The Prophet Muhammad is reputed to have said “Seek knowledge, even unto China” in a tradition that has inspired the acquiring of knowledge by Muslims for centuries. In the 7th century, the ethnographic present for the remark, the trip from Mecca to China would have taken months. Whether by land or sea, the way would have been beset with difficulties and dangers. And once in China it would be hard to gain knowledge without knowing Chinese. The idea of seeking knowledge is a noble one, but there are obviously different ways of searching, some more useful than others. If Muhammad were alive today, I wonder what he would think about the instant access any Muslim could have not only to China but anywhere in the entire world via cyberspace. The problem would no longer be getting to China; but the idea that China can literally come to Mecca presents an equal challenge to making sense of the knowledge out there.
Marshall McLuhan did not live to see the public explosion of cyberspace, but he did recognize the role of technology in shaping our quest for knowledge. To the extent the medium, specifically the new wireless “social media” reality created by the internet, is the message, that message is more pronounced in some areas than others. Take Yemen, for example, where I first conducted ethnographic research in a highland rural community in 1978. At that time there was no electricity, apart from a few private generators, and no television reception. Today the entire world is only a click away for even the residents of the villages I studied. According to one recent survey, as much as 15 percent of Yemen’s population, around 3,600,000 people, have access to the Internet and 600,000 of them are on Facebook. In 2000 there were only 15,000 Internet users. Cell phone access in Yemen, estimated at over 11 million in 2011 (out of a population just over twice this amount), is no doubt higher today.
As was the case in the recent swirl of revolutionary protest throughout the Middle East and North Africa, social media were instrumental in organizing and maintaining protests that brought down a three-decade-old dictatorship. The mass marches and major street camps have ended in Yemen, but the ongoing national dialogue creating a new government is very much an online venue for many Yemeni citizens. Virtually every political party, formal and informal, has a presence online. The official government-backed journal, al-Thawra, has an impressive website, reflecting the government perspective, along with the official Yemen News Agency SABA in Arabic, English and French. Islah, the dominant party once in league with former President Salih’s regime, has a major Internet news channel in addition to the main website of the party, which also features a mobile app. Islah and other political parties, including the socialists, also have Facebook sites and Youtube channels. Fringe groups like the Yemeni variant of the Ba’ath party, better known from Iraq and Syria, have a glossy website . Diversity rules the day online.
The current instability in Yemen makes it virtually impossible to carry out fieldwork there. Although we live in an age when the ethnographer can not easily go to the field, the field (a different kind of field, to be sure) can readily come to the anthropologist. There is much that can be learned about the current political rhetoric through e-ethnography, but there is a caveat. What can be learned about Yemen in online resources is akin to textual knowledge, a body of data that can be interpreted but cannot be interrogated as one would engage in dialogue in the field. Of course, there are interactive options, including the potential of Skype, but these are still bound by the limits of not actually being there, observing and discussing in a face-to-face context. The impact of these internet sites and the use of social media on actual behavior need ethnographic analysis to complement what can be learned by simply studying online sites.
Ethnography, however, need not be a one-way process. There may not be many trained Yemeni anthropologists or sociologists, but they do exist and should not be ignored. Instead of lamenting the lack of access to the field, we who have had the opportunity and privilege to conduct ethnographic fieldwork in a specific location need to find ways to encourage and work with colleagues and students who can move more freely about their own country. This is true not only for Yemen, but everywhere in the region.
Daniel Martin Varisco is professor of anthropology and director of Middle Eastern Studies at Hofstra U in Hempstead, NY. His most recent book is Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid. He is editor of Contemporary Islam and editor-in-chief of CyberOrient, the online journal of the AAA. His regular blog is Tabsir.