The #etnographquarantinedan, Episode 14: Epilogue. Yeela, 40, Anthropologist, Tel Aviv
Facebook followers of the project asked me to write a reflexive episode to conclude these stories. My daughters didn't want to play along or be photographed, and writing about our family feels too intimate and exposed. Therefore, this epilogue is bits and pieces of my story combined with a reflexive observation of the quarantine experience and the place of anthropology in my identity.
We have come back to Israel after I completed a two-year postdoctoral position in Leicester, UK. At the age of 40, we are returning to my parent's house until both of us have a steady income that will allow us to live in a place of our own. It wasn't an easy decision, but we are grateful to have a loving and supporting family who welcomes us with open arms in such unprecedented times.
Returning to Israel during a worldwide pandemic is quite challenging. The airport was deserted; everything was so different from usual. My brother and brother-in-law came to meet us and pick up our luggage before we were taken to the quarantine hotel. Unfortunately, we couldn't meet our parents or the rest of our extended family. My mother told me over the phone that our experience is quite similar to her and my father's return to Israel in 1973, after two years working as Jewish Agency emissaries in Virginia, USA. They returned to Israel – two young adults, she was 24, he 26 – in the midst of the Yom Kippur War with my older brother, who was two months old. Prior to being sent to the USA, they had lived in a kibbutz, but when they requested two years off for the posting, the kibbutz assembly refused. People claimed that they were just using the posting as a stepping-stone for my mother's singing career: "If she leaves the kibbutz, who will take care of the kindergarten kids?" Nonetheless, they decided to go on the foreign adventure and therefore left the kibbutz. They had planned to return to Haifa, my father's birthplace, after their posting, however, due to the war, the blackout at the airport, and the fact that they were returning with a two-month-old baby, the kibbutz accepted them back "until the clouds lifted." The clouds are still here and my parents are still on the kibbutz. Will my fate be the same?
The spontaneous #etnographquarantinedan project is what kept me sane during the period of quarantine. It was my therapy, enabling me to "escape from myself" especially at times where I found myself really understanding the phrase, "the walls are closing in on me." I found it very easy to feel depressed from being in a confined space. Some of the days were emotionally complicated. The kind of days when all you want to do is to cover yourself with a blanket or jump from the ninth floor.
On those challenging days, the project was my anchor, something to look forward to. I found that one of the most challenging issues of being in quarantine was that the days go by and you don't have anything to hold on to. So I turned the #etnographquarantinedan into our family board game: "Find me the isolated hotel guests.'' My daughters and my spouse helped me searching the balconies for new "candidates." While they enjoyed the game, I doubt whether they understood what I was doing and, particularly, why I was talking to so many strangers.
As a kind of "anthropology for the masses," I can say that returning to Israel after two years abroad and immediately self-isolating in a hotel, positions one in an inherently liminal space. According to Van Gennep's rites of passage theory, the liminal stage is the in-between period, when one has left one place or state but not yet entered or joined the next. It is, by definition, an ambiguous stage of disorientation. You stand at the threshold. You no longer possess your pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status you will possess when the rite is completed.
For me this means that although I'm in a familiar place, in my country of birth, I'm not entirely here. Using Turner's expansion on the liminal stage, in the transitional state between two phases, individuals are betwixt and between: they neither belong to the society of which they were previously a part nor are they reincorporated into that society yet. Hence, liminality is a time of limbo, an indefinite period that carries the risk of becoming a liminal entity situated between positions. However, this liminoid experience is also partly characterised by communitas – an unstructured state in which social hierarchies may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, allowing members to share a common experience. The #etnographquarantinedan project allowed me to create the illusion of communitas and to give a humanistic touch to a situation, which due to its proximity to imprisonment, was depriving people of their humanity.
Why do I call this communitas an illusion? Because, according to Turner, the communitas brings everyone onto an equal level where they can experience the solidarity of a shared experience. However, in my reality, there is no real equality between those in hotel quarantine nor is there a sense of partnership. Due to the prohibition of leaving one's room, there are no meetings between people. Furthermore, inequality can be easily identified: Who understands the language (Hebrew)? Who has internet access? Who has the financial means to order food deliveries? Who has family or friends who can send treats or a taxi with paracetamol when you have a terrible headache? So there is no equality, but there is a momentary illusion. I did my best to share some of the treats we received with others in an attempt to create connections and human communication in a truly complicated situation.
For those who know me, it might be surprising to discover that I am actually shy and easily embarrassed. I find new situations difficult; I don't like to bother anyone or become a burden. It takes me a while to feel at home. I'm suspicious of new people and don't trust people easily. However, armed with my anthropologist identity and with the help of the #etnographquarantinedan project, I could forget this, overcome my embarrassment and shyness, and start communicating with people.
People interest me. I can watch them for hours. It probably started in my early years in the kibbutz, where the most important thing was your position at the communal dining table – to grab the chair facing the people entering the dining room and not (God forbid) the one with its back to the entrance. Some might see it as the snooping or gossiping that is common in small communities, but for me, it always stemmed from a deep interest and curiosity in people. I like to observe them and try to figure out their stories in my head via their clothes, their facial expressions, and their interactions with others.
Uploading the stories to Facebook first (and not writing them as an academic paper), has raised questions regarding the proper way of making anthropological materials accessible to the general public. For example, why do some posts resonate more than others? Is this Facebook's algorithm, or is it the content? Which story attracts more responses and why? Does the visual aspect (photography) affect the way the story is received among readers?
Moreover, some of the people I interviewed became my Facebook friends, which raised the question of how does reading one story affect the way they tell it? For example, I received editing requests and phone calls with additions and corrections before posting. These questions have accompanied the feeling that this project has created an ad hoc community of readers and followers who have not only commented on the various stories but also weaved a network of connections. A couple who read the posts and decided to send food to one of the families in the project; A friend that linked one of the families to a kibbutz representative who would welcome them; A native Portuguese speker who offered to be in touch with immigrants from Brazil; Another friend who connected me to her family member who was isolated at the hotel so I could interview her; Another friend who linked me to one of the isolators she knew, so I could help him with getting around. Following one of the posts, I even got a matchmaking request!
While the project was not planned, it did highlight one of the key questions we face as anthropologists in front of the COVID-19 pandemic: how to adapt our research methods to the new crisis which produce movement restrictions, physical distance and disable any prolonged stay at the research field. In other words, how can we produce an ethnography in times of crisis and restrictive conditions like isolation? I, like many others, am still in the process of learning this new situation.
To summarise, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote that "ethnographic findings are not privileged, just particular: another country heard from. To regard them as anything more (or anything less) than that distorts both them and their implications." Nevertheless, while stating that, he also added: "Social actions are comments on more than themselves (…) small facts speak to large issues, winks to epistemology, or sheep raids to revolution, because they are made to." The 13 quarantine stories are each a testimony from "another country heard from," which is a unique situation – a kind of time capsule of an unparalleled period. To regard them as testimony of Israeli Jewish society as a whole or as a "representative sample" of the quarantined people in the hotel is to distort them. At the same time, the participants in the project are part of the broader story of Israeli Jewish society as a society of immigrants in its various forms and shades.
I hope you have found the stories interesting, and I want to thank every one of the individuals who agreed to participate and the followers/readers who took the trouble to read, comment, and share my posts.