Staff | November 20, 2004
"This is certainly one of the central and most urgent political paradoxes of
our time: in our much celebrated age of communication, struggles have become
all but incommunicable." - Negri & Hardt, Empire, 54
In their pursuit of scientific knowledge ethnographers typically act like conquerors. They have the power (money, skin color and papers) to step outside of any oppressive situation. Through observation or interpretation, their presence often resembles a violent extraction of what are assumed to be cultural secrets. And yet, the nature of the ethnography as penetration and extraction means that the text must address the arrival of the reader/ethnographer. It is in this instant that the ethnographer is revealed. As examples we could think of Clifford Geertz’s distrustful entrance: “Early in April of 1958, my wife and I arrived malarial and diffident”. Or Smadar Lavie’s entrance as conspicuously Zionist: she begins her book immersed in her Bedouin subject looking at an Israeli cultural performance she already understands. Both texts are unable to obscure the distance of the ethnographer from the subject because the text must address how the author arrived. Perhaps we could say both authors never really arrived given that neither was able to live as their subjects live. It is distance from the subject that Ted Swedenburg is able to obliterate.
Ted Swedenburg’s “Memories of Revolt: The 1936-1939 Rebellion and the Palestinian National Past” is an ethnography informed by solidarity. Swedenburg’s success is apparent from his arrival tale that conveys his solidarity with the Palestinian resistance: the subject of his ethnography. As a freshman at Swarthmore College in 1968, Swedenburg transferred to American University of Beirut because “even within the New Left and antiwar movement I felt slightly out of place because of most U.S. progressives’ persistent refusal to entertain criticisms of Israel”. Beirut offered Swedenburg an opportunity to turn his empathy into action. He describes his active participation in the Palestinian resistance: “some of my friends and acquaintances received military training in the guerilla movement, and one even successfully hijacked an airplane”. While a graduate student Swedenburg engaged in “intermittent solidarity and human rights work” under Israeli military occupation. Swedenburg’s use of the concept of solidarity to explain his action draws upon a history of shifting political struggles that have identified with solidarity.
The prevalence of the word, solidarity, is largely due to the Polish Solidarity movement that carried out anti-communist nonviolent action in the 1980s. Roughly, we can say that solidarity means actions taken by a community while “being perfectly united or at one in some respect, especially in interests, sympathies, or aspirations”. Solidarity can only be carried out by those directly effected by the oppression (often physically, sometimes emphathetically). When Swedenburg says that he engaged in solidarity work he is saying that he believes he experienced the struggle in the same way that the effected community did (or, at least, that he tried). This understanding of solidarity is found in organizations such as the International Solidarity Movement, whose name draws attention to the fact that the organization is comprised of internationals choosing to place themselves with the Palestinian resistance. Two years ago I was an International Solidarity Movement member for six weeks and I feel there are several parallels between ethnographers who approach their subject with solidarity like Ted Swedenburg and International Solidarity Movement members.
I left Swarthmore my junior year, a year after 9/11, and lived in Jordan for six-weeks and the West Bank for six-weeks. As an independent traveler I joined the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) and engaged in direct action nonviolence while living in solidarity with Palestinians. I was able to see the tactics and effects of the brutal Israeli military occupation and, like an ethnographer, I recorded my thoughts in a journal. Swedenburg describes the difficulties he faced in integrating into the community. Inevitably he learned to protect his car from stones by communicating his solidarity visibly by displaying the Palestinian headscarf. For me, it was my connection with the ISM that afforded me protection from the violence of the Palestinian resistance. However, each time I moved locations within the West Bank I was obligated to display my solidarity to the community in such a manner that I would be recognized as a sympathizer. The fact that I saw myself primarily as an actor, and not a researcher, made this task less difficult as I communicated my beliefs through my actions. My integration into Tulkarem is an interesting example.
The goal of the International Solidarity Movement is to distribute autonomous small “affinity” groups comprised of international citizens throughout Palestine in order to aid the everyday resistance of the Palestinian population. Life under occupation is always nonviolent resistance and ISMers establish their presence in a community through visible solidarity. This is accomplished through consistently small actions. For example, when traveling many ISMers refuse to pass through a checkpoint unless every Palestinian before them in line is also let through. This usually results in a line that has been waiting unfairly for several hours to be immediately let through.
Unlike a classic ethnographer, ISMers always travel in small groups. As this group gets more experienced they gain more control over their own movements. Each group is given contact information for Palestinian ISM members and families who provide food and shelter for the volunteers. Arriving in Tulkarem, I had already experienced four weeks of rural occupation. My affinity group was establishing a presence in a city that was experiencing frequent incursions and was under constant curfew. Unsure of where to begin our work we chose to ride with ambulances during the night (at least one ambulance driver had been recently murdered by Israeli soldiers) and monitor the school during the day (bullet holes provided evidence Israeli aggression against innocent children).
Ultimately, it was wise that we chose to create a presence at the school as it meant that we were introduced into the most fervent and traumatized youth. When we arrived no one knew who we were and all, except one, of us did not speak Arabic. After a few appearances we assumed we were accepted. However, when Signe (blond and white from Denmark) and I (brown skinned from America) returned alone the next day the situation became violent. Unable to explain our purpose standing before their school a crowd of confused youths gathered. These were the kids who skipped classes to throw stones. An understandable choice given the insanity of their situation: immediately behind their school was a graveyard through which the students were forced to walk each day because the Israeli military would randomly fire at the main entrance of the school. Our presence was obviously agitating their pain. One youth pulled up his shirt and pointed to a picture of his brother who was a martyr. Another asked us our politics and another our nationality. We tried to explain our solidarity, we kept calm, and we tried to deescalate the situation. Then we saw what we hoped would be our savior: a youth from Jayyous that we had known for two weeks. We asked him to explain who we were. But then small things began to trigger problems. The crowd was too large and anonymous individuals started pushing. Someone pulled us into the school yard and closed the gate just as stones and feet began flying. Signe was targeted and I was left alone.
Safely in the school we tried to explain why we were there. We had been told by our local contact that the school would be informed about us. This didn’t seem to have occurred. Fortunately, we were treated as guests by the Principal who arranged a tour of the school. When we left the building the situation had changed drastically. All of a sudden the youths were extremely apologetic. The most violent and politically vocal expressed their apologies and gave us trinket gifts. Evidently, someone had explained our role and the situation was completely resolved. From this point forward the entire youth community in Tulkarem knew who we were. They called out my name as I walked down the street and tried to tell me about their struggle. It was a total integration that saved my life. During the next incursion, while standing in the street as stones rained against an Israeli jeep periodically firing into the crowd, a Palestinian youth threw a Molotov cocktail at the Israeli jeep. If the Palestinian had not warned me in advance with a visual signal then Jenny and I would very likely have been hit. Instead the flames just briefly warmed our faces.
I tell this story to draw attention to the unique nature of the ethnography’s arrival narrative. It is my conviction that ethnographers cannot hide their true selves when retelling their arrival. To judge the ethnographer’s success in understanding their subject we need only look at how they describe their arrival. As Swedenburg understands, making his text highly insightful, only a cultivation of empathy and solidarity can bring the ethnographer to their destination: an understanding of difference. This is particularly true when dealing with resistance. To create an ethnography of resistance, as both Swedenburg and Lavie intend, means that ethnographer must experience resistance. This is a difficult task – it seems that most ethnographers, when faced with an opportunity to resist with the subject, can only do so incidentally. Returning to Geertz, for example, it is remarkable he failed to turn his brief experience of solidarity in fleeing State repression into the sole focus of his text. Instead, he focuses on the cockfight. This is an alarming choice given the vast potential of ethnographies devoted to resistance with the subject. If the ethnographer is typically an agent of colonial forces, observing a subject under colonial rule and revealing a marginalized (dying) culture then it would seem obvious that studying resistance through becoming an actor within the resistance would be a critical step in undermining this tradition of oppression.
In this way my experiences are not similar to Swedenburg’s because they involve the same land and “people” but because they required the same level of empathetic commitment. Solidarity is the common link between our experiences and conceivably the experiences of post-colonial subjects globally. It is easy enough to say that an ethnography of resistance is desirable but there are real blockages that must be overcome. The most overlooked is that in a situation of solidarity writing should be difficult. Resistance is not easy and by definition involves a struggle with an adversary who wields overwhelming superiority. In this situation, if we wish to understand the resistance, we cannot do as Lavie did: “I was always in some corner scribbling”. Lavie’s ability to write consistently indicates that the experiences she is capturing are not painful to retell – most likely, because she is not experiencing them, only documenting them. Apparently Lavie does not see the implications of her approach. Comments, such as “people even made use of my record to verify what had been said in the heat of an argument, saying ‘It’s even written in Smadar’s notebook”, betray her distance from the community. The implications of the position I’m arguing for ethnography are significant. What are the consequences of holding the position that the ethnographer should not focus on writing anything?
If the ethnographer loses their voice perhaps they will be forced to act. As I’ve argued it is the integration narrative that reveals the ethnographer and I implied that there was more truth to be found in the moment of solidarity that Geertz felt than the months he spent studying cockfights. Further, I suggested that the techniques typically employed by the ethnographer betray their distance from the subject. Ethnographers focused on extracting information are not living with the community but are watching it. Swedenburg addresses these issues by writing an ethnography not about his own experiences but about the memories of his adopted community. I would suggest an even more radical approach. Instead of attempting to extract information from the community the role of the ethnographer should be to document how difference can be bridged through solidarity. An ethnography of resistance would convey how solidarity is cultivated in various situations. Having described their arrival and evaluated their success in integrating into the community the ethnographer will have conveyed what is most important: how to join a struggle in progress. In doing so, ethnographers would strengthen a struggle that will inevitably undermine the ethnographer’s position of power.