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Ethnographic Research in Middle Eastern Cities: Challenges, Possibilities, and Pathways

RoundTable V-5, sponsored byAssociation of Middle East Anthropology (AMEA), 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 1:30 pm

RoundTable Description
Cities in the Middle East have been the focus of a growing number of studies that aimed to show the complex forces that shape their spaces, populations, and cultures. Recent changes in the region, including neoliberalism, authoritarianism, political conflict, infrastructural breakdown, and the pandemic have generated unique challenges to the residents of Middle Eastern cities. They have also generated significant challenges to researchers studying urban life. This roundtable conversation seeks to address the practical and methodological challenges of undertaking ethnographic research in urban environments around the region in light of overlapping and complex sets of processes that have inhibited research access to everyday life in this context and which also have pressurized the lives of residents in these places. How can we study urban life, for instance, in authoritarian contexts and amid chronic conditions of crisis and conflict that put limits on ethnographic research practices? We are interested in exploring the methodological realities that constitute ‘the field’ in different urban sites throughout the region as well as the ethics and ethical commitment to the study of urban communities and processes. Our varied research experiences in different cities (including Aden, Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Istanbul, Jerusalem, and Riyadh) in the region raise an important set of questions about the feasibility and productivity of traditional ethnographic methods in particular parts of the world and we invite conversation about how we can undertake ethnography under precarious conditions and shifting economic and political landscapes. In addition, we hope to expand the conversation about how ethnographic research can provide insights into conditions of crisis, conflict, infrastructural decline, refugees, and authoritarianism that shape urban life in the region. The contributors address issues such as digital communication and surveillance, urban development and privatization, decline and hope, and displacement and relocation.
  • Over the past fifteen years, Istanbul’s Tarlabaşı neighborhood has been undergoing urban transformation. The Justice and Development Party-led government designated a portion of the neighborhood—known and stigmatized as a hub of informal economies, illicit activities, immigrants and minorities—as an urban transformation zone. This designation led to property expropriation, evictions, demolitions, and the construction of a luxury business and residential complex, Taksim 360. For many urban scholars and activists, Taksim 360 signaled the failure of urban resistance in Tarlabaşı in the absence of an organized movement. In my work, I instead attend to the ways in which remaining Tarlabaşı residents build futures through everyday care practices, revealing the political possibilities amidst supposedly rapid but practically slow urban transformation. This become possible through a methodology I call “working with”: much of my fieldwork between 2017 and 2018 consisted of caring with neighbors, being there day after day, collectively working towards the futures they want. But what if being there becomes ethically complicated or even impossible? What does engaged urban ethnography look like when presence grows fraught and complex? My contribution to this roundtable will focus on the notion of “not being there,” on the limits and possibilities of engaged ethnographic methodologies when we cannot inhabit the urban spaces where we work. Drawing on the four years I spent physically away from Tarlabaşı and from my hometown İstanbul, due to my immigration status in the US and then the pandemic, I will ponder “not being there” as a form of navigating one’s positionality and as a way to navigate crises. I will offer digital worlds as sites of possibility to continue engaged ethnography—albeit with significant limitations. I will juxtapose my experiences of online engagement with the time I spent “there,” contemplating what the time in-between means and does methodologically. Overall, my contribution will question the many forms presence can take in fieldwork practices, invited and guided by our collaborators.
  • In my portion of the roundtable discussion, I will ask: how does one study and teach a city in progress? How do ethnographic methods enable researchers to study processual, shifting, urban and urban-scale phenomena? I propose that ethnography in and of cities can help set a foundation from which to toggle between scales, to reconstruct and predict direction, and to do so through attention to the relationships between life, social reproduction, and much more general phenomena. Through a discussion of my recent work on urban development and privatization in Palestine, and with reference to my early-stage research on the economic and human geographies of Palestine/China trade, I hope to raise questions about the work of ethnography and its value to an understanding of contemporary political economies, fixed capital, and urban life in Middle East.
  • Cities of hope during the times of enduring crises: Aden - A declining city that keeps up hope War in Yemen has now lasted for 9 years. The outcome has been, according to the UN estimate, the most severe humanitarian crisis of our times, and collapse of security even in areas outside the actual frontlines. Still, the downfall of security is a longer problem, as Jihadist groups have terrorized Yemen since the 1990s, and because of the US War on Terror that has used Yemen as a training ground for its drone warfare. Simultaneously, with bad administration and corruption, public services have collapsed. In the Yemeni South that used to form an independent state prior to Yemeni unity in 1990, the collapse has been particularly dramatic. My contribution looks at these developments in Aden city, once the world's third busiest port, then the poor but equitable city that promoted women’s emancipation to be followed by marginalization and securitization. I will focus on citizen initiatives of keeping up hope: hope for the return of good governance, and absence of corruption and embezzlement of public funds, and hope for the return of safety and openness that again allows people to be the way they are, each different but equal.
  • My contribution to this roundtable conversation centers around the possibilities for urban theory to be developed from ethnographic research in the Middle Eastern city. Drawing both on my research about the mobility practices of Syrians and their forms of exchange in and around Beirut during wartime and points raised by urbanists about the incoherence of the city and the ways in which urban experiences are negotiated at varied spatial scales that implode the city, I will discuss the potential for an urban theory through ethnography in the region specifically in regards to geopolitics, conflict, and war.
  • This paper describes how digital and automated surveillance technologies are impacting ethnographic research in urban settings in the Middle East, spaces marked by colonial histories of espionage, and increasingly technologized policing/military regimes. Drawing from fieldwork in Jerusalem between 2021-2023, much of which I spent documenting the intensification of surveillance on Palestinian life in the city for local NGOs and international press, I take the proliferation of biometric monitoring and cyber-hacking technologies as a starting point to shed new light on longstanding debates regarding the fraught relationship between knowledge production and espionage. From abetting repressive-surveillance regimes to becoming an object of state surveillance, I describe how new technologies reveal the limits of conventional ethnographic methods in settings marked by intensive surveillance. Amidst the consolidation of tech-driven authoritarianism across the Middle East, I conclude by outlining different, collaborative, and investigative methods for studying surveillance regimes.
  • Urban anthropologists in the Arab region have had a hard time since the revolutions and the authoritarian backlash that followed. Many cities, including Aleppo and Taez, have been destroyed by war; others like Sanaa are off limit because of ongoing conflict. Elsewhere, systems of surveillance and control expanded far beyond what we knew. Because of increased surveillance, field research has become perilous and harder to carry out. For sure, the urban realm was already political before the revolutions. State projects, land privatization, and accelerated real estate development had politicized cities. But what has changed in the past ten years is the increased ability of elites, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean, to keep track of what happens in cities, through either digitization or militarization, and to prevent or curb uncommon behavior. As a result, we urban anthropologists are often at a loss when beginning new field research. How can we think about new ways of conducting field research in Middle Eastern cities? This paper is a reflection on urban fieldwork conducted in conditions of intense surveillance and repression.