Palestinian cyclists in the West Bank and East Jerusalem claim their right to exist and move freely through their occupied homeland by riding their bikes. They move through challenging political terrain filled with checkpoints. They move through challenging cultural terrain, where many understand cycling as a children’s activity that is not appropriate for adults, and especially not for women. In moving through or “living through” events, like an on-going occupation, writes David Rousell (2022, 241–42), “there is a rebel refusal to comply with what counts as productive and useful.”
As we hiked in Wadi al-Muqlaq, near the Dead Sea, on a group bike ride and hike, I described my research to a graduate student. During a break, he sat next to me and asked me again why I was there. I repeated that I was there for research about cycling in the West Bank. I described how I was particularly curious about women’s experiences and about how cycling under occupation might be a political action. Our conversation was in English. He asked me to repeat myself twice. “You’re doing research? About what?” he asked. Then, he called over another English-speaking person to translate, and he asked me again. We were not experiencing a language divide. My reason for being in that canyon—as part of a research project about cycling in the West Bank—was unbelievable, unfathomable.
My Palestinian cyclist friends heard a consistent message that cycling is not an appropriate activity for an adult. I, too, faced awkward silences, presumed language gaps, and confused questions as I explained my curiosities about how cycling (research about cycling and the movement itself) might teach us about the occupation, the cultural construction of gender and gender roles, and power.
Something about cycling kept defying or challenging a variety of expectations. What counts as productive and useful as an adult? Not cycling. What counts as productive and useful political resistance? Not cycling. What counts as productive and useful research? Not cycling. And might these be the precise moments that anthropologists have something to teach? Coming up against ideas of different ways—counter-intuitive ways—of moving through the world challenges what we once thought was “common-sense,” “natural,” “appropriate,” or possible. In these moments of skepticism, discomfort, and incommensurability, I see opportunities to stretch our imaginations about what the world might be, rather than simply reproducing or affirming what the world is. Cycling is a movement to pay attention to, a counter-claim to established expectations, roles, and modes of resistance.
During summer 2022, supported by a Palestinian American Research Center (PARC) Fellowship for U.S. Scholars Conducting Field-Based Research on Palestine, I joined Palestinian cyclists on group rides, met new riders at training sessions, and watched flat tires get fixed at bike shops. It was a summer of “rebel movement” (Rousell 2022, 241), in part because we engaged in playful movement. We had a lot of fun, often directly in the face of armed occupation. And fun counters the perceived seriousness of adult life, political resistance, and research.
Fun: A Raised Eyebrow (or Two)
Over the course of the summer, I heard two types of questions. Each hinted, in different ways, that I wasn’t conforming to expectations, that I might not be moving through Palestine in the “right” or “best” way. Why was I riding bikes in the West Bank? (Assumption: there are better places to ride.) Why was I doing research about cycling? (Assumption: there are more important topics to study.) It’s an interesting array of skepticisms because the first suggests that I could be having more fun, if only I was riding somewhere else. And the second suggests that I’m perhaps having too much fun, if what I was there to do was research.
We can ask questions about when, where, and for whom fun is deemed out-of-place to analyze power.
As people tried to place me in an understandable category of “foreigner in Palestine” who wasn’t a volunteer, they seemed to be determining whether I was having fun or doing research. Impressively, it seemed that I was perhaps failing at both. But what is fun? What is fun under a decades-long occupation that severely restricts movement? Who can have fun? Where can fun happen? These are interesting questions as I reflect on my friend’s daughter asking me while we ate maqluba (maqluba means "upside down" in Arabic and is a popular dish of stewed meat, rice, and vegetables served by flipping over the pot onto a serving platter) at her house in Sheikh Jarrah. “Isn’t there cycling in America?” Or as I think back to a guy in a bike shop informing me that “it will be difficult for you to ride here [in Ramallah].” These comments suggest I was in the “wrong” place to enjoy cycling. The idea that fun is elsewhere seems to be underlying these conversations. Or perhaps, more specifically, the ways I (with an American passport) should/could have fun are elsewhere. It turns out these asides might reveal a lot about how perceptions of fun are tied to much bigger geo-political contexts.
Just as perceptions of what fun is, where fun is, and what fun can do are often limited and limiting, so are our understandings of research. What amount of fun is acceptable in research? What kind of fun is out-of-place? To what extent can one have fun during research? Does fun “matter?” What assumptions underlie this arguably uncomfortable conceptual relationship between fun and research?
These are interesting questions as I reflect on how people struggled to understand why I was researching cycling. Kemi Adeyemi’s (2022) preface to Feels Right: Black Queer Women and the Politics of Partying in Chicago opens by naming a perceived dichotomy between having fun and doing research or “anything of interest or consequence.” The dismissive undertones of comments of “[your] research must be so fun” (ix) resonated with me. The idea that fun and academic research or conversations are fundamentally at odds with one another gate-keeps what “counts” as productive and useful, and what we can imagine and create through critical analysis. Perhaps more importantly, it gate-keeps what counts as resistance to power. It also fails to understand how seemingly fun activities, like cycling as a Palestinian and partying as a queer Black woman in Chicago, are activities that allow people to “enact rigorous, detailed theories about the relationships between movement and feeling in a [place] that is...always threatened by many kinds of violence” (Adeyemi 2022, xii).
This brings me back to an earlier question: What is fun under a decades-long occupation that severely restricts Palestinian movement?
Running Up that Hill (Yes, I Binged Stranger Things during my Research)
I went to Palestine as a cyclist with a proclivity for climbs, a commitment to commuting by bike whether in the snow or under the desert sun, a willingness to train hard, and a love for long rides. That’s not exactly what I experienced on our group rides—well, except for riding under the desert sun.
My memories and fieldnotes from my second group ride in the West Bank captured my early frustrations about riding slowly and stopping often. On this ride, I found myself at the front of a group of thirty or so riders on a hilly ride. I was going slow. It was midday and very hot, with no shade. There were no turns, so I wasn’t worried about getting lost. I saw a roundabout up ahead and planned to stop there. I would need directions, there were trees, and it looked like the top of the climb. It would be the perfect spot to wait for the rest of the group. I heard yelling, and I knew instinctively that the folks behind me were telling me to stop. But I didn’t want to stop mid-climb. I heard the yelling again, so I stopped in the midday sun in the middle of a climb with no shade. I remember thinking, I know how to be on a no-drop group ride. Ride ahead, but as soon as there’s a turn (like the roundabout), or the top of a climb, stop and wait. It was common sense to prioritize finding shade on hot days and to not stop midway up a climb, where it would be difficult to start back up again.
However, when people did catch up and we turned a slight corner, I could see a road gate and a settler with a phone. We stopped. Soon the occupation forces rolled up in their jeep. Road gates in the West Bank separate Palestinian communities from each other and prevent Palestinian access to main roads. When closed, they require Palestinians to drive miles out of the way to reach their destination.
What I knew, what was common sense to me as a cyclist was not the same as what my Palestinian friends knew and what was common sense to them as cyclists. What’s around the corner? Shade and the top of the climb or an always-possible road closure and always-possible violent encounters with settlers and/or the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF)?
Kate Bush’s song is about swapping places with someone to understand their point of view. What makes understanding other points of view specifically anthropological is how we understand other points of view. It’s not just reading about or listening to another perspective, a different way of being in the world. It is about understanding how points of view, including one’s own, are positioned in relation to power. In some cases, as my own experience “running up that hill” near Salfit taught me, it requires literally swapping places—not to identify with/as someone else but as a refusal to reproduce existing power structures that privilege particular points of view. Understanding another point of view meant understanding that I was out-of-place at the top of that hill. I needed to swap places and let others lead so that I could understand cycling advocacy—not as including more people into cycling-as-sport (getting to the summit of the climb) but as reconfiguring my own cycling advocacy as anti-imperial and anti-occupation advocacy. Getting to the summit of the climb was not the point that afternoon. The significance of our group ride was the collective, embodied feeling of riding bikes with others in Palestine, in spite of (indeed, even because of) the broader political forces at work trying to prevent it.
I’m used to “running up that hill” to chase a PR (personal record), or QOM (queen of the mountain, or fastest time on a segment), or just to work hard. In the conversation-based classes I teach, I’ve encountered a similar sense of summit fever. Students want consensus, conclusions, answers at the “end” of our conversations. It’s uncomfortable in the sun without shade; it’s uncomfortable staying in the realm of possibilities rather than choosing a side. It’s hard, and awkward, to stop and start again on a climb; it’s hard, and awkward, to slow down and sit with one sentence of a text to analyze rather than reporting on an overall theme.
Waiting together with thirty or so Palestinian cyclists in the sun at that blockade, we played music and danced, talked, took pictures, and waited some more. Finally, the settlers and military left, and we cycled right around that road gate in a quick single file line. That afternoon, I felt the most collective, joyful, fearless, and also frustrating sunburn I have experienced on a bike. Our movement was not about sport. Our movement together made me feel cycling differently and through that feeling, understand better how power works—and how powerful collective wandering (waiting-dancing-cycling) can be in the face of that power.
Through this research, I remembered that teaching anthropology is about living and moving, together, through events that are cruel and on-going: colonialism, climate change, ableism, a global pandemic. In moving through together, we rebel against what is deemed possible, appropriate, productive, useful. And, in rebelling against these restrictive (and boring!) parameters regarding how we should be and relate to each other in the world, we can (and should?) have more fun.
Cycling can be a “rebel movement.” Cycling can enact “rigorous theory.” Anthropology can be more rebellious and more rigorous if it is more playful. Or, a stronger claim: anthropology must be playful, if we are to resist—in Zoe Todd’s words —“the bony white hands of the forefathers trying to claw us back [to colonial and racist forms of knowledge in anthropology]” (cited in Pandian 2019, 3).
I met Mayyasah, a student, on group rides. We had such an engaging conversation after one of the rides that I asked if we could meet again for a recorded conversation. The ethnographic interview, with a blended cold coffee (a shared favorite), lasted for over two hours. Mayyasah loves cycling, is well-read and thoughtful, and willing to engage in complicated conversations. At some point during this interview, she joked about me being “professor microphones.” We lived in different cities, and later, we were trying to find a time to hang out. At one point, she wrote, “+ without you being professor microphones this time [crying laughing face].”
“Professor microphones”—a title and a piece of equipment that indicate a sense of productivity and usefulness, as well as seriousness, definitiveness, recorded data. As anthropologists, we understand the value of all this, but we also know that informal conversations and simply moving through the world together is meaningful, worthwhile, valuable. Sometimes we have a microphone, sometimes a notebook, sometimes a bike.
It's important to bring this perspective into classrooms, too. In ethnographic research and in classroom conversations, we engage each other not to come up with definitive answers but to disrupt dominant ways of knowing and explode any notion that there is only one way to move through the world. In class conversations, we wander through ideas about the unjust worlds we inhabit and the better worlds we might build. On bike rides, we wander together to face the cruelty of the worlds we live in now and to pursue worlds that we don’t yet know. In this in-between space, we must be playful in ways that are deeply critical, creative, and imaginative.
I’m now reflecting on those moments when I take on the role of “professor microphones” in the classroom, asking prepared questions and directing conversation. It’s easier in a way. It counts as productive and useful. But it feels different when I’m able to be more fully there, countering assumptions of productivity by moving through ideas with students. What if our classes were about moving through the world together, in ways that really valued the journey over the destination? What if our classes were about rebel movement? What would we learn about ourselves, about each other, about power, about what is possible?
What if we had more fun?
Adeyemi, Kemi. 2022. Feels Right: Black Queer Women and the Politics of Partying in Chicago. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Pandian, Anand. 2019. A Possible Anthropology: Methods for Uneasy Times. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Rousell, David. 2022. “Part 3. Guidance for Readers.” In Doing Rebellious Research: In and Beyond the Academy, edited by Pamela Burnard, Elizabeth Mackinlay, David Rousell, and Tatjana Dragovic, 241–42. Leiden, the Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill.