North Africa, West Asia

Challenges of fieldwork in Egypt: changing/challenging theoretical leanings

How can we ethnographically ground postmodern interest in human-animal relations?

Noha Fikry
16 July 2018

Manshiyet Nasir, Cairo. Picture by Joseph Hill / Some rights reserved (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).This is another part in a series curated by Mona Abaza on the dilemmas and contradictions researchers encounter in undertaking research in the Middle East. The idea of listening to social scientists on the processes of the production of knowledge has been inspired from Michael Burawoy’s concept of  ‘public sociology’, which he initiated and was followed by other sociologists who carried out further interviews with social scientists in ‘Global Dialogue’.

These articles attempt to focus on questions of methodology, equally, on the obstacles encountered by researchers when undertaking fieldwork in enduring political upheavals. It will also attempt to highlight the multiple and varied trajectories and voices which a younger generation of social scientists in the Middle East have been confronting.

Egypt = Politics?

Towards the end of my BA degree in anthropology at the American University in Cairo, I was introduced to a new body of literature, namely that which deals with human-animal relations (some of these fall under posthumanism while others don’t). I gradually came to appreciate, even fall under the spell of the animal and its worlds, and the opening of our thought and categories once we try to step outside the overused category of “human”. I felt a freshness, newness, and a breath-taking inspiration whenever I was assigned to read a book on forests, trees, dogs, or even mushrooms. Growing with the same ideas, similar views, and quite homogeneous body of literature for four years, this new theoretical oeuvre seemed very intriguing and I slowly felt that this is what I want to continue pursuing and experimenting with in my MA research/thesis.

Slowly yet surely, this infatuation with human-animal literature came to an ambivalence. Upon thinking about my topic, and coming to choose an ethnographic “field site” for my research, I came to realize how difficult it is to ethnographically ground this postmodern interest in human-animal relations. For a couple of months, I began experimenting with different ethnographic possibilities through which this interest can be realized. I began with stray animals. I followed stray cats and dogs, fed them, and tried to ask people wandering in the streets how they felt/reacted to/dealt with these stray animals inhabiting the metropolis.

The only way to structure this idea or ethnographically explore it was perhaps through volunteering in a dog/cat shelter or following an animal rescue team. For me this was a bit limited, and a bit too insincere. I was not really interested in “saving” any animals wandering the streets, nor was I ever intrigued by whether they really need to be saved or how these relations unfold.

A few months later, this proved to be a complete failure. I cannot speak anything but human, that’s the first challenge. Second challenge or rather sweeping conclusion/realization is that most of what I read under posthumanism, multispecies ethnography, or human-animal relations (with perhaps very few exceptions) are largely philosophical and rarely ethnographic. Trying to translate this interest into a fertile ground for ethnographic research proved futile.

I then gradually, and with the guidance of my mentors, chose to settle for rooftops and the human-animal relations taking place through the rearing of goats, chickens, rabbits, etc. What these rooftops offer is indeed a closed, structured, fixed ground for research, with a sustained and intimate interspecies bond. Rooftops also playfully hover over a boundary of urban/rural with the practice of rearing animals on top of buildings of/in Cairo - the grand metropolis imagined solely for modern humans and perhaps pets regarded as family or friends but indeed never as food.

Most critiques amounted more or less to a conviction that the topic is devoid of politics

My theoretical coming of age, or rather taken more lightly as an experimentation for my MA thesis, brought to the fore many criticisms, challenges, and harsh comments – all so fruitful in thought and growth, however. Since its very first moment of birth, my topic (rooftops but interspecies relations more broadly) was usually regarded as so light, apolitical, and quite bourgeois/Californian in outlook. I was repeatedly criticized for choosing this topic and this body of research to begin with. Most critiques amounted more or less to a conviction that the topic is devoid of politics (even though this was before I began fieldwork), a blasphemous choice of topic indeed. This was for me part and parcel of a wider imagination of the “Middle Eastern social scientist” as inherently interested in Politics - a term that requires serious problematization. As living breathing beings post-2011, there seemed to be an unquestionable but also non-negotiable expectation that you need to speak about politics, about surviving massacres, about questions of governmentality and Foucault and Agamben.

While this is all potentially true, what if I am not interested in this particular brand of politics? As a becoming social scientist, I was trained and raised to research with all my being, and to have a particular very intimate and personal affinity with what I research. That said, then, are we assuming that all post-2011 Egyptian social scientists have authored and survived outwardly political biographies? What if my relationship to Politics is not that straightforward, direct, or even interesting for me to research? By Politics (deliberately used in upper case) here I mean state relations, governmentality, questions of revolutions, coups, and struggles for autonomy – or that is as far as I understood. More crudely, the critique was targeting a prioritization of the devastated, depressed, crushed, state-oppressed citizen over the fluff of an animal or an interest in what an interspecies relation might offer.

Firstly, this definition and understanding of politics is quite limited, narrowly structured, and does not allow for any actual improvisation through ethnographic realities. Secondly and more importantly, this critique stems from an expectation that goes against our ideals as autonomous, personal, sincere, genuine, and postcolonial researchers of the Middle East and more specifically Egypt. The critique expects and perhaps even forces a homogeneity in how “Egypt” needs to be researched, written about, discussed, and published at the moment. Thirdly, this raises very important questions about the politics of the academy, the making and growing of academics and more specifically in this part of the world, but also the nature of what topics are/should be given attention based on how “politically sexy” they are seen to be and can be marketed as – which is again very ingenuous to how social sciences and especially anthropology have taught us to become and think of ourselves.

More important than all of the previous is actually that we can never know if a topic is “political” before we see how it unfolds on the ground. I was again trained and raised to first and foremost take people, and their lives, seriously. Our topics and researches are thus primarily shaped by our interlocutors’ worlds and livelihoods, and not our theoretical leanings, academic imaginations, or self-fulfilling prophecies of how Egypt should be narrated at one point in time. I was increasingly uncertain and insecure about my topic, and felt like such a failure. Yet as quite expected, fieldwork grounded, transformed, and took the topic completely elsewhere – with yet more challenges to face, deal with, and unpack.

From animals to making a living: ethnographic maturations

Once I began fieldwork, I came to face the challenge of “translating” my interests and anthropological backgrounds to my interlocutors who are all living in impoverished, lower-middle class neighborhoods around Cairo (namely, Magra il-oyoun, Istabl ‘antar, and Il-kilo 4 wi nus). For the first few weeks, I was repeatedly regarded as a veterinarian or a medical student interested in viruses and how they navigate across species. 

Whenever I asked about rooftops, I was given “model answers” of how much a chicken eats, how frequently a rabbit gives birth, or how often a goat mates. I began thinking of new ways to express what I am working on and explain my research. I told them that I am interested in their lives with these animals, their memories of some of the dead ones, and why they keep rooftops in the very first place.

Given these challenges and the reactions to a “researcher interested in animals”, I never ever used any sound recorders, notebooks, or any other devices or ways of recording that gave off this aura of “academic research”. I wanted to make it clear, by verbal expression but also by doing, that I am interested in a long-term, sustained, everyday, banal intimacy through which I can further gain access to these rooftop worlds and how my interlocutors actually make meaning of their presence. Seven months elapsed and I was never able to fully express anthropology or what it is exactly that I study at the university. I stayed the “duktura” (the doctor), without further details needed. Gradually, however, my interlocutors did understand and fully comprehend my interest in stories, memories, relations, and intimacies, and how these give way to how they saturate their livelihoods through the presence and growth of rooftop cycles of life.

That said, however, the kinds of stories shared and “fieldwork” more broadly was quite different from what I had initially expected. I did not actually get to spend that much time on rooftops, or “build relations” with goats, rabbits, or chickens. I visited my interlocutors once per week, sometimes once bi-weekly, and stayed there for at least 4-5 hours, only 30 min of which would be spent on the actual rooftops. I realized that the relationship with these animals is not as enchanted as I wished it to be, and that most of my interlocutors spend perhaps an hour or two per day, at best, on the rooftop. This made it difficult for me to ask to stay up there for longer, since for them this was strange and unjustifiable – why would you want to stay in that hot weather, with almost no shade, with screaming goats, chickens, and rabbits, when you can stay down, drink some cool over sugared Coca-Cola (that I quitted for a year but couldn’t refuse), and listen to us telling you all the stories that you would ever want to hear?

The stories shared, however, were again very different from what I had expected. There were indeed stories of love, attachment, grief, and loss among these multispecies rooftop worlds, yet there were also stories of dystopian realities, financial challenges, and struggles to make a living. My research topic then took a turn that I never expected or saw coming, namely how rooftops are valorized as outlets of access to proper food that is otherwise absolutely impossible to obtain.

As weeks and months of fieldwork elapsed, my interlocutors across all the three homes I always frequented took so much pride in knowing where their food comes from. They would always tell me how different everything they eat tastes (cleaner, safer, and indeed tastier) since they have grown it so intimately and lovingly. It felt so empowering and liberating for them not only to have access to proteins (with an otherwise class position that allows them almost no consistent access to meat or poultry) but also to know everything that has been put in a chicken/goat/rabbit’s belly since its very first day of birth. This then becomes a matter of a particular taste culture – one that valorizes home-grown food, as opposed to perhaps those bourgeois initiatives similarly relying on a home-grown agenda yet for a more commercial and class restricted audience – but also a sense of class empowerment taking place only through one finding a way out through exhausting a set of intimate resources such as rooftops and inherited habits such as rearing animals on these rooftops available for use.

Multispecies worlds were thus here pulled to a drift towards access to food and knowing where one’s food comes from – something that I as a middle-class researcher never ever thought of or had the opportunity to examine where my food comes from or how I relate to it. Yet more broadly, and again only with ethnographic practice and fieldwork intimacies over a number of months, this was also about a very different and intimate way of perceiving and relating to one’s surroundings. Access to food, and knowing one’s chickens and meat by heart requires a fundamental knowledge of and relationship with the surrounding environment. All my interlocutors, for example, knew the origins of the trees around them, the chains of animals inhabiting their neighborhoods and how to deal with each, the change of seasons and how this affects each of the species they grow, and how their lives are implicated in broader ecological webs of relation. They have a very unique and distinctive mastery over their environment, sustained through these multispecies relations on the rooftop but also how they live in synchrony with their surrounding species of all kinds – a synchrony that might also sometimes include killings, eatings, or eradications rather than just a loving intimate relationship of live and let live.

This change/maturation as to what I am researching primarily has to do with how concepts travel and are molded differently through the ethnographic worlds we explore. Those interspecies relations that I have read about translate in Egypt very particularly and uniquely, as stories of environments and ecological relations, but also making a living and navigating a financial/class precarity, along with indeed ever problematizing our urban/rural divide through the lens of a rather distinctive case of (urban) farming taking place on rooftops.

The ethnographer under a microscope

With all these stories in mind, I was also held captive as an upper-middle class researcher so frequently visiting the various rooftops I encountered (mainly through an extended familial connection). In speaking about how intimately they know what they eat, I was always made fun of and teased for being such a picky eater (I only eat chicken breasts out of every other meaty protein) but also for having no basic knowledge of where my chicken come from, what they were fed, how they were grown, etc. This is indeed very true; as a middle-class kid, I have no knowledge and never sought to know anything more than how my chicken tastes perhaps. I increasingly felt how ignorant, problematic, and fooled I am in this particular regard. 

With that in mind, the rooftop was always a bountiful space that is also quite private but also vulnerable to the evil eye (hasad). Before beginning fieldwork, mama repeatedly advised me to say mash’Allah (may God bless) whenever I see any animal or whenever I even step on the rooftop. She told me that rooftops are quite private, and usually regarded as such an (economic but also social) asset that cannot be openly shared with anyone – hence why I never took photographs nor inquired about “numbers” of chickens or animals raised on the rooftop. Yet somehow, this was never enough. After four months of fieldwork, I was once visiting while one goat was very weakly pregnant. I asked Soso, my 17-year old interlocutor taking care of the rooftop with her mom, whether this is normal and she told me that this particular goat always grows so sick whenever she is pregnant and that I will only come in a week or two to find her running around with her new kids.

The following week I called to ask if I can pass by and asked how the goat was doing. Soso went silent and told me that she will tell me once I arrive home. I went the next day to find out that the goat did deliver two kids. Two days later one of her kids passed away, followed by the other kid, and one day later the mother goat died too. Everyone was grieving, but I was also denied access to the rooftop ever since that incident. Whenever I indirectly asked if I can join Soso as she went up to the rooftop, they would change the subject or just tell me how hot it would be up there and how tiring the stairs would inevitably be. In a few weeks, I stopped trying and fully relied on sitting in the living room, eating, drinking excessive doses of tea, Coca Cola, watching TV series, and talking about rooftop news and animal stories. Although I was never directly confronted, this was quite surely about the evil eye and suspicions around me being again a researcher, hopping on every week, checking on the rooftop and asking strange questions about chickens and their relationships with their animals, while accidents of this sort take place. Some distance needed to be made and sustained.

Yet while this denied access from the rooftop was in place, I was still more than welcomed (in fact encouraged) to come visit and spend some time with them every week or two. To make up for all these meals, teas, drinks I consume every single visit with almost no return, I would buy a box of eastern sweets, cake, chocolate, makeup for Soso who is about to be married, or story books for the little children with every single visit (costing around EGP 50-80 per visit). Whenever any neighbor would pass by, I was always introduced as a relative of theirs who lives in Nasr City (a middle-class neighborhood in Cairo, a class marker for sure). These neighbors would always in turn ask how come they have a relative who is that beautiful, when Soso would immediately respond shouting that she has green eyes just like mine – a running gene in the family.

I was faced with this dilemma of what needs to be shared of my background and what needs to be kept rather discrete

This class differential, implicated in ways through which I was cast off as different but also a relative but also someone to show off with/through, was manifested in various other ways. Again after a few months of fieldwork, we spoke about my parents and my father’s occupation as a medical practitioner. Soso’s mother asked me to try and buy her a medication that she rarely finds. After taking the name of the drug and asking around, I knew that there is relatively no dearth of the drug at all, but that one pack costs EGP 200. At first, I did not know what to do and whether I should buy the drug or not – whether it is ethical but also genuine to do so. I decided I won’t buy it for them, and later told Soso’s mother that she can go visit my father at the public hospital he works for, and perhaps he can refer her to some nearby pharmacy that sells the drug.

Increasingly, then, I was faced with this dilemma of what needs to be shared of my background and what needs to be kept rather discreet. Should I mention that we moved to a gated compound in New Cairo? What if they ask me where I live now? It actually happened once that Soso’s mom asked me if my older brother has an apartment of his own (which he’d later use for marriage). When I said no not yet, she immediately suggested that my father buys a piece of land in New Cairo or 6th of October and build a villa with a couple of apartments for my brother, myself, and my parents. I was astonished and shocked for indeed my father has no money to buy a piece of land, let alone build a villa for an extended family at this point in time. I made it so clear that we can never afford such a life, and that our Nasr City apartment is my parents’ marital apartment that my father worked so hard to buy upon proposing to mama 30 years ago.

That said, however, there have always been repeated jokes about how Soso should break up with her current fiancé (who is slow and late in having his apartment ready for marriage) and marry my brother instead, who would definitely buy her a brilliant house in the fanciest neighborhood in New Cairo. My reaction remains unchanged: a very strange quite neurotic smile.

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