SAHWA Views. Same, Normal and All Beautiful Things of Wonderland

                     “That’s very important,” the King said, turning to the jury. They were just beginning to write this down on their slates, when the                           White Rabbit interrupted: “Unimportant, your Majesty means, of course,” he said in a very respectful tone, but frowning and                               making faces at him as he spoke. “Unimportant, of course, I meant,” the King hastily said, and went on to himself in an under-                           tone, “important—unimportant—unimportant—important——” as if he were trying which word sounded best.

                     Some of the jury wrote it down “important,” and some “unimportant.” Alice could see this, as she was near enough to look over                          their slates […] (Lewis Carroll Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865)

Sofia: Returning to Helsinki from the SAHWA meeting in Rabat [18-20 June 2014], while reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to my son as bedtime stories, this part started to resonate in my head to what I had just experienced in the meeting. When we are still in the starting phase of the three years EU-funded research project, who is the one to decide what is important and what is unimportant? From my point-of-view the richness in this kind of project lies exactly here: all the partners may have different perspectives, different orientations and may find different things important or unimportant. We should try to respect and take the advantage of this kind of diversity.


Daniela: I agree with your last point, about the richness of having so many different perspectives conversing and converging in our Project. SAHWA encompasses a set of interconnected topics that, taken together, compose a very complex plot. Such a complexity is certainly a challenge, and it requires a continuous effort of definition of the focus, in every steps of the project. Actually, in my view we are engaging in an exciting collaborative research activity, where the definition of what is important or unimportant - or better to say what we put in the foreground and what we leave temporarily in the background - is dynamic and consensually negotiated in every phase of the research. In this respect, the two images that we identified as good metaphors for our research activity, in Barcelona as well as in Rabat meetings – the mosaic and the kaleidoscope – seem very meaningful and effective.


Jose: Unimportant and important? The things that could be important for policy makers could be unimportant to young men and women. You may remember the youngster that we have seen playing football in the beach. What is important for him? Talking in a coffee shop with other young people, spending time on the streets, walking around and feeling the spaces with them… All of it can teach us more about young people of Rabat, Tunis, Alger, Cairo or Beirut than reading a lot of academic papers and statistical figures. Asking, listening, observing and learning are the most important things in SAHWA. As Michel Agar argues “social researchers assume a learning role”. We need to learn about a world that we do not understand by encountering it firsthand and making some sense out of it, but results or sense of the data collected differ because of different cultural backgrounds of the researchers and the nature of the audiences. However, at the same time, I think that, as researchers, we could try to engage young people in the entire project better. 


Pictures: Upper left: young man using his mobile phone in the Kasbah of the Udayas (Rabat, Morocco). Upper right: graffiti on the wall at the Kasbah of the Udayas. Bottom photos (left to right): traditional Moroccans sugary treats served with mint tea in the café at the Kasbah of the Udayas; mosaic in the Old Medina; nuts in sale in the Old Medina.


Sofia: In addition to the seminar and conference rooms, we fortunately had time to spend on the streets, wandering around Rabat. While exploring the city by foot, me, Daniela and Jose spoke about qualitative research methods, especially about ethnography. We all know that ethnography differs from exposing “all beautiful things” – a concept someone said in the meeting that started to circulate in our wandering discussions. At the same time when I was shooting in the row all the beautiful things we faced on our journey: mosaics, bazars, food, installations. At least my eyes first catch all the beautiful things in the new place. But has this anything to do with ethnography?


Jose: Yes, it is crucial to understand all the cultural productions in their specific cultural context… But – always a ‘but’ - we cannot stay in the field only looking for “beautiful things”. In the field there are beautiful and disagreeable things overlapping in the same space and, sometimes, at the same time. This is especially important to understand: all the things are, at same time, beautiful and unpleasant. In the everyday life things are ambiguous, social reality depends on your social positions. Ambiguity is a quality of the actions, behaviours, bodies, norms, individual and groups. We should try to translate these blurring qualities of social facts in our ethnography taking into account the different cultural backgrounds of all researchers involved to enrich the final interpretations.


Daniela: Yes, here we are raising a crucial point. What are we looking for/at, in our ethnography? Therefore, what are we showing? That is to say, what kind of representations of contemporary Arab youths are we constructing and offering to the academic community and to young people themselves? “Pleasant” or “unpleasant” trends and phenomena? For example, dynamics of social and cultural innovations that seems to open up better opportunities for young people in the region, or increasing social inequalities and dynamics of exclusion… We are going to investigate contexts that are undergoing great transformations, where major conflicts and contradictions take place and have dramatic consequences in the lives of young people. We should pay attention to this point; we should build our ethnographic representations in ways that give account to these conflicting trends.


Same and Normal


Daniela: In this regard, another pair of opposites that comes to my mind is the one between the everyday, the common (what most of the people in the contexts under study could name “the normal”, or even the “trivial”) vs the exceptional or unique case. This is a key opposition to keep in mind in our work - especially in the selection of our subjects and case studies, as well as in the construction of our narratives and ethnographic representations. What kind of young people and groups are we going to engage with in our research? Are we going to study the everyday practices of “normal” or “average” young people, or special groups (e.g youth activists, spectacular subcultures)? It seems to me we should try to overcome this kind of dichotomy, trying to build more complex and plural representation of youth in contemporary Arab-majority Mediterranean countries. This idea came to my mind in our walks in Rabat. What most struck me in the city (beside the “beautiful things” we saw) was somehow a feeling of similarity, as if the things which we were seeing – streets, bars, people watching the Football World Championship, the market, the Andalusian garden… -  were, at the end of the day, “the same” of what I had already seen in other cities, around the Mediterranean and elsewhere. This first impression was surely exacerbated by the cultural, artistic and architectural closeness between Rabat and Granada (the southern Spanish city where I lived for some years), however I think that it is a quite common experience for all researchers engaging in the ethnography of the contemporary world (at least, during the first entry in the fieldwork). The ethnographic process could be described – among many other ways – as a progressive distancing from two opposite but related images: the “sameness” and the “exotic”. We should try to overcome both the perception of homogenization - as if all people, and especially young people, would be the same in every part of the globalized world - and the search for the extra-ordinary, trying to build an emic view on young people’s lives. 


Sofia: The concepts of ‘same’ and ‘normal’ have also to do with the research questions we have in the project. Should we ask ‘the same’ questions in different countries even when the issue asked is understood differently in different places and by different informants (e.g. what do ‘politics’ or ‘political’ mean)?. What are the ‘normal’ questions to ask in the interviews or questionnaires? What kind of new information exceptional or unique or unexpected questions could bring? Inside every country we will aim to find something in common, as well as some similarities, differences and specificities between the five research countries.


Jose: I think that “normal” is a wrong concept for ethnography. As ethnographer, I think that you have to be ready for surprise. In every little smile, conversation, space and “normal” relation it’s possible to find some clues for unsuspected lines and perspectives of research. Another capacity for an ethnographer, related to “normal”, is to suspend your opinions, ideas and ideological thinking in order to embody, as much as you can, the “other”’s life experiences. So, what is normal? I agree with Daniela and Sofia, we may think in our responsibility to show the Arab Mediterranean youth. Could we show Arab Mediterranean youth as political activist engaged in electronic social networks or as a yihadist, a western enemy? All of this are media representations. We are looking for real young people with blurring and fluid identities, global and local at same time, young and adult at same time, believers and non-believers. They are continuously negotiating their identities in front of the judges of normality: parents, professors, administrators, military chiefs, their own groups… I think that it is necessity to work on trajectories of life and collecting these contradictions and different self-perceptions and perceptions on and about youth.    


“I wish you wouldn’t squeeze so,” said the Dormouse, who was sitting next to her. “I can hardly breathe.”
“I can’t help it,” said Alice very meekly: “I ’m growing.”

“You’ve no right to grow here,” said the Dormouse.

“Don’t talk nonsense,” said Alice more boldly: “you know you’re growing too.”

“Yes, but I grow at a reasonable pace,” said the Dormouse: “not in that ridiculous fashion.” (Lewis Carroll Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865)


Sofia: Yes, I think I grow in the SAHWA project. It’s not an easy project but very educational and even enlightening! And it’s good that we have three years’ time to grow and start to flourish. The kind of seminars as the one we had in Rabat in June are highly important milestones of the project. These are the moments of networking and sharing, going along with research partners. Getting to know colleagues and getting to know oneself a bit more too. Important or unimportant, accident, coincidence or just an incidence – we had a poster in Rabat were our slogan was reformulated by mistake to “Towards New Social Contact”. Actually, this is what the project will also do: between the research partners and between informants and researchers. Only by actively orientating towards new social contacts the success of this project will be guaranteed.


Poster SAHWA

Picture: Poster of the SAHWA Project displayed in Rabat during the second Project Meeting (June 2014).


Daniela: A challenging project – 15 universities involved, dozens of senior and young researchers from EU and Southern and Eastern Mediterranean countries involved, several fieldworks and ethnographic case studies, a transnational survey on youth condition… SAHWA has got what it takes to be a great opportunity for personal and professional growth. I hope it will provide new insights on youth condition and will be useful for the research subject themselves – the young people in Arab Mediterranean societies.


Jose: I agree. SAHWA is a challenge to know the Other and Myself… and growing up as human being. I am growing up when I listened to the discussants in all the discussions, when I talked to colleagues in the coffee shop… But now it is the time to learn and grow with the Young Arab Mediterranean people, this is the most important opportunity of SAHWA: to know real people not only academic “young ones”. And after the trip, we could show beautiful and unpleasant matters about and of young people in Arab Mediterranean countries… and our responsibility is to give voice to these young people. Maybe, we could plant a grain of sand for a justice and equal New Social Contract.


Daniela Cherubini is researcher in the SAHWA Project team of the University of Milano-Bicocca (Italy)

Sofia Laine is researcher in the SAHWA Project team of the Finnish Youth Research Network (Finland)

José Sanchez is research in the SAHWA Project team of the University of Lleida (Spain)

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