The Long Goodbye

The festival coincided with the time of our goodbyes. The difficulties on the way to the field find frequent mention in ethnographies, but the way out of the field is at least as difficult. Far-sighted friends invited us to their houses already weeks before our departure. The normal course of such an invitation prescribes first liquor and a snack, then the consumption of rice and meat or fish. The invitations very quickly multiplied, and we made five or ten visits a day at the same time as the festival, final interviews, and travel preparations. In our house, gifts for the families to which we were close lay ready in heaps. On our rounds through the village, we were always accompanied by numbers of Gadaba who were waiting to take us to their houses. Along the way, they often joined in the drinking at each house, so that everyone was equally drunk. These days were very moving and exhausting and stretched the limits of what we could eat, drink, and handle emotionally.

Plunging In?

The fieldwork process is not only an initiation for the ethnographer; it also brings with it enormous tension in personal relationships. The aftereffects of the long separations, then living together in close quarters in Gudapada, frequently led to tension between Amrei and myself. The low point in this regard occurred at the time we were making our farewells, which was also the festival period, as mentioned.

One day, we had visited around ten houses and consumed as much liquor, meat, and rice as physically possible, when as part of the festival, a ritual hunt was scheduled at which I wanted to be a participant observer, despite my already quite impaired condition. I was suddenly called home with the information that my wife was crying loudly. I hurried back, and a severe, loud argument then broke out in the house. By local standards, it was relatively tame, but we had not put on any comparable show in the last five months. Our neighbors, including Jomna and my friend Ori’s mother, became concerned about our shouting, and they and others flooded into our small house and surrounded us.

At that moment, everything became too much for me: I pushed the whole crowd out the door and shoved them off the veranda, so that a number of them stumbled into one another. Unnecessarily, I also knocked the full containers of water off the veranda and screamed at the gaping crowd that they should all disappear. I then withdrew into the house, where I was forced to realize that it was not at all the case that they had all gone away; on the contrary, they followed me, concerned to calm me down, with Ori’s mother and Jomna, whom I had just roughly shoved around, at the head. I finally ended up exhausted and sobbing in the arms of the crowd.

When I sat on my veranda the next morning, hungover and obstinately declining all invitations, mockingly grinning villagers came up to me over and over and wanted to know why I had beaten my wife. All my protestations that nothing of the kind had happened and Amrei’s confirmations could not dissuade them from their interpretation. Many seemed to be amused that we too had finally had a blow-up for once. In addition, the situation was not lacking another provocative note. Namely, public conflicts are subject to punishment during the festival period, and many were therefore very happy to define the previous day’s fight as “public,” so that I would be condemned at least to pay a rooster. Not everyone took the incident as humorous, however. An “in-law” came up to me snarling and called me to account: what was I thinking, beating his sister like that, he would take her away with him again, and then I could see where I would get my meals. The fact that Amrei did not cook was not relevant at that moment, since it was a conventional pattern of behavior that was at issue. Wives regularly leave their husbands when they feel themselves seriously mistreated. They go to their brothers and fathers, who most often live in other villages. After some days, the husband then takes the road to Canossa to induce his wife to return. A brother will always feel responsible for his sister and will physically intervene in an emergency.

Although I was initially uncertain whether I should speak publicly about such a slip, I decided to report this event in detail, because there was perhaps no other moment during my research in Gudapada in which I was closer to “feeling” and “plunging in” in the way Malinowski describes. Incidentally, the observational component at this time was exactly zero; the hunting ritual took place without me. I was also not a participant in this scene in the sense in which I had previously been one in rituals. I acted in accordance with a pattern of behavior typical for this society, and the personal motive for the fight was independent of the event’s interpretation by public opinion. Ori’s mother was not at all angry that I had tossed her across the yard. It appeared to me that from her perspective, I had never been more like her son. This is also how I would interpret the amused reaction of many neighbors, as well as that of my “in-law” who took the incident seriously. In this brief moment of losing control, the processes of self-knowledge and knowledge of the other converged. I had often been amazed at the Gadaba’s capacity for eruptions of fury and observed physical conflicts between married couples. Now it had happened to me, in a disconcertingly similar way and with the typical reaction from those around me.

A few days later, we left the village. Many neighbors gathered in front of our house in the morning, and we loaded our luggage into the project jeep. Everything was ready when I was called into the house once more, and Rogu confronted me with demands for money. All the agreements had in fact been fulfilled previously, and it was a small black mark on an otherwise successful departure. This scene also once more made clear that I always remained an ambivalent figure as an ethnographer and resident of the village, permanently oscillating between insider and outsider status. When I said goodbye individually to those who had gathered and finally mounted the motorcycle that was to enable me to flee once more, Ori’s mother and another old woman began a song of lament and clasped their hands behind their heads, as the women do at mortuary rituals. Ori immediately ordered them to be quiet. For me, however, looking back, it is a sign that after having been laboriously reborn as a social person, I once more stood at the threshold of social death.[1] [2]

  • [1] I returned to Gudapada for three weeks in December/January 2002/2003 and was back in thespring and winter of 2004 for a few days each time. On my next-to-last visit, I was able toannounce the birth of our daughter, for which many in the village had been waiting. My friendsurged me not to come without my family the next time and announced that they would give ourdaughter a name. The process of integration is therefore not over, but has been expanded anddeepened by the birth, as it was by the arrival of the “bride.”
  • [2] In a famous essay, Evans-Pritchard (1950, 123) formulated it as follows: “The thesis I haveput before you, that social anthropology is a kind of historiography, and therefore ultimately ofphilosophy or art, implies that it studies societies as moral systems and not as natural systems,that it is interested in design rather than process, and that it therefore seeks patterns and notscientific laws, and interprets rather than explains.”
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