Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Neither a village nor a suburb, Wadi Zayna is a collection of gray tenements straggling between two roads leading up from the coast road into the hills of Iqlim al-Kharoub, just north of Sidon. Palestinians displaced from camps in the south and Beirut during battles with the Shi‘i Amal movement (1985-1987) have gathered here. Some are old-time residents, people who bought apartments before the 1982 Israeli invasion, investing lifetime savings to have somewhere to retire to outside the camps. Others are muhajirin (war refugees) who rent, or stay with relatives, or “squat” in unfinished buildings.

Wadi Zayna is a district entirely without public buildings: no mosque, UNRWA school, resistance office or clinic. There is no market, only a few small shops along the main roads. For services of any kind — educational, medical, administrative — people must take taxis or buses to Siblin or Sidon.

In August 1987 I spent three days and nights in Wadi Zayna, visiting with Umm Khalid, friend of five years whose home in Shatila was destroyed in the first Amal siege (May-June 1985). Now she is here with the children (eight) in an apartment that has one large room, one small room, a kitchen and a lavatory with a shower. Abu Khalid visits on weekends. Umm Khalid does not tell me — and I do not ask — if this is a “squat,” or if her brother, an UNRWA teacher, is renting it for her. Abu Khalid’s salary as an accountant with one of the resistance groups certainly would not stretch it out. None of the children have reached working age. The oldest, Ilham, got married last year but is spending this month with the family, on holiday from the Gulf.

Mainly I am here to record Umm Khalid. It is an interview on women’s control over material resources, how their earnings affect their relations with their family/husband/neighbors and whether they enhance women’s sense of power. I have spent quite a lot of time drafting and redrafting this interview. It is long (too long) because — to give it historical depth — I have included recollections of mothers as managers of household income. The women I have used it with needed several sessions each, difficult to fit into busy lives continually interrupted by emergencies. The interview has both methodological and personal origins. As a fieldworker I tend to oscillate between despair at the artificiality of scientific methods (and their oppressiveness) and impatience with the formlessness of daily life. After long periods of “participant/observation” in which a great deal of time goes into watching Egyptian TV soap operas, conducting a formal interview can be therapeutic. It also helps to establish my status in the community as “researcher” rather than as potential patron who might know someone in UNRWA. Research in a “crisis community” continually faces you with the dilemma expressed memorably by the war photographer Don McCullen: Do you photograph a dying person or do you try to save him/her? For a researcher the dilemma takes different forms. But helping individuals in a crisis community not only does nothing to help the collectivity, it generates rivalries and reinforces inequalities. Far from changing social relations, it conforms to sociocultural formats of patronage. From the researcher’s perspective it is time-wasting and dubious as a way of establishing rapport. Even if one accepts the ethics of a relationship in which information is exchanged for goods, what reality status does information obtained in this way have?

So my interview is partly an effort to obtain data that will be “systematic” and “comparable,” and partly an effort at self-transformation. On the first evening, just before going to sleep, not too close to the ceremony of gift giving, I obtain Umm Khalid’s agreement in principle to record. I have brought something for each child. Umm Khalid redistributes, passing on the hair bands and bracelets I bought for the younger girls to Ilham, the new bride. On the question of the interview, we agree that evening time will be best, after the children are asleep.

However, two days and two evenings go by without a break. On top of her housework, Umm Khalid is a marathon visitor, especially when I am “in residence.” We visit ten neighbors and friends scattered over Wadi Zayna, and walk two miles to the neighboring village of Jidra to meet one of Umm Khalid’s cousins, recently released from Amal prison. Several neighbors visit us, staying till late at night.

The third evening (my last), I timidly remind her of the interview. Umm Khalid sighs. Already by 6 am when I woke she was up scouring the backyard for scraps of wood and cardboard to heat the furniya to make lahm bi-‘ajin, a treat for my last day. Then there was the wash. The old single-tub Toshiba is on its last legs, too small for the mountains of washing even if it were working properly. Ilham and Samira both help their mother with the work (Ilham only hangs out the washing: Married, she has gone up in status from daughter to visitor), yet it has taken practically the whole day.

We sit on the only bed, the tape recorder between us. Seeing the resignation on Umm Khalid’s face, I want to scrap the whole operation. But my programmed finger presses the record button and the interview begins. Umm Khalid answers the questions in a small, dutiful voice quite different from the one she uses to yell at the kids or discuss the latest political twist with neighbors. I hardly notice this in my pleasure at having for once succeeded in pinning her down for half an hour — a blessed kid-free, neighbor-free, TV-free hour — to ask a few questions about her personal life. But I am torn by the knowledge that, as friend or patron, I should help Umm Khalid find a new second-hand washing machine and, having found it, transport it to Wadi Zayna. I have lived long enough on the fringes of this community to know such actions are considered normal rather than extraordinary. During ayyam al-thawra (days of the revolution), resistance movement cadres might neglect projects but never the personal ties that linked people to groups.

It is only later, listening to the tape at home, that I realize that the interview is about as personal as a party manifesto. Partly, of course, this is the result of the question-and-answer format, inseparable from power asymmetry, only differentiated from any other authoritarian interrogation through the fiction of rapport. But there is something else, a quality of impersonality that I have noticed particularly in Umm Khalid, though also with other, older, working-class Palestinian women. It is as though she has invested her total energy into her public life — as mother/wife, neighbor, resistance group supporter — and has none left for introspection. Is it that, deep inside her, there is a buried “self” that has never had a chance to develop (stunted perhaps by marriage at age 15 to a cousin)? Or is it that her “self” is the way she acts toward the people who make up her life: children, husband, kin, friends, neighbors? Listening to the tapes, I realize that Umm Khalid is not expressing her “self” in these words in the same way she expresses herself making bread, or slapping her shaytan son Muhammad, or telling a neighbor how to apply for a scholarship for a clever child.

Luckily the interview is not the last event of the day. A neighbor drops in to ask the time of the bus to Beirut tomorrow, and stays for coffee and a chat. The conversation turns to the topic of conjugal relations. As a new bride, Ilham is the target of remarks intended both to instruct her and to demonstrate the older women’s experience and wisdom.

“Right from the beginning you must teach the man to treat you properly,” the neighbor tells Ilham. “You mustn’t be ‘broken’ between his hands. You must teach him to respect you, otherwise he’ll treat you like a ‘nothing.’”

She tells a story about a crisis early in the married life of her daughter Ghada, and how it was circumscribed through rapid, energetic intervention by the bride’s family with the husband’s. “He threw her out in the middle of the night, depriving her of her baby. Thank God we were close by.”

Umm Khalid listens (visitors have preference in telling stories). Then she comes out with a story of her own. Of course my recorder is stowed away in the other room, and by the time I realize the quality of the story, I fear to break her flow by retrieving it. Written down later, denuded of Umm Khalid’s flourishes and phrasing, a mere shadow of the original, the story went like this:

“It was around 10 or 12 years ago. Word came to us in Shatila that there was trouble between Abu Khalid’s younger brother and his wife. Abu Khalid immediately sent me to find out what was the problem. He didn’t delay a second, it was a matter of honor.

What did I find when I reached Nahr al-Barid? [1] By my daughter’s honor, it had reached a stage where they were throwing things at each other. The reason? My husband’s brother, Abu Ahmad, had complained because his wife had given him macaroni to eat for two days running. Pans of macaroni were flying to right and to left. The next thing was that she left everything — home, children, husband — and returned to her folk za‘lana. [2] “My parents-in-law sent me to try and persuade her to return home. Nothing doing. She refused: “I’ve had it up to here with all of them. Let them manage without me.” Finally, another of Abu Khalid’s brothers brought a car and put us both in it and drove us back to Nahr al-Barid. But she (Abu Ahmad’s wife) just walks straight into her room, refuses to speak to anyone, and refuses to cook.

What happens then? [A long pause for emphasis, before reaching the story’s climax.] A section of her family that lived in Nahr al-Barid heard that there was trouble involving a kinswoman. So what did they do? Istanfaru! [3] Of course they were with the resistance, so they gathered with their weapons outside my parents-in-law’s home. They only just avoided a pitched battle. Ya habibti! [Pause.] Do you think Abu Ahmad’s wife ever heard a word of criticism from her husband or her in-laws again? She would serve them macaroni four days in a row and they wouldn’t say a thing!”

The contrast between the dramatic quality of Umm Khalid’s narrative, occurring naturally in family/neighbor interaction, and the lifelessness of the recorded interview, product of my intervention, struck me then as the difference between “reality” and “artifact of Western sciences.”

For a long time afterward I ceased formal interviewing, restricting my work to “participant/observation” (in fact, occasional visiting). With time, however, this reaction appeared overly dichotomistic. After all, visiting has its own kind of artificiality, its own overt rules and underlying structures. I realized that, told in another setting or at another time, Umm Khalid’s story would have taken another form. To label it “reality” was to fetishize it. Similarly, in retrospect, the interview I had discarded began to acquire new meaning as I set it within a sequence of Umm Khalid’s presentation of herself to me, a specific friend and stranger, different from others but no less real. She had made this effort to oblige me in the same spirit that she wrapped homemade bread into my travel bag. No observation that a researcher takes from the field can be valued as “pure data.” It is always both part of a developing relationship and a reflection that adds more or less light to socio-cultural analysis.

Endnote

[1] A camp north of Tripoli that has remained very rural and culturally conservative. The peasant custom of a bride living with, and serving, her husband’s parents continued here longer than in other camps.
[2] Za‘lana (literally “angry”) is a peasant custom whereby a woman treated badly by her husband, or his family, has the right to return to her parents until a reconciliation has been brought about.
[3] “They mobilized with arms; they prepared for battle.” Istanfaru is a term much used by Palestinians in camps in Lebanon.

How to cite this article:

Rosemary Sayigh "Recording “Real Life” in Wadi Zayna," Middle East Report 173 (November/December 1991).
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