Fieldwork in Folklore

I wanted to come back to Yemen to record the folklore of the last Jews of Sa’ada, in Northern Yemen. It seemed like a relatively easy project, and so I budgeted three months. The community had been relocated to Sana’a a few years back, and they were relatively easy to contact.

Looking back, I could have done this much better. Prior to coming to Sana’a, I was living in Istanbul, a cosmopolitan hub of life and information. There, anything can be found, but in Yemen my chances of finding professional-quality equipment for recording severely decreased. Cameras here cost twice as much as the same model in Istanbul, and higher-end models simply don’t exist.

I mentioned the idea of stories to the rabbi, and he responded with, “That sounds great, we can use my video camera.” Wow. Unexpected. It seems that a relative brought Yahya a camera from abroad! In addition, he would speak to some of the elders of the community and ask them to come tell stories. At this stage, I was feeling very positive about the whole project.

The following day, we gathered in the rabbi’s house and set up the first meeting. The camera the rabbi had was a Sony DCR-HC62, and we set it up on a chair, for lack of a tripod. However, there was no power cable, so we had one battery’s life, and that was it.

At this point, I had no idea how long each story would be. I was assuming they’d be around five to ten minutes. In the end, each story came out to around 15 minutes, with some going as long as 30. The first day, however, we had only enough battery for two stories, totally 40 minutes. The storytellers that day were Suleiman bin Musa Marhabi, the rabbi’s paternal uncle, and Musa bin Saalem Marhabi, the rabbi’s cousin.

After that first day of shooting, I looked up the make and model number of the rabbi’s video camera on YouTube. Several people had uploaded videos to test their cameras, and the quality was pretty poor, archivally speaking. Since I want these videos to last, and serve as archival material, the quality, particularly the audio, is of the utmost importance to me. On this particular camera, it seems the built-in mic is close enough to the deck to pick up the whirring of the tape and record it as a constant buzz onto the audio track.

The first day also made some other problems known: since we were in the rabbi’s crowded house, people kept filtering in and out, knocking on the door each time. People also left their phones on, which caused annoying feedback on the tape. Since family members wanted to watch the stories, and they were all chewing qat at the time, the rustle of the plastic qat bags was also audible on the tape. We learned, that day, that a closed room with no disturbances is the best option.

Ammar, a friend of mine, works as a filmmaker, so I hired him to shoot the videos, as he has a semi-pro camera and high-quality audio equipment. He did all the technical, audio/visual set up, and the end result is archival quality. We were shooting on a Sony DSR-PDX10 MiniDV camera, and in addition to the lavalier mics we attached to the subjects, we also recorded audio independently with a Sony PCM D50.

On Wednesday, November 11 we went to Tourist City in Ammar’s car to theoretically pick up three storytellers: Musa, his brother Yusuf, and his uncle Suleiman. Our plan was to pick them up and take them to my house in the Old City, where we could sit undisturbed for as long as we wanted, and shoot as many stories as they could remember in a day.

Field bag. In it I carried my laptop, external hard drive, cables, PCM D50, MiniDV tapes, note pad, and passports. Rach carried the cameras.

We drove up to the rear gate, and Musa met us outside. We went inside the compound, but since the guard at the rear gate doesn’t know me, and doesn’t know I have tasrih (permission), he made a big show of stopping us, making us wait, then making us go around to the main gate and so on. We waited there ten minutes, during which time the guard called his boss, who reconfirmed my tasrih. By this time Musa told us that his brother Yusuf couldn’t do it until 2, and Suleiman couldn’t go because he was at the Department of Passports. Things start to look awfully flaky.

So we left empty handed, with plans to go back around 2.

After 2, I started calling Musa. No answer. I called him every 10 minutes until 3, and then I called the rabbi and asked for Yusuf’s number. Yusuf acted flaky and uncertain on the phone, saying he’ll call when Musa comes back. Of course, he never calls.

That weekend, the 13th and 14th, I went to Tourist city for Shabbat, which was a good time to talk to them about their no-show, because they couldn’t go anywhere. Musa spun me some hogwash about losing his phone, apologized, and agreed to sit down to tell stories on Sunday the 15th. After Shabbat I called Ammar and confirmed that we were on for Sunday, inshallah.

Thankfully, that actually worked. We got the equipment into Tourist City without complications, set up the cameras in Musa’s house, and he, Yusuf, and Suleiman sat on the bed and told us 5 stories, totaling 2 hours of tape. There were no technical hiccups, and with the exception of Musa’s mom coming in to offer us tea, no disturbances.

All in all, it was an excellent lesson in fieldwork, and I have a growing list of things I want to do better the next time. Getting them to actually sit down and tell stories was obviously the most frustrating. Obviously, I would have liked to stay longer and get more stories, but circumstances beyond our control conspired to send us home.

I am now working through the transcription. In terms of the final product, I plan to have four transcriptions of each story: in Arabic letters, Judeo-Arabic, IPA, and the English translation. I realized that if I wanted to have text in Arabic and Judeo-Arabic (ie Arabic written in Hebrew characters) I’d have to physically retype each word with the language setting on Hebrew. So what I’m working on now is just authoring a new Unicode Arabic font, which is essentially just a slightly modified Hebrew alphabet. Since it would be encoded as an Arabic font, not a Hebrew one, I could just copy-paste the original Arabic text and then change fonts, thus saving weeks of work.

SIL International has a long and useful list of freeware programs to help field linguists catalog their data, and I’ve found some useful data-entry programs: who did what where, how long etc.

All photographs by Rachael Strecher

dcr hc62
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~ by Josh on December 7, 2009.

One Response to “Fieldwork in Folklore”

  1. It looks like a house were I lived in Sana’a in 1991. In one of a standadr houses of thes city first built for the foreign specialists, mostly Soviets. This “Tourist City” is near the US Ambassy, I think.
    Your intarast in this historical community of Yemen is great/

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