Tact and discretion needed to enter tense, secretive region

April 27, 2007

Carrying out studies in the Middle East can be fraught with difficulty and even danger. Olga Wojtas reports

Against a backdrop of high tension in the Middle East, academics continue to carry out their research in often difficult and extraordinary circumstances.

These can range from being suspected of being a spy to having to destroy research notes or needing to choose appropriately priced presents for people who can help or obstruct access to sources of information.

Edinburgh University recently convened a meeting of researchers from disciplines including anthropology, political science, history and literature to look at the obstacles and opportunities in doing fieldwork in the Middle East.

Although the workshop was held under "Edinburgh Conversation Rules", which forbid the attribution of views to individuals, a report on the debates has been produced by Yasir Suleiman, former director of the Edinburgh Institute for the Study of the Arab World and Islam, now professor of modern Arabic studies at Cambridge University, and Paul Anderson, a postgraduate in Edinburgh's Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World.

Researchers said it was common to be seen either as a spy or someone who could improve the image of a particular community in the outside world.

"(People wonder) what they are doing there. Are they really bona fide researchers or are they trying to get information for other organisations?"

Professor Suleiman said. "People also see an opportunity to publish their grievances to the West and try to shape the debate about the Middle East."

Many researchers were frustrated by the political situation and censorship in some areas. Even research on literature and culture could arouse political suspicion. One expert on Palestinian cinema destroyed notes to get through an Israeli airport. Another researcher studying Egyptian theatre spent nine months in the country but saw only one production because censors closed the theatres.

But visits to the Arab world are important for keeping up to date with what is being read and discussed. A key event is the annual Cairo Book Fair, which showcases books and other media from across the Arab world.

Within institutions, access to documents, indexes and photocopiers was often guarded by "gatekeepers". Establishing good relations with them could include handing over gifts, but it was crucial to observe the correct etiquette, ensuring that the value of the gift was appropriate to their status. One academic who gave presents of perfume to a series of female gatekeepers had to ensure that the most senior got the most expensive.

Professor Suleiman acknowledged that in more segregated societies, female academics faced a different experience from their male colleagues.

Depending on the culture of the country they could have access to a world that would be closed to men. The tendency to see women in a protective way could make them less vulnerable to heavy-handed intervention by the state, but they might also face unwanted attention from men.

There was no consensus on whether the Middle East was a unique region for research. Some said each part had a distinct history and it was impossible to draw broad parallels. Others said everyday life was different across the region because of a local awareness of etiquette and rules of politeness that Westerners might be unaware of, with different perceptions of privacy determining what could and could not be said in various settings.

But a key message from the workshop was that the Middle East had its own concepts and understandings, which should not be ignored or tailored to fit Western theories.

"There was a strong feeling that the Middle East itself produces a lot of knowledge at the theoretical and empirical level," Professor Suleiman said.

But higher education in the West was often dominated by postcolonial theories, which sought examples of people in the Middle East "liberating"

themselves from the "constraints" of tradition, despite the conflicting data that emerged from fieldwork.


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