Contact/Access: Deviation

From the Series: Contact/Access

Photo by qimono.

If I went, I wouldn’t tell anyone that I was going to Morocco.

Waiting for something to happen is nerve-wracking, and if you’re not careful, deviating from that giant waiting room that is the field can be downright dangerous. I was in an ethnographical jam until I remembered some sound advice that my professor, Ian Whitmarsh, gave me: follow what’s interesting and worry about how it will all fit together later. As Peter Redfield noted in his post, don’t overlook the obvious—fieldwork that is interesting to you—and do let provocation run its course while conducting fieldwork.

If I went, I wouldn’t tell anyone that I was going to Morocco because then I would have to explain to my leftist Spanish informants that I was considering alternative perspectives to the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) that deviated from their own. Like my right-wing informants, the leftists too saw their history and their victims as the rightful ones. To go to Morocco and investigate Moroccan perspectives on the civil war would be to challenge what my Spanish informants—lefties, righties, and everything in between on the political spectrum—held to be the truth, thus possibly jeopardizing my professional relationship with them in the field. Even if I didn’t discover anything in Morocco, deviation from the main story line could be considered threatening to some Spaniards. I was steering off the beaten path and becoming that noisy American foreigner, poking around where she wasn’t suppose to.

The so-called Spanish Civil War actually began in Morocco in 1936 when nationalist forces led by General Francisco Franco and backed by other right-wing officers, fascists, monarchists, and the Catholic Church, overthrew the established left-wing Popular Front government. Some 80,000 Moroccan mercenaries (most of them Berbers) aided in the victory. Today, over 114,000 Spaniards are still considered missing and while exhumations of the defeated are in progress, confronting the truth that lies in the graves and the legacy it exposes remains a controversial issue.

My leftist Spanish informants—activists, family members of the assassinated, archaeologists, and volunteers—were the very ethos of these exhumations. As Nicola Bulled and our other commentators have pointed out, it is important for the anthropologist to dress the part and take part in the exchange of language, power, and values while in the field, no matter where this exchange may lead him or her. Yet it was because of my participation that made deviation risky (as well as provocative). I was moving into what was uncharted territory for most Spaniards—Moroccan involvement in the colonizer’s war and what this added to the Spanish perspective. That, and I was looking at corpses. I wondered: was I in too deep? Was I trying to take on too much, ethnographically and ethically? Had I undermined my Spanish informants’ perspectives by digging into the Moroccan question? These are all questions from someone who felt the need to secretly create two Facebook accounts in order to “like” and engage with various political and politically affiliated associations and NGOs. Stakes were high.

My interest in the Moroccan perspective of the civil war was sparked by the exhumation of a leftist mayor and photographer who was killed just thirteen feet away from where a Moroccan soldier was also killed. The mayor was exhumed sixty-nine years later by a left-leaning NGO. The Moroccan, however, remained untouched. The Moroccan corpse was a taboo within a taboo, a digression in an already complicated narrative of the Spanish Civil War: As foreign mercenaries who fought for nationalist and fascist Spain, Moroccans are excluded from the current leftist exhumation movement that aims to identify graves of the defeated. As Berbers, there is little incentive to investigate their case because they are an ethnic minority and a potential risk to Moroccan nationalism. And finally, as Muslim remains, they do not fit the Spanish national-Catholic historical trajectory of the civil war and postwar. Who were these nonvictims, and what did they reveal about the civil war and the historical and current strains between these three cultures—Spanish, Moroccan, and Berber?

The Spaniards weren’t talking, and the dead don’t talk much either. What’s my next move?

  1. Go to Morocco. If you’re doing critical research, some informants are bound to be unhappy with what you end up discovering. Follow what’s interesting and lean into provocation.
  2. Don’t go to Morocco. This could complicate your professional relationship with your informants in Spain.
  3. Go to Morocco but on a separate fieldwork trip. Wait it out. Complete the first project, then start a new one in Morocco later.
  4. All of the above. None of the above.