Sad Geography Lessons: How I’ve Learned The Names of Too Many Mid-East Cities

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Let’s face it; a lot of us don’t feel so talented about our geography skills. It is a stereotype of American stupidity that we are all bad at geography, but for me there is a fair amount of truth to this stereotype. In fact, it might only be thanks to my Google Maps iPhone application that I know where I am in the world right now, rather than any real intelligence on my part.

But I came to an interesting realization last night while reading news of Syria and President Obama’s decision to seek approval from Congress:

I often only learn the names of Middle-East cities when we are preparing to bomb them, or just after we’ve attacked them. This has been true for me since 1990.

When operation Desert Storm happened at the beginning of 1991, I was 12 going on 13 years old. Baghdad seemed like a pretty cool name for a city, like a city with a lot of blues music, or something out of the Disney movie Aladdin. I also learned of a place called Kuwait City, and am still not sure I could point to Kuwait on a map to this day.

After 9/11, through the media blitz surrounding George W. Bush’s bungled neo-conservative wrath, I learned of places in Afghanistan called Kabul and Kandahar. Kabul is a city of 4 million people I had no idea existed before then. Then when we re-invaded Iraq, Baghdad came back to the front of the news, along with places called Fallujah, Basra, Kirkuk and others.

Several years ago, when American politicians repeatedly threatened to attack Iran, the cities of Tehran came back to the forefront of my mind, and I read the names of other large cities I had never even heard of before, like Tabriz, Iran’s 4th largest city.

I did learn about two Saudi Arabian cities—Jeddah and King Abdullah Economic City—through a Dave Eggers novel, A Hologram for the King. The novel has nothing to do with war or aggression, thankfully, but is a strong parable for America’s economic decline in the world. So there’s that.

This weekend, I spent some time reading about people in the Syrian cities of Damascus (a name that, yes, I have heard before, but no didn’t know was home to about 2 million people) and Homs  (a name that I had not heard at all).

I still don’t know much about Middle-Eastern geography, it’s true, but what I know seems to be an incredibly tragic way to learn about an entire region of the world.

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