Home for the Holidays, Books on the Brain, Maps on my Mind

Particularly as the news headlines read of fake bomb threats and massive snowfalls in the Boston area, it’s good to be home in California – land of mild weather, satsuma oranges and avocados a plenty, and miles of horse trails extending from my parents’ backyard into the great chaparral yonder of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. After a rush to the finish line in Cambridge that saw me completing the digital history project as well as a first draft of the book manuscript for Developing Powers, I’m taking a week or two off at home to recharge and gain some perspective before diving back into substantial edits of the manuscript. There’s been a fair amount of pleasure reading – Jeremy Adelman’s new biography of social scientist Albert O. Hirschman and a German-language biography of under-appreciated architect Konrad Wachsmann – as well as some revisiting of classics of English prose and syntax to help lend inspiration before I begin edits: Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic WritingRichard Lanham’s Revising Prose, and Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences.

While preparing for the triage of prose and syntax that awaits me after the new year in the libraries and coffee shops of Berlin, however, I’ve also been taking time to gather lessons from the digital history class and think of how I can do some argumentative work with some of the sources I gathered at Harvard this past term. Mostly, this means working with several large maps produced by organizing committees for NGOs based in Pakistan but which did the majority of their work in Afghanistan. (Several of the NGOs that these supervising organizations coordinated – Medecins sans Frontieres, the Swedish Afghanistan Committee – had already been doing work inside of occupied Afghanistan sans approval from Kabul or Moscow since the early 1980s, but the maps themselves primarily cover the years 1989 to 1992.) They cover a wide range of humanitarian activities: health care facilities, educational facilities, and irrigation and agriculture projects – in short, para-state functions that an assembly of NGOs funded from international sources had taken over from the dying and disintegrating Communist Afghan state.

Working with these maps and tables means doing a variety of small tasks. In some cases, the work is as simple as crunching existing tables into spreadsheets and Google Fusion Tables, with which we can already get some sense of the spatial penetration and particular webs of NGO activity inside of Afghanistan during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Having just completed the spreadsheet for the medical facilities table, it’s striking to see how geographically concentrated certain organizations did their work (the tables tell us which medical facilities were run by which organization, as well as what the donor organization to given projects were). Below, for example, is a heat map of projects run by the Swedish Afghanistan Committee, a group whose archives I hope to visit in Stockholm sometime later this spring.

Heat map of medical projects run by the Swedish Afghanistan Committee in Afghanistan as of September 1992. Generated using Google Fusion Tables and documents from Harvard University Map Library.

Heat map of medical projects run by the Swedish Afghanistan Committee in Afghanistan as of September 1992. Generated using Google Fusion Tables and documents from Harvard University Map Library.

That red splotch is centered around Wardak Province, where many of SCA’s projects took place. Contrast this to the “profile” of projects run by the Ministry of Public Health of the Afghan state, and the difference is clear: more projects in areas around Kabul and the valleys cascading down to Peshawar.

Heat Map of projects run by the Ministry of Public Health of the Islamic State of Afghanistan, circa summer 1992.

Heat Map of projects run by the Ministry of Public Health of the Islamic State of Afghanistan, circa summer 1992.

Look at projects implemented by the Supervisory Council for the Northern Area, an umbrella organization for former anti-Soviet and anti-PDPA resistance groups created by Ahmad Shah Massoud, and the geographical spread is different again, corresponding – or so one might argue – to the areas controlled by Massoud and allies.

Heat Map for projects run by the Security Council of the Northern Area (Shurah-i Nazar).

Heat Map for projects run by the Security Council of the Northern Area (Shurah-i Nazar).

Of course, maps like these should be the starting point of further inquiries. Not only that, these maps of health facilities – a specific kind of humanitarian intervention into sovereign state space – ought to be juxtaposed with the data I can scrape from Harvard’s maps of education, irrigation, and agricultural projects. That’s going to be more difficult than this simple copying exercise: coordination committees appear not to have produced any tables for those, so I’ll have to look through my photographs of the maps themselves to generate spreadsheets that can then be fed back into GIS applications like Fusion Tables or ARC. Then there’s the question, too, of how to integrate the story that these maps appear to tell into my existing story (at least in the manuscript) of Soviet advisers deploying to, then leaving, the same places. It’s an interpretative challenge that drives me mad at times – but it’s that challenge that keeps me stimulated and interested as I keep developing the project more.

For the moment, however, it’s time to relax a bit more roasting avocado pits and tangerine peels before an open California fire. Enjoy the holidays, wherever they may find you.

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