August 17, 2016

by Diana Dai

As my research trip comes to a close, I find myself jam-packing my days with interviews and get-togethers. I was able to hold interviews at two legal aid organizations, one called the Adaleh Center for Human Right Studies and one called Tamkeen. I came across Adaleh Center in a Solidarity Center article entitled “Migrant Domestic Workers Network a First in Jordan” This article described a partnership between Adaleh and Solidarity in creating a space where migrant domestic workers could hold trainings and rights education meetings. Previously, domestic workers in Jordan organized by nationality (Filipina, Sri Lankan, etc.). For the most part, only the Filipina community had a range of organizations.

Migrant domestic workers in Jordan are forming a first-ever support and assistance network. Credit: Solidarity Center/Sara Khatib

Migrant domestic workers in Jordan are forming a first-ever support and assistance network. Credit: Solidarity Center/Sara Khatib

With this lead, I ventured out to the Adaleh office and found myself graciously taken in by a recent law graduate who was able to converse with me in English. I will call her Sara. Sara informed me that she would need to get clearance from the Executive Director of the organization before revealing any information to me. A quick phone call later, I was in the clear, and Sara led me to another office belonging to one of Adaleh’s lawyers, who I will call Mahmud.

Mahmud specializes in cases involving victims of torture, but since Adaleh is a small organization, he has also dealt with a fair number of cases involving domestic workers and their undocumented children. Mahmud did not speak English, and I saw that Sara would need to translate for me. All kinds of methodological problems popped into my head related to issues of translation. How would this effect my research? Should I say something? Is there some protocol I should be following right now? These anxieties built up in my head, but before I could act upon them, Sara was already translating Mahmud’s words to me. I started to take notes.

It didn’t take more than a few minutes for me to realize that the information Mahmud was giving me was invaluable. Furthermore, Sara experiences and stories made this interview all the more detailed and insightful.

A rights education workshop at Adaleh for Sri Lankan workers. Photo by Diana Dai.

A rights education workshop at Adaleh for Sri Lankan workers. Photo by Diana Dai.

One of the first reflections I’ve made, and the most perplexing, is how eagerly I was engaged in this interview with the two lawyers at Adaleh, versus how scatter-brained and casual I was with the Filipina women I have been “hanging out” with. I’m not talking about the dichotomy between formal and informal contexts, but more that I found myself understanding and absorbing the information that Sara and Mahmud gave me easier than the information that the Filipina women were giving me during our get-togethers. I walked away from the interview at Adaleh with a big smile on my face, and the feeling that I had gotten something very “useful”. On the other hand, there have been multiple occasions hanging out with Mary and her friends where I’ve felt that what I observed, and the conversations I had could not be used for my research, and I was often somewhat disgruntled.

This makes me think about conversations I’ve had with professors at Duke about the types of knowledge that students (and some scholars) conventionally trust. The information I was getting from Adaleh was what I was familiar with. I heard the words “rights”, “international conventions”, “exploitation”, “wage disputes”, “lawsuits”, “Article 37”, “poor implementation”. As a human rights student, this was the kind of stuff that made my lightbulb go off. In my second context, with Mary and her friends, I have not heard any of these words, with the exception of “rights” in an interview with one of my Filipina interviewees. It surprised me how attached I was to the words that I was familiar with, and how comfortable and confident they made me feel.

What did all of this mean? For the time being, I am still trying to figure out how to listen and observe better when I am with the domestic workers themselves. My ear has already been trained to listen to the legalistic talk of lawyers and formal human rights organizations. They speak about human rights with a discourse tinged in power. On the other hand, I find myself lost and fumbling through my hang outs with Mary and her friends. A lot of information goes over my head, and I walk away feeling like I didn’t get much out of that particular day, when really, I’m not attuning my eyes and ears to a different form of knowledge, a non-hegemonic form of knowledge.

An all you can eat buffet to celebrate a birthday. Photo by Diana Dai.

An all you can eat buffet to celebrate a birthday. Photo by Diana Dai.

A concrete example of this was the day after attending a birthday party of one of my Filipina interviewees, Susan (a pseudonym). I spent the entire day at her house helping her decorate and cook. In the evening, a big group of us danced, ate, and listened to music until late into the night. Throughout the evening, I was trying desperately to strike up conversations with all the other party-goers about “my research topic.” I tried to slip in interview questions here and there, and see if I could pique anyone’s interest, but no one bit.

Sometime during the next day, a sudden realization dawned on me that I was probably going about this all wrong. I was only paying attention to the ways of talking that I was familiar with, and furthermore, I was only looking out for information that was a response to my interview questions! I reflected on my research question and became frustrated with myself for how close-minded I was being. If I was here to learn about how the Filipina women I meet resist the boredom, violence, and stagnancy of domestic work in Jordan on an everyday level, the answers seemed to be right in front of me. Suddenly the hours spent cooking, the day spent shopping, the complaining about “Madame”, weren’t just useless hours of hanging out.

One of my interview questions is “When do you feel like you have freedom in Jordan?” If I had asked that in an “interview context” and one of my interviewees had said “when I am with my friends and I can cook food from my own country and speak my own language,” I would have written that down like a gold nugget of knowledge and fantasized about how I could use this to analyze “home” in a transnational context, or feelings of belonging/unbelonging, nostalgic attachment, sisterhood, and all that wonderful stuff I learn in the classroom.

But the truth of the matter is, language is one of the most hegemonic forms of communication we know, and we often need every experience of life to be put into language before we know what to do with it, meaning we miss a lot of what is not wrestled into language. What did I miss when I only looked out for what people said (in English, and directed to me)? How do I become attune to the ways people express freedom, resistance and violation outside of language? And how do I become attune to other forms of non-hegemonic speech?

 

 

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