Crazy people on the other side of the world: challenges of ethnography and positionality in Iran

by Younes Saramifar

I recall vividly that I was pleased with my progress in the field on 14th March 2019. I smiled at the list of confirmed appointments for interviews, walks, dinners and lunches while looking at my agenda for the upcoming days. I was content. Everyone had said yes; almost all of those Iranian women who I had approached agreed to talk to me. I felt arrogant and kind of proud of myself. I told myself ‘yes, I have a great network here. Why shouldn’t they say yes? Who needs a gatekeeper? I am my own gatekeeper’.

It has been more than eight years since I travel up and down to Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Afghanistan for my various research projects. However, in my moment of arrogance and self-appreciation I had forgotten these countries are localities in the larger globe. I was lost in the advantage of my ‘situated knowledge’, familiarity with the region, languages, discourses and extensive ethnographic experience – the advantages that have shaped my anthropological professional self. These privileges, my situated knowledge, had become my blind spot and I was surprised the next day how blind I had become. 

I woke up with the reoccurring ding ding ding ding sound of my Whatsapp messages coming through on 15th March 2019. I was not happy anymore; oh hell, I was pissed. Everyone was sending messages to cancel their appointments even those who I knew for years. My bubble burst open and suddenly I had no confirmed interviews in my list. I was confused but then I looked at my News app and saw the reports about the shooting at Christchurch, New Zeeland.

A crazy person had decided to walk into a mosque and shoot the people while he live streamed it on Facebook. Consequently, my interviewees, interlocutors and long known friends cancelled the appointments.

It is confusing, isn’t it? It is annoying, isn’t it? I started calling back to figure out why when someone else has decided to shoot other Muslims people cancel their appointments with me. What have I done wrong? I come from the same region, the same country and I share the same religion and faith with my interviewees and interlocutors? So what the hell did I do wrong?

I had made the biggest anthropological mistake and not checked my positionality compass. I had forgotten that I was not ‘one of the locals’ anymore. I had become a foreigner to my own countrymen and brethren in faith because I worked and lived in Europe. I was told by those who at least answered my calls that they did not want to talk to someone who works with the Westerners who are capable of randomly killing Muslims. My interlocutors were hurt, displeased and angry that a crazy man decided to kill Muslims and they immediately reacted to the ‘Western world’. They did not care New Zeeland is not America, UK or any other country that is usually considered the ‘West’ for Iranians. The pejorative terms ‘West’ and ‘Westerner’ are usually reserved for the countries which are politically dominant on the globe or act as the military enforcer in the Middle East.

The people of my story simply were emotionally disturbed. They did not care about the distinctions between countries anymore. They did not care about how colonial histories have produced the West and East division but they preferred to blame the West for xenophobia and Islamophobia. Any country that was not Iran was fixed into the label of ‘West’ and became the enemy.  Meanwhile, my geographical situatedness, working in Europe, and not living in the Middle East instead in the Netherlands, became the justification to label me a collaborator with the enemy.

This incident can be seen and analyzed in different directions. One could say this is the sense of solidarity that is produced in the imagined community of believers that is manifested at the moment of external threat. Someone else may suggest how an external threat removes sectarian boundaries and internal differences within the Islamic ideoscape and how consequently local identities are reinforced. These analyses are valid in their own right but I would like to highlight two other points here: first, a methodological point and second a theoretical point.

Methodologically, my situated knowledge became my blind spot and I forgot to see how I am never fully my histories, my background, my gender and my emotions. All that I was, was reconfigured and reexamined by my interviewees, friends and interlocutors in the light of international politics. Therefore, it is nearly impossible to go ‘native’ even for a locally situated anthropologist. This methodological glitch explains the importance of positionality not by stating the usual reasoning that a scientist is part and parcel of any scientific inquiry, but it rather shows the theoretical contribution of the positionality. This theoretical contribution is the second point that I learned from those who canceled their interview appointments. I learned how my positionality as the fieldworker and the anthropologist highlights imagined geographies beyond the national and electoral politics as well as beyond religious discourses. My positionality highlighted boundaries and limits of geographies through emotional and affective everyday life encounters. Such encounters and boundary-making taught me how people assemble and dismantle the world regardless facticity, truth or falsehood. Therefore, I argue the truth of every fieldwork situation should emerge from emotional and affective encounters in order to show the unstable categories of global and local in various sociocultural settings.

Younes Saramifar is Lecturer at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology. He currently studies memories of the Iran-Iraq war.

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