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How One Organization Is Using Google Maps to Save History in the Middle East

The Diarna Project is a geo-museum that merges maps, photographs, research, and oral histories to preserve the present and bring the past back to life.
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On a recent sunny afternoon at the Center for Jewish History in Lower Manhattan, Eddie Ashkenazie, a tousled and bespectacled young historian at the Diarna Project, sits in front of a giant screen as he scrolls through photographs and navigates Google satellite maps. Beside him, Joseph Samuel, who shot the photos in Iraqi Kurdistan, narrates his recent voyage in the manner of an explorer explaining his sketches to a cartographer. He has brought back over 1,300 pictures and videos from 47 locations, and now he and Ashkenazie must, literally, put these locations on the map.

Samuel is a mustachioed, cigarette-smoking, sun-creased filmmaker who has been working on documentaries about ethnic minorities, including Yazidis, in the Middle East; he took a few days to research the Jewish history in Iraqi Kurdistan as well. Samuel is neither Yazidi nor Jewish—but he is passionate about capturing the stories of the minority inhabitants, today and in earlier times, of the region. (Samuel’s name has been changed owing to the sensitive nature of his work.) Ashkenazie drops pins in consultation with Samuel to demarcate places of interest—red for cemetery, black for shrine, brown for synagogue—on the landscape of northern Iraq.

The Diarna Project is headed by Jason Guberman-Pfeffer, who is also the head of the American Sephardi Federation, and the two organizations share an office. Diarna is setting out to collect data from around the Arab world and the Sephardi diaspora, especially in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya, where the political situations are combustive and the majority, if not all, of the Jews left five or six decades ago. With nobody to look after them, landmarks are crumbling, and the people who can recall them are dying off.*

The story of a traffic roundabout in Sulaymaniyah, a city about 200 miles north of Baghdad, illustrates the point. Ashkenazie clicks and scrolls, and the screen shows a traffic circle and a road that separates a Christian cemetery from a Muslim cemetery, Samuel says. Once, locals told him, this had all been a single burial ground, and, in the middle, where the asphalt now shines, had been the Jewish section. Then Sulaymaniyah expanded, the city needed updated infrastructure, the Jews had been gone for decades, and so, locals said, Saddam Hussein’s government in the 1980s decided to build a road there. This cleaving of one cemetery into separate parts by a tyrannical regime offers a sadly apt metaphor for the region that Diarna is chronicling. One minority, the Jews, is virtually gone from Sulaymaniyah; their erasure from history, as embodied by an asphalt strip, further divides those who remain.

.Samuel sees his role as that of a steward of this erased or forgotten past: “If you don’t protect your history you can’t protect your future,” he says. “That history is getting challenged.” Challenged by the legacy of secular extremists like Hussein and by radical Islamists like ISIS, who blow up ancient ruins and upend the demography of a region that has been home to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Yet the terrible question arises: If physical traces are erased and nobody is around to recall them, are they still even part of a region’s history? That question invites scary or fatalistic answers; Diarna is fighting against that fatalism.

The organization calls itself a geo-museum, and the name, Diarna, means “Our Homes” in Judeo-Arabic. Browsers on its new website can click a pin on a map and find photos, scholarly research, and oral histories, all arranged according to geographical location. Diarna has coordinated over two dozen missions so far in Iraq, Syria, Morocco, Egypt, and elsewhere, creating an interactive online museum where the displaced can locate their family homes, and where the curious can learn a history that’s much more complex than what the conquerors allow to be written. The locals near Diarna sites might even learn about their own past: When textbooks gloss over the history of religious minorities such as Jews and Christians in a particular country, as has reportedly happened in Egypt, for example, a geo-museum is a way to circumvent the majoritarian view and present the rich, cosmopolitan tapestry of, say, Alexandria, in a clear light.

On my first visit to Diarna, I ran into the leader of a Christian organization who was looking to copy Diarna’s formula, to preserve (in code) as much as possible of Christian life in Iraq before all traces are destroyed and the Christians chased away or murdered. The same type of geo-museum would be of great use to Yazidis, who are the victims of perhaps the fiercest massacres by ISIS. Extremism across the Middle East obliterates not only contemporary peoples, but ancient ones as well. We can’t save everything, but at the very least we can try to map it.

*Update — November 18, 2016: This post has been updated to reflect the proper title of the American Sephardi Federation.