All posts filed under: Field Notes

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Taking feminist questions seriously

What would we ask about the rejection of the Colombian peace agreement if we took feminist questions seriously?

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Ethnographies of celebration

Colombians know how to honor an occasion, from love to loss, with an unstated but palpable awareness that most celebrations carry a tinge of both. As a fellow anthropologist remarked after the third glass of a wine on a Wednesday, this country inspires an “ethnography of rumba.” This is a story of what happens in the margins of research.

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Brief tricolored reflection on the politics of grief

I am writing these words in my attic in the suburbs of Boston. Every time the wind howls, the apartment shakes a little. Enough to make your heart be surprised with each gust, but not enough to lose faith that the center will not hold. I crawled out of bed this morning with the intention to continue reading for my dissertation on the politics of victimhood and the hierarchies of suffering that emerge in transitions from armed conflict. I have, instead, spent the morning browsing the news about Paris and Beirut and Baghdad, trolling social media for that one post that will help everything make sense or that will at least dislodge my heart from its place of numbness, even though I know better than that. I am consuming news almost mindlessly. The reports are on loop, reproducing narratives I have already heard while the authorities seek to unearth new information, and yet I cannot help but be glued to them, as though that is an act of meaning and use. At a time like this, writing …

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In search of human dignity in Greece

I remember when people would gather to watch the war. This usually consisted of sitting on a hilltop and watching the bombs fall not even two miles away. Hearing the sonic boom, seeing the smoke rise, then quiet. In other situations, a crowd would gather to watch a lynching or another paradigmatic punishment for a perceived war-related crime. I would find myself in these situations as a humanitarian practitioner in conflict-affected areas, and I remember being puzzled by the callousness of watching the war as though it were a film, as though it were the fictional story of someone else’s life, as opposed to a reality unfolding so close you could touch it.  There is ample research on the psychology of crowds in war, and much as I read it, I cannot get over the paralysis of watching suffering, when the act of observation is not one of documentation, assistance, or advocacy, but merely of voyeurism. Earlier today, Athens-based photographer Mehran Kahlili tweeted that “ATM shots are the new crisis porn.” All around Greece, my …

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This feminist’s fatigue

Or: an assorted list of arguments I’m tired of. 1. Explaining that we love men. Most every feminist argument I’ve engaged in or witnessed recently, and which attempts to critically examine masculinity or patriarchy, has had to include a caveat along the lines of “don’t get me wrong, I love men.” I am tired of having the choices be ‘thoughtful critique with caveat’ or ‘presumed man-hating.’ When is the last time we heard someone say “don’t get me wrong, I love socialists,” when they engage in a critique of socialism? “Don’t get me wrong, I love aid-in-kind,” when they argue in favor of vouchers or cash instead of direct food and soap distribution in humanitarian settings? Critics of systems other than patriarchy get to engage in deconstructing and pointing out the holes and offering the counterpoints — the very things feminist gender analysis seeks to do in patriarchal systems, only we have to bathe in caveats first, lest we be discredited for man-hating. 2. The choice between likeability and assertiveness. Here, I turn to the …

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Field notes from Colombia: Narratives

In one of my favorite TEDx talks, Chimamanda Adichie cautions against the dangers of a single story. As she narrates, we are “impressionable and vulnerable in the face of a story,” a disarming property of storytelling that I have come to cherish. However, she goes on to point out that this is a risky vulnerability when certain narratives emerge, become dominant, and overwhelm the others. In Adichie’s words: “But to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Colombia is rife with single narratives of the type Adichie describes – and, almost paradoxically, they exist side by side. There is the image of Colombia as the land of Pablo Escobar, the guerilla, the paramilitaries. It is the Colombia of guns and bombs, an image that nests most frequently in the heads of those …

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Field notes from Colombia: Are our questions necessary?

  A sculpture of a woman fishing alone on top of a building in La Candelaria. A banana hangs at the end of her rod. In theoverpacking era of my life, which was more recently than my currently minimalist self would like to admit, I was that tiny person dragging a suitcase one and a half times her size through a train station with a broken escalator and politely refusing all offers of help. Even though I was sweating. Even though the suitcase weighed more than me. Even though the last thing I wanted to do was drag that monster up the stairs.It wasn’t out of too fervent an embrace of the “Stranger-Danger” doctrine; on the contrary, some of the moments that have fueled my faith in humanity have been born out of conversations with strangers in liminal states. It wasn’t out of too paranoid an attachment to my stuff or too strong a need to prove my own beastly strength. Rather, my stubborn insistence on lugging extraordinary loads unassisted stems from having been taught …

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Field notes from Colombia: Memory

The text on the bottom left reads: “Nobody Wins.” On the right: “Silence is forgetting, is death.” For someone who aspires to mindful presence, I certainly spend a lot of time reflecting on the topic of memory. Earlier this week, I shared some of my reflections on arriving anew to a country you once called home. I wrote then:   In many ways, arriving anew in a country you once called home lends itself better to processes of memory than discovery. As I wrote in an email to Elijah yesterday, “can you still count firsts if it’s a ‘first time on this trip’ as opposed to a first ever?” There are endless layers of Colombia I have yet to uncover and even more that I have yet to fully understand, so the memory versus discovery conundrum is not for lack of novelty. Rather, it emerges out of a realization that a return to the field,particularly a return to a site you once called home, inspires — almost unwittingly — a comparison of memories. Does this …

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Field notes from Colombia: A new series

In many ways, arriving anew in a country you once called home lends itself better to processes of memory than discovery. As I wrote in an email to Elijah yesterday, “can you still count firsts if it’s a ‘first time on this trip’ as opposed to a first ever?” There are endless layers of Colombia I have yet to uncover and even more that I have yet to fully understand, so the memory versus discovery conundrum is not for lack of novelty. Rather, it emerges out of a realization that a return to the field, particularly a return to a site you once called home, inspires — almost unwittingly — a comparison of memories. Does this feel the way it used to? Are these the colors I remember? Is this how thin the air in Bogotá always was? I had forgotten the smell of Bogotá. No, Bogotá does not smell, per se, not in the way that would have anyone pinching their nose and making a face. But it does have its own distinct smell, …

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The giddy apprehension of return

The cloud forest at Parque Chicaque – one of my favorite places in Colombia In March, Katherine — a kindred spirit and blessed companion in this life by all accounts — wrote an essay titled “The Art of Returning.” In it, she reflected on the joys and challenges of returning to a place she once called home. I have always considered myself incapable of this rite of passage. The thought of returning as a traveler — a tourist! —  to a place that once hosted my zip code and memories alike has always felt heart-wrenching. I am writing these words on the floor of the Boston home that has, in many ways, symbolized a sense of rooted permanence in the past year. I sit next to packed suitcase and printed boarding passes and I’m surrounded by tokens of every other home that I have loved, tucked lovingly onto walls or draped over coffee tables. The Jerusalem clock, the Greek wine glasses the ‘tavern girls’ bought me as a farewell. In this moment, I sit at …