Maps can help explain a region’s geography, its demographics, and the current political and environmental climates, among other attributes. Maps allow people to make spatial connections between different places and can facilitate the understanding of the presence and movements of goods, people, languages, animals, and more.
Another valuable tool, information graphics, or infographics, are graphic visual representations of information, data or knowledge intended to present information quickly and clearly. They can improve cognition by utilizing graphics to enhance the human visual system’s ability to see patterns and trends.
The Middle East as an area and a concept can be more easily understood through the use of these tools. Maps can define, or confine, what constitutes a particular region, and challenge us to question accepted conventions. Infographics tend to be multi-layered and nuanced, giving a multidimensional perspective on a part of the world that is beset with gross generalizations. Here are five examples that you can use in your classroom or simply for your own better understanding. The first three look at contemporary dynamics, while the last two take a closer look at the past. TeachMideast will regularly provide new material collected from an array of sources.
1. Information is Beautiful is an initiative launched by David McCandless “dedicated to distilling the world’s data, information and knowledge into beautiful, interesting and, above all, useful visualizations, infographics and diagrams.” This creative and talented group provides graphics on such topics as novels everyone should read based on top lists and awards to the US gender pay gap. Of particular value to you, however, is a comprehensive graphic that depicts the often-confounding set of relationships between and with players in the Middle East. The Middle East: Key Players and Notable Relationships breaks down types of actors (nation, group, Sunni, Shia, non-Muslim) and types of relationships (hate, strained, good, love). You can click on, say, the Islamic State, and it will become the center of the graphic, allowing you its status with other players like Iran, the United States and al-Qaeda, or you can zoom out to get the bigger picture. Click on each player, the a pop-up gives a brief definition. Keeping in mind that these relationships and dynamics in the region are fluid, this is nonetheless a tool that can shed light on a complicated region. Some samples are provided below.
2. Our World In Data is an excellent resource that covers a wide range of topics and visualizes the empirical evidence of how living standards changed over the last decades, centuries, and millennia. A search engine enables to visitors to find information on key indicators such as poverty, education, economic development, food prices, famine, and health. You can also use regions or ethnic groups in the search engine which will result in lists in which that term appears. The maps below show contemporary literacy rates in the Middle East for two different age groups: ages 14 to 24 and ages 65 and up.
Literacy in the Arabic speaking countries
Largely unnoticed education has dramatically improved in Northern Africa and the Middle East. Using the same UNESCO data as above the map shows that in many countries only less than a third of the older generation is literate. The literacy of the younger generation in contrast has a literacy over 90%.
3. Metrocosm is another collection of projects that analyze life through statistics and data. The map below looks at current global perceptions of the Arab-Israeli conflict based on which countries recognize both Israel and Palestine, which recognize only Palestine, and which recognize only Israel.
4. What the Middle East looked like in 1914 from Le Monde Diplomatique. “This is a pivotal year, during the Middle East’s gradual transfer from 500 years of Ottoman rule to 50 to 100 years of European rule. Western Europe was getting richer and more powerful as it carved up Africa, including the Arab states of North Africa, into colonial possessions. Virtually the entire region was ruled outright by Europeans or Ottomans, save some parts of Iran and the Arabian peninsula divided into European “zones of influence.””
5. A few years later, the picture was altered as can be seen in this set of maps from NPR offering a visual of how the Middle East was divided up exclusively by European colonial powers after WWI, through the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916, and later realized through the League of Nations Mandates of 1920. The Europeans, who had colonized much of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, completed the takeover with the territories of Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. The modern boundaries of the Middle East emerged from the war as did modern Arab nationalist movements and embryonic Islamic movements.
With the onset of WWI, the French and the British sent armies and agents into the Middle East, to foment revolts in the Arabian Peninsula and to seize Iraq, Syria and Palestine. In 1916, French and British diplomats secretly reached the Sykes-Picot agreement, carving up the Middle East into spheres of influence for their respective countries. That agreement was superceded by another which established a mandate system of French and British control, sanctioned by the new League of Nations.
Under the mandate system, Syria and Lebanon went to the French. The British took over Palestine and three Ottoman provinces of Mesopotamia and created modern-day Iraq. Almost immediately after the war, Arab resistance movements emerged to challenge European dominance.
Information from The Middle East and the West: WWI and Beyond by Mike Schuster, NPR. Original story plus audio from All Things considered available here.