Archive for November 30, 2015

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Hiba Bou Akar and “Talking Sectarianism: Community Workshops on Urban Planning, the Built Environment, and the Fear of the Religious Other in Beirut’s Suburbs”

Hiba Bou Akar is Assistant Professor of Urban Planning and Middle East Studies at Hampshire College. In 2009, as a doctoral candidate at the University of California at Berkeley, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Rebuilding the Center, Expanding the Frontier: Reconstructing Post-War(s) Beirut, Lebanon’ supervised by Dr. Teresa P. Caldeira. She received the Engaged Anthropology Grant to return to her fieldsite and host a series of workshops designed to impart her research to local scholars and the community that hosted her.

Between 1975 and 1990, Beirut was synonymous with war, chaos, and violence. The city endured a long civil war where sectarian divisions among Christians, Shiite, Sunnis, and Druze played a major role. While the 1990s were seemingly a peaceful period of reconstruction, sectarian violence returned to the city in 2008, bringing back with it the specters of the civil war. Beirut, often described as divided between a Christian East and Muslim West along the “green line,” has been dissected since by hundreds of “green lines,” transforming many a neighborhood in a new logic of contestation and war. My Wenner Gren-funded dissertation research (2009-2010) examined the spatial production of three of Beirut’s peripheries-turned-frontiers by investigating the spatial practices that have shaped them as frontiers of sectarian violence and feverish urban growth. My dissertation study showed how, since the 1990s, spatial contestation, conflict, and war have occurred less through manifest violence (of rifles, tanks, and canons) and more through the production of a spatial order of political difference within what I call the spatial and temporal logics of the war yet to come. Instead of approaching war as a temporal aberration in the flow of events, with a beginning and an end, the study has focused on how war, violence, and their anticipation have become governing modalities of Beirut’s southern peripheries, regulating their urban growth and poverty, marginality and violence. Key actors in the production of these geographies are the main Lebanese religious-political organizations including the Shiite Hezbollah, the Sunni Future Movement, and the Druze PSP, and Christian Maronite religious-political groups. Examples of these practices include contradictory urban planning policies, discriminatory property laws, uneven provision of infrastructure, and the militarization of everyday life.

Nowadays, as a result, many of these peripheries-turned-frontiers neighborhoods —especially lower income areas— are in dire environmental conditions. They suffer from poor infrastructure, lack of tenure security, congestion, pollution, the destruction of the few remaining green spaces, and a fear of the religious Other living across the street. They are also characterized by political stalemate and the fragmentation of decision-making powers. Several community groups are currently organizing to raise local awareness around the significance of improving the living conditions in these contested peripheries. They are also working to garner the support of public agencies, religious political organizations, and aid organizations to bring about social change.

During the summer and winter of 2014, with the help of an Engaged Anthropology Grant (EAG), I started the process of sharing my work with a number of these community groups and residents by holding several informal meetings in two of my research sites. The participants came from diverse political spectrum. The meetings were vibrant with discussions and debates about the history and politics of the area. We also often discussed the possibilities of thinking of the built environment as common grounds to work across political and sectarian dividing lines to improve the areas’ living conditions.

In addition to sharing my research findings, my aim was to use the knowledge I acquired during my field research, building on my expertise as an urban planner and my experiences a long term resident of the area to help formulate and inform on-ground interventions. The EAG grant gave me the opportunity to become involved with one non-governmental organization (NGO) in particular that is focused on urban planning issues. One of their projects focuses on improving the conditions of The Old Saida road. This road emerged in May 2008 as a bloody battle line between the Druze part of Choueifat and its neighboring Shiite Sahra Choueifat. With years of neglect and conflict, the road has become unsafe for the thousands of people who use it and live alongside it. This NGO, among others, has been successful in initiating small-scale awareness campaigns in Choueifat and surrounding areas around driving safety, building regulations, garbage disposal, etc. As they move to take on larger issues, efforts are underway to build coalitions and collaborations to build a vision for possibilities for intervention.

During the first phase of our work together, we organized several meetings/workshops to brainstorm about how to approach the issue: discussing what is feasible, who are the entities that we need to target, etc. So far my engagement has been in two capacities: First, I shared my work findings and data to explain the multitude of reasons that have transformed Choueifat into a contested frontier of violence and urban growth, and the impact of these practices on the deteriorating living conditions. Second, I shared my knowledge about urban planning interventions in contexts of conflict, informality, etc. We also had discussions on the practice of urban planning in Lebanon and the possibilities for community organizations to participate in shaping planning policies. My task was to also raise awareness about the politics of proposed planning interventions explaining the implications of each proposed project on disadvantaged populations.

What became clear in these workshops is the need to work towards building an institutional support network that could provide expertise, funding, and political support to help them formulate and realize concrete interventions. Since planning institutions practice in Lebanon does not yet have the tools that would allow for community input, we decided to initiate a participatory planning workshop that would include relevant entities (municipalities, residents, political parties, experts, public agencies, private planning practice, etc.) to discuss and agree on feasible projects to implement. The two-day workshop will be held in Choueifat in August 2015. For that purpose, I approached the UN-Habitat’s Beirut office to seek its support. For the past four years, UN-Habitat has been working on reforming urban planning practice in Lebanon and was excited to support such a project. I am also in conversations with the urban planning academic community at the American University of Beirut to ask for their input. If such workshop proved successful, UN-Habitat proposed to use it as a model for other area facing similar problems. With the NGO’s input, I am currently in the process of putting together a detailed proposal for UN-Habitat. Meanwhile, we are preparing the groundwork for the workshop (discussion points, schedule, invitees, strategies, etc.). The workshop will hopefully be the first step towards opening up dialogue for social change in these contested areas.

Roosbelinda Cardenas and ‘Articulations of Blackness: Reconstructing Ethnic Politics in the Midst of Violence’

Roosbelinda Cardenas is Visiting Assistant Professor of Latin American Studies at Hampshire College. She received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on  ’Remaking the Black Pacific: Place, Race, and Afro-Colombian Territoriality,’ supervised by Dr. Mark David Anderson, and in 2013 received the Engaged Anthropology Grant to return to her fieldsite and share her research with the community that hosted her. 

Returning to the field is like jumping on a moving train.  After doing my best to clumsily get up to speed, I quickly tried to find a reliable reference point to orient myself.  With the privileges of hindsight and perspective gone, the pace of events was both confusing and exhilarating.  Nonetheless I managed to resist the allure of fresh ethnographic data.  Instead of scribbling field notes incessantly and searching for my voice recorder at the first sign of an engaging conversation, I focused on being in the moment.  I called old friends and asked them to meet me simply to catch up.  Then, after a week of updating contact information and tracking people down, I began the work of planning my engagement activities in earnest.

I had proposed to hold workshops in the three communities where I conducted dissertation research from 2008 to 2010.  These communities were: 1. the rural inhabitants of a legally recognized “comunidad negra” that holds a collective land title in the Southern Pacific; the black residents of an urban shantytown in Bogotá where a large concentration of internally displaced people (IDPs) reside; and a group of leading black activists from two organizations that work for the defense of Afro-Colombians’ ethnic rights to territory. My purpose was to share with them a handful of insights that I had gathered throughout my dissertation work and which I thought would be most useful in furthering their strategies to remap racial and territorial politics in Colombia.

In the rural black community–the Community Council of the Lower Mira River–the timing was particularly auspicious.  The Colombian government was in the process of implementing a sweeping land restitution law to return millions of hectares that had been unlawfully taken from their rightful owners in the midst of the armed conflict.  Although a number of land restitution cases were already under way, the Bajo Mira’s was the first ethnic-specific case that had been presented to the courts and all eyes were on them.  I met with the team of young government representatives who were busy gathering evidence in the field.  In addition to meeting with them to share my insights and written work, I agreed to produce a short report that would be included with the dossier that they were preparing for the courts.

I also met with members of the Community Council board to hold the workshop that I had originally planned.  Although they humored me by sitting patiently through my presentation and activities, it was clear that their attention was elsewhere.  My presentation was focused on an analysis of what I called “green multiculturalism,” or the coupling of multicultural recognition and green capitalism.  I had intended to lead a conversation that would both identify and push the limits of “environmentalism” as the most viable political strategy to protect their territorial rights.  I still think it is an important conversation, but the timing was not the right one.  After decades of being held hostage in their own lands by the criminal advance of the drug trade and other capitalist ventures of global scale, the land restitution process held promise as a tool to protect their territories.  If the government asked them to embody the 21st Century version of the noble savage before deeming them worthy of territorial protection, they were ready to comply.  This did not mean that they were unaware of the deal they were striking or vigilant of the ways in which it might compromise their political vision, but simply that they were taking advantage of an expedient strategy that held newfound promise to change a situation that was no longer bearable.

In Cazucá, the shantytown of IDPs on the outskirts of Bogotá where I have worked for nearly ten years, spirits were high.  I did not prepare a presentation for the group of grassroots activists that I met with there.  Instead of starting the conversation with my own insights, I facilitated a workshop that was based on their own experiences of being black and displaced.  Ten people with a range of experiences as IDP activists attended.  Some were recent arrivals and others were old timers who had literally paved the neighborhood roads with their own hands; there were young mothers and older men; and they hailed from every corner of “black Colombia’s” geography.  For the people of Cazucá, the timing of the workshop was very different than for the members of the Lower Mira River’s black community.  I had the distinct sense that they finally felt “settled” both literally and figuratively.  They had bought homes and started businesses and were no longer on the move.  This meant that they were much more receptive to a critical analysis of their political strategies.  With the hindsight from their grassroots activism, they were eager to start thinking about how to move forward.

 

The last workshop–with national-level black activists from two major organizations–was the most difficult one.  Unsurprisingly, it was nearly impossible to get all of them in the same room at the same time.  Added to this, were the political differences between the two organizations and the internal turmoil that they were each experiencing.  After much insistence, I finally managed to schedule two separate sessions with the most experienced members of each organization.  I was particularly nervous preparing for these two sessions.  What new insight could I, a foreign white researcher, contribute to a struggle that they knew all too well?  But despite my anxiety, when I finished delivering my presentation, I felt satisfied.  On the one hand, it felt like the culmination of a very long process to which I had committed much of my adult life.  On the other hand, their reactions, which were incisive and receptive, confirmed that critical analysis is an essential part of politics.  Our debates were heated, our memories were rich, and I believe that in the end, our analysis was fruitful.  It was not often that these activists–my friends–took time out from their busy schedules to reflect upon the work that they did.  They were proud of themselves, and they felt inspired to move forward.  We talked about risks and obstacles, but also silently celebrated the victories both small and large.  On the way home, “Maria Elena” a central character in my dissertation said to me “it’s very nice, to have your life’s work laid out in front of you like that.”

 

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Sarah Hillewaert and “Working Towards the Promotion of Young Women’s Education and Professional Development in Lamu (Kenya)”

 

Lamu waterfront. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Sarah Hillewaert is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto. In 2009, while a Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Language, Space, and Identity: Linguistic Practices among Youth in Lamu, Kenya,’ supervised by Dr. Judith T. Irvine. In 2013, she received the Engaged Anthropology Grant to return to the Kenyan archipelago and share her research with the community that hosted her.

I received the Wenner Gren Engaged Anthropology grant to return to my fieldsite in Kenya and organize activities informed by the results of doctoral research conducted between 2007 and 2010. My dissertation investigated the relation between notions of moral personhood and changing linguistic and material practices among young people living in Lamu (Kenya). Lamu is a Muslim town located on an island by the same name, situated off the coast of Kenya. Formerly a successful center for trade and Islamic scholarship, Lamu is now marginalized within the national and global economy and faces increasing poverty. With the announcement of the construction of Africa’s biggest international port in the area, inhabitants of the town hope for new employment opportunities and for a restoration of the trade city’s former glory. At the same time, this multi-billion project forms a clear threat to the archipelago’s eco-system and the local fishing industry that has supported local families over the last decades. In my dissertation, I analyzed the different ways in which young people renegotiate what it means to be a virtuous person in this rapidly changing society. In particular, I looked at the different ways in which young people in this Muslim community negotiate the expectations of elders, their own respect for local norms and values, and their desire for change and development – through language, bodily comportment and social interaction.

One unexpected outcome of my research was the insights it provided in the social lives of young Lamu women: the struggles they face, and the range of ways in which they endeavor to negotiate new social positions. As a rather conservative Muslim town, Lamu has always upheld somewhat strict norms of social interaction between men and women, and for a certain period in history the town’s women lived in complete purdah or segregation. Nowadays, women move openly through town and increasingly pursue higher education and employment. Over the last decade, early marriages have been on the decline and education and professional employment of young women are on the rise. However, with these changes came new challenges: stigma surrounding women’s professional employment and public interactions with men, rising divorce rates and an increasing number of single mothers, to name but a few. When I applied for the Engaged Anthropology Grant, I intended to organize a series of workshops addressing issues surrounding girl education and women employment, in which young women and community leaders would actively participate.

Upon receiving the grant, extensive conversations with local informants showed that, while education was important to discuss, there was a strong desire to facilitate discussions on the broader social issues that result from the changing economic context and women’s greater involvement in the workforce. While international organizations frequently provide information on e.g. neo-natal care, nutrition or single motherhood, few address these issues from an Islamic perspective. Based on these discussions, we designed a series of workshops, each framed around a lecture given by a prominent (Kenyan) female Muslim scholar followed by group discussions. Topics included (1) single motherhood (2) marriage and divorce (3) child rearing and education (4) health, nutrition and fitness (5) pregnancy and neo-natal care (covered over two days). Speakers included well-known scholars from within Lamu as well as invited speakers from Mombasa, Kenya’s largest coastal city. My informants, together with local aid organizations (such as the Kenyan Red Cross) and community leaders (including the education officer at the National Museums of Kenya and local Muslim scholars), created a list of 60 invitees, based on these women’s active participation in community organizations, their position as community leaders, or their status as active community members, with a preference given to young women.

We scheduled the workshops during the second and third week of July, which coincided with the third week of the holy month of Ramadan. Because it was Ramadan, workshops took place early in the morning from 8-12, to enable women to attend and return home in time to prepare meals for the breaking of the fast. I initially did not have high hopes for attendance: not only do people sleep in late during Ramadan, but the political climate in Lamu at the time also was less than positive. Lamu’s neighboring villages of Mpeketoni and Hindi had been hit by murderous attacks (in which approximately 100 people lost their lives). Not only did one of our invited speakers cancel her trip to Lamu out of fear for additional attacks, I assumed many women would refrain from leaving the house due to the rising tensions in the town. Against all odds, the workshops were a huge success. Not only did all invitees attend, but the speakers candidly spoke about the topics at hand and lively discussions followed the lectures. And on several occasions these conversations continued well beyond the designated time.

Due to the success of the initial lectures, we opened up the last two workshops on neo-natal care such that pregnant women could. Those days over 80 women participated. We concluded the workshops series with an iftar dinner (or breaking of the fast) for those participants who attended all 6 days. During this dinner, plans were discussed, not only for a continuation of similar kinds of workshops in the future, but also for the start of a women’s center in Lamu. The latter would combine a women’s fitness space with a counseling center, providing women with a safe communal space to work out and socialize as well as allowing them to seek support for family matters, without the social stigma attached to seeking professional help. While the workshop series somewhat deviated from the initial proposal, the outcome far exceeded our expectations. The manner in which socially sensitive issues, including divorce, polygamy, and family planning, were discussed was innovative for Lamu, to say the least. The gratitude I received from organizers, scholars and attendees was heartwarming and motivates me to pursue similar projects in future.

Symposium #152: “Fire and the Genus Homo”

The 152nd Wenner-Gren Symposium, “Fire and the Genus Homo” has just recently wrapped in Sintra, Portugal. As always, you can expect a Current Anthropology special issue forthcoming, containing the meeting’s papers and available to all 100% Open-Access.

FRONT ROW: Laurie Obbink, Sarah Hlubik, Meg Thibodeau, Vera Aldeias, Carolina Mallol, Ran Barkai, Xing Gao MIDDLE ROW: Nira Alperson-Afil, Leslie Aiello, Simon Holdaway, Amanda Henry, Michael Chazan, Jill Pruetz, Paul Goldberg TOP ROW: John Gowlett, Richard Wrangham, Harold Dibble, Randall White, Dennis Sandgathe, Francesco Berna, Fatima Pinto

 

Organizers’ Statement

 

“Fire and the Genus Homo

Francesco Berna (Simon Fraser University)

Dennis Sandgathe (Simon Fraser University)

We have come to recognize that the nature of human adaptations must be viewed in the context of bio-cultural evolution. For the last 2.5 million years, at least, hominins have evolved both biologically and culturally with these two facets irretrievably entangled. Fire use must be seen as one of the most important of the technological components of this interplay: it has very likely had major effects on our biological evolution, which in turn likely led to other major technological changes, such as the development of clothing and artificial shelter and changes in hominin diet. In fact, the biology, micro-environment, and behavior of modern humans are deeply entangled with fire-use to the point that the survival of our species has come to essentially depend on it.

 

While there has always been general interest among anthropologists and archaeologists in the role fire played in human evolution, in the last 10 years new hypotheses and archaeological finds in Africa and Eurasia have sparked a renewed interest in trying to further our understanding. In the 1980s and 1990s the focus of this kind of research was more on trying to recognize the oldest evidence for hominin use of fire.  Recent interest has shifted to the questions about how and when fire use became an established and integral part of all hominin cultures. The first evidence for hominin use of fire does not necessarily mark the point at which hominins learned how to make it and it became inextricably part of hominin technological repertoires. Recent discoveries suggest that the history of hominin use of fire is more complex than previously hypothesized and that anthropologists and archaeologists should be more critical of potential evidence of hominin use of fire.

 

Based on current bio-anthropological, phylogenetic, and/or archaeological data we believe we could identify four general models for the role played by the use of fire in the evolution of the Genus Homo. These are alternative views on the timing and nature of the adoption of fire use:

  1. Homo erectus was fully adapted to a cooked food diet and had controlled use of fire by or shortly after two million years ago (the “cooking hypothesis”).
  2. Gradual or intermittent use of fire began during the Early Stone Age (i.e., by groups of Homo erectus and early H. heidelbergensis).
  3. Hominins (H. heidelbergensis?) used it first and used it in the process of colonizing higher latitude regions of Europe and Asia at the end of the Lower Pleistocene or during the early Middle Pleistocene.
  4. Humans had complete control of fire only with the appearance of H. sapiens at the onset of the Late Stone Age/Upper Palaeolithic.

 

Thus, work on the evidence of early fire use is clearly necessary to help answer the fundamental anthropological question: “How did humans become human?” This symposium is designed to bring together scholars who are conducting leading research on the origin of the controlled use of fire and its cultural and biological significance to the genus Homo.

 

Researchers have begun to collect, review and employ new types of archaeological and biological data and have started to pose new questions about the role of fire in human evolution. There is also a notable increase in the number of researchers who are focused specifically on questions of prehistoric fire use. In past decades most analysis of Palaeolithic fire residues was simply one of many issues individual archaeologists might address in the course of interpreting a site. This was typically done in isolation from data from other sites and from other researchers who may have an interest in the topic, and it was not often directed towards bigger questions of prehistoric fire use.

 

While access to new data is an important part of the process of assessing the relative merits of these different models, the goal of the symposium is not just to discuss data collection techniques or the interpretation of individual archaeological sites. Rather, the aim is to collectively review the old and the newer data, revise methodological approaches, discuss integrated, up-to-date scenarios for hominin development of fire technology, and develop a theoretical and methodological framework for future research. The objectives of the symposium include:

 

  • Discussing best possible approaches to select and integrate data collection: what types of data are particularly important for understanding prehistoric fire use and what is the importance of disseminating these data? Should (and can) certain standards of data collection be established? Are there other types of data that we should be collecting?

 

  • Developing a common understanding of what is meant by the terms ‘occasional,’ ‘habitual,’ and ‘controlled’ use of fire. These terms have become rather entrenched in the literature, but their actual meaning remains ambiguous: different researchers may have slightly different intentions with their use and different understandings of their implications.

 

  • Developing anthropological and archaeological methodological criteria by which researchers could identify when humans started to use fire occasionally or habitually, and when they developed the technology to create it. These issues have implications for the development of hominin migration/distributions, diet, bio-cultural evolution, and the onset of ‘modern behavior.’

 

  • Examining the role that cooking may have played in the bio-cultural evolution of the Genus Homo.

 

  • Addressing questions about the function of fire in pre-modern human adaptations (e.g., specific fire applications, degree of reliance); the role of fire in Late Pleistocene adaptations (Neanderthals and early Anatomically Modern Humans); and the role of fire in the emergence of modern behavior.