Doing Ethnography in the Shari‘a Court in West Jerusalem: Some Reflexive Notes

Chapter 8
Doing Ethnography in the Shari‘a Court in West Jerusalem: Some Reflexive Notes

Throughout my fieldwork, gaining access to the research sites was a challenging task. As mentioned, I initially intended to conduct fieldwork in the Jordanian shari‘a court in East Jerusalem. Although Israeli scholars were allowed in the past to study the archive of the East Jerusalem shari‘a court,1 I discovered that getting permission to conduct participant observations is much more difficult. I made numerous attempts to contact the court’s “gatekeepers” (the qadi al-quda, and the chief scribe), but I was rejected again and again by dodging and evasion. Even appeals made on my behalf by Prof. Layish and Dr Reiter of the Hebrew University did not yield results.2 I therefore settled, eventually, for the Israeli shari‘a court in West Jerusalem. In retrospect, however, this proved to be for the best, since it appears that the Israeli court is currently of much more importance in the lives of Jerusalemite Palestinians than the Jordanian court.

And yet, I did not know this at the time. In January 1998 I set out to conduct my first participant observation in the West Jerusalem shari‘a court. Over the next two years I visited the court two or three days a week and tried to stay there throughout the opening hours. I observed hearings, followed administrative routines, and spoke with litigants, legal councilors, and court personnel. I carried my field diary with me, and meticulously recorded occurrences that I witnessed and conversations that I engaged in. My intention was to carry out a full-fledged legal ethnography, in the tradition of legal ethnographers such as Sally Falk Moore (1978), Laura Nader (1990, 2002), and Sally Merry (1990). In line with this tradition, I planned to make excursions out of the court and conduct a “community ethnography” (Vidich and Lyman 2003: 80) by tracing “extended case studies” and by performing “situational analysis” (see Gluckman 1961, Burawoy 1998). During the first two years of fieldwork, I thus tried to conduct a “multi-sited research” (Marcus 1995, Goodale 2002) and to extend my observations to other sites and situations related to the shari‘a court. For example, I joined the court courier in his mail-delivery journeys; I visited several attorneys—members of the court’s “repeat players” group—in their offices in town; and I accompanied the court clerk on “shar‘i inspections” (kashf shar‘i) of marital homes.3

In February 2000 I discontinued my fieldwork in the court and turned to writing my MA thesis. I resumed fieldwork one year later, in April 2001, this time as a PhD student at Ben Gurion University. My return to the court was accompanied, however, by some troubling question marks: on October 1, 2000—six months before I resumed my fieldwork—the second intifada (or al-Aqsa Intifada, as it is dubbed by Palestinians) erupted. This Palestinian uprising began following a heavily guarded visit of Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and it soon deteriorated into severe violence. Both sides—Israelis and Palestinians—resorted to violent actions, unprecedented even in the context of the continuous Israeli–Palestinian conflict (see Hammami and Tamari 2001). Moreover, while Jerusalem was generally excluded from the violent confrontations during the first intifada (1987–93), violence ran wild in the city during the first months of the second intifada (see Sarsar 2000). Consequently, hostility, fears, and suspicion between the Jewish and the Palestinian communities in the city grew deeper, and the invisible walls separating the communities became almost insurmountable. Jews, in particular, fearing abductions and assassinations, abstained almost completely from visiting the Eastern, Arab parts of Jerusalem.

Returning to the court after more than one year of absence, I was thus rather apprehensive about the impact of the grave developments at the national level on my relations with my old acquaintances in the court (that I describe in more detail below). I was grateful to be greeted with the same hospitality and friendliness as before. However, when I set out to resume my travels outside the court, I found that the circumstances had changed radically. I was warned by one of the legal councilors that for my own safety, I better minimize my visits to Palestinian neighborhoods. Even Abu Zayd (then aide to the chief clerk) advised me not to accompany him any more on his kashf inspections. He noted that given the grave state of affairs, he can no longer guarantee my personal safety, and I should therefore avoid traveling with him.

Under these circumstances, I found myself limiting my fieldwork to the court itself. In fact, except for several personal visits to the homes of Abu Zayd and Abu ‘Uday, my fieldwork during the last four years (2001–04) never took me beyond the court’s walls. Even when I realized the profound effects of legal pluralism and of other courts on the operation of the shari‘a court I was studying, I could not expand my fieldwork beyond that particular site. Surely, in a study that traces the interrelations between four legal institutions, it makes more sense to conduct a multi-sited research and to observe hearings in all four institutions. Nevertheless, I was still unable to gain access to the Jordanian and the Palestinian courts in East Jerusalem, and as I was soon to find out, judges and bureaucrats in the Israeli family courts were also not very enthusiastic about letting an anthropologist inside their courtrooms.4 Facing these difficulties, I continued my “one-sited” fieldwork at the Israeli shari‘a court. Yet, while I was obviously studying this “focal organization,” my perspective gradually became more relational in nature. In other words, I became more interested in the complex relations that the Israeli shari‘a court maintains with other organizations in its environment.

Since my fieldwork was now restricted to the site of the Israeli shari‘a court, I spent countless hours in this location. Between April 2001 and July 2004 I visited the court recurrently, although not very regularly: during university vacations (in the summers and between semesters) I was present in the court almost every day, while during the academic year my visits were restricted to one or two days a week. There were also some periods of detachment from the court, each of which lasted several weeks, but I remained in contact with the court’s staff and with several shar‘i advocates throughout the entire period.

Attending this social arena for such a long time and for so many days, I became a familiar figure for the regular visitors in the court—their “own” anthropologist. Yet, being an Israeli Jew, my sojourn in the court was anything but unproblematic. Generally speaking, Palestinians living in East Jerusalem and the West Bank are accustomed to humiliating and degrading interactions with Israeli officials. Furthermore, they tend to view the presence of Israelis in Palestinian public arenas as a manifestation of control and supervision. It is no wonder, therefore, that—recognizing me immediately as an Israeli Jew—people’s reactions to my awkward presence in the court (carrying a notebook and filling it with mysterious notes) were suspicion, antagonism, and resentment.

Occasionally, especially during my first months in the field, I was approached by litigants who inquired (either in Arabic or in Hebrew) who I am and what I am doing there. I usually responded by saying that I am a student in the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, and that I am interested in seeing how Islamic law is actually practiced. Hearing this answer, they sometimes initiated a political debate. In such cases, I was soon encircled by several people, who would usually pronounce harsh condemnations of Israeli policy in the occupied territories.5 As I see it now, such occurrences were meant, first and foremost, to test me and to test the boundaries of the social situation: they needed to know that the shari‘a court was still a Muslim-Palestinian arena.6

In response to such “provocations,” I often tended to agree with my interlocutors and to express my own dissatisfaction with Israeli occupation measures. Such responses certainly caught most people by surprise, and soon my pro-Palestinian views became common knowledge among the “repeat players” in the court.7

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