Monday, September 28, 2009

Alex de Waal on Jean-Francois Bayart

I recently posted a few thoughts about Jean-Francois Bayart's idea of extraversion. Now, on the occasion of the republication of Bayart's opus _The State in Africa: Politics of the Belly_, Alex de Waal has started a five-part series on his blog reflecting on the book and its resonances with the Sudanese situation. Part one is available here.


Today I took my first step on Libyan soil. Well, concrete. With the airport here in Tripoli surrounded by construction, my plane from Paris parked far from the terminal, and we passengers had to troop across the tarmac in the late afternoon sun. Tripoli airport is an odd holding pen. The faded glamor of a long ago-modern motel meets third-world dim lighting and endless checkpoints of civil servants. Today a swarm of men in white jackets and face masks met the plane. They handed us forms to fill out about disease and contact information and then bustled off to puzzle over the results. In the duty free shop, one can purchase cans of salted nuts from Sweden, little rhinestone-studded ceramic boxes in the shape of dachshunds, and shelf after shelf of cigarettes. The gift shop is never open, and the restaurant serves little besides dates and cookies. Every time I'm here, at least one airport official will crow over my name and let it roll off his tongue. I know how to respond: “Hua ism arabiy” (it's an Arabic name). Not really, but close enough, especially if it makes their day of tedious work pass a little more quickly.

All that being said, I've not a single complaint about the journey so far. The plane here was nearly empty and I could stretch out across a row of seats freshly upholstered in Libya's signature new-grass green. I had my pick of six films and went with “Tropic Thunder,” none the less enjoyable for the bleeped expletives and fuzzed cleavage, bare legs, and gore.

As I write this I sit in the dusky final holding area before boarding. Here, finally, no one will express shock upon learning our little-known destination (“You're going where?”) I can't help but look around and wonder about what brings this collection of people to a plane bound for Bangui la Coquette. Some are from there, of course, and there are people whose appearance gives them away, like the two nuns sitting across from me. But many betray little beyond a drifting gaze: an eager and canny businessman, perhaps, next to a grizzled aid worker.

And then there's me. Not quite sure where I fit into all this. Anthropologists used to consider fieldwork a rite of passage. This idea has come under extensive critique in recent years, but I have to say it still feels true to me as I set off on this minor adventure. Will people talk to me, and keep talking so that I can sift layers of information? Will I finally learn enough Sango to understand the teasing and arguing that goes on all around me? Despite these doubts, thinking of the experience as a kind of rite of passage helps me face the prospect of all these months on my own, because it's something I know I must do, and, dare I even think it, I get excited at the prospect that it might even go well and I might actually find out something interesting (at least in hindsight – these things can be hard to judge underway). I wouldn't want to fall back a year – to when I was in the throes of grant-writing, with exams on the horizon – nor, obviously, do I feel ready to start next year's task: writing up. I do, however, already look forward to being close again to family and friends, and I've barely even left.