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Session R4818 (Teaching Middle East Studies in a Controversial Time: Between Activism and Accountability), 2017
My contribution to the panel derives from my own experience conducting ethnographic field research in the Middle East as Trump assumed the US presidency, and navigating how my interlocutors became “vulnerable populations,” in IRB parlance, seemingly overnight. My interlocutors are largely Syrian, Iraqi, and Iranian passport holders and lifelong residents of the United Arab Emirates, as their parents relocated to the UAE after earlier conflicts in their home countries. The job, education, and travel prospects for my research participants have shifted drastically since November 2016, but especially after January 28, 2017. Does a visiting brother return to his job the US, knowing he might not be able to visit sick parents in the UAE for the foreseeable future? Another interlocutor had worked hard for two years and won a scholarship to pursue graduate study; having applied to US programs, she now struggled with whether to fight to get a visa or give up her career ambitions entirely. I had not planned on working with vulnerable populations, but my participants’ status shifted drastically.
Given the current, rapidly moving political climate, how then do we teach anthropology of the Middle East, and how do we square teaching with activism and accountability to our interlocutors? Ethnographers often struggle with how to protect our interlocutors, and how to use our knowledge about a region and its people ethically. As scholars studying the region, we are often forced to become apologists for it. Thus we must consider how we frame our own experience of and in the region and our authority to speak about it in the classroom along with how to be accountable to and responsible to our research communities. In addition, on a practical level, how do we teach ethnographic methods to best prepare our students to observe and handle these kinds of tumultuous shifts in category? It is critical that we as researchers and educators are equipped to understand the way our own positionalities are in flux, especially those who hold American citizenship. At this particularly difficult political moment, scholars of the Middle East region are exceptionally poised to make relevant and critical interventions both in our work and in our teaching, but we must address these questions first.