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ISEK - Institut für Sozialanthropologie und Empirische Kulturwissenschaft Ethnologie


Keynote Speech

The Country of Anthropologists: Creativity, Imagination, and Nation-State Power

This talk explores the proposition that anthropology is a country created by anthropologists in order to better apprehend and overcome the challenge of doing anthropology in and on the Middle East. Analyzing anthropology as a country helps us better historicize this predicament, to connect issues that often seem disconnected, and to cultivate our imaginations so as to creatively engage with the challenge.

Prof. Dr. Jessica Winegar (Northwestern University, Evanston)

Panel 1: The Analytical Value Of Fieldwork Constraints

"The violence we live in": Reading and Experiencing Violence in the Field

Based on research on the humanitarian knowledge practices of violence, trauma and the politics of suffering in Lebanon, the author explores in this article what an ethnography of living-in-violence can offer to our understanding and conceptualization of violence. The author shows the need to theorize critically the experience of living- in-violence in relation to dominant portrayals of violence as an experience of encounter. Reading violence in conflict sites is the work of experts who encounter violence ‘in the field’ (like humanitarian workers, ethnographers, psychologists and military personnel/fighters) as well as communities who live in violence. However, the work of reading violence in the everyday serves to delineate the conditions of possibility for liveability and precariousness. It also serves to normalize experiences of certain kinds of violence while others are produced as traumatic. Drawing from several ethnographic moments and writings on violence, the author asks in this article: How can ethnography capture the experience of living-in-violence? And what is its analytical importance? How can an ethnography of reading violence help us make sense of different experiences of violence as distinct forms of knowledge production?

Dr. Lamia Moghnieh (EUME, Berlin)

Facing the (Fear of) al-Mukhabarat: Toward Paranoiac Modes of Inquiry and Creative Understanding in Paranoiac Fields

Based on descriptions of a face-to-face encounter with the Jordanian Mukhabarat, I reflect on the implications as well potentials of paranoia as integral parts of the fieldwork experience in so-called paranoiac fields. I take these to be field sites characterized by social tensions, reluctance to be politically outspoken, and thus by worries and experiences of fear and paranoia among people in the everyday. Instead of perceiving paranoia as an obstacle to qualitative research practices, I argue for actively employing unsettling emotions during fieldwork as an epistemic partner (Holmes and Marcus 2008), giving access to intimate parts of our interlocutors everyday experiences in paranoiac fieldsites. Creatively and actively employing our personal experiences becomes a way to connect lifeworlds, allowing us as ethnographers to critically and continuously address significant yet often silenced aspects of our interlocutors’ everyday lives. Thus, emotions, in this case paranoia, in the field constitute pathways for ways of practicing alternative forms of participant observation in fields characterized by political instability.

Emilie Lund Mortensen (University of Aarhus)

Manoeuvring Across Suspicion: Secrecy, Conspiracies, and Ethnographic Praxis in Contemporary Turkey

Drawing on experiences from my field research among nationalist communities in northeastern Turkey, this article explores the impact of changing socio-political dynamics on anthropological research and analysis. It focuses on how secrecy and suspicion/paranoia both hinder anthropological endeavours and extend their limits through disclosing liminal experiences and forcing the researcher to dynamically trace socio-political phenomena that might otherwise get overlooked. Advocating reflexivity in ethnographic writing through which the experiences of the researcher is integrated into the analysis, the text discusses how such studies might open up new dimensions of subjectivities and the different modalities through which subjects relate to power.

Dr. Erol Saǧlam (Stockholm University)

Panel 2: Reassessing Methods of Inquiry

Voices Beyond Tasteless Interviews: Tea, Memory, and Rumors

May 2016: I met a Kurdish lawyer in his Istanbul office, where he requested rather uneasily to go outside to talk. As we walked to a teahouse nearby, I assumed he was concerned about security; a well-known human rights lawyer was recently assassinated in Diyarbakir. He explained that his tea kettle was broken: “It would have been a tasteless interview.”

April 2015: Local journalists, activists, family members huddled over cups of tea against the cold wind, gossiping about the Turkish prosecutor’s shiny patent-leather shoes in the raw Dersim countryside. Soldiers blocked their view of the forensic team in the distance, conducting the first court-ordered exhumation of a mass grave from the 1937-38 massacres. From this position, their experience of “facing the past” was observing manual labor in the “field,” like farming, construction—or looting, as a villager added: “Everybody knew” about “Armenian treasures” and the extent of “archaeological skills” in the region.

This paper draws from research on post-conflict justice in Turkey, to theorize tea conversations as “deep hanging out” (Geertz 2000, 107-110) in the Middle East. Intimate-yet-public conversations over tea connect interpretive gaps between otherwise disparate series of events, or random pieces of collected information. In teahouses, enunciative positions of speech are displaced, collectivized, made temporary. Tea conversations are too circumstantial to be interviews; they do not seek the systematic extraction of data from authoritative sources. I demonstrate how they can be useful in incorporating rumors as a narrative voice in ethnographies of violence and collective memory.

Hande Sarikuzu (Binghamton University)

Here and There: Doing Fieldwork in Algerian Saharian Zones

Doing research fieldwork in the Algerian Sahara has become risky for researchers and their interlocutors. While the region was in the past the space par excellence for ethnographers, the present situation, triggered by the fall of Gaddafi, the Tuareg contestation, and the Islamists’ presence in Mali, Niger, and Southern Algeria, on one hand, and by the emergence of popular protests in Algerian Sahara, on the other hand, has transformed any inquiry into a long and difficult enterprise. While the former represent real threats to Algerian sovereignty, the latter have prompted the political regime to enforce military repressive power to silence them. My paper focuses on the description of different strategies to collect information and document protest movements in three Southern Algerian sites. I argue that those strategies cannot pretend at replacing the depth of long-standing ethnographic work, but also interrogate the adequacy of a lasting presence of the researcher when long dormant and “still” moments characterize these protest movements. I also argue that the ecology of each movement (group formations, kindship, community organization, relations to the “center,” multinational interests, etc.) and security measures orient the fieldwork and research questions. To demonstrate my argument, I will explore two sites I accessed with a third one with which I had little access due to a very heavy military presence and direct threat. The analysis of the latter site allows me to mention the use of other “techniques,” such telephone, skype and, more importantly Facebook, and to analyze their relevance for what I call the “intermittent presence of the researcher.”

Prof. Dr. Ratiba Hadj-Moussa (York University, Toronto)

Peace and War: An on and Off Relationship with the Field

The political atmosphere in a country is significant for the social science researchers since it affects the production of the knowledge from the first day of the research to the end of it. The research might also affect the later life trajectory of the researcher if s/he touched upon a political issue that is relevant for that country and not welcomed by the ruling classes in terms of not fitting with the official ideology and etc. Compared to two sociologists, İsmail Beşikçi and Pınar Selek who almost paid lifelong on the topics they were interested in, I was considering myself lucky during my master years and early PhD days in Turkey (between 2007-2012) in terms of being in the field in the South Eastern part of Turkey and working in different research projects in different cities of Kurdistan with my qualified and turkified Kurdish identity thanks to the on-going peace processes between Turkish Government and PKK in 2000s. The peace atmosphere in Turkey did not only make Kurdish issue to be a topic to discuss, it also opened the region to the researchers which has brought a visible interest in Kurdish studies in the last two decades, which I was considering myself in also.

Lately, I got an acceptance from University of Zürich and leave my PhD education at Middle East Technical University in Ankara to work in a project called ‘Development and Trust in the Upper Mesopotamia’, fitting well with my research interests already. I conducted fourteen months of ethnographic research for my PhD dissertation between 2013-2014 in Hasankeyf and completed my research without having any problem in terms of access and staying in the field. Around these times, peace was like an air that one can smell that everyone was thankful for the silencing of the guns in the everyday life, making millions of Kurds to come together during highly political Newroz celebrations. In short, I was feeling like I was part of a historical moment during those days, in which people were hoping that peace was becoming perpetual soon. However, and unfortunately, the political picture began to change after (6-8 October) Kobane uprisings in 2014 and -for sure- after Suruç Massacre (21 July 2015) resulted with breaking of ceasefire and peace process in general. The friendly peaceful atmosphere has gone, and it has replaced itself with countrywide extra ordinary state of emergency days after so called 15 of July ‘coup attempt’ in 2016.

This presentation deals with the contrast between ‘the good old times’ and today’s Turkey political instability, in which it has become ‘risky’ to go and conduct a fieldwork in the South-Eastern part of Turkey. The temporality of the fieldwork will be examined in an assemblage to the political turbulences the country is in for a while. And so much the contrast between war and peace times understood, this presentation will be reaching its goal.

Mustafa Akcınar (UZH)

Panel 3: Reinventing Methods for Violent Contexts

Henceforth No Privilege; No Refuge

This paper begins by reflecting upon the experience of the author during his first field work in Morocco in 1985, taking as a case-study his being kidnapped by mountain Berbers to become part of a drug-smuggling ring, and the subsequent way that this situation was retrieved. It argues that eventually it was possible to continue because of two underlying factors; the maintenance of some kind of system of law, and – as Bourdieu has stressed so famously when writing of his North African research – that there is a certain privilege, an asymmetrical relationship, that operates as a kind of a default position implicit within which is the possibility of an interrogative stance. Today, neither of these enabling factors are necessarily operative. In seeking alternative ways to ensure the possibility of fieldwork, it is suggested that the romantic ideal of the lone fieldworker exploring freely will have to be abandoned from two points of view. Rather than working alone, we will have to be resigned to working in transnational groups with much more thought-through research protocols, design, execution and dissemination than before, so that knowledge becomes created through a shared experience rather than the privilege of any one, immersed observer. Additionally, we will have to revisit our ethical guidelines, now well developed in terms of being sensitive to the context of fieldwork, so as to incorporate much more strongly the preparation and development of agreed plans to implement in the event of the research encountering a problem or emergency. Research will have to change and become in some ways less serendipitous, but I believe still often possible.

Dr. David Shankland (Royal Anthropological Institute)

Finding Ways to Work in Yemen: A Plea for Engaged Scholarship

In this paper I will present and discuss the various ways in which I continue to conduct anthropological research about Yemen, a country that is involved in a full-fledged war. Reflecting on these different methods I discern a gradual shift, which I attribute to the responsibility I feel as a scholar to engage with my field, even when it has become inaccessible. I make a plea for an engaged scholarship, in which we use our expertise and knowledge to fight injustice, bring about change and work towards peace. I argue that anthropologists have the responsibility to use their understanding to contextualize political analyses, human rights reports, newspaper articles and the like in order to show that the everyday experiences, hardships and struggles of ordinary Yemenis matter within the larger framework of geopolitical interests, regional, national and local conflicts, and military strategies. I will present a recent research project about gender, resilience and peacebuilding. In this project we use story-telling as a method to support Yemeni women, protect them and their families from violence, promote their participation in peace negotiations, and document and bring to justice gender based violence. Projects like this are examples of engaged scholarship in which anthropologists can put their knowledge and expertise at use in order to lessen violence and suffering and encourage social and political change.

Prof. Dr. Marina de Regt (Vrije Universiteit Amesterdam)

Combat-Zone Ethnography and Staying Alive in Iraq and Syria

The challenge of ‘frontline anthropology’ (Hoffman 2003) or what I call combat- zone ethnography is entangled into finding an access, managing the access, sustaining the access and finally keeping yourself alive. Each of these steps overlaps with each other and it is difficult to think of one without another. However, there is one question that comes before everything else and shapes the anthropological-existential lens that one would look at those steps through it.

‘Why am I doing this and how does it make sense to me to do this’ is the primary question that every anthropologist should ask before even dreaming of frontlines and combat-zones. Defining the researchers’ position and stepping to the realm where ‘the self, cut[s] loose from its attachments’ (Clifford 1981) determine how the field is accessed and how much of that access can shape the ways of seeing and the ways of writing. Therefore, the possibility of combat-zone ethnographic research, choosing modes of such inquiry and finally articulating it fall into why an anthropologist should risk it all and pursue ethnography in the conflict ridden region.

Positionality of an anthropologist or in other words the politics that inform any scholastic perception toward the Middle East must be the first step before everything else. The necessity of positionality-before-everything rises since anthropology and anthropologists have been embedded for military purposes (see McFate 2015, Laurence 2015) in the name of engaged sciences and human terrain systems.

Owing to these concepts, I draw from my experiences of conducting research in Lebanon along Hezbollah resistance movement, Iraqi Shia Militia fighting ISIS and finally Iranian volunteer combatants deployed in Syria. I unpack how positionality influences the ways of my access and how I select to maintain, sustain and manage my encounters in the combat-zone where a simple mistake can end it all. Finally, I share how my writings are shaped when I write far away from the fire and fury in safety while my informants are beheaded or killed.

Dr. Younes Saramifar (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam)

Panel 4: Institutional Uncertainties and the Circulation of Anthropological Knowledge

Ethnographic Practice in Iran: Politics and Precarity

In a country such as Iran, which the politics permeate all aspects of the social‐ and the most part of the private‐ life; ethnographic research always has political implications. Especially the researches on the topics such as ethnicity, religion, social problems, and sexuality, which might critically address the official policies, are considered sensitive and require a cautious approach. This situation not only affects the funding, but also the subject of the research as well as writing style, publication, and the relation between the ethnographer and his interlocutors. Because of a chronic suspicious attitude towards the foreigners, the situation becomes even more complicated when the foreign researchers are involved. It is easy to view ethnographic practice on sensitive topics as a matter of state prohibition, on the one hand, and resistance, on the other hand; however, this view is rather simplistic. In fact, the state authorities tolerate the transgression of the “unwritten laws of prohibition” as far as the ethnography does not overtly question the nodal points of the politically dominant discourse and does not appear in the public sphere. In other words, the ethnographers enjoy a degree of permissiveness. Nonetheless, as the right of investigation is always reserved for the authorities, this permissiveness paradoxically results in anxiety and precarity. This article will discuss the above‐mentioned matters through the author’s experience of ethnographic studies on sensitive topics, supervising local and foreign students, as well as his experience as a convener.

Prof. Dr. Mehrdad Arabestani (University of Tehran)

Fieldwork and Writing in Unpredictable Political Environments: The Case of the Turkish-Armenian Rapprochement and the So-Called Kurdish Opening

In this paper, I will discuss the consequences of the instability and unpredictability of the political environment on ethnographic research and writing in Turkey. In particular, I will focus on the contrast between the seeming opening of the public during early AKP (Justice and Development Party) rule and its gradual closing following the Gezi Park protests of summer 2013, the gains of the HDP (People’s Democratic Party) in the June 2015 elections, and particularly since the coup attempt of July 15, 2016. The early 2000s was a highly productive period for social science research in Turkey. The creation of new private universities, an increase of interest in research on Turkey by foreign academics, and the growing number of local and foreign graduate students in the field resulted in many workshops, conferences and publications in and on Turkey. At the time of the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement in 2009, I directed an oral history project on remembering Armenians in Turkey as part of an international project, “Adult Education and Oral History Contributing to Armenian-Turkish Reconciliation.” During the so-called Kurdish opening, I directed an internationally funded oral history project, “Young People Speak Out: The Contribution of Oral History to Facing the Past, Reconciliation and Democratization in Turkey.” In both cases, the political context changed rapidly subsequent to field research. Using specific examples, I will discuss the challenges of working with a multimedia archive to create written and other products (website, exhibition, film) in an unpredictable and increasingly hostile political environment.

Prof. Dr. Leyla Neyzi (Sabanci University, Istanbul)

Doing Feminist Ethnography at a Pakistani University: Possibilities and Challenges

This paper foregrounds the politics and polemics faced by an indigenous feminist researcher in today’s Pakistan beset by challenges of religious extremism. It throws light on some of the challenges involved in carrying out feminist ethnography in state institutions through presenting a case study. As an indigenous ethnographer, I carried out research on women who studied feminist theories and texts as part of their research degrees in English Literature, towards which people have an ambivalent attitude. On the one hand, English is aspired to as an international language of power and prestige while on the other, hated as bearer of Western ideologies. Reflecting on my experiences and everyday struggles as an indigenous feminist educator/ethnographer who faced accusations of blasphemy, loss of job, defamation and threats to my life, I argue that the patriarchal discourses on religion, law and morality –sanctioned by state and society–do not only impede feminist epistemology and praxis within this context, but also lead to the curtailment of general academic freedoms.

Prof. Dr. Shirin Zubair (Kinnaird College for Women, Lahore)

Panel 5: Positionalities in Inquiry and Writing

Becoming an Involved Outsider and a Temporal Insider: The Impact of Rumours, Fears and Solidarity in Fieldwork in Times of Political Turmoil (Southern Yemen)

My fieldwork took place in Southern Yemen at a time when this region was marked by insecurity, prosecutions and detentions. As a fieldworker, I was challenged by a context best described as political turmoil on the verge of war. The fact that my paternal family lives in Southern Yemen facilitated access to the field, but also complicated the fieldwork experience, as I found myself closely bound to the society I was trying to understand and to the politics at play. My position as an involved outsider and a temporal insider [cf. Hermann, T. (2001). The impermeable identity wall: The study of violent conflicts by ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. In M. Smyth & G. Robinson (Eds.), Researching violently divided societies: Ethical and methodological issues (pp. 77–91). London: Pluto Press., p. 79] defined the scope of my research on Southern Yemen and the Southern Movement. Using an autoethnographic approach, and based on three personal experiences from my visits and fieldwork in Southern Yemen in recent years, this article describes, reflects and analyses how rumours, fear and solidarity in a dangerous fieldwork setting affected my position as researcher, the choice of my research topic, access to the field and acquisition of data.

Dr. des. Anne-Linda Amira Augustin (Philipps-University Marburg/Academic Forum Muhammad Ali Luqman)

Doing Anthropology in the Fields of Religion, Law and Medicine in Iran: Challenges, Lessons and Other Thoughts

In an attempt to discuss my anthropological engagement with an ‘Islamic tradition’, this paper explores the particularity and importance of anthropological fieldwork in producing knowledge about contemporary bioethical issues and their implications.

In Iran, the legal regulation of biomedical issues has emerged within and across a variety of institutions, particularly involving medical, legal and religious scholars.For more than a decade, much of my research has been an attempt to understand and examine the social, legal and ethical aspects of the development and implementation of bioethical issues such as reproductive technologies in Iran, where legal reasoning and decision-making regarding these issues are mainly informed by Shia Islamic normative tradition of juridical discourse (fiqh). My methodology was based on a combination of extensive ethnographic fieldwork and textual analysis of important academic and religious seminary publications in Iran, from Shia jurisprudence (fiqh) and Persian historiy to the analysis of laws and verdicts.

Within a challenging context of many political and economic changes and upheavals in Iran, I want to argue in this article that my anthropological approach was more of a conversation (s) with and an attempt to understand a tradition of Islam rather than recounting it as objective phenomena. These conversations, which were mostly carried out with scholars of law, jurisprudence, theology and medicine, have greatly contributed to my understanding of Islamic jurisprudence on one side and to the development of my own thinking on the other side. Of course, these conversations and encounters have not always been coupled with mutual understanding and cooperation, and they have had their own challenges and obstacles that I will address in this article.

Dr. Shirin Naef

Panel 6: Managing Surveillance

Protecting the Confidentiality of Surveilled and Well-Connected Research Subjects: The Case of Turkish and Syrian Media Workers

This paper discusses protecting the anonymity of subjects of an ethnographic study of new making in Turkey conducted from 2014-2016. The study investigated the careers, roles and strategies of “fixers,” local interpreters and guides who assist foreign journalists. Given the targeting of media workers in Syria’s civil war and their prosecution in Turkey, I had serious concerns that insufficient anonymization of data would expose informants to physical or legal harm.

The fact that informants were media workers presented particular challenges: first, the work described in the study yielded publicly findable news stories; second, subjects had widespread and powerful social connections, and their colleagues and sources were aware of their work. Describing media workers producing particular stories would risk unmasking them. Yet excluding such detailed data and limiting my account to general findings would impoverish its ethnographic insights.

Based on these concerns, I developed a method of remixing real data into composite character narratives. Even if a reader could identify an individual at one moment of the ethnography, the unmasker could not then deductively attribute all other actions of that character to that same research subject. The paper weighs this protective benefit against possible costs—namely, the potential for misrepresentation arising from the fictionalizing process—and describes methodological innovations designed to mitigate such problems.

Dr. Noah Arjomand (Columbia University, New York)

The Anthropology of Zakat in Conflict Zones: Researching Muslim Giving in a Securitized Field of Knowledge

This paper discusses possible roles for anthropology in producing knowledge on contemporary zakat practices. Zakat is the Muslim obligation to give away part of one’s wealth to people in need. In the past decades, zakat funds started to be sent from wealthier places to conflict zones. This has caught the attention of security experts and political scientists focusing on such questions: Do certain political movements—or “terrorist organizations”—benefit from zakat distributions in poor neighbourhoods? Studies pursuing such questions have given rise to a securitized field of knowledge where published information can have consequences in court rooms and be used to make donors of institutions channelling zakat and other forms of Muslim giving liable for “supporting terrorism”.

The securitization of knowledge makes it difficult for anthropologists to maintain a clear separation from intelligence-gathering. Keeping up this difference, however, is both an ethical requirement and a condition for being able to do ethnographic work emerging from the social relations of the researcher in a given field context. In my own research on zakat in the Palestinian territories, I dealt with this issue as this: First, I published research on the different local perspectives on the role of zakat institutions in Arabic and discussed findings with different audiences in the occupied territories. Second, I conducted long-term fieldwork producing anonymized ethnographic accounts of how a community facing political repression takes care of poor people. Moving away from the focus on politics allowed me to describe the ethical and moral landscape within which zakat unfolds as an everyday practice. In this sense, an anthropological perspective helps bringing the wider scholarly debates on zakat as a “security threat” more down to earth.

Dr. Emanuel Schaeublin (UZH)

Strategies of Survival: Navigating Kabul’s Money Bazaars

This paper considers the strategies employed when conducting research in a war-torn environment amongst a potentially dangerous subset of actors. The paper focuses on a 10- month period during which I conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Kabul, Afghanistan, to understand the operations of the central money exchange bazaar. Kabul’s money exchangers (sarafs) are a little understood group of actors who play a crucial role supporting the economy. Money exchangers are able to provide a variety of financial services where banks fall short. This paper focuses on the challenges and strategies that I employed in gaining access to their world. Afghanistan’s world of money exchanging is rife with uncertainty and dangers, and a researcher may be an easy target for nefarious characters. I focus on three strategies that I employed to mitigate the dangers associated with my fieldwork. First, I built my own personal ‘community’ of trusted individuals who I relied upon to help navigate my various field-sites. Understanding the role of my community, variations in intensity amongst its members, and its limitations were crucial for me to gain access to interviewees. Secondly, I recognized that different contexts entailed different types of dangers, and thus planned accordingly. My research entailed two levels of danger: living in Kabul and operating in the money bazaar – a place deeply entangled with criminal gangs, black money, and corrupt officials. Finally, I addressed the unpredictability of attacks and other dangers in Kabul by maintaining an irregular schedule, including unannounced visits and gathering data from multiple sites.

Nafay Choudhury (King’s College, London)