Our entire group — CONN 397 in Souq Waqif, on our 2019 maiden voyage to Qatar over Spring Break
So it’s an odd juncture in an anthropologist’s life to take students to the field. For most ethnographers, fieldwork and immersion in an unfamiliar culture is a solitary experience. Indeed, Malinowski captured the essence of that trepidation a century ago, when he suggested to readers: “Imagine yourself suddenly set down surrounded by all your gear, alone on a tropical beach close to a native village, while the launch or dinghy which has brought you sails away out of sight.” Anthropologists seek empathetic understanding — to grasp as best we can the insider’s perspective on different ways of being in this world. But the pathway to that goal is oftentimes a solitary one. We are professional strangers, as Michael Agar phrased it long ago.
Drifting through the back alleys and passageways of the oldest quarters in a very modern city
For the past two decades, I’ve been solitarily exploring the complicated urban spaces of the Arabian Peninsula, focusing first on the transnational migrants who build and service these astonishing modern cities, and then later in my academic trajectory, on the cities, spaces and urban landscapes in which they toil, dwell, and interact with each other, with the native citizens, and with the cosmopolitan diversity of others who pass through these busy urban entrepôts. The city itself fascinates me, and it’s a vantage point that I’ve increasingly sought to share with students.
Over Spring Break, I took seventeen Puget Sound students to Doha, Qatar. Our field excursion was part of an experiential and investigative sojourn woven into the fabric of a new course entitled Migration and the Global City. In its first iteration this semester, I co-taught this course with professor Robin Jacobson (Politics and Government). The course coalesces my interests in the interface between migrants and urban space, in the archaeology of social relations we can discern and read in the built landscape of the city itself, and in the new and unprecedented ways that diverse peoples fit together in cities outside the ambit of the west.
Students meeting with Dr. Ali Alshawi, one of Qatar’s leading sociologists
For students, I hoped to cultivate an experience that would de-provincialize their understandings of how people can fit together, to raise their eyes from our American preoccupations and frustrations, and to experientially engage these bright young Americans with the cosmopolitan diversities one encounters in Arabia and in the Indian Ocean World. In helping to forge the global citizens we’ve long sought to develop at Puget Sound, these sorts of cross-cultural explorations can prove to be integral experiences that expand students’ horizons. And along the way, I hoped that students’ perceptions of the Middle East would be reshaped by the peoples they encountered in Doha, as my own perceptions have been via the encounters and lifelong friendships I’ve established there.
A musical procession of Qatari women, revitalizing some of the peninsula’s musical traditions in the contemporary era
I planned students’ experiences in Doha around a series of interrelated excursions and activities which, together, punctuated the ample free time preprogrammed in students’ schedules. That free time was intended to help accommodate the taxes of jet lag, foremost, but it also allowed for students to explore the city as they saw fit. With only a week on the ground, I hoped to turn students into their own guides — to stoke their curiosities, to encourage them to draw on as much intrepidness as they might muster, and to thereby replicate the ethnographic experience in the short window of time available to us.
A sequence of planned activities put students in several of the numerous museums now blooming like mushrooms in the urban landscape of Doha. In those various museums, students explored how the foreign and the indigenous populations were framed and, sometimes, woven together in the narratives presented by the museums. Students also learned about the complexities of the hierarchies and relations behind these museum exhibits, and considered how the state and the legion of foreign consultants were involved in articulating the stories and narratives they encountered in these public exhibits and displays.
Puget Sound students drifting through the towering trophy case of skyscrapers that coagulate in Doha’s West Bay
And in small groups, we mimicked the post-war Paris-based Situationists and their engagement with the Parisian urban landscape: together, students ventured off into the alleys and the byzantine winding streets of the oldest neighborhoods of Doha with their camera-phones in hand. There, they sought to encounter the unforeseen, to meet the unexpected, to wander beyond the touristed and quotidian spaces of the city’s front stage. This technique — the dérive, as the Situationists called it, or the urban drift in our translation — yielded all sorts of observational and ethnographic treasures: chickens in the center of the city; rooftop vistas of the setting sun; empty floors of skyscrapers built for forthcoming occupants, the forgotten and eroding modernisms of yesteryear, and more.
SOAN junior Alena McIntosh talking with a South Asian transnational migrants over lunch
Students also had the opportunity to meet and interview a variety of Qatari citizens and residents, including my close friend, colleague and sociologist Dr. Ali Al Shawi; my friend, former student and Education Officer at the Msheireb Museums Moza Abdulaziz Al Thani; a host of students in Dr. Jocelyn Sage Mitchell’s course at Northwestern University – Qatar; urban planner (and now Oxford graduate student) Yaseen Raad; and my friend and colleague Zahra Babar (CIRS-Georgetown-Qatar).
But perhaps most unprecedentedly, as a class we grabbed a couple Ubers and ventured out to Asian Town, one of the new satellite enclave-developments configured to house the transnational proletariat at work on the peninsula. There, in the heart of Asian Town, we met a group of workers, shared a lunch, and reached across the many differences that distinguish us — differences that oftentimes preoccupy Americans. In hesitant English, students heard from Bengali, Nepali, and Indian workers who described their lives and their experiences in Qatar, the places they call home in South Asia, and their aspirations for the future. Likewise, these migrants asked many questions of their new American friends, and some remain in contact with the students to this day.
SOAN students Elly, Dean and Zephy grab an after-lunch selfie with their new Nepali friend Rakesh
In spite of my initial trepidations, in the final accounting I found the experience of bringing students into the field to be a fascinating one. Indeed, guiding students through the world I study in Doha helped me see it anew — I basked in the experience of revisiting these places together, and I grew to value how our conversations jogged my understandings via students’ insightful perspectives and observations. And perhaps much of that had to do with the serendipitous quality of the group we assembled — Puget Sound students are great cultural ambassadors. I felt both happy and fulfilled seeing and (re)exploring Doha together, and proud of each and every one of these seventeen students.
SOAN senior Elly French compiled this brief video that, in my estimation, captures the ethos and camaraderie that we established as a group exploring Doha together. Anyone with further interest in this course or our trip can certainly contact me, or see quite a few more images on Instagram at the hashtags #SOANUPS and #CONN397.