By Shreya Parikh

Every city comes with spaces that we tend to describe with the same series of adjectives—“criminal,” “dangerous,” or “disorder.” To seem neutral, we might call these spaces and its people “informal” (for example, the informal economy or informal housing), but it does not take the negative association away from these spaces. These spaces may be slums in the midst of the city, or make-shift residential areas erected on the outskirts of a city in lands that were used for agriculture.

Many of these “informal” spaces around the world are a result of internal migration from rural to urban spaces while accessible housing options in cities remain limited. Asef Bayat reminds us that the practices of “informal people” in these spaces—for example, the taking of public space to set up informal businesses or the illegal extension of state electricity structures in slum developments— are a silent form of mobilization to survive the hardships of everyday life in urban spaces throughout the Global South.

The negatively-connoted adjectives for describing informal spaces are used everywhere around us, from journalistic coverage of these spaces to urban development policies that treat these spaces and its people as inferior. This language frames how we build our relationship with these spaces, even as researchers or as architects. Is it possible to avoid these stigmatizing words and pejorative frameworks to understand the social and spatial dynamics that structure these margins?

With faith in the methodological philosophy of field observation, Cyrine Bouajila and myself set out to patch together ways to study the margins of the urban as well as ways to teach the study of the margins of the urban with limited educational resources (no accessible libraries, no research budget, minimal classroom infrastructure) in Tunis. We put together a methods workshop that ran over March and April 2022 with a group of students from École Nationale d’Architecture et d’Urbanisme (ENAU, National School of Architecture and Urbanism), where Bouajila is a professor of architecture and urban-planning. The workshop brought into conversation qualitative methods used in sociology with tools of observation and analysis of space that are employed by urbanists, with a hope that this conversation would provide a better approach to study socio-spatial inequalities, while also remaining critical of these tools.

As a part of the workshop, we headed together to Bhar Lazreg—a margin to the urban body that is Tunis. We sought to learn from a site that is rarely imagined as a producer of knowledge. The articles that follow are notes that students wrote after conducting field research. Below, I provide a brief description of the site we studied, the context of the workshop we conducted, and a concluding note about how to read these essays, which contain unfinished thoughts and openings for many reflections.

What is the point of putting these unfinished thoughts out into the world? Rarely do we find examples of preliminary field notes available to the public, both because of their sense of incompleteness and also because they make the researcher vulnerable. These preliminary notes reveal the emotions that first meanderings into ethnography (or a new field site) provoke  (timidness, doubt, uncertainty) which we rarely discuss openly. I hope that these pieces serve as examples of preliminary fieldnotes and as an opening into qualitative research for students and non-students alike.

Locating Bhar Lazreg

Bhar Lazreg is an “informal” neighborhood with a population of around fifty thousand people located in the northern suburbs of Tunis. It is a part of La Marsa municipality, housing half of its total population. In this text, the Bhar Lazreg we refer to has no strict geographical boundaries; at the same time, the area overlaps with the official definition of the county of Bhar Lazreg.

In Tunisian vernacular, La Marsa refers to downtown La Marsa (La Marsa ville), rather than the area marked by the official La Marsa municipality boundaries. La Marsa ville faces the sea and remains a preferred neighborhood of habitation and leisure for those considered “expats” or “tourists.” Given the visible presence of the French Ambassador’s large residence along with migrants from the Global North, La Marsa ville is linked to whiteness and socio-economic privileges in the popular as well as political imaginations of this place. Many Tunisians describe La Marsa ville with adjectives like “classy” or “chic,” as noted by the students in the workshop. Many of my Tunisian friends joke about needing a Schengen visa to enter La Marsa or paying “in Euro” at the expensive restaurants there.

In spite of the physical proximity to La Marsa ville, Bhar Lazreg is spoken about using words that are antonymous to those used for La Marsa—“dangerous,” “disorder,” “quartier des africains” (an “African” neighborhood). In the popular imaginations, it is constructed as a site of urban criminality and poverty, and as racially black—a site that hosts “too many” undocumented Sub-Saharan migrants.

Like many of the urban margins of large cities around the Global South, Bhar Lazreg was an agricultural site that became home to poor families moving from provinces to the city (especially during the 1990s) in search of work, creating the largely-informal residential structure we see there today. It has become a place of habitation for those who are socio-economically marginalized and, more recently (over the last decade), undocumented Sub-Saharan African migrants, especially from Ivory Coast. Many of those living in Bhar Lazreg work on construction sites laying bricks or painting walls, as domestic workers, or in the lowest-ranked jobs in restaurants and hotels in richer neighboring areas like La Marsa ville.

On Teaching Methods

During the week of intensive methods classes, students learned how to sociologically observe a site—for example, how to look for examples of gender, class, and racial inequalities. They learned how to approach and interview those we meet at field sites, and they learned the art of writing fieldnotes and sketching maps and interactions onto paper. In line with many approaches to research (like the grounded theory approach) that push researchers to build research questions from the “ground” or the field, we asked students to avoid heading to a new field with a clear research question or hypothesis in mind.

In addition, we reflected together on our positionalities. We considered how our bodies (which are classed, gendered, and raced) would influence what we observe (and what we do not) and with whom we speak to (and with whom we do not). We also considered how our experiences might influence how we understand and interpret what we see. We reflected on the dominant discourses we had inherited about our site of observation, especially sites like Bhar Lazreg which are constructed with adjectives that inferiorize and marginalize them with respect to other places (and people). The students in this workshop came from more socio-economically privileged backgrounds than those who live in Bhar Lazreg.

After the methods classes, we headed to Bhar Lazreg for two field visits; we spent around seven hours over two days (one before and one during Ramadan) during daytime. We chose Bhar Lazreg as a site of study for many reasons, among them the fact that the site is not far from ENAU, that I had some familiarity with the site given its inclusion in my dissertation research, and Bouajila’s interest in the study of informal habitations. We asked the students to focus on the main street (Rue Charles De Gaulle) that lies in the center of Bhar Lazreg and which includes key sites of human interactions, including a municipality office, a primary school, a vegetable and second-hand clothing market, a supermarket, and a series of cafes that host both Tunisian and Sub-Saharan men.

After the two days of fieldwork, we met multiple times to organize and analyze the data (interview and observation notes, photographs, maps, and sketches) that the students had collected. We re-convened at ENAU in late-April for a public presentation where students discussed their key field observations on a subject of their choice. These presentations led to the first drafts of field note articles, edited over the months that followed. (Bouajila decided to withdraw at the writing/editing stage of the project.)

Situating and Reading the Texts

These texts should be read as incomplete drafts. They can be criticized for (potentially) containing the narrative of the “discovery” of poverty—a criticism that was raised during the discussion that followed the public presentation of these research projects. But the point of this exercise is also to accept that, in the process of producing knowledge, we become entangled in the messy hierarchies and may indeed end up reproducing them. We continue to strive to fight these preconceived notions, even in our words.

The article by Narimen Draouil and Nouha Jmel reveals racialized imaginations about migrants from the Sub-Saharan communities held by the Tunisian habitants of Bhar Lazreg. It also outlines reflections on conducting fieldwork for the first time, describing the feelings of hesitation in approaching people, and the continual process of reframing the presentation of self and the research question before and during conversations with those we meet while on the field.

The text written by Inès Ben Youssef and Molka Ghorbel reflects on the importance of corner grocery stores (hanout in Arabic) in generating a spirit of houma (a sense of belonging in the neighborhood). Their study also reveals a potential discrepancy between what folks say and how they behave; while many residents of Bhar Lazreg carry a negative image of their neighborhood and its people, their actions nevertheless reflect a sense of solidarity.

The article by Soumaya Laouyane and Lobna Mejaouli traces the changes in Bhar Lazreg between the first (before Ramadan) and second (during Ramadan) field visits; the closing of men’s cafes on the main road during the Ramadan empties out the public spaces in Bhar Lazreg (and elsewhere in Tunisia) considerably. They also reflect on the discourses by the habitants of Bhar Lazreg that compare and contrast their neighborhood with La Marsa; the former is seen as socially marginalized compared to the latter.

These texts do not seek to impart a finely developed analysis of social and spatial inequalities in Bhar Lazreg. Rather, the texts that follow are preliminary observation notes that serve as a site of reflection, an archive of emotions, as well as evidence of the messiness of the process of observation and research. They also contain important insights and raise excellent research questions that are worth pursuing, within and beyond Bhar Lazreg.

Read the parts of this series here:

[Note: Parikh was funded by MECAM-Tunis and Beyond Borders Ph.D. Scholarship (Zeit Stiftung) during the workshop and the writing/editing of this piece.]