Posted by: Christian | October 3, 2009

Fieldwork Fun

Well, it seems that I found a computer that works with wordpress (but no USB port? Huh.)

My fieldwork – about an hour north of Afghanistan – is going just fine. Some issues have come up. Primary is the fact that I speak the literary language, rather than the street language of this corner of the country. It is a daily task to adjust my language and write down what people actually say. All language problems aside, when I actually start speaking to people they get an ear-to-ear grin. People are usually quite amazed that a translatorless foreigner can string together even the most simple sentence in the present-perfect tense. Even for a cabbie (usually very savvy) who, after I negotiated a fare and said what I was doing in his country, said “So you are Iranian?” Not quite. But apparently I have some Tehrani influences in my speech. But mostly people just try to speak Russian to me. It’s the kids who always ask me straight away if I’m American. Did the Indianapolis Colts t-shirt give it way? Or the Indiana University one? [Note to the Australian National University: get some decent t-shirts].

As for my arrival, that was the main problem. I have no local-based organizational affiliation, making securing a visa and permission a rather lengthy process. With that finally secured from the bureaucratic machine I was forced by circumstance to arrive on Eid (big holiday around these parts). So I reserved a rather expensive hotel room in the capital for a few nights in order to ride out the holiday and recover from my Indiana – Vancouver – Canberra – Melbourne – Abu Dhabi – Istanbul – Monday City travel extravaganza. But then an email 2 days before (while I was in Turkey) from the allegedly expat-friendly hotel saying that my reservation had been cancelled. The explanation that important people needed the room did not exactly comfort me.

So, all my contacts in the capital had left the country, cancelled their trips, or were otherwise not familiar enough to me to ask for a 4am pick-up at the airport on the holiday with 36 hours notice. Other hotels? I’m not going to pay $200 a night. I figure I’ll just show up and ask a cab driver for a $10 per night suggestion.

But, as luck would have it, the hospitality of the locals came through. While at the airport in Istanbul I got in a conversation with some local SF-type military officers returning home from some training/exchange program. I said I was planning on going to the south (very few people go there), where I had my one single contact. I gave the name of the town and, as double luck would have it, two of them were from that town. Next thing I know I’m in some informal military transport (a Tangem, for those of you familiar with this mighty vehicle).

This led to me being invited to their family compound (a hauli/havli) for chai and piles of food. And then to their uncle’s house, and then another uncle, and then etc… Finally, to outside prayer room where people were constantly coming for Eid prayers. And lots of chit-chat with muysafeds and aksakals. And not a word of English. Across the courtyard women started to arrive for lamentations for the deceased brother of the man I ended up talking to. Very loud wailings went on for about 20 minutes.

And the whole time all the men came straight for my host of the moment to offer their greetings. I joined in the greetings and was forced to abandon all the greetings that I was taught (aside from that standard Arabic phrase) for the local varieties. I spent the day observing, questioning, answering… like an amateur anthropologist without a license (I’m not in an anthro department).

This was the type of crash course I needed. In the last ten days here I have become more familiar with the place as I have embedded myself at an English language centre as part-time conversation tool. I have found two internet “cafes,” a single ATM that occasionally works, and even a kid dressed in Zoo York gear who used to live in the Bronx. And unfortunately, I have come to find out the huge popularity of Eminem, 50 Cent, Justin Timberlake and the Pussy Cat Dolls. But Jay-Z seems to be lost on them. They need hooks and dance beats.

But generally, the kids here are great and absolutely everybody has been good to me. Zero attempts at ripping me off and not a single unfriendly glare. I walked behind a Russian soldier in the bazaar and they didn’t give him any looks either, so it seems to be a rather tolerant place.

And the queries I get?

  • #1 is “Where did to learn to speak our language?”
  • #2 is “Are you married?”
  • #3 is “Why not?”
  • #4 is “How can I get to America?”

1) Indiana University. 2) No. 3) I answer differently each time. 4) I don’t really know.

And Afghanistan? It’s as though it doesn’t exist, even though I could be at the bridge in just over an hour. It has only come up twice: once when somebody complained that at night cement trucks from Afghanistan congest the road and sometimes don’t have headlights. The other time is when I said “mujahideen” and a room full of teenagers said, nearly in unison, “No! Terrorists!” A day later I saw an old woman begging. She had a framed picture of her deceased son in his Soviet military portrait, circa 1980s.

Not too sure how much I will write during fieldwork…


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