Access to the Iraqi Field

In between a trip to Prague, I have been reading books on the modern history of Iraq, the legal history of women's rights in Iraq, and biographical narratives of diasporic Iraqi women. This coming month also marks the third year since I permanently moved from Beijing, which was my home for many years. Many reflections on diaspora and the meaning of living abroad came up when I read books on Iraqi politics as well as Kundera's classic The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I also compare diasporic conditions cross cultures during my time spent with the Pakistani student community in Gottingen. While the background of my interest is mostly personal, this blog post will mainly address the political issues and questions of methodologies that surfaced when I read the books on Iraq.

In her book Iraqi Women: Untold Stories from 1948 to the Present, Dr. Nadje Sadig Al-Ali presents material she gathered through interviews with women from four different diasporic communities, including Amman, London, San Diego, and Detroit. There are many similarities between the Iraqi communities I am reading about in Dr. Al-Ali's work and the Pakistani community I encountered, such as the highly contested narratives of the twentieth century. Given the hetergenous makeup of the Iraqi diasporic community, with different ethnic groups, sects and classes occupying different social and political lives, the matter is evidently complex. Generations also mattered: the order of persecution entailed a different relationship with politics. This was also spelled out to me during a conversation with a Kurdish friend, P., who comes from Syrian-occupied Kurdistan. He has stayed in Germany for many years and most of his family is here. He works, studies, and likes the idea that his future would be bounded with Germany. I told him during a conversation about the sufferings of my other Syrian friend who lives in India right now and has been separated from his family since the war started. He replied that indeed, it is a hard life for my friend and other recently exiled Syrians, but his own family had established themselves abroad earlier because they have been persecuted earlier as a religious minority. In other words, my friend may suffer now, but it's because he didn't have to think about it earlier. We each receive our own due in time.

Al-Ali also addresses the sectarian issue through her experiences in the field. During her research in the U.S., she stays with various Iraqi families and acutely notices the differences in locale and socialization. During her research in Dearborn and the broader Detroit Area, the issue of sect becomes strong enough for her to voice her own opinions in this particular situation:

As I talked to the group of young women refugees, it became evident that at least this group of recently arrived women had a very strong sense of their roots and identity, both as Iraqis and Shi'is involved a strong sense of entitlement in terms of rights and privileges in the new Iraq. It also entailed a very strong and, for me personally, disturbing sectarianism that was directed not only at Sunni Iraqis but also at Iraqi Chaldeans. Khadija, just like Fatima and her sister Zeinab, criticized Iraqi Chaldeans for having been supporters of the previous regime and for failing to engage in anti-government activities in previous years. I was puzzled by this sweeping generalization and condemnation of the Chaldean community. Although several Chaldeans I talked to had clearly appreciated the generally secular nature of the previous regime, especially before 1991, which allowed for the relative religious freedom of minorities, many of the more established and well-to-do Chaldean families have been active supporters of the Bush government and his war on Iraq. (p38, emphasis my own)

I also encounter this question of methodology when I conducted research in Germany and Lucknow. When I encounter South Asian and Iraqi Muslims and explain that one of my research interests include Shi'ism, it often sends a message that I am someone who has affinity with the imagined community of Shi'as. The scope of the imagined community depends on the world view and values of the person in question, and how he or she would answer the question of "who is a Shi'a." For me, the question is extremely delicate and variable on situation.

A picture of Imam Hussain in a food store owned by Iraqis. Louisville, KY,  2016
The paragraph by Al-Ali also raises the question of politics and religion: to what extent can one draw the line between sectarianism and political activism? Many of the NGOs and charities related to Iraq claim that they service all sects, which clearly shows there are many NGOs and charities that have particular sectarian identity, subtle or not. When does a "sectarian" conversation or situation call for an activist scholar, such as Al-Ali, to intervene? This also goes back to the debate within race and sociology: is one studying a social group for the purpose of an empirical understanding, or is there an ethical obligation to that group's future? When one labels and understands situations through the lense of sects in an informed manner, the research is usually empirically rich and analytically strong. But what are the additional methodological concerns?

In evaluating narratives of women's rights in Ba'athist Iraq, historian Noga Efrati has noted in her book Women in Iraq how positionality affects the written historical accounts.

Doreen Ingrams and Deborah Cobbet present the clearest examples of following only one narrative. Whereas Ingrams favors the Iraqi Women's Union narrative, Cobbett bases her work on the League for the Defense of Women's Rights narrative. Their contrasting historical probes were probably influenced mainly by their conflicting attitude toward the Ba'ath regime as well as by their personal connections with different Iraqi women. Ingrams, at least at the beginning of the 1980s, sided with regime supporters, whereas Cobbett sided with its opponents. (p134, emphasis my own)

Furthermore, what happens when one relies on one's own group identity to gain access? Researchers such as Nadje Al-Ali (p29) as well as anthropologist Hayder al-Mohammad have mentioned how their family introduced them to certain contacts in the field. Al-Ali has also met many contacts through her own activism in London and Hayder al-Mohammad established contacts from arising circumstances over the length of five years in Basra. Dr. Lila Abu-Lughod also discusses her father's role in her field:
[M]any people remain intrigued by what I wrote about my father having introduced me to this community, perhaps because it makes us think hard about our inevitable positionality in fieldwork. I understand my father’s motives a bit differently now that I am a parent, but I also worry that people exaggerate the importance of this introduction. I still treasure the ways I was able to participate in the intimate and lively women’s world. I know that it was a bit easier for me to be part of this family because of this identity. But even though being perceived as Arab, Muslim, and respectable (under the protection of my father) was important, I don’t think we should overstate its importance. Fieldwork is intense and interpersonally complicated for everyone. Once you are there, no matter how introduced, it is you—as a person—who develops the relationships you do, even as you never escape your locatedness.
It would be an overstatement to say that their research would have been markedly different without the family contacts; still, the question is unresolved in my mind. Al-Mohammad does a wonderful job of historicizing the idea of "tribes." He questions the method which sees tribes as the dominant form of social organization in his 2011 article "You have Car Insurance, We have Tribes." Still, access to tribes were crucial in the field, and the male Iraqi identity was no doubt a gamechanger in terms of on-the-ground research. He writes, "Many leaders are very generous, not only with their wealth and power, but also with their time. Many have also been tremendously protective of me, with no hope of ever seeing anything in return other than friendship and gratitude." Identity plays such a crucial role in these sites, and thus to present oneself with an established lineage (sect or locale) affects how one is perceived in the field. I would like to read more about the implications of this approach.

Al-Mohammad passionately argues about his positionality in an interview and invokes his "brown eyes" that sees what non-brown eyes fail to see--
I have skin in this game, to invoke an idiom I am rather fond of. I’m an Iraqi. I consider Basra my home and not London where I have spent more than twenty years. The problem is, then, where can I turn to that has been relatively untarnished by the theorizers and fly-by-night Iraq specialists? What I noticed was that events, local happenings and moments, are too small for the young bucks, trying to make their name in this racket, to get their hands dirty in. They also did not have access to such experiences, nor did they have a grasp of the background knowledge and ways of life of ordinary Iraqis, hence struggled to notice the significance of certain events. Many have conducted interviews in the north of Iraq in Erbil, or outside Iraq in Amman and Cairo with Iraqi refugees, but essentially, everyday life in Iraq has been beyond the reach of the machinery.

Finally, it is appropriate to end with this observation on academia by Hayder al-Mohammad, to understand the importance of entering the field with his particular approach:
The reason why anthropologists have turned to institutions, cults, groups, and scholars is because of the obvious difficulty in locating one’s fieldwork. Not being natives of the region where they are working in, most anthropologists have few doors open to them. But what starts off as a difficulty in locating where one should, and actually could, conduct fieldwork has a very serious impact on what is studied and how it is studied. Clearly, working with religious scholars and Imams will give you a very limited picture of Islam as it is lived.
Most anthropologists do not make clear at all how extraordinarily artificial the pictures they draw of Islam and the life of Muslims are because of the limitations of where they do their fieldwork. So artificial indeed that I have on many occasions sat with my ethnographies of Islam and translated it into Arabic to small crowds in Iraq for most to eventually breakdown into fits of laughter. The comments I hear on many occasions tend to be: “They must think we are really stupid in the West.” (emphasis my own)