on language, nationality, and the Gulf.
As a student in a media studies program and a former museum person, I often say my research focuses on art and technology. What I’ve realized in grad school, though, is that I’m more interested in people than anything else: it’s the relationships people have to art and technology that get me going.
It’s no wonder, then, that I’m drawn to the qualitative methods of ethnographers. Over spring break, I had the chance to go to Kuwait and Qatar with my Public Art class, and I decided to try my hand at participant observation while I was there—taking field notes, documenting interesting sights through photos, and learning through informal conversations with local residents. In both countries, we were lucky to have exchanges with groups of students, scholars, and artists. In Kuwait, we were taken under the wing of the team that curated this year’s architecture pavilion at the Venice Biennale (more on that soon: I fly out in a few days to see the exhibition!). In Qatar, we met with a group of professors and students at UCL Qatar.
Some of the best moments occurred when in situations in which taking notes would have been be conspicuous, disrespectful, or awkward. Riding in the cars of our hosts, we had many great conversations on things like childhood, family, and what it meant to be Kuwaiti. Instead of risking ruining the mood by busting out my notebook, I would try to jot down thoughts when I returned home at night. However, a few days into my stay in Kuwait, I felt like there was some kind of disconnect between what I wrote into my notebook and the thoughts lingering on my mind. When I sat down to try to capture these thoughts on paper, I found it hard to articulate these feelings into words. I wonder if an ethnographer always feels this way: that the medium we choose to express our ideas—words—can ever fully match the ways we think about the subject.
But if language, at times, seems insufficient in relating my experience to others, it also became a key to gleaning a deeper understanding of Kuwait. In “How I Learned What a Crock Was,” one single word allowed Howard S. Becker (my sociology hero) to glean insight on the culture of medical students. But it didn’t happen through a breakthrough “ah-ha” moment that researchers often talk about. Back in the fall of 1955, Becker was shadowing a cohort of future doctors during their hospital rotations when he heard a student say, “Boy, she’s really a crock!” (as in, “crock of shit”) with regards to a talkative patient with many complaints. Becker probed the student’s word choice of “crock” further, asking questions like “What’s a crock?” and later asking if further patients would be considered crocks. (I’m tempted to get into the whole story, because it’s that good, but I’ll refrain for the sake of brevity. But go read it!) Becker unraveled multiple meanings in that one little syllable, revealing beliefs and assumptions of the medical profession.
In the Gulf, I had a similar experience. On the morning of our first full day in Kuwait, I found myself in conversation with three members of the Biennale team, all of whom I had only met an hour earlier. I asked the group, “What do Kuwaitis do?,” hoping to get a general sense of the country’s industry and economy. Their response: most work in the government. The country’s residents pay virtually no taxes; instead, the country makes money from oil production, which has been nationalized since the 1970s. Thus, government workers’ salaries are all indirectly indebted to the oil industry. They also explained that people are encouraged to work in the private sectors; those who choose such a career path receive a stipend from the government, which essentially amounts to a second salary.
I later learned, however, that this schematic only applies to Kuwaiti citizens, who make up 55% of the small country’s population. Foreigners are not entitled to the same kinds of government jobs that Kuwaiti citizens are guaranteed—nor do they receive many other benefits, such as access to public school. Additionally, nationality is only passed down patrilineally, and granting citizenship to foreigners is virtually impossible. When I had asked the question “What do Kuwaitis do?,” I had meant to ask what do people living in the country do, but their response reflected the stricter delineation of nationality that pervades the country and much of the Gulf.
I soon found other ways in which members of the Biennale team and I used language differently to discuss nationality. They often used the term “expat” in conversation: one person found “that the expat community makes the best use public space in Kuwait City.” To me, “expat” connotes affluent, often white people who live abroad. But for the members of the Biennale team, the term referred to anyone who was a non-Kuwaiti citizen, and more specifically, to the large migrant community—often originating from South Asia—who made up the service and labor force in Kuwait.
As the trip progressed, I strategically crafted my questions, choosing ambiguous language to test out hypotheses. In Qatar—where less than 15% of the country’s population is Qatari, and the country’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of this group—I was careful to use the word “locals” when I asked “How do locals react to the new push to bring contemporary art to Qatar?” My respondents—a group of mostly foreigners at a university, with only two Qataris in the room—interpreted “locals” to mean Qatari citizens.
Just as Becker had found, it was the slow decoding of language—rather than a single eureka moment—that allowed me to glean a little insight. Sure, we all spoke English. But by delving into these tiny words that held so many different meanings, I was able to (begin to) untangle how nationality was constructed and understood in the Gulf, a perspective different from what I was used to.