Eating Watermelon, Parsing Chaos
by Amahl Bishara
Amahl Bishara is an Assistant Professor in the Anthropology Department at Tufts University. This is the 3rd and last post in a series of ‘Fieldnotes’ she has written for www.anthronow.com.
Research takes perseverance and grit, but there is no denying that it comes with certain pleasures, too. In Palestinian society, research feeds both mind and body. Once, I was interviewing two young men who were in a hurry to go on an afternoon excursion. Still, they presented me with soda and then coffee on a shiny round tray. During another interview, I enjoyed watermelon and ice cream cake. As I ate, I pondered: What could be easier than research in which people conceive of the researcher as a guest?
Obviously, though, the work of research is more than just managing the watermelon juice that threatens to escape from the sides of one's mouth as one poses the next question. Another juicy challenge of this project has been tracking key terms as they circulate between U.S. news articles and Palestinian interpretations. The word "chaos" popped up often in U.S. news coverage of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Yasser Arafat's 2004 funeral. That November day, PA officials' plans to bury Arafat in a private ceremony went awry when some of the tens of thousands of Palestinian mourners who had gathered for the funeral scaled walls to fill the courtyard where Arafat was to be buried. PA officials struggled to move Arafat's body from the helicoptor that bore it to the gravesite, fearing the crowds might whisk it off for a more traditional — but less controlled — public procession.
Some of the U.S. foreign correspondents' writings about the funeral reflected longstanding U.S. critiques of Arafat. A Newsweek correspondent wrote:
"[Arafat's] successors wanted an orderly funeral. They brought in bulldozers to clean up Yasser Arafat's broken-down headquarters in Ramallah. They sealed off the compound to keep out the crowds. They even cleared a hall in which Arafat would lay in state while dignitaries passed by the coffin. What they got instead was the untidy drama of the old regime, the kind of chaos that Arafat thrived on."
In a similar vein, USA Today reported, "In an alley off the square, a man whose face was covered with a black-and-white keffiyah — the headscarf worn by Arafat and that has come to symbolize the Palestinain cause — fired a pistol in the air before melting into the crowd." Such descriptive passages are laden with meaning. I was curious about how my interviewees would interpret them.
I knew the term "chaos" — translated to fawda in Arabic — would attract my interviewees' attention. I had found that fawda could describe everything from a buzzy throng at a children's summer camp to the political crisis of leadership in the West Bank in 2006 and after. During that time, the PA had lacked the power to prohibit militia members from carrying bigger guns than the official security forces, or to keep a marriage dispute from turning to fisticuffs and gunfire. Over the last two years or so, many have conversely complained that the PA has gone too far in repressing its political opponents.
The Palestinians I spoke to expressed diverse readings of the passages. One college student in Nablus thought the articles aptly identified a stubborn problem in Palestinian political culture. As he said, "One of our historical mistakes from the beginning of the modern revolution in 1964 was that the kind of enculturation we had was not democratic and civilized. It was revolutionary: 'Let's fight, and we're going to liberate our lands and return to them'… there wasn't a theoretical framing that there should have been, and there wasn't a democratic enculturation, either. So what I liked about [the Newsweek] article was the tie between the disorder that Arafat caused, and its effects after he died. It even affected his own funeral." His friend, a Nablus student in the department of political science, parsed the word fawda as "anarchy," and though he referenced Bakunin with enthusiasm, he maintained that a bit more order at the funeral would have been a good thing.
On another day, I spoke to a Palestinian from a Bethlehem refugee camp, who was also in his early twenties but was not in college. He was much more critical of the articles. He had been at the funeral, and he knew the crowds had been unruly. He insisted, however, that it had been an "organized chaos," which can be a "beautiful thing, because authorities cannot control people absolutely, to give people a line and insist that they walk it perfectly." He continued that an "organized chaos can be something sweet because it can be the expression of a popular opinion." Although he had not studied anarchism, or much other political theory, the theories he expressed about "chaos" resonated deeply in a context in which state authority has been so repressive.
He also read into the passage about the gunman "melting into the crowd" a suggestion that violence was a pervasive part of Palestinian life, something which he adamantly rejected. He pointed out that Israelis also use gunfire as a means of saluting fallen soldiers and leaders.
I was curious at their different evaluations of the articles. Perhaps their answers had sprung from different political orientations or philosophies. I also wondered if the Nablus students' evaluations of "chaos" were in part rooted in their own experiences in their city, where lawlessness had affected daily life more than in any other part of the West Bank. Perhaps the Bethlehem man who had attended the funeral was analyzing the day and the articles on the basis of his own experiences, too. He had been proud to take part in that historic day.
Ultimately, fieldwork can feel piecemeal and inconclusive, but, as I packed my bags, I looked forward to bringing my own analytic writing into dialogue with these young men's perspectives — even though I knew I'd have to make my own coffee and slice my own watermelon to fuel my writing.