As I read over my field notes from my time in Jordan I am struck with how often people used simplification and near- or non-truths when telling me about themselves.
I recently read “Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary,” Veena Das’ new book. In it, she makes an argument that I just can’t get out of my head as I read over my notes. Writing about the violence in post-partition India, she, of course, finds that many people are silent. They are not interested in living and performing the horrific violence that has fragmented their lives. Based on this, she says several things. A Fragment marks the impossibility of Imagination. From this, a space is created within an individual narrative that must be filled with something. She calls this process Agency saying, “…our theoretical impulse is often to think of agency in terms of escaping the ordinary rather than a descent into it.” Life is recovered through descent into the ordinary. So instead of wanting to go on and on about sexual assault, one woman she interviewed preferred to talk about perfectly mundane things with Das. In essence, this woman was performing normality, and eventually her life began to seem normal. Mostly. What an ingenuous way of coping with the horrific.
Of course, it involves not speaking about some things, and obfuscating (or directly lying) about others. Das calls this Re-narration. I’m currently reading a book titled “The Things They Carried,” which is a collection of Viet Nam memoirs from a soldier who was drafted as soon as he finished his education. The subtitle of the book is “A Work of Fiction,” and the author occasionally reminds us that telling stories is a process, not merely a factual record of an event. He writes, “In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way… In many cases a true war story cannot be believed.”
So, as I pore over my notes two things really jump out at me. One is ways in which everyone effortlessly re-narrated their lives in a way that promoted dignity. Who wouldn’t want that? The second thing I notice is how everyone over-simplifies very complex issues. All through my notes I have poor, religious people telling me the rich are not going to Paradise because they are tainted by money, and the rich respond by telling me, “Only the poor cover their women,” or the poor are too uneducated to understand their own religion. Putting aside the nasty class warfare too many Jordanians are waging, it seems so obvious to me that everyone deploys simplification and re-narration to make their case. Only one person I spent time with in Jordan lied to me all the time. Only one. Certainly re-narration is not unique to Jordanians. I saw a sticker on a monster-truck last weekend that read: Some gave all, All gave some. If that isn’t simplification and re-narration, then it doesn’t exist.
But it seems like we all have too much at stake to admit that we do this. For my poor friends in Jordan, their entire worth is riding on re-narration. For most of them, it is literally all they have. When I would question the oversimplification they used to write off all rich people, or all the Shia’, or what ever, I was always shut down. One Sheikh actually stood up while I was talking one evening and began waving his hands furiously and saying Khlass really loudly. Ok, he actually started yelling. But, for me our discussion was simply an intellectual transaction, yet for him it was much more personal, and therefore much more costly should I have made my points.
As an example, take this blog post
. Here is an incredibly complex issue: rape. The entry provides better coverage of the incident than the Jordan Times did, but look at the responses. Most express the mandatory outrage, and often finish by adding that this never happens in Jordan. Then along comes a commenter who argues otherwise. He or she rightly points out that rape is probably underreported in Jordan, and then complicates what rape means, arguing (correctly) that rape can occur, for example, within a marriage. The responses to him are simplistic: where are your statistics? What!?! Rape within a marriage? It can’t be! Revealing the complexity of this one issue in Jordan put this commenter on the Foe list. But s/he was right. People found their positive narratives (i.e. violent crime does not happen in Jordan!) put in peril, and they naturally contested this.
And this is where writing my dissertation becomes a betrayal. At times when I write about people and I reveal the complexity that really does weigh heavily on the poor in Jordan, I can hear them standing behind my saying, “That’s not right. We are Muslims because it is the Truth, y3anee, bas.” Some days I find myself talking over them, and I strip that text from the document. But other days I must talk over them because I am the only one who will admit how complicated poverty and religion is among those I spent time with.