Critical sociolinguistic ethnography as a lens to statelessness: a case from the Bidoon community in Kuwait

February 2021

In this blog entry, Ahmad Jaber (Benswait), PhD candidate at University College London’s Institute of Education (Department of Culture, Communication & Media), proposes critical sociolinguistic ethnography (CSE) as a counterhegemonic approach to understanding statelessness. Being a stateless person who has lived and investigated the implications of statelessness (auto)ethnographically, Benswait argues that CSE offers a framework that accounts for complex ramifications of statelessness, while making visible how power and agency are never beyond the reach of stateless peoples.

This account engages with the current conversations in critical statelessness studies (CSS) that call for counterhegemonic approaches to statelessness. It does so through ethnographic data demonstrating how my mother has been rendered stateless, and become susceptible to injustices, because of tattoos revealing her ‘hated’ ethnic identity. Using the tattoo as an artefact, I will illustrate how critical sociolinguistic ethnography (CSE) offers a framework that can account for statelessness as an infrastructure of knowledge regimes and institutional practices rooted in the colonial history and modern state formation in Arabia. Before delving into my mother’s story, I now reflect briefly on the importance of CSE and its potential for CSS.

Sociolinguistics is ‘the science of what people do to language and what language does to people’. It investigates human communication as social phenomena situated in, and linked to, constant struggles for power and resources. In particular, there is a need to focus on this line of enquiry relating to the question of social inequalities as inseparable from complex historical contexts within which asymmetric powers interact. As an entry point, CSE uses any element(s) constitutive of meaning-making, e.g., words, signs, symbols, gestures, silence, etc. to examine how social and power relations are (re)constituted. These processes are shaped by the positionalities of the interlocutors, their access to symbolic and material resources and the conditions of knowledge (re)production and circulation. Taking these factors into account, CSE offers a more comprehensive framework for questioning conditions that constitute, perpetuate, and exacerbate statelessness, as well as for showing how power and agency are never beyond the reach of stateless people. To illustrate the potentials of CSE for the study of statelessness, I now turn to the story of my mother’s tattoo.

The above photo is of my 80-year-old mother who comes from the Bedouins of northern Arabia. It shows an indigenous tattoo known in the dialects of northern Arabia as ‘dagg’, and as my mother narrates, she has had it since she was around the age of 12, that is, for nearly 68 years. In addition to the wrinkles surrounding the tattooed parts, there are the ashen spots that go back to the 1990s and are associated with experiences of violence my mother went through based on her ethnic identity.

My mother’s ‘dagg’ is invokable of northern Bedouin identities that are historically associated with the culture of Mesopotamia. Due to historical enmity between the ruling classes in Kuwait and Iraq, my mother’s tattoo has become a curse on her since the formation of the Kuwaiti state in 1961. At first, the tattoo was used by state officials as an ethnic identity marker based on which my mother was excluded from the right to nationality. However, after Kuwait’s liberation from the 1990 Iraqi invasion, increased demonisation and violence were inflicted on groups that were perceived to have anything to do with Iraq, including long-term Palestinian and Iraqi residents of Kuwait, and the stateless Bidoon. As a Bidoon woman with dagg on her hands, my mother’s ethnic identity was easily targeted. Lacking ‘modern-day’ literacy, she had already internalised the stigma on her cultural and social backgrounds and, instead of resisting, she constantly tried to conceal the marks that exposed her. She first wore black gloves whenever she went to official spaces. However, as government institutions coerced Bidoon women to remove the gloves in order to check their ethnic identities, my mother eventually attempted to remove the dagg with nitric acid that has left scars of trauma I, as a child, saw her suffer.

Looking at my mother’s story through the lens of critical sociolinguistic ethnography, I have now been able to make more sense of the complexities of statelessness in Kuwait. I have learned that processes whereby most of the northern Bedouins of Kuwait have been delegitimised as stateless must not be separated from the practices that aimed at erasing our indigenous history. As my mother puts it, the war against our ethnic identities reflects attempts to erase the links that connect us to our indigenous territories, underneath of which, oceans of oil flow. Indeed, the nation-state has succeeded in alienating my mother as stateless/Bidoon in her homeland and discouraged her from passing the indigenous tattooing tradition onto her children. Nevertheless, state practices could not totalise the historical narratives as my mother’s tattoo now narrates disruptive stories.

CSE allows us to link the marginalisation of the Bidoon under the nation-state reality with colonial processes, e.g., the Sykes-Picot Agreement that subjugated the indigenous territories of Arabia to particular dynasties without regard to local identities and political preferences. The types of questions CSE can raise situate my mother’s experiences in the socio-political contexts within which she interacted (e.g., why would a stateless woman attempt to erase links to her ethnic identity?) and investigate the resources made (un)available to her (e.g., why did she use nitric acid and not safer, more cosmetic materials to remove the tattoos?). Not only will such questions bring into discussion indigeneity vis-à-vis nation-state, but they will also make visible epistemic injustices that constructed the statelessness of the Bidoon by excluding and marginalising their ethnocultural backgrounds. The questions of indigeneity and epistemic injustice are, I believe, crucial for the Bidoon to challenge the problematic nature of the Kuwaiti nationality law, and other legislation. The stipulations of such laws are incompatible with the northern Bedouin’s ways of living and knowledge production.

Last but not least, rooted in anthropology, CSE studies human interaction from the perspective of the subject and involves reflexivity of the researcher. This would allow statelessness studies to move from the sympathetic ‘humanitarian gaze’ into more democratic and emancipating processes whereby stateless peoples are engaged more actively in the exercise of power and identity politics. My mother’s tattoos indicate histories of trauma, but they also offer the power of resistance.

More from the Critical Statelessness Studies Blog Series

The CSS Blog serves as a space for short reflective pieces by individuals working on statelessness from a critical perspective. Click here to learn more about the CSS project or here to read about how to contribute to the blog.