free web hosting | free website | Business Hosting Services | Free Website Submission | shopping cart | php hosting
first fieldwork in religious anthropology - North Africa


On popular Islam, highlands of northwestern Tunisia, 1968

Wim van Binsbergen



Scattered throughout the landscape on the two hundred kilometer-long drive from Tunis to cAyn Draham, I did indeed see the white domed shrines which, as centres of the cult of saints, had played a major part in my research planning back in Holland. If you are all set to study the popular religion of North African peasants such a confirmation is quite welcome when the long distance taxicab, in which you are sitting crammed tight with five fellow students, is driven headlong around hairpin bends from the open plains into wooded country bearing an uncomfortable resemblance to the surroundings of rural holiday resorts visited in childhood. The cold fog turns into rain and we find ourselves amidst the hotels and public buildings of yet another déjà-vu: cAyn Draham.

       After having pored over foreign language publications on socio-cultural phenomena far and near for three and a half years with varying interest, without having done any empirical social research as yet, and with mounting doubt that my training within the field of anthropology was a suitable preparation for such research (or for anything for that matter), I was at long last allowed to take part in the research training-project which the University of Amsterdam had organized in Northwestern Tunisia for the past three years.

       During a preparatory period of half a year the six prospective participants had had ample opportunity, at weekly meetings, to get acquainted with the team of four that would be in charge: an experienced North Africanist; a younger lecturer whose brilliant, virtually completed dissertation about India was merely proof to us that he could not in any way be knowledgeable about North Africa; and two assistants who had already gone through the North African baptism of fire. We brushed up our French and discussed some relevant general literature in that preparatory group, all of which mistakenly confirmed our suspicion that there was hardly any anthropological information available about the research area. In those days our orientation was still quite mono-disciplinary; one hardly searched for historical sources, for instance. Neither did we receive any training in how to open up and use bibliographies, archives, etc. Besides the lassitude caused by the shots, doubts about what would be the best equipment, and financial worries (the grant of the University would turn out to barely cover half the costs), the fear preyed on our minds that we were not able to prepare ourselves in the best possible way for the research project — neither in a scientific respect, nor for the living conditions and the expectations of the local population regarding our behaviour out there. And so the physical and mental tribulations that would afflict us with growing intensity once in Tunisia, as our India expert kept emphasizing gleefully, already began in Holland.

       Much time was spent in discussing these problems and in convincing us (for a few hours) of the fact that they were truly insoluble. The individualistic set-up that had been opted for, in which each participant would be wholly responsible for his own research, inevitably meant enormous uncertainty, and the pretense of more effective preparation would not alter that anyway. Unforeseen contingencies would occur up to the very last day in the field. All of this did not, however, relieve us of our task of writing up a detailed research proposal — and once in the field, that turned out to have been extremely useful.

       The human aspect concerned us most of all. Accounts from the team of supervisors and previous participants became so distorted in our minds that during those last weeks before setting out for Tunisia our future informants, and especially the interpreters who had been recruited for us, had turned into double-dyed liars, not to be trusted in anything, only after our money and possessions from the first moment on, exceedingly unsavoury in all their manifestations, and capable of lapsing, at any given moment, into the acts of violence which had characterized the highlands on the border between Tunisia and Algeria before the colonial conquest (1881) — and which had even been the pretense offered for that conquest in the first place. The most hideous rumours circulated, as amongst novices in seclusion, the night before their initiation.

       To top off the preparatory stage we were presented, shortly before our departure, with an elaborate schedule of our obligations regarding the reporting and processing of materials after the field-work; whereas until then any possible results of our research had been played down as unimportant.

       Perhaps I was the only one who spent that final night in Holland delirious and vomiting. Perhaps it had to do with those last shots. At any rate, during my first intercontinental journey (at that time still by car and ferry) to my first research location, much of this anxiety had given way to a certain touristic? excitement, followed by weariness and slight disappointment. The initial accommodation did not exactly contribute to making the anthropology student’s dream come true: a three-room apartment (ugly and dreary as any comparable concrete building in Holland) was to house the six participants and all of their luggage for the first few weeks. Someone had been hired to do the cooking and the cleaning. The supervisors stayed in a nearby hotel.



Gradually, in well-calculated doses, Khumiriya and its inhabitants are set loose upon us. We meet the first interpreters hailing from villages in the vicinity: neat, intelligible and friendly. On two fascinating walks around the best known sheikhdom (the smallest administrative unit) the project leader opens our eyes to the ecology of the mountain region and the ensuing socio-cultural impact. No more enjoying the scenery: even the most magnificent valleys turn into ‘social/economic/political units bound by nature’, woodlands left intact ‘indicate the absence of springs’ (the land would have otherwise been cultivated), the signs of erosion are not picturesque but tragic. The distance of the tourist fades away and participant observation begins to take its place.

       Then it is time for our first independent exercise: groups of two students and an interpreter are formed, to each map a section of Hamraya, an extensive village about two and half miles from cAyn Draham. Hasnáwi  bin Tahar, the eldest interpreter at thirty-nine, will work with Tamsma and me in a part of Hamraya where he had lived the previous year with one of our predecessors, Guus Hartong.

       The interpreter steers us up against the mountain at a rapid pace. At the edge of the forest we manage to take refuge, for half an hour or so, in a lengthy discussion about the symbols to be used on our map. The interpreter gets bored. Then the terrible moment comes when we finally have to step into Khumiri village society on our own responsibility. Tamsma takes it upon himself to map the highest part of the village all by himself. Hasnawi and I will focus on the lower compounds. Stumbling I follow the interpreter into a farmyard, where he calls out to the invisible occupants, and I frantically start to pace the area while taking notes and avoiding the gazes of people appearing in a doorway. My intention is to pretend that these lonely activities are very absorbing and seem as a matter of course to me, but the feeling that what I am doing is completely insane, in the eyes of the onlookers as well as my own, keeps getting stronger. In the end I find myself standing on a large jutting rock about sixty feet from the farmyard, in a expert observer pose, but I seem to be unable to create, on paper, a coherent pattern out of the tangle of roads, paths, clusters of trees, huts, small plots of land, the brooks down below and the wooded slopes in the distance. I break into a cold sweat. See: even at the first, most simple, attempt I give myself away, I am not an anthropologist at all and will never be one...

       Our India expert drops by and takes some of the tension away. Tamsma returns, we are invited into a house and drink strong sweet tea. Once the people stop being faceless it actually proves to be possible to carry on a simple conversation through the interpreter. Ignorance of what is considered polite here does not immediately lead to catastrophes at all: interpreter and host obligingly enlighten us. The name of ‘Msjeyer — Monsieur — Goos’ (Guus Hartong) is mentioned; as ‘brothers’ of ‘Goos’ we are invited to continue his friendly relationship with the residents. The spell is broken. When we return the following day, making a map no longer poses a problem.

       Then it is time for collecting census data and genealogies in the same village. Our interpreter is closely acquainted with the inhabitants and has had ample experience with the Dutch students’ weird interest in long deceased or migrated relatives. And sure enough, to our great satisfaction our informants dish up genuine and elaborate genealogies without any problems. The most impressive sections of our textbooks thus come within our reach. Because we have an easy time in gathering this kind of information, and because we are so flabbergasted at seeing it all work, we forget that these interviews are rather tiresome for the people involved. And we are tongue-tied as soon as the conversation takes a less standardized turn. The informants are, however, very patient. And Hasnawi is very talkative in our stead. One of the interlocutors (already we only refer to them as ‘our informants’) starts telling about the origin of his lineage and with bated breath we jot down our first real myth.


Every day interviews are conducted or processed. And at nightly meetings the Indologist (the North Africanist has gone back to Holland for a short while), extemporizing in a captivating manner, points out the social-structural principles which can already be observed in our modest material and informs us on various technical aspects of the field-work: dealing with the interpreter, interview techniques, ways of making notes, processing data systematically, bookkeeping.

       All of this proves a great stimulus to our enjoyment of the analysis. We work hard and keep to strict timetables. We continually seem to be in a hurry. A few participants come down with a heavy case of research fever and keep on struggling with lengthy genealogies till the early hours of the morning, tallying up marital relationships. Why do their girl-friends have to be so far away for so long...

       The first letters from Holland are long in coming. And at night it is bitterly cold in the student hostel, everyone has a cough. Being in each others’ presence continuously, night and day, starts getting on our nerves. There is hardly any co-operation or exchange of information between the groups, as though conflicts only remain suppressed by grace of that ‘avoidance’ (a classical concept in anthropology), or as though we are already real anthropologists, protecting our own little area, our own material. Our hesitant attempts to relax seem to be looked upon with suspicion by the Indologist and his assistant; our only day off in three weeks turns into an over-collective and over-directed school outing to the ruins of Bulla Regia, an old Roman city.


At the end of the last interview day all the participants and interpreters walk across the densely-forested slope to the VW-van that will bring us back to cAyn Draham. Due to the local taboo on all reference to bodily functions I have to lag behind unnoticed and the next thing I know I have lost sight of the group. I follow the path down, running where possible, but do not catch up with them. When I ask a young boy if he has seen them, he of course does not understand what I am saying and directs me further up the mountain. Soon there are no more paths, I am walking through an overgrown clearing. Lost. And at that moment I realize I have not been alone for even one second in the past three weeks. Some of the weight of having been compulsively preoccupied for months now with the research and the preparation for it, is finally lifted from my mind — I am in a beautiful oak forest, a brook with strange red foam flows alongside of me, there are nice little birds. I relish the silence and delight in being a tourist once again for just one moment.

       But it is getting dark, I have no map or compass and think of the enormous boars that allegedly roam these forests. In my mind’s eye I see supervisors, participants, interpreters and inhabitants of surrounding villages desperately searching through the night, a disaster for the whole project. I call out. After a while I hear the horn of the van being honked in the distance below, and moving towards the sound I pretty quickly meet up with the group again.

       A beaming Hasnawi claims to have saved me: he was the only one to notice that ‘Msjeyer Weem’ was not there when they were just on the point of driving off. He is the interpreter assigned to me, who will live with me for three months in a one-room house of fifteen square feet.



My lodging had taken quite some doing. Popular religion was seen as a painful symbol of the backwardness of their country by the Tunisian authorities, since it varied considerably from the formal, although at that time rather elastic, Islam advocated by urban religious leaders. So my research subject was delicate, and the supervisors had selected an area for me to work on in a sheikhdom with which the project had been on very good terms right from the start. Several students had done field-work there in the previous years and the population had found that research was nothing to be scared of.

       The area designated to me consisted of two villages situated one above the other on a mountain slope and separated by a stretch of uncultivated land. The lower village was the location of a big shrine dedicated to one of the most important regional saints, Sidi Mhammad, from whom the settlement took its name. The upper village was called Mayziya. Another participant in the research project, Coen Beeker, had researched residence patterns in Sidi Mhammad in 1966, building up excellent relations with the inhabitants which he still maintained by sending letters and parcels. As he had hardly paid any attention to Mayziya, it seemed reasonable that I should focus on this village in particular. A small house for me to live in had in fact been found in Mayziya during the preparation stage, long before my arrival. However, right before I was to take up my residence in the village, it appeared that this dwelling had been deemed as not impressive enough by the local branch of the Tunisian unitary party which had proceeded to select a house for me on the edge of Sidi Mhammad. By local standards it was indeed grand, with a decent roof, a good lock on the door, a large yard, a clear view of the major shrine of Sidi Mhammad (he turned out to have four of them within a radius of two kilometers) and of the Mediterranean, twelve kilometers away. The owner was left to build a shelter for his family from faggots as best he could, elsewhere on his property. This man turned out to be, of all people, the person Beeker had particularly warned me about: I got the most controversial figure in the village as a landlord, someone who cared little for the traditional rules and who was the only avowed antagonist of the local sheikh (not a religious figure here, but rather a kind of mayor). Our Indologist could not do anything about it either.

       With other lodgings I undoubtedly would have produced different results. Not so much on account of the disappointment of the inhabitants of Mayziya (who would also have liked to receive letters and parcels) or my landlord’s peripheral position in the village, but rather because with him, his mother and his brother (under quasi-kinship obligation to me because of their proximity), I now proved to have some extremely intelligent informants, who had intimate knowledge of popular religion and were devoted participants in all the attending ritual activities.

       My first weeks in the village were not half so bad as I had expected. The accommodation and lack of conveniences were no problem at all: there was not any gas, electricity or running water of course, nor a toilet or a shower, but it was less primitive all in all than any hike through the mountains in Europe. That my informants were able to lead a complete life without all the material achievements of my own society, and that I could adapt myself to a fair degree to their situation, I found almost edifying after a while. And besides, Hasnawi saw to it that I had my cup of plain ordinary Dutch weak tea in the mornings (it was his third year as interpreter for the research project) — a despicable beverage in Khumiriya where tea is supposed be black, strong, syrupy and extremely sweet.

       My landlord actually seemed quite sympathetic; although it did get very much on my nerves that he had to closely observe in all detail, the very first day, whatever I had to unpack in the way of kitchen utensils, office equipment and provisions. His house was decorated with colour photographs cut out from Paris Match (which hardly anyone in the village could read, though): a photo report of the coronation of the last Shah of Persia, and a series of cheerful photographs of a girl showing what one can do with camomile, prepared in various ways. I gladly left them on the walls. They were a fitting preparation for the bust improvement advertisements I was soon able to admire in the major shrine of Sidi Mhammad, pinned up between the sacred flags and votive candles, right above the tomb of the saint himself.

       My first scouts around the village and surroundings yielded a wealth of fascinating information, because besides being a European and (hopefully) a prospective anthropologist I was a stupid city dweller to boot, without any knowledge whatsoever of farming. Those nice green blades of grass that I enthusiastically wrote home about, turned out to have developed into stalks of rye and wheat after a few weeks. Everywhere I only met friendly people. I made a speech in the local store-cum-men’s assembly, in which I held forth on the close ties that connected me with ‘Msjeyer Coon’. Everything I said was well-received, even when I told them outright that I was interested in the local saints and their veneration. They would help me with everything, and that is exactly what happened.

       As for the reaction of the population, I only experienced one real anxious moment. On the morning of my second day in the village an official of the local unemployment relief works (the villagers’ main source of income) came along to my little house to see Beeker’s mimeographed field-work report. The pages which this much-feared official opened up to contained, to my horror, tables with names of villagers and amounts of money: an innocent statement of the amount of rent they would be willing to pay if they should move to a newly constructed village, but was not the official — who naturally could not read Dutch — certain to misconstrue this as an indication that I was here to serve a sinister, political end? And it was just these kind of complications that the supervisors had explicitly warned us about! I realized only years later that it was probably the threat of association with a higher bureaucratic power which these tables represented that prompted my visitor to beat a hasty retreat.

       Later that day I began the interviews. Pretty soon I got into the habit of starting off each conversation with a new informant with questions about census data and genealogies. In this way I could find out about someone’s qualities as an informant in an area where he or she could easily supply me with answers without becoming insecure or suspicious. I had worked up these kind of questions during the preparatory village survey and could keep the conversation going even though I had hardly any sensible questions to ask yet about religion. The informants got used to the interview situation (in so far as still necessary after Beeker) and to talking through an interpreter while I, as an unexpected bonus, gained insight into the complicated kinship structures. In the course of the research these proved to be more and more relevant to my actual subject. Usually the genealogical exercises developed into a more religion-orientated conversation after about half an hour.

       I resolutely forced myself to always walk around with my notebook and to take notes, necessary or not, ridiculous or not. Within a few days everybody had gotten so used to this that no more attention was paid any more. Hopefully this cancelled out the danger of my informants being able to tell by my occasional, excited scribbling which spontaneous statements or actions roused my interest, and this having too much of an influence on their remarks and behaviour. At the same time it also provided me with a concrete possibility of identifying with my researcher’s role, which helped me to overcome a lot of diffidence.

       I would continually stumble upon new aspects of the religion. I explored the first of the dozens of shrines which I was to find in my immediate research area. After one day I was already allowed to witness a ritual slaughter and a sharing-out of meat in honour of Sidi Mhammad. The high point of those first days was a séance (I was to experience many more) during which the local representative of the Qadiriya brotherhood, widespread throughout the whole Islamic world, went into a trance accompanied by singing and flute and drum music, and manipulated cactus leaves with enormous spines. I was deeply moved by the experience. That night I wrote in my journal: ‘If I will be able to penetrate into the conceptual world and the motives behind all this, my stay here will have been worth-while.’ (It proved indeed to be just that.) My lack of interview technique hampered me more than the much-feared reticence of my informants. Even the women turned out to be surprisingly approachable. It only took a couple of weeks before our interviews with them apparently no longer needed to be chaperoned by older men. After the first ten days I was already under the impression — completely unjustified of course — that I was beginning to somewhat comprehend my subject.

       In those same deceptively euphoric first weeks, however, my main tool, my relationship with the interpreter, was almost irreparably damaged.



The dangers of getting into an over-friendly and free relationship with one’s interpreter had been stressed to such an extent during the preparations in Holland and cAyn Draham, that I eagerly — in this respect it was at least clear what I had to do — applied the Western, businesslike, virtually impersonal relationship model: ‘He is being paid comparatively well to do this job, and that is that.’ I actually saw Hasnawi as a, needlessly complicated, instrument to amend certain bothersome yet minor shortcomings in my intercommunication with the informants: the mere fact that (in spite of having studied Arabic) I neither understood their dialect nor had a clue as to their customs and manners. I refused to be aware of my total dependence on Hasnawi (though it had been over-emphasized by the supervisors), not only in terms of the language, but in fact at every step I took. And when he alluded to it (overtly supported by the supervisors in his sense of being utterly irreplaceable), I flew off the handle. I accused him, occasionally in the presence of others, of not translating everything that was being said. That he should be allowed to decide for himself what was relevant enough to translate, never entered my mind — I did not realize that the conversations we took part in, outside of the interviews, were generally of the same silly and diffuse nature as conversations in the pub, the launderette or the doctor’s waiting-room in Europe. We did not come to any normal discussion about the organization of the research (my research) or our stay. And so, at the same time as the informants were seeming to me to be the most fascinating and sympathetic people alive, an unbearable tension developed between Hasnawi and myself which expressed itself numerous times a day in peevish or quarrelsome remarks, alternated with irritated silences.

       And that despite the fact that the fellow was forced to abandon his house and compound, cow and wife for a pittance to work himself to the bone, apart from one day off a week, one and a half hour’s walk away under the unsteady guidance of someone young enough to be his son, — and work, not only as a translator (which is tiring enough) but also as a cook, cleaner, informant, P.R.-man and singer-musician (a specialty of Hasnawi which came in handy in the religious sphere). And, even more importantly, where his culture demanded the most far-reaching identification between people who work, eat, drink, sleep and spend their spare time together, with a continuous exchange of gifts and services, cordialities and confidences. He surely had reason to complain, and that is exactly what he did in all tones of voice.

       My informants of course did not fail to notice the tensions and several marginal characters from the village (among them my landlord, i.e. my most important contact in the village next to my interpreter), aspiring to the lucrative and seemingly cushy job, came to defame Hasnawi when he was not there. I decided I had to get rid of him as soon as possible. What use was he to me anyway?

       Fortunately our Indologist was able to intervene just in time. His general anthropological insights, and the way in which he applied them in his organizational contacts with the local society, more than counterbalanced his lack of specific knowledge about Khumiriya, as I began to realize. In a number of heart-to-heart talks my shortcomings were made quite clear to me, as well as the fact that I would have to get along with Hasnawi anyway, as one was not allowed to change interpreter.

       Now, over thirty years later, Hasnawi’s way of behaving and his idiosyncratic French vocabulary continue to be standing references, cryptic to others, in the family which I have since raised. I still have terrifying dreams about him, and have finally written the novel which details the story of our collaboration; the interpreter comes off a lot better in it than the young researcher.



After several weeks I had quite gotten over whatever initial exhilaration. The conflict with my interpreter had taught me (at least that is what I read in it) that field-work requires the researcher to be aware at all times of his own actions and of the premises on which they are based, and to perpetually keep track of how his presence influences the relationships of the people around him. These are inhumanly arduous demands, especially at the outset: when new impressions so overwhelm the researcher that he can barely take any distance from himself, can hardly predict how his behaviour will be interpreted, and also cannot yet fully assess in which respects the society he is researching allows him to be himself, to have his own opinions and preferences, to say ‘no’ when he does not feel like doing something. Human life and living together require a minimum of distance, knowledge, predictability and routine. With these one has a grip on reality, and the possibility of behaving spontaneously and being happy. I more or less saw myself voluntarily deprived of these basic conditions and placed in a kind of laboratory simulation of the genesis of neuroses.

       This had little to do with culture shock. Apart from the bloody slaughter of sacrificial animals, Khumiri society failed to shock me. The subject I had chosen to study had only confirmed my position as outsider. Coming from a family utterly shattered by kinship-based conflicts in a working-class neighbourhood of Amsterdam I was not exactly handicapped by a love for the dominant, bourgeois customs of my own European society — into which I had not been effectively initiated until I went to grammar-school. As an adolescent I had had the same problems of disorientation and despair with Dutch society that I now had with these Khumiri peasants. Having just turned twenty-one I was experiencing an accelerated second puberty, and it was even more painful than the first time around.

       If there was a lack of distance, this had nothing to do with European society but with the professional expectations to which I considered myself to be subjected. I only realized much later that my self-imposed cramped defencelessness in the field was mainly due to my inability to appreciate the relative nature of the advice given by the supervisors. It was not my informants who made exorbitant demands, it was me. I saw my field-work as a Spartan learning strategy for humility, patience, improvisation and living with insecurity. I felt I was continually dancing to the tune of my interpreter and informants, and yet still doing everything wrong.

       Nothing went smoothly. My feverish attempts to discover and adhere to certain rules of interaction did not, at this stage, arise from respect or admiration for the society in which I found myself. I merely wanted to get rid of that paralyzing insecurity. Every word I uttered and every gesture I made, for weeks, was consciously aimed not so much at getting information (which gradually seemed to become less desirable to me) but above all at making me acceptable in the eyes of my interpreter, informants and the team in charge of the training-project. I derived absolutely no satisfaction from my contacts in the village. I was just playing at dealing with people, but it was a terribly difficult and disagreeable game to me, and I constantly had the desperate feeling of being incapable of ever achieving any real contact with what was, after all, my immediate environment for the duration of the field-work. This absence of intimacy and spontaneity was all the more distressing because, except for the few minutes each day when I washed or when nature called, I was always surrounded by people. Even at night there was still the bodily presence of Hasnawi, one meter away, snoring or calling out in a nightmare; this instead of my girl-friend.

       For several days I experienced a feeling of almost total distress. I had completely lost my sense of motivation, the results of my research seemed utterly worthless and meaningless. By now I knew the local platitudes about religion by heart, but I felt I had no real insight into the system. My interview technique and my experience with analyzing conceptual systems were as yet far too inadequate to draw out what was not exactly unconscious, but rarely or never needed to put into words in normal, day-to-day life, even for the most intelligent informants. Instead of being an engaging interlocutor, I was at a loss to bring up new subjects at crucial moments in the conversations. I started to speak more and more with a stammer. And as soon as an interview seemed to be going the right way, I nevertheless irritated people (including my interpreter) through my lack of understanding of the basic social codes of their society, and my diffidence and inability to use their cultural idiom. Citing examples from daily life in Khumiriya, interspersing one’s conversation with kinship terms, the name of God and the Prophet, profusely wishing people good health — I did not yet know how to make use of all that. However detrimental it was bound to be to the progress of my research, I was really completely tongue-tied at times. My ears were ringing with the loud voices in that still almost unintelligible Arabic dialect, and I often could not see a thing in the dark huts, much less recognize faces or make notes.

       I just wandered aimlessly around the village with Hasnawi. Occasionally my depressions were quite apparent even to my informants. The heavy rains and the mail that failed to arrive greatly contributed to my despair. More than once I toyed with the thought of dropping the whole affair and flying back home at the first opportunity. So I would not be an anthropologist. At those instances little but the shame of being a failure in the eyes of my friends and loved ones back home, kept me from running away. Next came daydreams about horrible illnesses, real or feigned if necessary, which could only be cured in a well-equipped Dutch hospital and which would therefore swiftly and without loss of face extricate me from my ordeal. Any falling back on the supervisors was out of the question at that point in time, as the Indologist had just gone back home and the North Africanist had not yet returned from Holland.

       The turning-point of this crisis remains in my memory as the most important moment of my field-work. We had slept badly as usual because of the enormous quantities of strong tea we were forced to drink — an important physiological factor in my distress. After breakfast I listlessly followed Hasnawi’s suggestion to make an interview in Mayziya that morning, where the eldest informants of my research area lived. The forested stretch of land between the two villages afforded ample opportunity for reflection. At first I was once again seized with the panic of the previous days, but after a few hundred steps I all of a sudden decided, with a clarity of mind which I had not been capable of since my arrival in the village, to keep a stiff upper lip from now on and to make the sizable investment of time, energy, frustration and money that my participation in the research project had already cost me and others, pay off. Why was that addition which I had made so often before without shaking off my paralyzing depressions, now suddenly relevant? Maybe the gentle spring rain reminded me of Holland. I had trudged up the slope to Mayziya before, but this time leaving the strip of forest behind and setting foot on the open fields of this other village meant shedding all fear. Behind me spread the valley of Sidi Mhammad in all its glory. The mountain range which bordered it across the valley seemed to have receded further away and was no longer threatening. I felt relaxed when we reached the village. The interview was pleasant and interesting. I stopped stammering. Food was served and we took the youngest son back home with us to give him some sticking plaster for his cousin who had been butted by a ram while we were there.

       Some days later the supervisor of the project appeared in my yard, wearing a parka and a woolen cap as if we were not in Africa. He had braved the sharp-edged, newly cut stones of the metalled roads, recently built by unemployment relief work, in his basic Citroèn Dyane, in order to deliver my mail and take out time for the long, intense scientific discussions which — repeated once every two weeks from that point on — were to be the backbone of my first field-work. The link with my own world had been re-established, but I also could not have wished for a better guide to the North African world. And he even juggled with theories and generalizations, in that yard with a view of the shrine of Sidi Mhammad and the distant Mediterranean, as Hasnawi and my landlord looked on, whispering in awe.



The main problem of field-work, from a scientific point of view, is the enormous distance which exists between the observations and statements the researcher is confronted with on the one hand, and the generalizations about this raw material he has to arrive at on the other — generalizations which moreover have to be relevant in the light of some fundamental theory or other, abstracted from ethnography. And it is already tough enough in the course of a research training-project of several months, without thorough theoretical or regional preparation and with no time to let everything sink in now and then, to keep working towards something and not lose track of one’s goal.

       By now, though, some aspects of the Khumiri material were no longer new and strange to me. I was particularly struck by the many similarities between Khumiri popular religion and the Catholicism with which I had been brought up. In many respects the basic concept of North African religion, baraka, corresponds with the Roman Catholic concept of ‘divine grace’. Many details of the cult of saints (the burning of candles in niches in little white chapels, incense, prayer postures, the eating of consecrated cakes) and some features of the religious brotherhoods seemed very familiar to me. In part this can be attributed to the diffusion of cultural elements: both Islam and Christianity originate from the same Mediterranean cultural area, Khumiri popular religion is partly rooted in religious modes which are widespread throughout the Mediterranean and much older than these world religions (so that baraka e.g. corresponds with the Hebrew barukh), and the inhabitants of North Africa and Southern Europe have belonged to the same or closely related political units for most of the past two thousand years. This parallelism had both advantageous and disadvantageous implications for the research. Because of my background I was perhaps able to penetrate more quickly into some aspects of Khumiri religion than would have been possible without my experience with, in form and history, a kindred religion. But on the other hand it is quite likely that I let myself be unduly influenced by my background, especially in defining the conceptual content and in interpreting the phenomena I encountered in a wider social context.

       I had no doubts actually that at some time, later, behind my faraway desk, I would be able to write a pretty decent report about my research. But that was by no means my most important incentive for working hard. When I was not engaging myself with people, I was defenceless against the social and sexual frustrations of the field-work situation. Which was one of the reasons why I hardly ever got around to working out data or taking naps in the afternoon: I just could not stick it. Another factor was that Hasnawi could not stick it either: his main assignment, as he saw it, was making interviews with me, and I must not frustrate that assignment by working out notes or sleeping! I became more and more fascinated with the ethnographic data though — and with my interaction in this society. As I dug deeper into the world of my informants, I finally started to enjoy each new step which brought me closer to an understanding of increasingly more complicated situations and ideas. In the field, with the living material almost too close for comfort around me, and in the fruitful contact with experienced researchers, I figured I was truly beginning to somewhat comprehend what I had already been studying for several years: human interaction, its complicated manifestations and interrelationships, the tension between expectations and evaluation from various sides, the place of relatively fixed factors such as norms, collective representations and material objects, conscious choices and such restrictions of choice as were, unconsciously, imposed upon the informants by their social environment. I was still a long way off from problems of power; social change; the interplay between heterogeneous semantic, social and economic systems within one field of interaction; corporeality and self-reflection — later to become the predominant themes of my scholarly work — but I nevertheless was getting to feel like an anthropologist. It was the decade when transactionalism was introduced into Dutch anthropology, and in keeping with the times I was modishly disillusioned, in the field, with a social science which in the main seemed to aim at abstractions about enormous masses of people (and which applied these abstractions with a tendency to reification), but appeared to have no finely differentiated concepts that were of use in the field, for the more or less inchoate, ephemeral micro phenomena on the individual human interaction level — however much these micro phenomena were anthropology’s main source of material, and for the informants the very essence of their lives.

       None the less, I could not avoid having to work towards macro abstractions and in this the existing Grand Theory proved to be much more of a support (thanks to the research plan I had drawn up back in Holland and the talks with the supervisor) than I was willing to admit. Studying theories of religion (especially those of Émile Durkheim) had put me on the track of a number of fundamental problems, particularly regarding societal integration, the relationship between symbol and that which it refers to, and the relationship between religious and non-religious organizational structures. Although Durkheim hitched his splendid generalizations (according to which each society essentially worships itself in its religion) somewhat unfortunately on to the distant and in those days ill-understood Australian aborigines, there was nevertheless a direct connection between those generalizations and the Mediterranean popular religion I was studying through Robertson Smith’s Religion of the Semites (1889) — Durkheim’s main influence when writing his Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse. Transposed back into the Mediterranean region, the relevance of those basic tenets (despite the limitations of Durkheim’s idealism) became more and more clear to me in the field, and this was very encouraging. Saints indeed proved to be direct symbols of the kin groups and neighbourhoods which venerated them; groups identified and differentiated themselves from others by erecting their own shrines; the ascent and decline of shrines coincided with the political and demographic rise and fall of local groups; and even legends about saints I was gradually able to decode as more or less historical statements about the settlement history of various kin groups.

       The eagerness with which I occasionally imagined seeing affirmations of Durkheim’s theories around me, as embodied in the ideas and interactions of my informants, was also of course due to the pressure under which I lived. But I flattered myself with the thought that the concrete, highly quantifiable material I was collecting, would be solid enough to turn whatever chimerical notions might have crept into my vision of Khumiri religion, into verifiable scientific assertions, occasionally with verifications and all. I especially relied upon my elaborate card index system of data, hypotheses and ideas which I in the end used to formulate a limited amount of concrete questions for a successful systematic inquiry among all adult women of Sidi Mhammad and Mayziya. I proudly worked towards what I then still envisioned to be a scientific ideal: a conclusive statistical analysis of miscellaneous forms of local religious behaviour — so that I would ultimately be able to predict with certainty, for instance, for literally every female inhabitant of Sidi Mhammad, which four or five of the many dozens of local shrines she visited, and why; or so that I could trace those factors of affluence, political power, order of birth and family tradition that determined exactly which particular thirty percent of the local men were to be recruited as ecstatic dancers within the Islamic brotherhoods.

       Now, of course, I can see that I opted for the mere surface of religious phenomena; but it was a strategically correct choice because I lacked both time and training for more in-depth research and exploring the symbolic and deep-psychological aspects of the cult of saints.



After our initial clash Hasnawi and I occasionally still had our problems. He had certain definite ideas as to the desired procedure of things, based on his experience with previous training-project participants, and I could not always bring myself to conform. But I was now more quickly aware of any hitches, and from the material handed to me by Khumiri society (through my interpreter!) I was able to glean strategies to obviate such friction. I got to know about a bit about the complex, semiconscious methods by which people in Khumiriya (as in every society) can satisfactorily comply with the demands which close relationships impose on them and can none the less keep pursuing their individual goals.

       But not only was I becoming more aware of the roles played by my interpreter, his initially completely disappointed expectations regarding me and the possibilities at my disposal to manipulate this field of forces. I also began to realize what tremendous sacrifices he was making for my sake and in spite of his incessant whining (about what an exemplary life he led, how wicked some other people were — especially other interpreters -, how much I owed to him), his sometimes really inexplicable moodiness, his nonplussing bustling about early in the morning and his modest forms of blackmail, I really came to value him a lot. He gradually managed to get me somewhat accustomed to the local, rural rhythm of life, in which the time around noon, and the evening, are not meant for work. Once this principle had been accepted he put up with the fact that the social musical evenings which we witnessed almost daily in the village, invariably turned into ‘work’ for us — and Hasnawi perhaps made his greatest contribution to the research on those evenings while putting in double overtime as both an interpreter and a singer-musician. He kept giving me evermore detailed advice about how I could protect myself from the continuous assaults on my health by natural and supernatural forces and beings. And also on my part the now continually vocalized concern for his health, part of the cultural idiom I had picked up, no longer was just feigned civility.

       Hasnawi’s influence on the course the research took was considerable, even apart from his increasingly exemplary role during the interviews and musical evenings. Just like me, he was haunted with the fear of failure. Although he did not have to pass any academic exams, he was scared to lose his well-paid interpreter job for the following years, and to fail in the eyes of his environment. We constantly had to work, and real work exclusively meant making interviews, he thought. If I stayed home in the daytime to work out notes he became restless and insufferable, so we quickly set out for the village once again. I often felt forced to comply with his wishes, also when it did not seem of any use for an efficient and thorough gathering of material. But I could afford a second crisis with my interpreter even less than a day lost. Often his suggestions turned out to be valuable, however. In this too my opportunism gradually gave way to spontaneity. While I learned to rely more on Hasnawi, he started taking a lot more pleasure in his work. After a while we really worked together ‘like brothers’, as the indigenous ideology stipulated.

       The definitive victory in our relationship was when he (greatly weakened in the last weeks of our work just as I was because of bad water, lack of fresh vegetables and the nocturnal religious and musical séances) did not any longer blame his ailments on the hard work I made him do, but on the Evil Eye which certain of our informants in a neighbouring village had cast upon him, ‘out of jealousy about his good position as an interpreter!’

       But all my good will, or the advice of the supervisors, or Hasnawi’s devotion, would not have accomplished anything if my informants had not been so incredibly helpful and hospitable. Once I had gotten rid of my initial crampedness? and fear, my attempts to as much as possible be one of them, for the duration of the project, were amply rewarded by my informants: with a wealth of data of course, and that was exciting and instructive, but even more important during those last few weeks was that I felt at home in the village, having gratifying relationships with dozens of people whose ideas and way of living no longer were quite that alien to me and who in many ways even had become dear to me. I could also carry on simple conversations now without my interpreter’s help, their facial expressions and gestures conveyed something to me, and sometimes I was even able to catch their humour. Much to my surprise I now and then adopted their prejudices and imagery.

       But my heart sank, up till the very last days, each time when I walked the few kilometers from the motor road to Sidi Mhammad, after a short visit to cAyn Draham for supplies and my regular vitamin-B shots to keep me going.

       It was a great pleasure to be allowed to take part in the relaxation of my informants, especially as the music which was a regular feature at those gatherings, greatly appealed to me. Pleasure was combined with business, as love-songs were lightheartedly alternated with sacred songs in honour of the Prophet or to accompany the ecstatic dances in honour of the local saints. I was thus able to take a relative view of at least one of my Durkheimian premises: unlike the theory, my informants by no means treated the supernatural with the utmost respect which Durkheim, via various symbolical detours, presents as the basis of societal order. If there was any dancing, I had to dance along with them and was given directions as to how it was done. What more effective way is there to get to understand the symbolism of the ecstatic dances, which the people themselves for the most part were no longer aware of. At first these dances took place at people’s homes, in front of a small group of men, but at the spring festival of Sidi Mhammad I had to dance for half an hour, in honour of Him, with the best dancers from the vicinity, while two hundred onlookers watched approvingly.

       At a party I had a cordial letter to my girl-friend dictated to me by the village’s prominent men and women, with the prediction that I would be so ‘strong’ after all this continence that a son would be born to us soon after my arrival, at the intercession of their and my ‘grandad’ Sidi Mhammad. It turned out to be a daughter, but she did get a Tunisian name. She visited the shrine while still in the womb and there apparently was filled with baraka. At another party I was joined in a mock-marriage with the youngest daughter of uncle Salah: the climax of merry deliberations about an effective way to present my girl-friend in Holland with the fait accompli of a Khumiri co-wife, and meanwhile provide my Khumiri father-in-law with three Dutch girls who would have to be less ‘closed’ than his own middle-aged wife.

       I eagerly, although at first somewhat over-zealously, ate and drank everything that was offered to me. During the preparations in Europe much attention has been paid to the social implications of food, and the offering of food, as part of one’s field-work strategies. We were made well-aware of the ‘Miss Ophelia complex’ — the white lady from Uncle Tom’s Cabin who has the best of intentions towards the ‘darkies’ but shies at any normal contact. I was convinced that with that food and drink I also, almost tangibly, ingested the culture of and relationships with those people. I usually was grateful for the hospitality and lightheartedly took the risk of a TB infection or being infected with one of the other terrible diseases which some of the villagers suffered from. Through my unreserved eating behaviour I indeed prepossessed people in my favour. And not to forget: a great deal of the food was consecrated to a local saint, and by eating it I entered into a relationship with this supernatural being which has apparently been propitious for my work and later life. In fact I have continued to consecrate meals of kouskous and ritually pure meat to Sidi Mhammad in my home, once every few months.

       Besides all the large and small feasts we were almost daily invited to dinner somewhere. The obligation of hospitality called for an elaborate meal, with expensive meat, and consequently I often had the feeling that the kindness shown to me by my hosts had ‘eaten up’ a whole week’s budget. By organizing a few feasts myself I fortunately was able to do something in return. It was not only neighbourly love, however, which weighed upon me. In the form of dinner invitations to Hasnawi and me, all sorts of rivalry was being settled, over our heads, between my informants (belonging to different families, kin groups, factions, neighbourhoods, village, clans, sheikhdoms) and more than once it got us into problems. Although these invitations resulted in fruitful situations for casual interviews and observations, they were not always opportune: either because we wanted to do something else; or because the intimate, almost sacred bond which eating together creates in Khumiriya, seemed undesirable to us with that particular host; or because we already had had to stuff down a large meal elsewhere only an hour before. Refusing food and drink that is offered to you is, however, impossible in this region; and the host mercilessly takes care that his guest wants for nothing. So we often overate ourselves, an unusual but heavy sacrifice for science. When I returned to Holland I was fat for the first (but not the last) time in my life.

       It was particularly satisfying to me when my landlord on one of the last days, and in the presence of others at that, refused the tea I offered him. This vicious attack — transgression of the same code which had forced me to reluctantly consume all those loads of food and liters of boiled tea — I was going to riposte! It turned into a big argument which I participated in with concealed irony and in which my landlord remained just a sympathetic in my eyes as he had been before. Hasnawi and I became ‘the winning party’, according to the local rules of the game, that is by in the end presenting the landlord with the field-work kit which he had (unjustifiedly) feared he would not get when I left, and which was why he started the whole row in the first place.



Three weeks before my departure I had progressed to the point that I could pierce through the commonplaces about religion and was able to reach what lay beneath the surface.

       The method I had followed in the first weeks — its shortcomings had definitely been a factor in my distress — consisted in trying to elicit statements about indigenous conceptions from my informants by asking as vaguely and elliptically formulated questions as possible, and in noting down the statements thus provoked as best I could without, however, mentally absorbing them. In doing so their content slipped from me right there and then: I did not bother to really try to understand and use the system during the interviews, but hoped to distil a correct and sound system from all those (seemingly) conflicting statements by comparing them with each other once I had returned to Holland. It was like mindlessly collecting phrases and expressions among a group of native speakers, in order to learn their language or reconstruct its structure after coming back home, instead of trying to master that language on the spot, in continuous contact with the speakers. It was a superficial and unreliable method which caused irritation: much to their despair informants were urged, for the first time in their life, to give abstract general definitions of their religious concepts, and were baffled when, during a subsequent interview, it appeared that l still did not understand anything at all.

       With the help of the project supervisor I finally hit upon a better approach. Informants usually were capable of giving an indication of the limits of their conceptions — what was still considered baraka and what was not, for instance — even though they were not really able to define a concept in a positive and abstract sense. Confronted with hypothetical cases that were recognizable to them (thought up between the project leader and myself), they were able to pursue an abstract line of thought — even though they could not spontaneously describe to me the connections between various conceptions and activities. From those parts of the complex of religious conceptions which I thought I knew by now, I deduced statements about concrete situations. The informants proved to be able to assess these statements without difficulty, either as being correct and inherent to the system, or as nonsense, and in this way my insight into the system was constantly being tested and adjusted, which enabled me to penetrate into evermore complicated interrelated structures.

       Hasnawi and I pursued our best informants for days with questions about the specific forms of baraka which various fictitious sacrifices to different local saints, in all sorts of situations of ritual obligations and misfortune that we spun out with relish, would yield to us, in various more or less convincingly acted capacities of pater familias, village elder, female leader, poor widow, a woman recently married into a family, a childless woman of forty, etc. And at long last, with meaning looks of mutual understanding, the informants gave us concrete answers instead of the hermetic commonplaces of the first weeks.

       The method worked, especially because Hasnawi and I were by now well-attuned to each other in conducting interviews which made people feel more at ease. Working with an interpreter hardly was a handicap any longer. The connections that I had previously been searching for with purposely vague questions, all at once became clear to me, and my informants were visibly relieved that I finally appeared to have some understanding and insight.

       Although the relatively simple tracing of concrete facts from the present and the past continued all through the last phase of my research, I mainly focused on the values and conceptions behind the facts. The result was fairly satisfactory, considering the limited amount of time at my disposal.



The fervour with which I had initially searched for ways of getting a grip on my interpreter and informants, in order to protect myself, equalled the disgust I felt when I had discovered some of those ways towards the end of my stay and was actually at times capable of manipulating people. I felt like a hypocrite when my sweet-mouthed talk proved to be able to get Hasnawi going again, even though he was justifiably exhausted. But time pressed.

       The villagers, too, began to reveal things they apparently would have rather kept secret, thus enabling me to complete my most important cases, such as that of the daughter of Mansur, a penniless ecstatic dancer who lived out his life as a share-cropper with the sheikh’s family into which his sister had married. Owing to a ritual transgression, the daughter had come into conflict with a local saint (who naturally was still as invisible as ever), which in her case expressed itself in acute paralytic seizures. I already suspected that all this was a reflection of a kinship conflict between her family of origin and the family into which she had married, in Khadayríya, two valleys off: she was alleged to have accidentally killed a cock, which she had at first dedicated to Sidi Mhammad, in honour of a local saint in Khadayriya... We had heard the rumour but wanted to get this important piece of information straight from the horse’s mouth. Several courtesy visits had only yielded evasive answers. Finally we took the son of Mansur’s sister into our confidence, Jilani, a boy of my age. When he accompanied us on our umpteenth courtesy call he made such a quasi-accidental but irrevocable slip of the tongue in Mansur’s disfavour that Hasnawi was able to immediately thrust some directed questions at the latter.

       Till then I had conscientiously, and at the first indication, respected the limits which the villagers set to the flow of information. But it was evident that in their associations with each other they also could overstep and manipulate these limits, and I began to learn the rules that went with this ‘game’. That my most important informants — contrary to all the accepted wisdom with regard to social research in Islamic societies — were women, and that I could count all female inhabitants of both villages as my informants, already showed how far one could go in this.

       Although, after twenty years, I can still recall in detail the landscape of Sidi Mhammad, the names of the people, their faces and their social and kinship relations to one another, I have since experienced other field-work in other cultures much more intensely, or at least with a more conscious, personal and radical commitment on my part. In Sidi Mhammad I hardly overstepped any other limits than the existentially least important ones: I could manipulate people with words and gestures somewhat resembling their own for goals which were alien to them (science, my own career), and thus gained my own personal access to what was after all public information. Conspiring with Hasnawi and being elated with the scientific results, I did not realize how meager the yield was from a human point of view. After my initial struggle to find a way-in into Khumiri culture, I was already dangerously close to the exit again at such moments. And in the sudden distance that this manipulation brought about, the material poverty and the medical needs which had previously escaped my notice (or which I had not deemed of any importance as long as I had still felt I was at their mercy), all of a sudden came home to me. The scales fell from my eyes, as in the Garden of Eden after the Fall of Man, and I saw ‘my informants’ in their ‘true colours’: with their frayed blue overalls issued to them by the unemployment relief work, without shoes, with empty storage tables in their huts, coughing, slouching along — people who were willing to shed all dignity as soon as the possibility of working as an immigrant worker in Holland was mentioned. With these phrases I finally had a hold over them. But what was the most authentic phase in our contact?

       Anthropology is more than just a sublimated form of sleuthing or espionage. Through the by now well-balanced collaboration with Hasnawi, through the very specific nature of verbal communication in North Africa — where every sentence is, even more than elsewhere, a maze of multiple meanings and references, and above all of contradictions and gradations of the truth — and also because of my position of dependency as a trainee-researcher, I was driven across boundaries in this particular case which I have since approached differently in my later research. When I subsequently kept being drawn to those boundaries and often managed to go beyond them, a much more wide-ranging longing for personal contact rather than mere scientific curiosity was my primary concern. Not the clever mimicry of an acquired local idiom but an absolutely vulnerable attitude on my part, abandoning scientific instrumentality, became the condition for such a boundary crossing, — the researcher, not as the Faustian manipulator, but as the equal of his informants in accessibility and awkwardness.

       I was still a long way off from that attitude during my first field-work. I was too young, too frightened of failing in a scientific respect, and had not yet reflected upon the obvious conflict between scientific and human priorities — in my personal life as well as in my dealings with people from another culture. And besides, the preparatory phase and the supervision of the research training-project had emphasized the strategic rather than the existential aspects of the anthropological encounter. Apart from being touched by the harmonious Khumiri vision of nature, life and fertility — and by the incarnation of that vision: Najma bint (daughter of) Hassuna, married into Sidi Mhammad from Hamraya, only a few years older than I but the radiant mother of four children — I did not get beyond manipulation during my first field-work. And yet, when I stumbled along the familiar cacti hedges towards midnight to the car that was waiting for me on my last night in Sidi Mhammad, after the ritual slaughter of my calf, after the last musical evening, Aunt Umborka, the elderly mother of Jilani, suddenly darted out of the shadows; she had been waiting for me, far away from the festive commotion, to secretly give me a last kiss, and this time not the formal kiss on the hand which is the customary way people here greet each other, but a big smack right on my mouth.

       Thus my first field-work ended in real contact. When I began to work out the material I had collected, the instrumental, manipulative side continued to dominate, and by quantifying and abstracting it I managed to partly fulfil the scientific ambitions I had at that time in my report. And yet, in the following twenty years, the existential side of my first transcultural encounter kept looking for an outlet in my life. Perhaps this tension explains why I have continued to cling to the material and the memories from Khumiriya in a much stronger manner than the length of my stay or the significance of the data which I brought back home would warrant. My eldest child had to be named Najma. And the title of the novel which Khumiriya has finally yielded to me, Een Buik openen (To Open A Belly), does not only refer to the bloody sacrifices I had to witness, and to the occult information which also in Khumiriya is read from the entrails of sacrificial animals (the anthropologist obtains his data in a less direct way), but also to a birth — as if the hackneyed comparison of field-work with initiation, and the rebirth which universally constitutes the underlying model of initiation, really holds true in this case upon second thoughts.#)


*)     © 1987, 2000 W.M.J. van Binsbergen;

#)     Original Dutch version published as ‘Eerste veldwerk: Tunesië 1968’, in Wim van Binsbergen & Martin Doornbos (eds), Africa in spiegelbeeld, Haarlem: In de Knipscheer, 1987, pp. 21-55. Translated by Susan Janssen. I wish to register my great indebtedness to Douwe Jongmans, Klaas van der Veen, Marielou Creyghton and Pieter van Dijk, who had the academic and logistic supervision of the research training project as described here.




page last modified: 11-02-01 21:06:06      
Easy Submit Add Me!