(Almost) Native Ethnography Meets the Heat of the Tunisian Desert

– by Imen El Amouri –

The ruined Amazigh (Berber) village of Douiret

Before embarking on my ethnographic graduate research, I dove into literature on native anthropological research in North Africa and the Arab world. My personal anguish over social and political conditions in my parents’ (and sometimes my own) home country motivated me to study Tunisian society. With confidence, I started my fieldwork in a remote desert village in the south of Tunisia. The following vignette from my fieldwork has put my native gaze in question. I had decided to walk around the old fortress of Douiret to observe the place and get a sense of it. I had just arrived, and had four months of fieldwork for my graduate research ahead of me. Douiret (tiny houses in Tunisian dialect of this remote desert district) belongs to one of the three fortified Amazigh (Berber) villages around the mountains of Demmer in Tataouine in the south of Tunisia. People abandoned this place 40 years ago, even though it was built with attention and detail in order to protect from the heat and the threat of age-old feuds. How must it have been, emotionally and mentally to decide to leave? What forces drove the people to abandon the caves that were their hand-constructed homes, and fortified with great effort?

First encounter with Souad

I am looking at a woman in the valley wearing a scarf, a blue skirt with trousers underneath, and on her back a grey bag. She might be transporting something. I saw her already that morning between the collapsed old caves.  It was my first encounter with Souad, the cleaning lady who took care of the guesthouse where I resided and who eventually became a valued collaborator and friend. As for the timing of my fieldwork, it was poorly chosen. It was summer in the Sahara– and the hottest summer in 30 years.

Souad guiding us through the valleys

Souad knew every corner and every stone of the mountain. “I used to walk all those hills that you see, but now my brother takes the goats.”  I was hiking in the steppe of Douiret with Souad when she said this to me. I was impressed by her sense of orientation and detailed knowledge about names of lands, stones, animals, and valleys. She knew stories about who bought what from whom, and who fought about which olive tree with whom.

Souad under a tree at the oasis

We passed by a valley that harboured a flourishing oasis. Souad asked me to come over and observe the natural beauty. “This is El Metrawa. It is wonderful. You have to see it!”  She told me that she was born in El Metrawa. Her family worked the fields of Douiret families here. All the people left the valley eventually and moved to the new Douiret. The abandoned caves and Souad’s stories are all that remains to tell the story of this place. Some new buildings were shining in the valleys. She explained: “Those who left for Germany and France a long time ago are coming back.”  There were four houses in the middle of green fields. They were all diaspora-owned farms. She said: “We want to go where they are, and they want to come where we are.” And she laughed loudly. Ironically enough, I embodied exactly the latter group.

“We want to go where they are,

and they want to come where we are.”

By the middle of July, Souad approached me to hike together to the El Matrawa oasis. The last time we passed by, I insisted on visiting her birthplace and learned more about her life before El Matrawa was deserted. But then in Summer 2021, Tunisia declared a week-long curfew in response to spiking Covid-19 cases. It all seemed too far away to be of our concern.

Temperature depicted on my car that was parked down the valley of Douiret

She waited in front of the guesthouse, always with her equipment: a water bottle hanging on her hips and carrying a few gunny sacks to pick dry leaves and greens for the animals and the household. We went down the hill to pick up my water bottle from my car. I checked the temperature: it was an improbable 58°C (136.4 F)

I had walked on hot days with Souad before, so I threw on a scarf and followed her steps. The rough vegetation seemed even more challenging with the relentless heat. Souad was often quiet, a peaceful silence that I learned to enjoy during the time with her. Here and there, she apologized:

“I am sorry for making you walk with me; I am involving you in my hardship!”  Walking and helping Souad in her day-to-day tasks was my favourite part of my fieldwork experience, something that I could not really convey to her, or at least she would not really understand my academic enthusiasm. It was astonishing that despite being Tunisian like Souad, I lacked the tools to explain how insights of her life are significant for my research. I couldn’t even explain to her what research is at all! After all, using academic jargon would have just pushed me some steps away from the ‘native’ status I was assigned by her and the people I met in Douiret. This is among the difficulties and significance of insider/outsider negotiations in fieldwork. While I was interested in merging with the community members to have the most authentic experience of their perceptions, opinions, and feelings possible, I had to set boundaries– a process that a Tunisian–German graduate student proud of both her native gaze and academic aloofness had yet to reconcile.

I couldn’t even explain to her

what research is at all!

The oasis of El Matrawa

But three hours passed, and I started feeling more and more exhausted. Souad looked energized like always. She noticed my fatigue and reassured me that we were almost there. My mind drifted back to those scenes in movies where people in the desert wait patiently for an oasis to appear. And indeed, just on the foot of the mountains we were hiking, the oasis of El Matrawa appeared. We walked down the steep hill. While Souad seemed to float over the ground, I was conscious of barely making it down without falling. Between the palms (that offered us the first shade in the last three hours), we saw a young man standing next to the water spring giving life to the oasis. Souad greeted him, and as it has always been with her– she knew him, knew his family and their history. But the young man was in distress, and he shared with us his story.

A house in the ruined village of Douiret

The spring of El Matrawa has been a source of tribal dispute for some generations between the tribe of Douiret and the tribe of Ouled Debbeb. “The old Debbabi man is messing with us again, so last night we destroyed the well. If he thinks his goats can drink from our waters, he underestimated the Douiri men!” An old goat keeper from Ksar Ouled Debbeb has moved into the land of Douiret and had led his herd to drink water from the well of the Douiret, despite the the tribe’s refusal. A few Douiret men rented a truck, and the above-ground parts of the well were broken into pieces some hours later. The dispute between the tribes goes back centuries they say.

Again, we moved on to hike up to the remains of the village of El Metrawa. By then, I realized that my few yoga sessions and weekly workouts in the German climate are not enough to cope with a strenuous hike on a summer day in Tataouine, southern Tunisia. We reached the deserted village, and I sat in the shadow of one of the fallen caves. Souad was telling stories about each house– who used to sleep where and which cave was used for what purpose. She described the lively olive harvest, the seasons, and moonlit nights of poetry and song. In the face of this ghost town, it was hard to imagine that only 40 years ago, the people had left and moved to the new Douiret village or further to Tunis and even Europe.

Finally, we decided to go back to the new Douiret. By then, I had lost interest in writing field notes or even focusing on what Souad said. Certain alarms started to ring in my head– I was having a heatstroke. And the last thing I expected was to see a police SUV in this place– they were called to investigate the dispute around the well. The car drove towards us and stopped. The faces of the two police officers who looked at us through the windows were full of confusion.

When the police asked us what we were doing in the desert on the hottest day of the year during a national curfew, I knew it was difficult to explain. But seeing them was the greatest salvation I could have wished for. I handed over my German passport and said: ‘Thank you!’.

“Perhaps researching one’s

country of origin begins– or ends

in part, in a search for the self.” 

Wikimedia Commons: Café Bonbonnière in Maastricht, the Netherlands

And four months later, I was dressed in a wool jacket, and back in my favourite café at the university in Maastricht, choosing between meals. The awkward nature of being a German–Tunisian researcher has somehow given me the ability to both merge and to separate during my fieldwork, often unconsciously. I had bent my bi-cultural background to my advantage by the end of the Sahara journey. To cite the Lebanese-American anthropologist Suad Joseph, “Perhaps researching one’s country of origin begins– or ends– in part, in a search for the self.”  Perhaps, today I would rather say: I am an (almost) native ethnographer.

Imen El Amouri is a junior researcher and Global Health graduate from Maastricht University in the Netherlands. She is interested in the dynamics of Belonging, Migration, and Health. She is currently based in Germany and Tunisia and preparing for her PhD research on migration trajectories in Tunisia. Imen can be reached at imen.elamouri@googlemail.com.