ajnabieh: The McDonalds Arch, with text in Arabic reading "ماكدونالدز مصر"/makdunaldz masr/McDonalds Egypt. (ماكدونالدز)
If you are an Egyptian who has lived or was born abroad, in the West or elsewhere, and who now lives in Egypt, I want to meet with you while I'm in Egypt! Here is why.

(If you aren't, but know someone who is, or who is doing similar research, could you please pass this on?)

project details and introducing myself )
ajnabieh: The text "My Marxist feminist dialective brings all the boys to the yard."   (Default)
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Not the best photos, but here are some of the outfits I'm bringing with me to Cairo. (That mess behind me on the piano is the rest of the clothes. Although by now they've been tucked into my suitcase.) Packing for fieldwork is an interesting process; you have the constraints of a limited wardrobe, just like any trip, while also having to be prepared for multiple occasions and, usually, at least a few presentations of self. There may also be location-specific constraints. In my case, they were:

•It is going to be hot--around 90F/32C during the day, and 75F/23C at night. So I need to pack to stay cool...but also to keep from burning to a crisp (I burn fairly easily), and to go from sweltering-outside to air-conditioned-inside. (Pretty much, this is exactly like New York City at midsummer.)

•I'm going to have to look like a professional. While I don't have my whole interview schedule lined up, a part of it is going to be with professors, people involved in politics, and other people with whom I have to present myself as a similarly positioned professional.

•I can't always look like a professional. Some of my other interviews will be with activists, students, and other people who I'll be meeting in a personal, not professional capacity. You don't wear a suit to interview activists, not if you actually want them to talk to you. So both pairs of pants I brought can be worn more casually, and I'm bringing some more relaxed t-shirts as well.

•I can't bring much. I'm traveling with one suitcase of a size that it technically fits in a carryon compartment, one very small duffel-bag-ish thing that'll actually be carryon, and my purse (which probably is larger than the duffel thing, all told). So, everything I bring has to do double duty.

•Local modesty norms. I'll say more about this below, but I had to make sure that the things I brought wouldn't make me look rude or inappropriate.

After going through this mental list and my closet a million times, here is what I settled on:

Read more... )

When I tell people I'm traveling to the Middle East for work, I always, always get questions about what I "can" wear. This is an interesting balance, because I do take the location into account when I pack, but it's also not quite like what my interlocutors mean.

modesty, identity, and fashion )

Well, I'm off to the airport in a few hours--wish me three on-time flights and no line at customs!
ajnabieh: Sign for a store reading "Hot Chick." (hot chick)
The first semester I taught, I was the TA for a class on modern Indian history. It was fun to teach--I love South Asian politics, even if it's not my main focus--but the course was challenging; it was a being taught as a general-education requirement-fulfilling course to (mainly) students in art schools, students who hadn't taken a course that required reading and writing papers since high school. They were very smart, very talented, and totally lost.

Once, while we were talking about the Indian independence movement, a student came up to me after class. She'd be asked to write about protest art in another class, one of her design classes. And she asked me, "Has there ever been a social movement that had success?"

I was momentarily struck dumb, because I had no idea how to answer the question. In the end, I talked about how we don't code a single event as a movement, but the whole long stretch of repeated protest; it's not that you hold a march and automatically get something back from it, but that over years of campaigning via different methods a change is made. I named the American civil rights movement, the Indian independence movement, and the anti-apartheid movement as good examples of successes. And I briefly considered going to the graduate teaching assistant office and laying down with a washcloth on my head until the headache went away.

I'm thinking of this today because I spent my Saturday at a protest held by Adalah-NY, one of the groups I'm studying in my fieldwork right now. Adalah-NY has been around since 2006, and is probably the most prominent group working on the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement in the city, and one of the most prominent in the US. The protest was a part of their ongoing campaign encouraging the boycott of Lev Leviev, an Israeli diamond seller. (You can read about their campaign here.) This was the third annual Valentine's Day protest at Leviev's Upper East Side store.

There have certainly been successes in the Leviev campaign, from Adalah-NY's perspective, even if he isn't out of business yet. Their actions are ongoing. How have they not run out of energy to do this campaign? Why are they still going?

I've got the answer: because their protests are fun as hell.

Come on. Doesn't that look like a good time? Wouldn't you want to be a part of that party?

What much of social movement theory misses, in my opinion, is that protesting is fun. It's social. It's loud. There's a feeling of victory in it. There's a feeling of efficacy in it. And, if an organization is good at what they do, they make it fun. At this protest, we sang songs, we chanted chants, we drank cocoa that someone brought in a thermos, we hugged people we hadn't seen in weeks, we recorded dance numbers and diamond commercials. We enjoyed ourselves. Ideology, tactics, all of this--it matters incredibly for activist groups. But at the same time? I've spent my whole weekend singing "It's apartheid so you shouldn't put a ring on it/Occupation is a crime so you must end it."
ajnabieh: Protesters in Times Square, holding a banner reading "New York To Gaza" in front of a neon McDonalds. (gaza)
I apparently have picked up a few readers! It's good to have friends with friends. I had planned to post a book review today, but in light of the fact that I have readers, I thought I'd do something a little lighter, rather than start with inside baseball. (If you didn't see my intro post, it's here.)

I work on discourse, by which I mean the ideas, concepts, and frameworks we use to understand the world around us, define it, and interpret it. One of the primary means of analyzing discourse is to work on texts: speeches, conversations, written documents, etc. However, discourse doesn't just exist in words; it also exists in symbols, images, sounds, music, and other sorts of elements to the complex patterns of human interaction. If we want to understand discourse, I believe we have to approach it broadly, and look for discursive signs in multiple formats. This is part of the reason I'm an ethnographer: I want to get a full, holistic picture of the context for any sign used in a framework, rather than have to interpret it with a set of preexisting limits.

So I spend a lot of the time I'm out in public doing my fieldwork taking photographs. Generally, they are terrible as photographs. What I'm trying to do with them is collect data: to see what of the visual information at an event I can preserve for myself, later. I'm going to start posting some of these photos, occasionally, and talking about them, to demonstrate how one gets data out of images, and to start to untangle some of the complicated information in them. Hopefully this will be interesting!

So, let's start here:

Al-Awda Protest, 27 Dec 09

This photo was taken in the middle of a demonstration organized by Al-Awda, held on 27 December 2009. The demonstration was held on the first anniversary of the Israeli bombardment of Gaza (called by Israel 'Operation Cast Lead'--more info can be found here). By this point in the demonstration, we'd rallied for an hour at Times Square, and then marched, by a long and circuitous route, to stand outside the Israeli Consulate on 2nd Avenue and 43rd St. It was a Sunday; the Consulate is in a large office building, and no one appeared to be there. Al-Awda holds the largest pro-Palestinian demonstrations in New York; its base lies in two places, first, the Arab immigrant community of Bay Ridge (and other Arab immigrant communities in the city) and, second, in the radical-left community, including the International Action Center (home to the ANSWER Coalition, which you may have heard of).

This photo is dominated by protest signs (though, between two of them, you can see a woman speaking on the stage at the front of the demo). Before we get to the actual signs themselves, I want to point out something about them--all but one of them are professionally printed. Central printing and organization of signs means several things. First: a group with a budget, resources, and time to plan their actions. Second: a group that wants to have some control over the message they send out. There's a desire to present a unified narrative of the action, and to put that narrative in the hands of as many people as possible.

Now let's actually look at the signs, starting with the one at the center of the frame. In addition to the name and contact information for the organization, there is a large graphic and then a slogan in bold print. We'll start with the image. The fist raised in struggle (hey, look, it's got a wikipedia page) is a sign that dates back at least to the black power movement (note what percentages of the images in a Google Images search for"black power" feature the fist, either as a graphic or as an action) and is used by revolutionary movements worldwide. The image behind the fist, if you don't recognize it, is a map of what's usually called "historic Palestine," meaning the territory ruled as Palestine under the British mandate, which is roughly contiguous with the territories now known as the state of Israel and the Palestinian territories. Historic Palestine is rendered in the colors and pattern of the Palestinian national flag; this symbolism here is not subtle.

The fist clutches a large key, which is the most complicated sign in the image; let me back up and take it from the top. This is a reference to the departure of Palestinians from their homes during the 1948 war between the nascent state of Israel and its neighboring states, who objected to the terms of its formation. Many Palestinians left their homes, either because of direct violence by representatives of the new Israeli state, because of fear of that violence, or because they were anxious about the situation. Many, if not all, believed that they would shortly be able to return to their homes, and, in general, brought few of their belongings, including their house keys, planning on returning back home in a few weeks. However, for those who had lived within the area that Israeli forces seized at the end of the war, they were not allowed to return, and were not compensated for their land or possessions. The key here symbolizes the desire of Palestinians to return to their homes and land within what is now the state of Israel; in fact, the name of the organization holding this rally is Al-Awda, which means "return" in Arabic (you can see it written in small print on the wrist in the image). The image of the key is repeated in the sign to the right of this central sign, where we see a photograph of an old man holding a key with the text "The Palestinian people have the right to return!"

The text beneath the image reads "Free Palestine from the River to the Sea." (The 'river' in question is the Jordan; the 'sea' the Mediterranean.) This is a common invocation. "From the river to the sea" is a way of referencing "Historic Palestine with easy geographical markers. It's also remarkably easy to rhyme in English; a major chant used at all sorts of protests goes "From the river to the sea/Palestine will be free." By referring to all this territory as Palestine, the sign makes a clear statement against the legitimacy of the state of Israel; Palestine needs to be free, and it isn't because it is Israel.

Stepping away from this sign, I want to point very briefly to a few of the other things we see going on in this picture. First, the other signs; the other one about return is by the Break the Siege on Gaza coalition, whose largest member is Al-Awda; the two groups are basically contiguous. The "End all U.$. Aid to Racist Israel" sign is from the International Action Center, though you can't read the name well. The hand-written sign in the upper left, which was a large illustrated sign, also has another organizational URL written on it (you can see just the end). The existence of these other signs, with other messages on them, are designed to gesture to a broader coalition of groups; having multiple identifications suggests that the group objecting to the decision isn't either one single (dismissible) organization or the two hundred (unusual) people who are standing with the signs, but instead a larger, amorphous, and potentially more powerful grouping with multiple bases. The messaging on all these signs, however, is remarkably congruent, which suggests either that the protest was collectively planned by all the groups, who decided on joint messaging, or that the groups share political perspectives fairly tightly.

Looking at the picture, what strikes me as someone who was at the rally is the amount of data that is missing. I only see one woman in hijab, who is also the only person in frame (in addition to the woman on stage) wearing a kuffiyeh, but this strikes me as an atypical frame; I'd say there wre probably 20-30 women, including teenage girls, wearing hijab at the demonstration (which probably had 200-250 people), and at least 50 people wearing kuffiyehs or kuffiyeh print. (If you don't know much about the kuffiyeh, Ted Swedenberg is an anthropologist studying its dispersion into American pop culture; here is an article where he talks about them. In this context, they're being worn as a sign of solidarity with Palestinian resistance movements.)

And, of course, there's all the non-visual data that's being missed: the attention of the passersby to our spectacle; the mutter of people talking to each other while, on stage, speakers yell into microphones; the endless rhythmic procession of an entire mass of people chanting along. You can't tell that many of these signs had been used at another demo six months before; you can't tell that the speakers belong to the same set of groups; you can't get the sense that the crowd has all been here and done this before. While using images to collect data is important, they can't be read alone, or without attention to what's missing or invisible in them.
ajnabieh: Protesters in Times Square, holding a banner reading "New York To Gaza" in front of a neon McDonalds. (gaza)
It's amazing how much changing fieldwork sites can alter one's experience of "doing fieldwork."

When I started writing this blog in September, I was just ending the phase of my fieldwork in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, working as a volunteer at the Arab-American Association of New York. The eight months I spent there were both a lot of fun, and very productive for my research agenda. Although I don't yet have a published account of my research there to link to, I will say that I both developed contacts in the community that have been helpful since, and constructed a (I think) strong argument about the work that discourses around education do in order to create a notion of community among recent Arab immigrants. Since I've ended that fieldwork, I've moved into a phase where I am concentrating on political movements in solidarity with Palestinians, advocating for justice and Palestinian rights; the two groups I'm focusing on are Adalah-NY and Al-Awda, both of whose names you may have heard of if you are in the NYC leftist activist circuit. I'm still in the midst of these fieldsites, and don't anticipate moving away from them at any point in the next few months.

Despite the fact that I'm in the same general fieldsite (New York's Arab communities) and that I'm probably doing the same number of hours per week of fieldwork if it's averaged out, I've noticed that the difference in the activities I'm doing in the field have changed the way fieldwork fits into my life. At the AAA, I was teaching a class or volunteering in a program. I showed up once or twice (or occasionally three times) a week, at an appointed time. I stayed for 2 hours or so (more during the summer youth program), and worked on a program that was specified. I often had leadership roles (as teacher or camp counselor) and had to coordinate my activities with others, including AAA staff, my fellow volunteers, and the participants in the programs. All my work was done during the daytime, and in Brooklyn--not near to my home, but not that far, either.

In my activism fieldwork, on the other hand, I attend an organizational meeting once every two weeks, for two hours, in the evening, in Manhattan. Apart from that, however, my schedule varies wildly from week to week. Sometimes I have conference calls in the evening with other members of the group. Sometimes I have projects to finish up on my own, that I've volunteered for at meetings. (In deference to my status as researcher, I've tried to take tasks where I would be involved in following directions, rather than developing plans; but, as most ethnographers know, participant-observation is a messy business.) Sometimes I have a protest or event to go to from one group or the other. Sometimes I have two protests a week, or occasionally three. Events are often long in duration. At public events, I'm usually an audience member: a participant in a protest, an audience member at a lecture, even a mostly-silent attender at meetings. One week, I might be out of the house for a total of ten to fifteen hours of active fieldwork; another week; it might be five; another week, it might be zero.

Moving to a much less structured fieldwork situation has made it difficult to keep myself bound to "proper" ethnographic structures. I find that my fieldnotes are often messier; since more of what I do is done in the evenings, and since more of it lasts for more that 2 hours, I'm much more likely to be moving from jottings to real notes the next day, rather than immediately after. In particularly busy weeks, some of my notes never make it past jottings; I've also been known to annotate meeting minutes, rather than write up my own fieldnotes in their entirety. It's also made it more difficult to have a regular schedule of working, writing, and reading--in particular because I've been teaching while I've been doing this fieldwork. I find that this new, less structured fieldwork has made doing fieldwork, and dissertation-writing, much more difficult overall. (It's also had effects on my personal life; it's put more stress on my wife to care for our son (now fifteen-months) when I'm out for long stretches, and also added a lot of unpredictability to my schedule that makes planning her schedule more difficult.)

Now, this post is at least in part an excuse for why this blog took an unscheduled hiatus from October through February. But I'm also interested in the methodological level here. I'm somewhat unusual as a dissertating ethnographer, I think, in that my fieldwork is deliberately part-time, long-term, and being combined, temporally, with the writing process. The norm as I understand it is, say, six months to a year spent in the field doing nothing but "being in the field," that is, conducting research with no other binding projects. Obviously most researchers' practice varies from that ideal-type description in one way or another. But what differences do these variations make in the type of data that we collect? How does moving from a highly structured ethnographic plan into a less structured one affect what we collect, and how we collect it? I don't yet have answers, but I think this is a question that ethnographers need to think about as we gather data in different settings and then hope to compare it.


ajnabieh: The text "My Marxist feminist dialective brings all the boys to the yard."   (Default)
Ajnabieh - The Foreigner

March 2016

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