Occupational Hazards: Palestine Ethnography

Essay Excerpt

One of the first days after I had moved to Nablus, in November 1984, I had an experience that has now become a daily routine for Israeli settlers in the West Bank. I was driving downtown, when suddenly, bam! the car shook under the impact of a heavy blow to its side. A Palestinian youth, whom I never saw, had darted out of an alley, hurled a large stone, and rapidly vanished. He only man-aged, luckily, to put a large dent above my gas cap and did not break the wind-shield, the usual goal of hurled stones. I guess he singled out my car as a target from all the others on that busy street because its yellow license plates and my appearance led him to believe I was an Israeli settler. (As the holder of a tourist visa, I had to register my car in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, so its yellow plates stood out amidst the distinctive blue-plated vehicles driven by West Bank Palestinians.) I was so shaken that I was ready to give up fieldwork and go straight home. My immediate thought was that I, of all people, should never have been stoned. After all, unlike those other Westerners one saw in the West Bank-the settlers, tourists, and embassy officials-I was a good foreigner, working in the best interests of the Palestinians. My response was typical of a mentality I shared with other Westerners who worked as teachers, journalists, or researchers in the occupied territories and sympathized with the Palestinians. This was a frame of mind that I shared but also, in calmer moments, criticized. We "good foreigners" practiced constant rituals of self-purification, designed to guarantee that we-unlike the settlers, tourists, and diplomats-were partof the Palestinian community. We spoke Arabic, dressed modestly (no shorts, low-cut blouses or wild haircuts), avoided tourist haunts, rarely ventured into Israel proper and, whenever possible, purchased Palestinian rather than Israeli products. We were often more obsessive about these latter practices than our Palestinian friends. My point is not that these actions were incorrect, but that in somuchas they demonstrated our radical difference from "other" Westerners, they allowed us to disavow our real connections to the centers of power. (Swedenburg, 265)

About the Author

Dr. Swedenburg is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Arkansas. 

Dr. Swedenburg received his Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from the University of Texas in 1988. His dissertation, a study of popular memories of the 1936-39 revolt in Palestine, involved interviewing elderly peasants living in Palestinian villages in the Galilee and the West Bank. He taught at the University of Washington -Seattle between 1988 and 1991, and at the American University in Cairo from 1992 to 1996. He joined the University of Arkansas in 1996.Dr. Swedenburg's recent research focuses on popular music. He is currently working on a book manuscript, tentatively titledSounds from the Interzone, that deals with "border" musics of the Middle East as well as Middle Eastern-inflected musics of the West. He has done research and presented papers on Franco-Algerian rai music, "Islamic" African-American rap, and Mizrahi dance music in Israel. His most recent fieldwork has been on the popular music of Nubians in Egypt.Dr. Swedenburg teaches courses on the Middle East, race and ethnicity, gender, and public culture. He is on the editorial committee of Middle East Report, and is actively involved with the King Fahd Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies in the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences.

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