Ethnographic Fieldwork and Female Dilemmas

I often write about my experiences as a Black woman researcher in Albania, and the intersectionalities of race and gender. When I use the term “intersectionality”, I am referring to the ways that my identity as both Black and a woman intersect, so that when discussing my positionality, it is critical to note how the two interplay. For this post however, I want to focus particularly on gendered aspects of fieldwork in Albania. Tonight after finishing coffee with my neighbors I felt very pressed to take note of the ways in which I feel my research as a woman is impacted differently than a male researcher, particularly in Albania, and so below I have gathered thoughts to share with you (please note that many scholars have discussed these subjects at length, for more information on sources, see my comments at the end of the post).

1. Very often my research is not seen as valid

Tonight while having coffee one of my neighbors asked me about my research, and while I discussed it, his mind seemed to drift towards another subject. Now I know that I can be very verbose and oftentimes folks stop listening to me when I go on and on. What he said next though confirmed his thoughts of my project: “Don’t worry, next time I will bring my wife and when you meet her, she can teach you about having a baby. You should have a girl. Don’t be afraid of children!” As I have noted in several posts, I am asked every single day why I am in Albania doing research rather than at home with my husband birthing babies. Generally speaking, folks here are usually perplexed that foreigners would come to Albania at all, especially from the US (everyone’s dream is to be in the US!), so both foreign men and women are questioned for even being here. Women, however, are more critically scrutinized and furthermore, are often instructed NOT to do their research, as they are better served as wives and mothers. Even before I was married, when I conducted research here people told me that I was losing time and getting older, and that it was important to head back to the States and find a husband. 

2. I have to fight for my voice to be heard

While having our coffee tonight I was discussing a subject with my neighbor that he thought he knew all about (a typical response). On this particular thing though, I happened to be more well-versed and as I was relaying my thoughts he was very disturbed by my apparent awareness. So he just started saying louder and louder, “Yeah I know, I know” though it was clear that he did not know much at all. I was reminded of a recent ride in a taxi in which the driver began to castigate my research in Roma communities, because as he said, “There is nothing special about them, they are all liars.” I told him that he could share his thoughts but asked how he knew what he knew, what type of research had he done, how often had he visited Roma communities, how many Roma people he knew, etc. There were two other people in the car, both men, and the driver began getting upset as I spat off statistics and talked about my research. So he then just started yelling at me, shouting that he knew everything because he just did, and that there was no way that I could know, besides he was Albanian which meant he must know more (again, gender is not the only thing at play in this example). 

3. My body is constantly surveilled and critiqued. 

My colleague and I once wrote a conference paper on this subject, and the way that we are physically perceived in the field, as few people talk about this aspect of research. The female body, especially in Albania, in not treated the same way as the male body. Sure people discuss and critique all bodies publicly in a way that we do not do in the States, but the female body is dissected and oftentimes publicly shamed for what folks perceive to be “abnormalities”. Women globally have made this case and have discussed it thoroughly (i.e. the various Dove campaigns, the Body Project), and this too has a big impact on female researchers, especially for a woman such as myself that packs a big more junk in the trunk. During interviews I sometimes have to describe and even defend my body for long periods of time before we can get to interview questions. When I say defend, people will ask many personal questions about weight and size, that in the case of a male researcher, he would probably be the big fun guy who drinks lot of beers instead of the the thicker woman who is subjected to harsh criticism for her body. This led me to begin a focus group with young Albanian women about body perception as this is a larger subject to be studied here. 

4. Many times I am now allowed to set my own agenda

Folks here are very friendly and very hospitable, so they often want to host guests and accompany friends places. As a woman however, many people feel that I should not be able to go anywhere or to do anything on my own. This includes going to cafes, traveling to nearby small towns for interviews, or even simply going home in the evening. Now I am not unaware of cultural norms, and I am also conscious of existing dangers. As some of you may have seen in my previous posts about a temporary stalker, I know there are issues that I should keep in mind, places to avoid, things like that. At the same time however, male researchers get to occupy a different space that women cannot, regardless of how much we may demand to do so. Which brings me to my final point…

5. Women are regular victims of sexual harassment and assault

After tonight’s coffee I once again received unwanted and somewhat aggressive sexual advances. I have shared with you all some of the problems I have had with men and verbal harassment, but problems extend well beyond this point. This point speaks to women broadly, not just researchers (in particular sexual and domestic violence are big problems in Albania, a subject that I will attempt to write about later in a different post as it is very sensitive and dense). Female researchers are more likely than men to experience these types of problems, and like what happened with my situation with Kuqi the stalker, I was blamed for even being here alone, for not being with my husband, for even walking around alone. This type of response is all too familiar for females, in that many people tend to chastise women for their behaviors rather than blame and correct men for theirs. 

 

Of course there are other examples, all of which I believe provide a window into the ways gender is constructed both in Albania. Many scholars have written quite a bit on this subject, and for those interested I encourage you to check out such works as Black Feminist Anthropology edited by Irma McClaurin, Feminist Dilemmas in Fieldwork edited by Diane Wolf, or Women Writing Culture edited by Ruth Behar and Deborah Gordon. All are wonderful volumes and feature writings from excellent scholars. Also I would also highly suggest reading texts by bell hooks, Lila Abu-Lughood, Kamala Visweswaran, and also Zora Neale Hurston. 

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On belly touching

Image

This picture is not exactly what I wanted but it’s close enough. My husband is on his way next week and I cannot wait–seriously I’m jumping up and down like a little kid who can’t sleep on Christmas Eve! Well turns out that my friends, neighbors, and even strangers cannot wait as well for him to get here; some of them may even be more excited than me.

To put things into perspective a bit, as I explained before in a few posts, many folks here in Albania have a difficult time comprehending the fact that I live alone. But living alone is just a part of it. That I would come to Albania, for “research” (remember, many people think this is just a front), and be away from my husband, and do all of this as a woman? This is just absurd. Here are some of the things that I have witnessed or heard over the past two months:

My friend Besa’s great-aunt nearly had a breakdown when she learned that I was here in Albania without my husband. She began to physically put me out of the house, telling me to hurry up and leave for the US, and finally Besa and her cousins calmed her down and convinced her that I was okay to stay for a visit. 

While buying bread, a random stranger says to me, “Oh so you’re married huh? To an Albanian? Oh, an American. Well where is he? Not here?!? Well you better hurry up and get back to him, he’s probably already with somebody else.”

Security guard at the grocery store where I shop often: “Good evening, still alone? Are you still here by yourself?” I told him that I was but that my husband is coming soon for a visit. “Well thank God, this situation is not normal, you have to change it.” 

Alright, so folks have their comments and opinions, and yes, most couples don’t do what we are doing and I understand completely when people are taken aback by this. This is not particular to Albanians. However, I will say that as a female researcher I am often criticized for doing research alone here, whether married or not. Now that I am married it has been interesting to compare the reactions that I receive to those I got before. The politics of gender and research are such that it is still more normative for men to do this type of thing. For those who may want to listen, I once gave a talk about this subject that you can find here: http://miresevini.wordpress.com/2010/10/12/are-you-here-to-find-an-albanian-husband/.

So like I said, the comments on the distance and marriage are somewhat expected. BUT, what I did not expect is the number of times that people, neighbors and strangers, would approach me and touch my belly saying, “Inshallah (if God wills it) you will be blessed with a baby boy when your husband comes.” Yes, that’s right, people touching my lower abdomen and wishing that I get pregnant while my husband is here, and in particular that I have a boy! I was surprised/confused/disturbed the first time this happened, when a street vendor, whom I’ve known for a few years, did it. But then it happened a few more times, sometimes people will just say to me on the bus for example, “Hey are you married? Any kids yet? Well may God give you a boy.” Then today, a woman from my neighborhood did it, placing her hand right on my stomach like it was no big deal–then she insisted that my husband and I have a coffee with her when he gets here. Seriously, I have seen this woman all of four times in my life.

To top it off, last week while having coffee at a friend’s place, one of my friends offered to read my fortune in the remains of my Turkish coffee. Depending on where you are in the country and what generation of folks you’re with, this is a very common practice in Albania (for more read here). Well my friend Orkida claimed to have many years reading coffee grounds, and as soon as she got my cup she said, “Hurry home now, your husband is very sad without you!” I then told her that actually he should be here soon for a visit. “Oh, good,” she said. “And now I see that soon you will be pregnant. Inshallah with a boy.”

Race and racism–forbidden words?

Racism? In a small southeastern European, homogenous country? A country with so much religious harmony? Surely this cannot be. Racism? In a country that once shielded and protected Jewish populations during World War II? Absolutely not. Perhaps in surrounding Balkan countries that have struggled with ethnic conflict in the post-Yugoslavic period, but not racism in Albania.

These are some of the reactions and comments that I receive when I discuss my research in Albania. While my goal is not to definitively determine whether Albanians are racist, this is what many people hear, regardless of what I may actually say. Race, and more so racism, is a term that can elicit anxiety and tension. The topic makes people nervous. And Europe has a particular history with racism, which is particularly marked by Nazi race science and genocide. Furthermore, many people think of the Balkan region as saturated with ethnic conflict, a region steeped in ancient ethnic hatreds, barely contained below their boiling point. Albania, however, is often viewed as a more stable nation of the region, as the country that was not as directly involved in the conflicts of the 1990s (I say directly because Albania did play a huge role in the Kosova/Serbia conflict of 1998-99. You can read more about that here.) People tell me that Albania is racially homogenous, that there is not much difference here. That Albanians warmly welcome all guests, and foreigners especially. So why am I bringing my racial lens of analysis here?

As much as my friends, neighbors, and interlocutors try to correct my “misinterpretations” about race and racism, processes of racialization do exist in Albania. Individuals speak openly and freely about racism—conversations and observations with individuals reveal this. People discuss racism against Roma and Egyptian communities, the ways in which northerners, mountaineers, and villagers feel racialized, as well as racism that Albanians experience in Greece and Italy. People discuss color, differentiate between those with white hands (white people) and black hands (darker skinned people like the Roma and Egyptian communities). Even still, many people become uncomfortable, defensive, and even angry when I discuss my project. Never mind such racist occurrences as: overt racist slurs used towards African football players at games (including fans hurling bananas and yelling “monkey” at Black players), the use of blackface and derogatory language to portray Black people on national comedy shows, segregated neighborhoods and camps with few if any resources, offensive language and actions against dark-skinned people (primarily Roma and Egyptians), the everyday usage of racial slurs like bythë zi (dark ass) or gabelë (derogatory word for Roma, though people say it to me at times as well), thoughts about classification of people and rankings based on skin color, the thoughts that people hold about marriage between races–these are just some examples among many. 

But it can be difficult to talk about these things in terms of race. For one thing, people must first understand that while many things have changed since the end of communist rule, Albania is still a poor country, with many people living in extreme poverty. So for some folks, they do not see a connection between racism and poverty (against Roma groups for example), but rather view the situation as a group of people that does not work and therefore does not have many resources; and since many people are struggling here, whether Roma or not, what makes this group different than others? Or, folks will talk about slurs and offensive language as annoying, bothersome even, but not rooted in racism, even if based on such physical and biological factors like skin color. Still if you can get folks to begin talking about differences and socioeconomic gaps, then they are usually okay staying in the realm of stereotypes, discrimination, marginalization, and even prejudice to some extent. Things change at the mention of race and racism. Europe does have a particular history with the word, a different history than does the United States, for example. Yet, one look at some of the recent European reports, texts, and analyses highlights attempts to discursively erase racism. It has become something people want to get rid of, if only verbally so. Perhaps if it is not mentioned, it is not there; so we will keep words like “discrimination” or “ethnic conflict” because people feel safer there for some reason. 

This reminds me quite a bit of the United States. Many folks have created this neat little box for what racism is (or was to some): the days of slavery and Jim Crow, these are examples of racism. Separate water fountains, separate restaurants, also racism. And all of that was changed, eradicated. For many folks if so-called racism does not fit this mold, then it is not so. Which is why it can be so difficult to discuss institutional racism, structural racism, to discuss forms that manifest differently than those aforementioned. A similar phenomenon occurs here in Albania, and this is one reason I think people have a hard time engaging the subject. Or they would rather just use a different word because that is easier. I am reminded of anthropologist’s Alaina Lemon’s article “Without a ‘concept’: Race as discursive practice,” in which she argues that while people in post-Soviet spaces may not have used the same language as the United States to discuss or index race, this does not mean that people did and do not have ways of making racial inference based on biological and/or physical features (2002). So in other words, just because racial practices in Albania do not look like other forms in Europe, presently or historically, or the US, does not mean that they do not exist.

I once attended a university talk about migrants, religion, and transnational racism, and during the Q&A a woman shared her experiences in France. As a white French national, she said that in her country, people no longer use the term “race” to talk about differences among people, and that they preferred ethnicity. At some point she began crying as she talked, saying that the idea of racism really bothered her, and that ethnicity was much better. And therein lies the exact problem–people need to be bothered! One of the biggest differences between race and ethnicity lies in the fact that while a person can choose her ethnicity, and even identify ethnically or nationally in multiple ways, race is an ascribed identity. Yes race is a social concept (as opposed to biological) but individuals and groups are racialized, and these processes oftentimes shape socioeconomic inequality and disparities. In the case of Albania, there are serious structural problems, serious issues with race and human classification. Racial logics structure even the most mundane facets of everyday life, and these logics are at the root of policymaking, social interaction, segregation and injustice. Racism has created social, political, and economic exclusion, and can take on many forms; recognizing this is one of the first steps to addressing it. 

 

References Cited

Lemon, Alaina. 2002. “Without a ‘Concept’? Race as discursive practice. Slavic Review. 61 (1), 54-61. 

A recap of last week’s party

Here’s a recap from the party last weekend:

1. As instructed I showed up to Mrs. B.’s house and we ate our “small” lunch before going to the 80th birthday party. We ate soup, salad, veggies, and byrek with leeks which was really good. She did a great job making it, and as usual talked about how wonderful it all came out as we ate. After lunch we had Turkish coffee and then headed to the event. 

2. On the way to the party Mrs. B. informed me that it was not necessary to really talk about exactly what I do here in Albania, as folks didn’t need to know all of that (sometimes she acts like I work for the CIA or something, which surprisingly folks do ask from time to time; why the CIA would send a Black woman here “undercover” I’m not sure). Anyhow, she informed me that she had already told most of the women that I was here studying the Albanian language. She considered this to be a suitable response but of course throughout the party folks kept asking what I was doing here, as they thought it odd that I would seemingly come here for many years just to learn Albanian. 

3. The first plate of food that came (key word, first) included: various types of salami, cheeses, olives, eggs, yogurt sauce, beef cuts, bread, salad, tomatoes, sliced carrots, grilled peppers, and cabbage. I ate a few things here and there but of course I was already stuffed. People started whispering and then asking Mrs. B. if her American friend was hungry or not. She then said, “Oh we already ate, Chelsi loves byrek so much and wanted me to make one before we came.” I almost choked on an olive. She smiled as she said this and patted my back. “So you like byrek, huh,” my neighbor asked, and I simply smiled and nodded my head. I later heard Mrs. B. yelling across the table to someone explaining that because I loved byrek so much, she just had to make one earlier for me. “She even takes some home with her!” All the ladies marveled at my apparent love of byrek. 

4. Later the second plate of beef steak and potatoes arrived, and I ate what I could but again, I was very full. Mrs. B. did not even touch hers but no one paid attention to her plate — instead they were fixated on mine. And of course there was fruit and dessert afterwards. Thankfully I did not have much time to think about these as folks were dancing more and Mrs. B. kept making me get up to dance with her. Sidenote: Albanians really like Chubby Checker’s “The Twist”. I swear I hear it at every party and wedding with a DJ. And it’s usually mixed in with Albanian music and that Americana song that folks love so much. So we did the twist. We did traditional Albanian “Valle”, we danced in and out of circles, making lines all over the place. 

5. Later I went back to my seat to catch my breath for a second and give my feet a rest. The lady next to me heard the next song and got ready to get up a dance. She grabbed my hand and motioned towards the dance floor. At first I said, “No, no, I’ll wait until the next one,” but she grabbed me anyway and said, “Come on, you’ll lose a little weight,” and smiled. Right, I thought to myself. Time to dance off that byrek that I love so much. 

The Albanian Hunger Games Part II: A Better Fire in the Kitchen?

While my blog primarily focuses on questions of belonging, race, and identity, I am also exploring ways to capture stories from my  fieldwork experiences and connecting them to larger questions about ethnography. That being said, I share here some interactions with one of my closest friends. 

I mentioned Mrs. B. in my previous post about the hunger games, the one in which I I first termed the phrase “Albanian Hunger Games.” Well I’m back now with what I’m calling Part Two, and almost named “Catching Qofte” (qofte is an Albanian meatball). 

So Mrs. B. loves to cook — really she lives for it. I’m not sure if there is anything in this world that makes her happier than cooking, and she’s wonderful at it. Here’s a typical recap of lunch at her house:

Mrs. B.: Mireserdhe! (Good that you’ve come, or welcome). The table is ready and I’m just heating the soup, it’s such a good soup. Full of vegetables, a very light soup. 

We do the usual questions and updates: family check, health, how work is going, what we have done the past couple of days, comments on the weather. I ask her if I can help her prepare and she shoots me down as always, and acts so surprised that I would even ask, as her guest. We have been friends for almost six years. 

Mrs. B: We’re ready now. Only a small lunch today: soup, salad, byrek (like a pie) with beans, fish, cabbage, and peppers. Ju bëftë të mirë (bon appetite). 

Me: Bless your hands for preparing. 

And then we start eating. 

Mrs. B: (After eating a few bites) Look at how wonderful this soup is, such a good soup. And the vegetables came out beautiful. Chelsi, make sure you eat all that salad, it’s so fresh. I walked far to get it, from a village woman who you can trust. You can’t trust everybody when it comes to buying salad. 

I take more salad. 

Mrs. B: And finish those peppers too, because I won’t eat them later. You are hardly eating anything. Don’t forget I made a lot of byrek so you can take some home with you. And I made it by hand, none of that store-bought stuff. And this fish, isn’t this fish good? I prepared it well. I got it special, and at such a good rate. 

She continues eating, smiling, and singing to herself. She loves to feed people and gets so much joy out of food. The only time she stops to speak about something else is to point and yell at the political commentators on TV, for being so corrupt and betraying the people of Albania. There’s one woman in particular that she always calls a witch. I don’t even know her name but whenever I see her now on TV, I too think ‘witch’. 

Alright, so that’s what a lot of our lunches look like. We eat, catch up, she tells me stories about her childhood and her late husband. And we conclude with Turkish coffee or mountain tea. Now Mrs. B. is involved with a retired woman’s group, which consists mostly of women age 65 years and older. They meet at a center near her house, for casual conversations and activities. Sometimes they have coffee together, other times they take walks, and every now and then they take organized trips. Well one day one of the women suggested that they have a group outing to a restaurant here in Tirana. Her son is the manager there, and she claimed they had some of the best food in Tirana. All of the women had to agree to pay a fixed price and they would organize the meal with the cooks. When I saw Mrs. B. a couple of days before the outing she was excited about it, though I know that at times she, like many Albanians and especially older ones, are skeptical of eating out. What I mean is, Americans in comparison eat out often (and not necessarily just those with more money), whereas relatively speaking, Albanians do not do so as much, though many more are doing it now than were twenty years ago. My mom and I once took Mrs. B to a restaurant here in Tirana and she put on a front there, raving about how good everything was, but then a few weeks later asked me if I went to get my money back because the food was so awful. 

So, when I went back to her house the week following her group outing, and asked her how it turned out, she said, “Terrible!” The food was just unacceptable, completely subpar. She said that the woman tricked her, and that she could have made everything better at her house. Apparently it was so bad that in the end, Mrs. B. only ate pilaf (rice) because she couldn’t stand the food. After this occurred she told the story to everybody, and I mean everybody. I have heard it at least five times. Now, perhaps she was being a bit overdramatic, but I must say that I admire her passion for food. And in many ways it’s funny, especially this story she keeps retelling. The food gets worse every time the story is retold.  

This weekend though? I share all of this because Mrs. B. has set me up to play the hunger games and I don’t think I am ready to compete. For you see, Mrs. B. has invited me to her friend’s 80th birthday party, and I am delighted to be her guest. For this party, the family has rented out a place in Tirana, complete with a large dance floor and live musicians. Mrs. B. is really excited because she loves to dance. There’s just one problem though — she doesn’t trust their food to be any good. Word on the street is that it is not. So what’s her solution? I’m going to arrive at her house two hours before the party and we’ll have lunch together, a “light” lunch that she’s preparing, so as to not take any chances. BUT, this is not good for me, because I have been to parties and weddings before, and like usual, people are going to watch to see what I eat, and how much I eat of it. I have heard people whisper things like, “The American, does she like our food?” or “Let’s hope to God she is pleased with the food we serve.” When I do not eat, whether at an event or someone’s house, especially at someone’s house, then the host tries to find something that I would prefer to eat instead, since I must eat something (i.e. see the first post on the hunger games). And as many of you already know, even when you’ve even a lot, people think you haven’t eaten anything. Not to mention how people will make you eat and eat, but then tell you how much weight you have gained (I’ll save that for another post). Mrs. B. has already set the plans for Saturday though, and called me today to ensure that I will be over early. Let’s see what happens.  

 

I share this with trepidation: The story of Kuqi

I am sharing this post knowing that my mother will probably yell at me later but I am going to take a risk. For a few years now a rather strange man has followed me around Tirana when I have stayed here for research periods. I’m not sure why but this gentleman would approach me often and ramble incoherent sentences about only God knows what, and while at first I thought he was a drunk with a few loose screws, several incidents from last fall forced me to contact the police as he had begun to stalk me, at times aggressively. Now I know it may sound crazy that the first time this man ever came up to me was in 2009, and that the first time I ever contacted the police was in 2013, but seriously it was only until last fall that it turned into stalking and verbal harassment.

So I am sharing this post now for a few reasons. First off, this situation with Kuqi, that’s his nickname, has become one of anthropological inquiry, as many of my friends, neighbors, and the police here did not (and maybe still do not) quite comprehend the situation as I did, or if they did, they never saw it as dangerous. Annoying, maybe. Bothersome, sure. But never dangerous. Even though my friends helped, just yesterday one of them was saying that I blew the entire thing out of proportion. As such, part of the reason I am blogging is to dig deeper into categories, phenomena, and how people make sense of their worlds. This especially comes out in the video as various people in the story try to help me understand what’s really going on, as if I don’t know. This brings me to the video. I am now experimenting with what I’m terming for the moment “performance ethnography”, and I’m doing so through the use of video. I envision this as part storytelling, part ethnography, and a way to get anthropology off of paper. I’m not exactly sure where this is headed but some friends encouraged me to try this out, so I am. I will say that the story is pretty long, so just know that beforehand. Also, it has taken some time for me to be able to blog about this, and yes now many parts of the story are very comical but they weren’t always so.

I think this story though sheds light on many aspects that need further examination, including the fact that many of my friends were more concerned about how this matter would cloud my view of Albania and Albanians; still when some friends hear about it they immediately get worried that I might think badly of the entire country, or worse, tell others that this is what Albania is like. Also this story opens the question of how people handle notions of verbal harassment and stalking. This especially comes out with multiple people telling me that there was nothing they could actually “do” about the situation. I also think that maybe cases such as this one really problematize the concept of “the ordinary” or “the everyday life”.  It’s really made me question things that I might think of as extraordinary that others do not.

Here it is the story of Kuqi:

 

The ways to tell a story

I know that was a rather long winter break hiatus but I’m back to Albania and back to blogging.  I just recently finished a novel by writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and have since become an instant fan of her work.  Reading her work about race and belonging was truly inspiring, and I only hope to be able some day to articulate my writings have as well she does.

I began more searches about Adichie’s work and came across a Ted talk that she gave several years ago entitled “The Danger of a Single Story.” I am sharing a link to the talk below, and encourage all of you to have a listen when you can.  I feel that it is very relevant to my work here in Albania, as I somehow try to ethnographically capture the stories of the people and places here.  Now I know that for those of us that are anthropologists or social theorists, we discuss these topics regularly, but I do not think that these conversations occur enough in non-specialist realms.  For example, for my master’s thesis I did a lot of research on travel narratives about Albania and the Balkans, many of which have painted a one-sided picture of Albania for the world to see.  These narratives have often been over simplifications of people, of culture, and of history.  Many of them are also filled with prejudiced and offensive language, particularly the ways in which Albania has been constructed as Europe’s other.  A scan of some of this literature reveals how the danger of the single story operates, and continues to shape both people and places, as these stories are often told more regularly than those that present multiple views and voices.

The Danger of a Single Story

 

As always I welcome your thoughts and ideas.