‘I feel like I am in-between’: Coronavirus and Tunisia’s pastoralists

The ruined town of Douiret, Tunisia. Photo: Linda Pappagallo

by Linda Pappagallo, PASTRES PhD candidate

“What do you think about all this?!” I shout, looking up the fortress where Latifa is overlooking the honey-coloured valley.

With a slight childish smile of mischief, she replies, “Wallah, I don’t know! We are at the edge of the world, but also at its centre. I feel like I am in-between.”

What Latifa is describing is liminal uncertainty. It starts from an agitated sense of not knowing how one should feel. Latifa is feeling as though she is at the centre of the world, as the news of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic sticks to her whether she looks left or right; yet when she looks out to the silent reality around her, there is no sign of this invisible, viral force. There is no-one, just the same old ruined, empty village of Douiret, which saw its last inhabitant leave less than forty years ago.

“Let’s just enjoy this beautiful day!” she ends.

The word ‘liminal’ derives from the Latin root limen, which means threshold. But I don’t think of liminality as a ‘transitional’ state, in between other states, which breaks through thresholds.

As a researcher it is easy to feel in a liminal state almost constantly – neither here nor there, neither up or down, centre or periphery, neither present/future nor present/past. So for me, liminal uncertainty is when we don’t know, and when we accept the need to gaze at that state of not-knowing for what it is.

‘An imaginary realm of possibilities’

Liminality occurs in a state of limbo, which can be equated to al-barzakh: literally, a veil or partition between two things. In the words of Ibn al-Arabi (1165-1240), the prolific Andalusian Sufi philosopher, “The barzakh is something that separates a known from an unknown, an existent from a non-existent, a negated from an affirmed, an intelligible from a non-intelligible”. For al-Arabi, the “period in the barzakh … [is] like the time the embryo spends in its mother’s womb.”

Pastoralists tend a newborn goat kid. Photo: LP

In his book Imaginative Horizons, Vincent Crapanzano brings in the barzakh concept and likens the liminal to “the dream… it suggests imaginative possibilities that are not necessarily available to us in everyday life. Through paradox, ambiguity, contradiction, bizarre, exaggerated, and at times grotesque symbols – masks, costumes, figurines – […] the liminal offers us a view of the world to which we are normally blinded by the usual structures of social and cultural life.”

Understanding this state might help one to empathise with the challenges and opportunities that come with the dissonance of experiencing multiple identities – which can range from being a migrant to experiencing virtual reality. In Maghrebi Migrants and Writers: Liminality, Transgression and the Transferal of Identity, Sharpe argues:

“To recognize the significance of the Arabic word barzakh, a liminal fissure, is to perceive the importance of a space of memory, an imaginary realm of possibilities. It is a place where the Franco-Maghrebi finds her/himself and it is important to understand since it touches almost every aspect of his or her life. It is the fundamentalism of certain Muslims in Morocco juxtaposed with the racism of certain French people, an Arabic word fluidly slipped into a French phrase (or vice versa), a parent or child who seems foreign and distant, yet familiar and same, or a beer spilled over a prayer rug. It is being here and there, or elsewhere and nowhere.”

The barzakh, or liminality, is the space in which we construct knowledge and our everyday experience of the now. It is easy to relate these concepts to how many of us are feeling now, as we go through the coronavirus outbreak.

Liminality and identities

With these reflections at the back of my mind, and as an Italian researcher in Tunisia, working with pastoralists on uncertainty, it feels like a fertile moment to reflect on what uncertainty means for me.

I believe most realizations happen when uncertainty comes knocking at our door and when we enter a liminal state of multiple identities or non-identities – when we exhale: “I do not know”. This is the moment when we deconstruct and re-construct new identities, and when communion (rather than isolation) can create a Paradise built in Hell, as Rebecca Solnit’s book explores.

At the beginning of this fieldwork year, I met an elderly Jewish-Tunisian cartographer who spent much of her time with pastoralists in Morocco. For her, research is a “drammaturgie permanente” – a permanent dramaturgy. In some ways, we are all living a permanent dramaturgy, expressing our multiple identities. With the advent of COVID-19, my identity as an ‘Italian researcher in Tunisia’ has shifted to that of a ‘potentially infectious individual in Douiret’. Of course, and understandably, all of my interviews have been declined for now.

I have respected this newly-ascribed identity, but it’s made me reflect that if an interview is in some sense an act, and a pact of trust – these pacts, and trust in general, are ephemeral. My personal positionality has been, within days, re-written in an uncertain environment – or more precisely in an environment that has been labelled, and described, as an ‘emergency’, and one that has an uncertain future.

Relations are not always resilient in the face of uncertainty – not because they are not resilient in themselves, but because they morph according to a distorted reality.

The media, rumours and gossip can be quickly used to (de-)generate collective responses to uncertainty. The politics of uncertainty seems to be fundamental. It’s quite frankly  distressing to see how and who labels something as ‘uncertain’, and the way the masses react through a constructed collective understanding of that uncertainty. Yet we need to understand that we re-invent our relationship to uncertainty daily.

Ruined mosque entrance half-covered by tree branches
The abandoned mosque in Douiret. Photo: LP

Not everyone here in Douiret is reacting through, or in, fear. Some, usually the more deeply religious or spiritual individuals, and the ones considered to be ‘least educated’, have responded quite differently. Those that do not have a ‘higher education’ tend to be more humble and merciful (in the eyes of God) compared to those who have studied, who tend to have a more superior, dogmatic, and perhaps less compassionate voice. When I ask about their thoughts or reactions to COVID-19, and my presence here, some reply: “Linda! C’est maktoub, j’ai pas peur!Maktoub means “it is (or was) written”, explaining the acceptance of fate, of the unknown, of uncertainty.

The sense of Maktoub is liberating. It is a simple code that explains the unexplainable and creates a sense of solidarity when faced with uncertainty. It is not alienating, it is enmeshing, and though disparately used (sometimes for convenience), it is a shared concept in Islam.  A belief in predestination is one way of embracing uncertainty with humility and without panic, knowing that the future cannot be controlled, but it is instead written for us.

But beliefs and reactions vary. Uncertainty means different things for different people within the community, each of whom hang onto disparate values and morals. There isn’t a single collective belief system. What the COVID-19 outbreak shows is that people’s emotional reactions to COVID-19 are very diverse – yet how we behave is largely shaped by media, politics and institutionalized forms of response. The greater question that follows is what kind of a ‘new normal’ we are going to re-create collectively, and how we can bring our different cosmologies together in this liminal period.

I am finding that observing liminality is helping me live with uncertainty from a practical and emotive standpoint. Exploring the expression of  liminality through philosophy (for example Plato on the khora), through spaces (refugee camps, memorial spaces, mausoleums), religion (for example through glossolalia – speaking in tongues – as a language of the liminal), quantum physics, or psychology (for example Jung on the individuation process of liminal states) can help clarify our personal stance and approach towards liminality. What is distinctive is the fact that, from whichever disciplinary approach, liminality speaks of non-linearity, non-equilibrium, non-identity, uncertainty and a potential for subversion and change.

Liminality and solidarity

In my view, liminality is a constant feature of our daily lives, in which different states of knowledge such as ambiguity, uncertainty, ignorance and risk are consistently imbued with our understanding of reality. It is this ‘neither here nor there’ state, or state-lessness, where we do not know where our identity stands, which define the new normal we are to create constantly.

It’s also in this state where doubt, panic, and anxiety can easily find its way in as an emotive reaction to uncertainty, often accompanied by sighs of “I don’t know” – in the same way Latifa responded. It’s at this blind spot where we must understand how to react, and where we must learn what tools, language, to use to express what we don’t see.

These blind spots are crucial moments of destruction and/or construction, where one’s identity is redefined. Liminal theory, pioneered by the ethnographer and folklorist Arnold van Gennep, and further developed by the anthropologist Victor Turner, often brings in concepts ofcommunitas. Turner borrowed this word from Latin to describe the spirit of communion, social equality, solidarity, and togetherness that forms between people who share the same adversity, as people draw together for survival and mutual support. Communitas is the possibility of building a paradise in hell, when in a liminal state and through uncertainty.

So what are the aspects of liminality that might provoke radical change? Reflecting on Thomassen’s work on Liminality and the Modern and Liminality and the Limits of Law in Health Research Regulation: What are we Missing in the Spaces in-Between?, liminality has certain features which can be useful in understanding uncertainty and transformation.

Liminality is:

  • experiential;
  • potentially transformative and, normally, transitory;
  • processual, having both spatial and temporal dimensions;
  • characterised by uncertainty and has considerable disruptive potential;
  • anti-structural in the sense of challenging existing and established structures;
  • is not easily amenable to direct influence or control.

This means that liminality is, I believe, an important and useful space to explore uncertainty – whether it’s expressed at the individual, group or societal level. Liminal periods, which include political or social revolutions, war, natural disasters or disease outbreaks (such as this one we are living now), can lead to significant social change.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, wherever we are, now is the moment to reflect on our personal liminality and how this will affect our experience of uncertainty and our struggles for transformation.

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