“Eres mi fortuna y mi oro.”
– Mi Tesoro, Zion y Lennox ft. Nicky Jam
I was wandering through the Old Town of Riga one gloomy, rainy December mid-day, looking for a map shop my Airbnb hosts had recommended. After nearly half an hour of walking in the rain, I finally found it — a beautiful, well-preserved house with a charming wooden façade painted red. I entered the shop with great anticipation.
I was very pleased, within minutes of entering the establishment, to discover beautiful reprints of antique maps of the Baltic region from as early as the 16th century. I knew then that I was not going to leave the shop empty-handed. What I did not expect at all was that when I’d placed all the five maps I wanted to pay for on the counter, the shop attendant pulled me in closer and asked, almost conspiratorially, “I have something that might interest you. It’s top-secret.”
“Oh?” I said, intrigued, but quite unsure of what to make of this new development.
“I have old Soviet military maps I sell. If you’re interested, I can show you. Where are you from?”
“Okay. I show you.”
He procured the map (pictured above) from the digital archive on his computer, and I was fascinated to see my hometown — Бату Пахат — written in Cyrillic, and to see the surrounding towns and cities represented in the same script. Immediately I knew that I would be bringing this baby home too. Knowing that he had a massive archive of such maps, I then asked him to look up all the other cities I’d lived in — Конакри (Conakry), Аккра (Accra), even Камбридж (Cambridge). He found them, and I took them all.
I asked the man how he came to have these original Soviet maps, and he said that after the fall of the USSR, the Soviets had left behind 13 train carriages full of maps from their records — maps of literally every corner of the world that did not escape their gaze. It took them a year to catalogue these maps and to create a digital archive of everything before they could begin selling them — rather discreetly, and to select customers, it seems. Every map marked where a military or airforce base was situated — clearly these cartographical tools played a significant military role back in the days. As a map collector and enthusiast, I was certainly impressed by the depth and breadth of the Soviets’ cartographical knowledge and global surveillance. I suppose this — besides my current preoccupation with Russian classical literature — was another reason why I learned to read Cyrillic, and to hopefully bridge into the actual Russian language itself one day.
My obsession with antique maps taught me something about myself I had not quite realized before: my fascination with people as an anthropologist is inextricable from the places where they come from. Whenever I meet someone, I will not rest in the first few minutes until I could anchor this person to a physical place of origin, or to a point on the map. I must know where they are from — not simply the country, but also the very city where they were born, grew up in, or had lived for a long time. If I’d lived in the same city, I would even insist on knowing which part of the city they claim attachments too. Every time I meet a Parisian, for example, the question that follows is always, “Et quel arrondissement?”
This might seem nosy to some people, but I’m afraid I can’t help it. I learned this from my own mother — a teacher who always insisted on the extraction of detailed, accurate information from our interlocutors. From my father, I perhaps inherited a nomadic spirit with the proclivity to wander from country to country, and coast to coast. When held in a particular place for too long, I feel physically arrested, and my life force — what we Malays call “semangat” — weakens considerably. This is hardly surprising considering my paternal ancestors were supposedly Bugis people from the islands of Sulawesi, who were known for being pirates in the Strait of Malacca. Knowing this side of my heritage, so many things about myself started to make sense, but this is perhaps a story for another time…