Fieldwork in a Yemeni “Village” Displaced and Constituted by War

By Nathalie Peutz
Submitted to Session P5224 (Anthropology in War-torn Yemen: Challenges, Dilemmas, and Alternative Methodologies, 2018 Annual Meeting
Diaspora/Refugee Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
No longer able to conduct research or even to visit friends in Yemen, I have now shifted my fieldwork to a proximal country, Djibouti, where I am focusing on the Yemeni refugees who have settled in the Markazi camp since the start of the war. On the one hand, there is nothing methodologically new to this geographical relocation. Yemenis have migrated for centuries and, for decades, anthropologists have conducted research on and with Yemeni diasporas worldwide. Moreover, I had been interested in this Red Sea migration even before the war; my earliest research in Yemen focused initially on its Somali refugee community. What is new—and what drew my attention to this community, aside from the hazards of returning to Yemen—is that now Yemen has produced a refugee population, too. This novelty is articulated by the refugees’ demands that they be regarded and treated as refugees, not as Yemeni migrants or as a population temporarily displaced. It is also embodied by the refugees from Sanaa and Aden who currently live side-to-side, fighting less over the forces behind their departure than over their positions regarding return. Fieldwork in a Yemeni refugee camp—a camp that the Djibouti government now calls a “village”; a Yemeni “village” within earshot of the bombs dropping on their coastal villages across the sea—becomes a way to learn about Yemenis learning about their country. If I am trying to understand the contours of the war through WhatsApp messages, it is because this is how the Markazi residents are keeping up with events in Yemen, too. Of course, my anthropological “displacement” is only temporary—every time I leave Djibouti, my departure underscores that they must stay. For this reason, and to make their situation more visible to the general public, I have turned recently to the use of photographs as an ethnographic and political tool. In this paper, I discuss a collaborative project to give cameras to Yemeni refugees in Markazi as a way for them to both contribute to an ethnography of camp life and to circulate their images and stories within the countries that will not accept them. This paper evaluates this project’s successes and failures in terms of anthropological data collection, the use of interdisciplinary methodologies, and scholarly engagement with communities both displaced and constituted by war.