Ethnography at midlife

April 26 2023

Z Fareen Parvez

“It’s a big problem working on the shop floor when one is 53,” my dear Ph.D. advisor Michael Burawoy had said in an interview about his gruelling fieldwork in a Hungarian steel factory (in “Tales of the Kefir Furnaceman, by Jeff Byles, April 10, 2001, The Village Voice). “I’d be much happier just sitting in my office.” I was 26 when I read this feature about Burawoy’s work, and I remember being perplexed by this comment. Why would someone prefer being in their office to being out in the world, doing ethnography? Now, over twenty years later, I understand.

Recent research has revealed the extent to which our brains become rewired as we age, with significant change unfolding after the third decade. As a result, we get less mentally flexible and more set in our ways, to say nothing of other physical changes that begin. What does this imply about ethnography at midlife? It means that it’s harder to be open in the many ways ethnography demands – to change, unpredictability, relationships, new ways of thinking, and physical risk. To be sure, this essay is most relevant to a particular kind of ethnography, based on deep immersion in a new culture and the need to build rapport with participants in the field. Not all ethnographic research requires this. But it’s the only kind I personally have known, that came most naturally to me, and that I think most reveals the dynamics of power. But in recent years, indeed, I’ve found it harder to be as open and flexible as I once was.

“Fieldwork adventures”. Circa 1998. Photo by author.

Though yet untrained, I started ethnographic research right after my BA, where I traveled to South Indian villages to see what microenterprises looked like on the ground. Casually picking up the regional Telugu language and local style of dress, I carried sugarcane stalks on my head at dusk, climbed banyan trees with my interlocutors after their day of garment work, and laughed as they fed me street food that would make me sick. (I quickly recovered.) At night we would dance, and five different people at once would climb into my single bed to share stories. Who needed privacy or sleep when there were stories to be told?

“Who needed privacy or sleep when there were stories to be told?” Photo by author.

After a few months, I left with the final memory of tearful goodbyes, attachments, and promises for the future. Years later, for my dissertation, I undertook an ambitious comparative ethnographic project on Islamic revival movements. Returning to India, I spent almost every day in low-income neighborhoods, burqa-clad and in unbearable heat, navigating a highly complex gendered terrain. I compared what I saw there to movements in France, where I was often under the watchful eyes of security guards and was determined to break through the suspicions of my religious interlocutors. I had the patience back then and the stamina to keep trying, no matter what. Eventually, this all culminated in my first book Politicizing Islam. Since then, I started a new project in India and branched out to a new field site in Morocco.

Madness in Morocco

My most recent stint of fieldwork was on the subject of spirit (jinn) possession in Morocco. This took me to the medieval, walled, labyrinthine city of Fes. I was looking at Islamic and traditional forms of healing from possession, from simple (but powerful) Quranic recitation on one end of the healing spectrum to all-night trance gatherings known as lilas. Examining the intersections and gaps between science and religion as experienced in people’s daily lives, I had numerous conversations about mental health and illness, including with a psychiatrist who lamented Morocco’s poor mental health care infrastructure and persistence of popular belief in jinn possession.

I spent hundreds of hours in the labyrinth of the old medina and in run-down working-class neighborhoods with jinn-afflicted men, women, and children. Sitting in their homes or in ‘Islamic healing’ clinics, I saw them weep, scream, hit, faint, writhe, wrestle, and bleed. I’d seen great suffering in my life, from refugee camps in India at the edge of my field site to the streets of New York, where I worked long ago for the homeless shelter system. But something about the suffering I was witnessing here broke my heart in new ways. Perhaps this was because I lacked the intimacy with the culture and language to make sense of it; or maybe we simply grow more emotional at midlife, more attuned to the fragility of life.

“The medina I loved”. Photo by author.

From time to time, I was a participant observer, as opposed to the ethnographer who watches from the side. Here, I fell ‘victim’ to attempts to save me from my own demons. Si Khatija was one of only a few female Islamic healing (ruqya al-sharia) practitioners in the city. In collective healing sessions, women would lay on rugs on the cement floor of Si Khatija’s dedicated space, as she began to recite prayers in her deep resonant voice. Those possessed by jinns might twitch, shriek, shake or howl. These were the jinns’ attempts to fight off the power of the Quran. As I lay on her floor during a session, I happened to have a headache as well as an itch on my face. As I twitched here and there, Si Khatija smacked my face with her thick hand. Next thing I knew, she squirted a healing olive oil up my nose and near my eyes, causing me — or was it my jinn? — to physically react even more, probably confirming to her that I was possessed. Irritated and confused, I nonetheless could’ve sworn at the end of the session that my headache had left. I experienced a few episodes like this, in Islamic and “un-Islamic” settings, where I didn’t know what I would be subjected to by my interlocutors. And it was scary.

But something about the suffering I was witnessing here broke my heart in new ways. Perhaps this was because I lacked the intimacy with the culture and language to make sense of it; or maybe we simply grow more emotional at midlife, more attuned to the fragility of life.

But these moments were nothing compared to the sorrow and concern I felt for the afflicted. Bilal was a 12-year-old boy with a warm and feminine face, still carrying some baby fat. He and his family said he was possessed by jinns inherited from his grandmother. As I observed, he would fall into episodes, wherein his jinn spoke through him in high-pitched tones, angry, accusing, or sometimes just playful. His parents were worried to death and had tried everything, from brain scans at the hospital, to traditional rituals at saintly mausoleums, to the lila (trance) ceremony where I met him. Deep in the walled city where they lived, his grandmother cried as Bilal enacted scenes of choking and fainting. When he awoke from his fainting spell, he said he needed some air and wanted to go to the mosque. Suddenly, he fled from the home, his face in anguish, desperately running down the dark alleyways, away from his family. His father later found him after a frantic search by his mother, aunts, and family friends. Mirroring Bilal’s anguish, I suddenly found myself feeling claustrophobic sitting in their living room and even walking in the alleys of the medina I usually loved. Pondering Bilal’s situation, whether epilepsy, depression, or possession, I too needed some air. Even outside in the open, I felt I was choking. And there was nowhere for me to run. Neither I, nor my two Moroccan research assistants, could sleep that night. 

“Alleys of the medina at night”. Photo by author.

Later that evening, I fell sick. Was it something I ate? Was it the evil eye? I couldn’t believe this latter question was seriously occurring to me. Then again, it had saturated my surroundings and the thoughts and lives of my participants since the start of the fieldwork. This question floated seemingly everywhere, in the water, in the music.

By the following week, I still couldn’t kick whatever virus or bug had invaded my system. With dystopian visions of antibiotic resistance swimming through my mind, I also couldn’t stop thinking about Bilal, my participants, and their various illnesses, jinns and sufferings. Their words and images kept rolling in my mind like a tape reel I couldn’t stop. I had given so much of my energy — physical, emotional, spiritual – to ethnography over twenty years. But I was not prepared, or willing, to lose my mind. I decided I had to get out as soon as possible. 

At this point I was quite physically sick and desperate to avoid hospitalisation in Morocco, which I knew was imminent. I finally found a flight out of Casablanca back to the U.S. Standing outside the airport, I waited for the plane to open its doors. In my poor Moroccan Arabic, I shouted to a worker staffing the backed-up runway, “Sherif, ana maraydha bzzaf!” Sir, I am very sick… Please help me to the plane! He grabbed my arm and walked me to the door of the plane, where I collapsed onto my seat. And just like that, in the dark hour before dawn, I hit the eject button, leaving behind Morocco and all its jinns.

Limits and Lessons

I believe what happened in Morocco wouldn’t have happened to my younger self. This project required me to open myself to new experiences—physical, mental, and emotional—that soon overwhelmed me, leaving me vulnerable to internalising my interlocutors’ sufferings and world-views. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but it made me reflect on the vulnerability that ethnography at midlife can entail. So what lessons could I learn from this abrupt fleeing of my field site?

For one thing, I missed my kids terribly. In my 30s, I toted them around on my back from verifiable slums in India to housing projects in the urban peripheries of France. Now, at this tender and delicate stage of their development, I can’t take them out of school so easily. And I’m hyper-aware of what precious few years are left before they are grown and move away. The urgency of fieldwork has paled as my shrinking time with them seems to accelerate. To other ethnographer parents, I have no words of advice to give, only empathy.

I learned I must do the humbling work of knowing my personal limits. These limits seem to exist at the intersection of midlife realities and my American self. As an immigrant, somewhere between first and second-generation, I share a life-long sense of exile and yearning for the old country of my imagination and the collective and anarchic ways of life I remember. Indeed, this is why these international field sites keep calling me. Yet, much more than I care to admit, at this point my Americanness is fairly set in place. What does this mean exactly? I need personal space, hot water, and some sense of control over my time. It’s hard to eat dinner at midnight or to deny my dietary preferences or needs out of politeness. After a few hours of intense collective activity and effervescence, I need my solitude and time to decompress. These things need not undermine fieldwork, but they give it a different shade. Typically, immersive ethnography demands going with the rhythm and flow of our participants and being willing to patiently be with them for hours on end, ready to catch any magical moment in the field. Asserting personal limits might mean losing out on some of those moments or even intervening too hard in the field. Or it might make way for a slower form of ethnography, more mottled and restrained.

On a more mundane note, besides knowing my limits, I learned I must be more organized in ways my younger ethnographer-self was not. This means, among other things, taking the time to get an azithromycin prescription in advance and updating my typhoid vaccine. And as misanthropic as it sounds, I also realized I’m now a little less intrigued by people and not as open to developing a bond. Or at least, I’m less interested in making promises I can’t keep, no matter the intention, like promises to stay in touch frequently or return every year to visit. Life has taught me that such promises are as unrealistic as they are beautiful.

“Rukmini and my broken promises to her”. Photo by author.

Yet it was precisely curiosity, openness, and a youthful excitement toward an endless time horizon, a daisy chain of promises, that helped me develop strong relationships in the field and made me a better fieldworker in the first place. While I can’t exactly undo this loss of intrigue and openness, I feel a compulsion to struggle against it and at the same time reflect on the many different paths to ethnographic richness and depth that are less dependent on our bonds, per se, with participants.

And as misanthropic as it sounds, I also realized I’m now a little less intrigued by people and not as open to developing a bond. Or at least, I’m less interested in making promises I can’t keep, no matter the intention.

Personal Journeys

We pursue ethnography foremost to explain something about the social world, but in many cases, ethnography also pulls us toward a personal journey we didn’t anticipate. Whatever site it is, I believe the field chooses us as much as we choose it. To the extent that this happens, it’s worth some effort to reflect on one’s state of mind beforehand. In Morocco, I was haunted. I realized only at the tail end how much this particular field, through the trials of my participants, was forcing me to stare at my own midlife questions and fears. Was my faith strong enough to assuage my anxiety over the coming forms of suffering I will surely endure, from sickness and old age to loss and death? Had I done right by those who loved me or whose paths I crossed? Will I ever experience the extreme freedom and direct communion I yearned for? (What privilege to even entertain this aspiration!) Were these new and ambiguous physical symptoms the vagaries of female hormones, subject to medical explanation; or were they symptoms of unresolved grief, longing, regret? What exactly was my body trying to speak? As I bore witness to my participants’ ancient jinns, their sensations of (soul) choking [ghumma], and their traumas and family troubles, I asked myself, ‘how different were we, really?’ But in their collective beliefs in the unknown and unseen, always just beneath the surface, they pulled me into worlds that felt dangerous and precarious, worlds where questions had no answers. Yes, I was haunted. I always embraced some element of hauntedness as part of the pain and reward of ethnography. But at midlife, it feels a little more serious, something to consciously consider, and not something to casually play with. After all, certain kinds of field sites might carry the potential to stir up grief, traumas, fears, and questions about the future that were neatly buried inside or that didn’t seem relevant before. I knew these questions bobbed around inside me, but I wasn’t ready for the turmoil they would create. Nor have I yet developed the poetic wisdom of Rilke to just “love the questions themselves.”

I realized only at the tail end how much this particular field, through the trials of my participants, was forcing me to stare at my own midlife questions and fears. Was my faith strong enough to assuage my anxiety over the coming forms of suffering I will surely endure, from sickness and old age to loss and death? Had I done right by those who loved me or whose paths I crossed?

But how can fieldwork still have the power to change us, even as we get more set in our ways and our brains busily rewire into a less flexible form? There are many critical moments where this can still take place. One of these, for me, was an evolution in my friendship with my primary interlocutor, Amina, a fifty-year old single mother who radiated warmth and toughness at the same time. I had a complex dynamic with Amina, often finding myself very frustrated with her and at one point even firmly deciding she was narcissistic. But then she was extremely anxious and concerned when I fell sick, watching me frantically searching for a way to get to Casablanca, 300 kilometers way. My options were running out. In the end it was Amina who came through and worked it all out for me, going well out of her way to save me. We said goodbye hastily. She extended her arms and held me tightly against her. “I love you,” she said. So weak I could barely stand, my words came out hoarsely. “I love you too. I’m sorry it had to end this way.” I really felt it, even if in a more momentary and guarded way than my younger self might have experienced it. And I realized at that moment I had been wrong to misjudge her. For you never know. Humans can still surprise you, not only with their capacity for cruelty or cowardice, but with their loyalty and heart. Indeed, they can humble you. It’s never too late for such surprises. And I find that a pretty sublime lesson to learn at midlife. “Will you come back to Fes for my nephew’s wedding next summer?” Rather than promise I would, this time, I just smiled and said inshallah (if God wills).

When I finally made it to the Casablanca airport, eager to leave and eager to hear English, I found myself shocked and repulsed, as I overheard banal conversations among American tourists. “Honey, was that a caramel latte you wanted or a vanilla latte?” I no longer knew what was more mad, blaming the evil eye for one’s woes or having a decision to make about the flavor of one’s latte. When I returned to the U.S., the decompression period was longer than I experienced in the past, and it took weeks before I could look at my fieldnotes, think again about my participants, and enjoy my own vanilla latte.  

I don’t know what lies ahead for my ability to do ethnography, as the years advance and my relationship to fieldwork becomes increasingly delicate. But I do know how essential it is to regain perspective on the social world by removing myself from the context of individualistic American privilege from time to time. Ethnography has been my principal path to do this. Perhaps I will need to alter the way I do it, slow it down, or work with others rather than as a lone ethnographer. In this post-COVID world, ethnographers are initiating these difficult conversations about what is lost and gained in newer models of research. Just as my midlife musings keep taking me back to the importance of trusting the future, whatever it holds, I shall approach ethnography the same way – with surrender and faith.

Sometimes, in a dream, I see Bilal running down the dark alleys of his neighborhood. I wonder what the rest of his life will bring. How I hope he finds peace. How I hope he makes it, well beyond the assaults of midlife. And in that dream, I am running too – sometimes away from and sometimes toward the questions that this craft stirs and ignites like a big, powerful genie.  

Z. Fareen Parvez is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and a member of the UMass Ethnography Collective. She has investigated the relationship between religion and politics, the social consequences of financial debt, and different ways that communities and social movements resist domination. Her first book, Politicizing Islam: the Islamic Revival in France and India (2017), is a comparative ethnography of Muslim communities living under the War on Terror. 

Find her on twitter at @zfareenparvez

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