Conversation on the Egyptian Revolution: Fieldwork in Revolutionary Times

Has living through the revolution impacted on your thinking about anthropology? Has it changed your work as an anthropologist?  What aspects of the ongoing revolution and your positionality in this process are shaping your thinking about anthropology, its practice and/or its theoretical models?  How so?

Living through the revolution has definitely impacted the ways in which I think about anthropological practice, specifically the ways in which anthropologists have traditionally disseminated knowledge. Going into Tahrir during the uprising, I always carried with me a mini-camera that I used to film the different actions, speeches and events taking place in the Square. Perhaps like most other Tahrir-going Egyptians also capturing on their personal cameras various moments of the 18-day uprising, my aim in filming was just to create a personal record of these historic events. However, the more time I spent in the Square, the more I began to see that I could use the footage I was capturing to intervene in what has been for far too long a dominant narrative about women living in Muslim societies. I wanted to say something –something quite simple really – about women and their participation in the revolution and I felt the best way to do this would be through the very medium that galvanized many of these women to take to the streets in the first place – moving images.

So I edited from the footage I shot a short three-minute video and posted it online.  I didn’t at all anticipate the very positive response it would get: over 7,000 hits on Vimeo and Youtube, requests from both college and high-school teachers in the US to show it in their classrooms and have me Skype-in to talk about it, and emails from viewers who told me the video made them rethink their assumptions about the types of actions “possible” for veiled Muslim women, and so on.

The point I want to make is that if I had opted to make this intervention through the historically authoritative fora of anthropological knowledge – the peer-reviewed journal article, for example – the “impact” (however problematic that term may be) of what I was trying to say would have been very limited, if non-existent, especially given my status as a graduate student.  What this experience made very clear to me, then, is that I need to make use of non-traditional forms of knowledge dissemination (videos, blogs, and, why not, tweets, Facebook posts, and so on) if I am serious about reaching a broader audience. I am not saying that the academic article doesn’t have its place – it certainly does and it will continue to define the parameters of how authoritative knowledge gets constructed and transmitted within the discipline – but this fact in and of itself should not devalue other ways of making knowledge public, especially if anthropology is to really be “engaged.” The many popular blogs and e-magazines run and written by anthropologists for a broad audience is a testament to the fact that more and more of us are looking to such means to publish about the societies or issues we research. At the same time, however, existing rubrics of review and institutionalized standards of achievement need to change in the direction of acknowledging and rewarding such forms of knowledge production to incentivize early-career scholars to actually put the time and effort necessary to produce them.

How does your anthropological work shape your political and institutional work in Egypt and vice-versa?

Even before the revolution, of course, being a “native anthropologist” presented its own set of challenges. In my ongoing fieldwork with very pious, mostly male, Islamic media producers, I have found that I am held to a certain normative standard of what is appropriate for a Muslim Egyptian woman in terms of belief, dress and comportment. If I fail to live up to this standard, this may be taken as an indication of a lack of proper religious formation, or worse, “commitment,” on my part. Such a commitment would not, of course, be expected of a “foreign” researcher. 

During the revolution, this positionality played out in different ways.  For example, I remember talking to one of my closest informants the night before January 28th, a day that ended up quite violent within the revolutionary timeline. I told her I was planning on joining the protests the following day. Her response was that – from an “Islamic” perspective –  I, a Muslim woman, shouldn’t be going to such public, and potentially dangerous, demonstrations as this was rather the duty of Muslim men. This informant’s view was by no means representative of the other Islamic television producers I work with (some of whom I would later meet by coincidence in the Square). At the same time, I felt I had to hide, or at least not explicitly articulate, my disagreement with this informant’s views because I didn’t want to jeopardize my fieldwork relationship with her. I went so far as to limit her access to my Facebook profile, as I was regularly posting updates and pictures of Tahrir on it. As an anthropologist, I strove to understand her reasoning and to contextualize it within the broader narrative of her life and work. As an Egyptian citizen and a Muslim, however, I found her position absolutely unacceptable. 

At other times, however, a refusal to put on the table my own political convictions may be construed not as an effort to avoid “imposing” my own terms of references on the community I am researching, but rather as a disinterest in, or indifference to, the issues that affect so profoundly my fellow citizens. I remember a few months ago a heated discussion arose in the editing room of the Islamic satellite channel where I am working about the difference between a “theocratic state,” an “Islamic state” and a “secular state.”  This was a discussion that at the time was being conducted on a national scale, with the op-ed pages of all the major newspapers devoting a considerable amount of column space to it. I had published a longish blog with my thoughts on the subject in AUC’s Tahrir Forum, but during the discussion in my field-site I remained silent. Finally, this silence became a bit too loud and one of my colleagues turned to me, asking me pointedly “Why aren’t you giving us your opinion?  Do you not care?”

The question this and other similar encounters raises for me is how (especially but not only) in times as dramatic as a revolutionary uprising do I reconcile my commitment as an anthropologist to understand difference with my own specific ethico-political stances as a citizen? I continue to grapple with such questions on a daily basis living in Egypt as a researcher whose main institutional and intellectual ties lay elsewhere, but who at the same time identifies wholly as an Egyptian.

As scholars of the ethnographic present (who also attend to history), how do you think anthropologists with no experience or expertise in Egypt/the Middle East can make sense of the revolutionary process underway in Egypt and the region more generally?In the U.S., one frequently hears scholars of the Middle East talk about the way the region’s uprisings have changed the way we think about and teach the Middle East (e.g., the discourse of stagnancy and apathy), or politics more generally (as hopeless). Do you agree that these uprisings, and/or the Egyptian one in particular, changes how scholars should or are thinking and What do you think anthropology can bring to this conversation?

“Making sense” involves first and foremost talking with the people who are living daily, in small ordinary ways, the “revolutionary process.” It is important to remember that even at the height of the 18-day uprising, only a minority of Egyptians actually went to Tahrir. But both the international news media and domestic opposition papers at the time made it seem that Tahrir marked the fault-line between two distinct groups: those Egyptians for democracy and those Egyptians for Mubarak, which was of course not true. (For its part, the government press at the time saw the dividing line as between trouble-making youth allied with “foreign agents” and law-abiding citizens, a narrative that has since been appropriated by the military ruling council SCAF in its various confrontations with protestors.) From the vantage point of those of us in Egypt during the revolution, however, the picture was much more complex, fluid and messy.  And simplifying it for the sake of a compelling story marginalizes the many Egyptians from all classes and backgrounds whose political stances don’t fit neatly into one or the other of these categories: pro-Mubarak, pro-democracy, pro-stability, pro-revolution. 

Indeed, almost immediately after Mubarak stepped down, there began a re-imagining of the events of the revolution so that “all Egyptians” – from SCAF down – become “thuwaar” (revolutionaries). This is occurring in tandem with an official rewriting of what the revolution was “about” – a few stolen villas by a handful of corrupt ministers, it seems. Such narratives work at once to romanticize the revolution as well as neutralize its power to actually effect change by presenting an over-generalized, under-analyzed version of events. And here is where anthropology is uniquely positioned to really add something to the academic conversations on the dramatic developments in the region – an ability to step away from meta-narratives and instead explore all the little narratives that often fall out of focus in the desire of scholars to get to the “Big Picture.”

Posts in This Series

Academic Tourists Sight-Seeing the Arab Spring

Reflections on the Egyptian Revolution