Anthropologie sans frontières: Interview with Dr Alice Corbet
Six years ago, Alice Corbet was told by a prominent professor in the Department of Anthropology at the Sorbonne that SHE was too blonde to do ethnographic fieldwork in a refugee camp:
“Mademoiselle Corbet, vous êtes trop blonde pour aller dans un camp des refugiés.”
That same professor saw Alice complete her PhD in September 2008. The now Dr Alice Corbet, who is 26 years old and measures only 159cm in height, certainly showed that professor a thing or two about what a female anthropologist can achieve. But then again, who can pay credence to the words of a man who mistakes a redhead for a blonde!
Dr Corbet has spent over five years performing research with the Sahrawis in refugee camps along the Moroccan/Algerian border. She has faced cholera epidemics, landmines, dehydration, flying sand scorpions, faced slavery and even assisted in births and deaths in the most unsterile of conditions.
I was introduced to Dr Corbet through Sarah Andrieu, a colleague whom I respect ardently. Sarah is an anthropologist at the Ecoles des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris where Dr Corbet undertook her PhD studies. I met Sarah in West Java where she works on a local form of puppet theatre called Wayang Golek. I admire Sarah as a fellow fieldworker, because for me, she really knows what participant-observation is about!
Sarah, a tall white woman with light hair and blue eyes, has seamlessly embedded herself into the Sundanese community with whom she works. She has been living with them for almost three years and there are perceptibly minimal inequalities between her daily life and that of others in her village. To begin with, she lives with a Sundanese family and she survives off nothing more than $AUS 160 a month.
Alice Corbet, takes participant-observation to another extreme. Living in a Refugee camp, she adopted the local Muslim attire, refused the military’s offer of a guard and opted to learn the local language from scratch rather than be accompanied by a translator. What is more, Alice lived only on the rations provided by the UN.
I’ve had several fascinating conversations with Alice about her fieldwork experience, and thankfully she kindly agreed to an interview for Culture Matters so that her experiences could be shared with a wider audience. I’m grateful to Alice for letting me publish this interview.
Alice, where were the refugees camps where you undertook your research?
The camps have existed since 1976 in Algeria, near the Moroccan border. They are the consequence of the fight between the Moroccans and the Sahrawis people for the independence of the Western Sahara.
Don’t the French have a strong connection with Morocco?
Yes. The French have an ex-colonial relationship with Morocco. The Western Sahara was a Spanish colony. When Franco died, Morocco invaded the Western Sahara.
What was it like surviving on UN and NGO rations?
Rations were the bare minimum to sustain living. These rations are calculated, you could say, for conserving the refugees in a state of weakness, it’s a tactic employed by the UN and NGOs under the belief that it will ensure that refugees don’t want to stay in refugee camps. It completely overlooks the fact that refugees have no choice but to live in these camps. It is an obligation for their survival; a very bleak survival.
For me, it was very difficult to physiologically adapt to these rations. At first, I had health problems. But I was always aware that I had the ability to go back to France. This sentiment is completely opposite of that of a refugee. They don’t have the privilege of such thoughts. They do not have the perspective on freedom. I, however, had this comfort. It was a comfort that I fell back upon in my imagination when I really struggled.
During my first fieldtrip, I lost 15 kg in the one month that I was there. I returned to France weighing only 35kg. Humanitarian workers will not stay there for more than two weeks at a time. Even then, these humanitarian workers bring their own food supply well in excess of what the refugees are given. The humanitarian system offers a much-needed service, but even with an elaborate food and medical supply at your personal disposal, life is tough.
The refugees I lived with are stranded. They live under constant conditions of malnourishment. Children begin to lose their teeth at ten years of age, women no longer get their period, anemia is prevalent. When I first arrived I was puzzled as to why people walked around so slowly. It was simply because they had neither the strength nor health to carry their bodies any faster. Many women are no longer able to have babies. The camps are slowly becoming the death-houses of once majestic nomadic tribes.
What did you do for water?
There are a few ways to obtain water.
Drinking water was provided by trucks which came from Algeria. The restriction was one liter per person.
Water for cleaning was very limited. It came from a well not far from the camp.
One camp was on top of a water source which was a breeding ground for cholera and various other diseases. It contained an unimaginably high concentration of human fecal matter and microbial life.
In the camps, everybody suffers from constant dehydration.
When you went into the field, did you bring any gifts for the people you were working with? Or did you pay them?
I have never paid the people I work with, it would have created very imbalanced dynamics for my position as a researcher. Nonetheless, I have helped them in the camps by buying food in the informal markets formed in the camps. But, I did have to be careful about how much food I bought and distributed because it would have been unethical to offer food to one person and not another.
Whenever I returned to the field, I always brought clothes for the women and young children. The most touching gifts that I brought were the jewelry and makeup. These are things that are completely overlooked by the humanitarian aid. Not to mention, bras and women’s health products. One woman, the neighbour of one of the families with whom I lived once explained to me how wonderful these non-essential gifts were, claiming that, “These gifts treat me more as a person than the humanitarian aid which merely treats me as a body to be fed.”
How did these experiences lead you to think about Foucault’s concepts of “bio-pouvoir” and “la bio-politique”?
When you are living in a refugee camp, you really feel enclosed and imprisoned. If you have your food rations, you live, if you don’t, you die. This directly relates to the power relationships that the political system exerts over the bodies of the refugees. The very act of creating a refugee camp puts to the side a group of people that you do not know what else to do with.
What was it like delivering a baby in the desert?
Scary! It was the very first time that I had ever seen a birth. The very first time I helped deliver a baby, I had to open the vagina with scissors. There was nothing to clean the scissors and there was no anesthesia we could offer to the mother. It was scary. The hygiene conditions were deplorable. I am happy to say though, that the last time I saw the mother and son, they were both alive.
One child in four dies before the age of two years old and they survive solely on dietary supplements from the humanitarian aid workers. Mothers cannot produce breast-milk and thus cannot nourish their children.
What does your thesis focus upon?
A large part of my thesis explores the camp system and the way it functions socially and politically. It was an attempt for me to describe how refugees resist and adapt to the conditions imposed upon them. It was very important for me to show the very human aspects of their every day lives. I finish my thesis with a discussion about how refugees appropriate the camps and create a village-like existence that adheres to enforced rules and regulations. The camp becomes a place of reference for their identity.
How was your research funded?
I have spent the last two years living out of my backpack. Post-graduate scholarships in the social sciences in France are incredibly difficult to obtain. Furthermore, you are pressured by your university not to work alongside your studies. But, I had to work to live. Almost every night I worked any cash-paying job I could find and I spent the days studying. There were no post-graduate offices in my department, we did not have photocopier rights and there were only a couple of computers available one morning a week. Sunny days where I could work in a park, or in the quiet of a cemetery were a blessing.
In my School of Anthropology, the most prestigious in France, there were only two scholarships offered a year. Even then, the scholarships only covered the cost of a flight or a nominal fieldwork cost. Many of us look to private institutions to obtain funding. Unfortunately, my subject was too politically sensitive for any private enterprise to risk funding my research.
A cemetery? Why did you work in a cemetery?
I didn’t have an office space. But that doesn’t bother me because I love being outdoors. Parks were wonderful, but only a cemetery could offer me the quiet I needed to proofread my thesis.
Thank you Alice for agreeing to share the intimate and personal stories from your fieldwork and PhD studies. One last question, did you receive support and encouragement for your research?
I received a lot of pressure not to work on this project. However, in Paris, Sarah was a constant source of smiles, support and encouragement. Although I have to say that the incessant Indonesian pop music to which she had become somewhat addicted has made me hesitant about visiting her in West Java. I also have to thank more than thirty people around Paris who have at various stages provided me a couch, a shower, a bed and more than that, they have been my psychological and emotional support throughout my research.
In the field, the relationships that I made surpassed any that I have ever made anywhere else. Sharing moments as intense as those that I lived with the people I worked with, that were on the one hand very difficult, and on the other hand incredibly touching, encouraged me to continue my work with them in ways that words cannot explain. For example, the family with whom I lived the most had a daughter the same age as me. This daughter was single when I first met her, the next year when I returned, I assisted in her marriage, and the year after, I observed the birth of her first child. I want to work for these people. I hope that this exiled child will one day know freedom.