Restarting a Conversation
by Amahl Bishara
This summer, after two years away, I'm back in my old field site, far from the Massachusetts university where I've just completed my first year of teaching. On the ride from Tel Aviv airport to Jerusalem, I take an informal census of the roadside wildflowers as I try to avoid the inevitable politics of the shared taxicab. Attempting to delay my entrée into politics proves futile, though. Soon the driver tells me that he cannot deposit me at the Arab hotel I have chosen for its (relative) centrality and neutrality, due to a few inexplicably blocked roads severing the main route from predominantly Jewish West Jerusalem to predominantly Arab East Jerusalem.
A few taxicabs later, I arrive at the apartment my husband has found for us, and we receive visitors in twos and threes. I relish seeing how the children have grown and wistfully await longer conversations with these dear friends. A few days later, I reconnect with an associate who has not only an arrangement with an office store for cheap copying, but also a car to take me to the store. How much more convenient fieldwork is the second time around! After a few minutes of clicking-churning copy machine sounds that dare me to dance like Björk in Dancer in the Dark, my fieldwork is on its way.
The copies are integral to my fieldwork. This summer, I'm asking Palestinians to read and critique translated U.S. news articles from the second Intifada, a Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip that began in 2000. For example, I might ask a Palestinian to consider whether an article about the separation wall that Israel built in the West Bank represents the topic thoroughly and accurately from the perspective of someone who lives next to that wall. I'll also ask what Palestinians think these articles might tell U.S. audiences, correctly or incorrectly, about Palestinian society as a whole.
This project stems from a tradition of using anthropological films and writings to create dialogues with those in the field. Usually, anthropologists write or make films about a select group of people in a field site and they have the last word on how and what is written or filmed. By conducting interviews with people in the field about these anthropological writings or films, though, an anthropologist can give those people the chance to respond to the anthropologist's ideas, or to actively help produce those ideas.
The French documentary film Jaguar (1967), by French anthropologist Jean Rouch, is an example of such a dialogue. It is about African labor migration and features three men who traveled to the coast for work. Its narration was recorded by the three men while watching a silent, rough cut of the film. Thus, while Rouch filmed and edited the footage, the film's subjects gave it its narration. This gives these labor migrants the chance to comment on their own society and the film itself. However, although their voiceover is an integral part of the film, Rouch still made the final decisions about the film. The decision to use such narration, after all, suited his ideas as an anthropologist and filmmaker about "shared anthropology," or collaboration between anthropologists and their subjects. In my case, I'm gathering Palestinians' ideas about U.S. news articles — but in the end, I'll write up the results of the interviews, and I'll select the critiques I find most noteworthy.
Bringing U.S. news to Palestinians may not seem like a revolutionary idea in our era of fast, online media. But the world is still not as "flat" as some might presume. Even though many Palestinians are concerned with representations of them in U.S. media, most do not read U.S. news, partly because of language barriers, and partly because they have their own media to attend to.
The last few years, I have been studying how U.S. journalism and Palestinian politics influence each other. Generally, U.S. journalists and Palestinians interact at the beginning of writing a news article. U.S. journalists seek out quotes from officials, activists, parents, farmers. Then, although these Palestinians' words are transported all over the world, they tend not to come home to roost. In gathering Palestinian interpretations of U.S. news — and publishing their interpretations and critiques in the United States — I aim to give Palestinians the chance to reply to what U.S. newspapers say about them. Is anger the best way to describe how Palestinians felt at Arafat's funeral? How will Palestinians respond to a lyrical article about kite flying that may not make its politics front and center? This summer, I'm aiming to find out.