or not… You can choose to merge confessions together or distinguish them from one another… You can do whatever you want with it, but certainly not claim that these territories give you an idea where people live!

      Remember the argument we had on confessionalism and anti-confessionalism. I believe that the use of such maps confirm my view that the two are two sides of the same coin. Closeted-confessionalists (I don’t believe their are many self-declared supporters of confessionalism) and anti-confessionalists will have no problem using such maps and considering that they have some meaning.
      As I told Nawaf Salam during a workshop a couple of years back, sectarianism is usually in the eyes of the beholder… and this beholder is usually a self-proclaimed anti-confessionalist.

      I personally consider them sectarian (to use a term of your liking). They project a sectarian world-view on the political territory.
      What I find interesting about them is that they actually don’t illustrate any kind of reality other than the point of view of those who use them. The Lebanese territory is not divided into communal cantons. People are not serfs, they move around. Their geography is a dynamic one: many people sleep in one area, shop in another, work in another and spend their weekends and holidays in another. Lebanese society is an extremely urbanised one. But this map is more interested in territories than in urban areas (where over 70% of the population resides in). One of the maps doesn’t show any communication routes, while the other shows only one! All these things are not coincidences. They both imply that there is little communication between regions.

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