Loneliness and despair in the field: Revisiting my first fieldwork

By Marina de Regt

Recently, during a supervision meeting with three of my Master students (all of them women), one of them asked about my own experiences in the field and what I struggled with most. I told them how difficult I found it to approach people for interviews, how I battled with the ethical dilemma of being a white, young Dutch female student, studying Moroccan women who were making a living as carpet workers in Rabat. But perhaps even more important: how miserable I often felt because I was not doing fieldwork but spending most of my time with a man, whom I was attracted to but who was also harassing me. I rarely spoke about this relationship. I did not share it with my supervisor. Only a small group of close female friends, most of whom also anthropology students at the time, know about it. I was too embarrassed to talk about what had happened. I blamed myself, and felt like a complete failure. How could I, as a young feminist, have ended up in such a situation?

About two years ago two PhD students in anthropology, Janne Heederik and Lise Zurné, took the initiative to establish a Working Group ‘Safety in the Field’, which has become part of LOVA, the Dutch Association for Gender Studies and Feminist Anthropology.[1] Since then, a number of events have been organized around the theme, and currently Kiki Bijleveld is doing her Masters research about this topic. Kiki asked me if she could interview me as well because I had told her briefly about my own experiences, and I agreed. As preparation, I looked up my fieldwork diaries, and they brought me back to a period of my life that I had quite successfully swept under the rug. Whenever my fieldwork in Morocco would come up in conversations over the past three decades, I would jokingly say that I would only write about my experiences when I would be retired and would have nothing left to lose. But reading them made me decide to open up, at least to some extent, and write this blog.

Rereading my diaries

On 7 March 1989, exactly 33 years ago, I went to Rabat, a city I had consciously chosen because I thought I would feel safer in a modern city than in a small village or rural town. I had visited Morocco a number of times before, and was in a relationship with a Moroccan man with whom I was living together. My boyfriend at the time agreed with my choice to do research in Rabat, and advised me to tell everyone that I was married. He did not join me in the field and stayed in Amsterdam, but would visit me twice. My supervisor advised me to stay away from men as much as possible as my research was about women. I found a room with a Moroccan woman, and started my fieldwork.

In my diaries I describe how I was very consciously trying to stay away from men, especially when walking in the city, and how difficult that was. I was often approached by men, and I did my best to keep them at a distance. Yet, during one of my first visits to the carpet market in the old medina of Rabat I met the owner of a small carpet shop who invited me to his house. I declined the invitation but when I met him again a few days later and he insisted, I accepted. He lived together with two of his brothers, and one of them promised to help me with my research. He knew the carpet sector very well and could introduce me to people, he said. In the weeks that followed we saw each other regularly, I could sit in the small carpet shop and observe the souk where women were marketing their carpets twice a week. A. was 12 years older, handsome and I liked his company. Although he was also quite compelling. In my diaries I do not describe how and when our affair began. I was clearly censoring myself; afraid that someone would read them. However, I write extensively about my feelings of guilt towards my boyfriend in Amsterdam. It also becomes clear how lonely I felt in Rabat, and how hard I found it to do fieldwork. I was very insecure, did not speak Arabic very well and did not dare to ask women for interviews. In addition, my landlady was not making my life very easy and I tried to be outside of the house as much as possible. As a result I spent a lot of time with A,, in his beautiful house overlooking the river, instead of doing fieldwork.

But the reason for my trauma was more related to A.’s regular outbursts of anger. He could explode about the smallest thing. Whenever this happened, I was terrified and did not know what to do. I often stayed much longer with him than I had planned, and only left when he had calmed down. At times he would also manipulate me, and force me to do things I did not want to do. I found a short fieldnote in which I am extremely upset. I felt I had ruined my life and subsequently my research in Morocco, and promised myself to keep silent about “everything that has happened here”. When I returned to Amsterdam after seven months (instead of the planned three months) I stayed for a short while in touch with A. secretly, but then our contact ended. I remember being very relieved when I moved to Yemen in 1991; it felt like closing the “Morocco chapter” of my life.

Going back and looking forward

In 2008, I went back to Morocco, and to Rabat, for the first time in almost 20 years. I was invited to a conference at the university, and quite nervous on the plane. In Rabat I was continuously pondering whether I would contact A., yet my fear for renewed contact made me refrain from doing so. I did visit the medina and the carpet souk and even the area where he used to live. But my heart was clearly beating faster. I was struck by the fact that I, in my early forties and with much more life experience, was still scared of him. In 2010, I returned once more, and again decided not to contact him for the same reasons. A., however, tries his best to be in touch with me. I occasionally receive emails from Dutch tourists who have met him and who ask me to phone him. Once, in 2012 when I was living in Berlin, I did contact him to thank him for a small present he had given me via a tourist, and we had a nice conversation. But the fact that he continued to call me afterwards made me decide not to give him my number when I returned to the Netherlands.

Rereading my diaries brought my fieldwork in Rabat back again in quite emotional ways. I am mostly struck by how lonely I was, and how much I was in need of support. I missed a good support system, someone who could advise me on what to do. I hardly had any friends in the field, and I was too embarrassed to share my experiences with the few other Dutch people living in Rabat. It was 1989, there were no mobile phones, no internet, no WhatsApp. Instead I walked almost every other day to the post office checking for letters from loved ones and spent a lot of time writing letters to them. Moreover, my diaries show that a mixture of feelings, ranging from loneliness to despair, from desire to guilt, to name but a few, mark my experiences, which makes it hard to categorize my experiences solely as harassment.

Today it is International Women’s Day, a day that continues to be important for a wide variety of reasons. In addition to the questions from my students, the renewed attention for safety in the field and the most recent cases of sexual harassment in the Netherlands have triggered me to write this blog. I recognize myself in my students and in the stories of people who experienced harassment, most of whom are insecure and struggle with similar feelings as I did. I wish to contribute to the discussion about harassment by emphasizing all these mixed feelings, and the fact that experiences are never onedimensional. Last but not least I want to call upon everyone involved in teaching and supervision, and those that are responsible for it, to create better mechanisms to prepare and assist students who go into the field, or who in other ways go through traumatic experiences during their studies. Being vulnerable and share our own experiences, doubts, and fears is in my view one of the ways to achieve this.

Marina de Regt is Associate Professor at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. She regularly writes about Yemen.


[1] Internationally the topic also received attention. See for example Rebecca Hanson and Patricia Richards (eds) Harassed : Gender, Bodies and Ethnographic Research. University of California Press, 2019, and the following websites: http://fieldworkinitiative.org, https://www.sapiens.org/culture/metoo-anthropology/) and https://metooanthro.wordpress.com/

One Comment on “Loneliness and despair in the field: Revisiting my first fieldwork”

  1. Thank you, Marina, for this contribution. Much too important to shift aside by saying that one needs to be a “professional” or shouldn’t become an anthropologist if one is easily scared. One’s experiences in the field matter. So we need to do two things: reflect on them thorougly and meticulously because they co-create one’s findings and analyses, and secondly: prepare well before and act as cleverly as one can during fieldwork. Rule one for the latter: contact, talk, write, phone, ask others! Don’t cut yourself off.

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