Fieldwork from Afar

January 15, 2021
Recently revived waterway in Omani town
Recently revived waterway in the Omani town

In spring 2020, Keye Tersmette, PhD candidate in Anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies, was less than 100 days into what was to be a year of dissertation fieldwork in Oman when Covid-19 hit. Here is his account of research disrupted.

Mere minutes after I purchased my ticket from him, the man behind the desk received a phone call. Soon he was smiling, and began snapping his fingers to draw the attention of his colleagues. The explanation followed the moment the line was disconnected: starting tomorrow, all bus routes would be suspended. While the bus drivers and office staff were celebrating their unexpected fortnight off, I can only imagine I must have felt relieved. I was taking the last bus from an Omani border town to the capital, just as it was announced that land borders everywhere were closed to everyone except nationals returning home. Social events and gatherings at community clubs were being cancelled, and the swimming pool had closed its doors. The cafés and restaurants I’d been frequenting for the past three months were only serving their patrons outside, and preferred it if you could make it snappy. Faced with the prospect of conducting my dissertation fieldwork from a tiny apartment, I conferred with my advisors and changed my plans. And so, on Day 99 of what was to be a full year, as Oman headed for lockdown, I was heading home to the Netherlands.

Agricultural land in Omani town near the UAE border
Agricultural land in Omani town near the UAE border

 

My decision to call it quits there and then was fraught with regret. For three months, I’d been working hard to become a part of the border town, building relationships with countless individuals, participating in rituals of celebration and mourning, joining volunteer groups cleaning up the streets, reading stories to groups of children at the local bookshop, planting seeds in arid plains, visiting friends at the central market, the vegetable market, the municipal market, and teaching English to high school students preparing for entrance exams. All that and more came to an abrupt end when I set foot on the plane. Was I throwing away all that time and effort by checking out? It’s bizarre to think that, as I’m writing this, I would have finished my fieldwork last week had the situation been normal. Instead, I was going to have to think of different ways to continue my fieldwork from afar.

It took me some time to figure out just how I’d do that. In our first department Zoom meeting, with other students whose fieldwork had been disrupted, our professors encouraged us to take time off, to be intentionally unproductive. Looking at my field diary, I see now that it only took me four days to stop writing daily field notes. I briefly tried writing about what I read in the newspapers and on Twitter, but the snippets of life weren’t as captivating. I tried keeping in touch with my friends, but I suspect I am not the only one who struggled to be enthusiastic about repetitive WhatsApp exchanges, especially when I knew what it was like to be chatting face to face. Chance encounters and spontaneous discussions were replaced with message notifications and scripted conversations. I simply could not replicate the serendipity that breathes life into fieldwork over a distance of 7,000 kilometers.

Nor could I appreciate – as, at least in one sense, I still cannot today – how the world had changed overnight. To me, each day brought little new, little that excited. I was not intent on transforming my research on citizenship in borderlands into observations about the acute vicissitudes wrought by the pandemic. Naïvely, I have wanted to put my research in stasis, and ignore how the two might intersect. As I devised grant proposals for continuing fieldwork from afar, my focus remained squarely on what my research had always been, not on what it had perforce become; as I promised to read the newspapers, scour the internet, browse social media, delve in the archives, and revisit old field notes, I promised only to replace my methods, not my muse.

That is, until one of my professors wrote to the same group of students over the summer, inviting us to participate in an ethnographic writing exercise. She asked us to produce an analysis of a “thing” central to our work, share it with the group, and read and review each other’s submissions. While reading my field notes in search of said “thing,” I realised I had spent a lot of time around one of the town’s recently revived waterways. I had no idea how I might connect the canal to my stated research interests, but it was one “thing” on which I had abundant ethnographic material. Had I written the analysis in pen, I’d have made a lame joke about how the ink flowed like the water in the canal. For the first time since my return home, I had actively engaged with the material I’d been collecting, and found that, even in the notes that said little explicitly about what it meant to be a citizen, there were threads generative of insights into Omani political life in the borderlands. Since that exercise, I have allowed my mind and eyes to wander beyond the confines of my immediate theoretical concerns, and have carefully begun noting what else strikes me about Oman at this remove.

Recently revived waterway in Omani town
Recently revived waterway in the Omani town


At the start of this new year, as countries around the world, including Oman, begin with vaccinations, I dare not yet hope that I’ll soon return to the border town and complete my fieldwork in situ. With my eye on a self-imposed date for graduation, I am considering writing the dissertation with the material I have collected thus far, and drawing more on a number of preliminary research trips made over the last few years. I keep in mind that a good dissertation is a done dissertation. For now, I look forward to teaching this semester, discovering the online classroom, and exploring new texts with students eager to learn about the world beyond the lockdown.