Standing on opposite sides of a barbed-wire fence – Experiences from my field work in Armenia and Turkey

by David Leupold

What does field work in day-to-day practice mean? How does field work look like in a conflict-ridden region divided by closed borders? And, finally, what is the key to conducting solid field work in spite of such circumstances? The following observations are a tentative attempt to suggest some answers to these questions based on my personal experience.


From the outset, my field work in Armenia seemed doomed to fail. As the last summer’s clashes between the Azerbaijani and Armenian armed forces intensified, leading newspapers had predicted the outbreak of a new war in what had been the worst escalation of the conflict since the 1994 armistice. In addition, as news of the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine came to my attention, I was starting to reproach myself for opting for the cheapest flight available – Berlin to Yerevan via Kiev.

At dawn, while sipping my morning coffee (Turkish style, without sugar), I was prepared for the worst and did not feel too surprised upon receiving a travel warning from my travel agency. After a Ukrainian naval Patrol Cutter had been attacked by artillery fire in the Azov Sea close to the port of Mariupol in Eastern Ukraine, the agency suggested deferring all non-essential travel to the country. Thus, when I boarded my flight to Armenia I threw all caution into the wind and reminded myself of the in-spite-of-everything brilliant statistics of aviation accidents (especially when compared to that of taxi-travelling in the Caucasus). Be it exuberant shooting of AK-47s at Kurdish weddings in Mush, staying over at the village house of an outspoken member’s of the Islamist Hüda Partisi, or barbecuing in the Hakkari mountains the day the PKK clashed with the Turkish regular army – in retrospect, nothing can be as dangerous as getting on one of those shiguli taxis and driving at breath-taking speed through the winding (and often ill-maintained) roads of the Armenian highlands.

After one casual trip and a two-week field work expedition for my master thesis the previous year, this had been my third time in Armenia and I roughly knew what my daily routine would look like– having lavash bread with lori cheese, eggplant caviar or smetana for breakfast, lazing in the shade during Yerevan’s long hot late summer days while sipping Eastern coffee (the Armenian code word for Turkish coffee), reading history books on Van & Vaspurakan before, finally, ending the day with a cold local beer, preferably Gyumri or Kotayk in preparation for the evening chill-out session with friends. However, I had almost no clue to get my field work started. Throughout previous interviews I conducted, I had remained safely within the confines of my close circle as all the participants had been family members of a close Armenian friend of mine.

This time, however, my field work compelled me to leave this comfort zone. My target group was, more or less precisely, defined as Armenians originating from either Van or Kars families (I had subsequently dropped the latter). I did not make any qualifications in terms of social strata or area of residence within the country. However, with demographic sources on post-1915 Armenian refugees being either non-existent or available only in Russian or Armenian, it seemed at first as if I had been left to grope around in the dark. I had also faced another problem. A background in Ottoman studies, a master’s degree from a Turkish university, and on top of this a research agenda, which critically challenged all of the region’s national projects (including the Armenian one) did not seem like the best prerequisites for knocking on doors at random. Particularly so in a country the size of Brandenburg where everybody seemed to know everybody and where being discredited by the wrong person or institution could easily seal the fate of one’s research.

I had soon understood that two things would either make or break my ‘Caucasian venture’. First, acquiring sufficient language proficiency in either Russian or Armenian, without which I would not be able to emancipate myself from the role of a ‘Lonely Planet traveler on PhD grant’ or to avoid ending up conducting representative interviews with the usual suspects (e.g., foreign educated, fluent English-speaking ‘Western guys in town’ who think, act and, most probably, are as detached from the local population as myself). Second, finding some colleagues rooted in the country with whom I could be perfectly honest about my research, including the most sensitive and controversial parts. In short, colleagues with whom one shares a mutual trust and who are willing to make acquaintances with the crucial gatekeepers needed in order to reach the sought after target groups.

In order to fulfill the first prerequisite I decided to bring my modest-yet-existent Armenian up to a level that would allow me to interact directly with people without the assistance of an interpreter. My hosting university kindly arranged a private language tutor for that purpose. He, however, ended up immigrating to Krasnodar (Russia) soon after the first month of lessons had started. Yet, life in Yerevan as a non-Russian speaker did have its advantages as it exposed me to Armenian in every possible way (and the prospect of avoiding being ripped off yet once again by taxi drivers had without a doubt served as another strong incentive for a speedy improvement of my language skills). As a matter of fact, apart from some sporadic and coincidental interviews in English, I spent the first months studying the language and getting slowly tuned into the rhythm of the country.

Listening is the first step to discovering the field. Listening to the saleslady selling local village cheese at the magazin next door, listening to the archeology professor wallowing in the Armenian kingdoms of the past, listening to the Syrian-Armenian medicine student from war-torn Aleppo working at the ice cream parlor, listening to the landlady whose birthplace remained on the other side of a barbed-wired Azerbaijani-Armenian border. All are but unique and different pieces, fragmented stories and narrative patterns that when put together, form the bigger picture of the current societal reality in Armenia.


Backyard of my apartment in the Arapkir district, Yerevan (Armenia) – © David Leupold

As to the second prerequisite, I had been lucky already early on to meet three fellow-minded researchers. In the course of the year they had become not only colleagues but also close friends. As a matter of fact, I had not even boarded my plane to Yerevan when I met a young American-Armenian who was to be on the same flight with me. As a bolsahay (Armenian from Istanbul) he was fluent in English, Turkish and Armenian and had moved back to Armenia from L.A. a couple of years earlier to pursue his Master studies. As a political researcher focusing on Yazidis in Armenia, he was well acquainted with travelling in the rural landscape and was to become my loyal companion accompanying me not only at the meze table but also on taxi rides to sheikhs and pirs (Yazidi religious leaders) throughout the remote villages of the Aragatsotn province. I owe him for a crucial shift of my focus that had substantially enriched my research: prior to joining up with him I was completely unaware of the fact that not only Armenians but that Yazidi Kurds as well had been subject to the deportations in the Lake Van region. This was an important aspect that had helped me to overcome the ethno-national bias of my work. Kurds now emerged on both sides of the 1915 front-line: as Sunni Muslim perpetrators and as Yazidi victims. The matters got fuzzier, yet I felt that I was moving gradually closer to understanding the history of the area with all its complexities and contradictions.



At a Yazidi cemetery, Shamiram village (Armenia) – © David Leupold

Another watershed experience was a meeting with a young Armenian ethnographer who had co-organized and participated in several Turkish-Armenian oral history projects. Luckily, one of these projects focused on Mush (west of Lake Van) and included interviews both in Turkey and Armenia. Thus, he proved extremely helpful in identifying the current location of Armenians originating from Mush and its surroundings. Moreover, he helped me establish contacts to on-site ethnographers who, after completing their studies, returned back to their families. These were to function as gate-keepers facilitating my access to the village.

Finally, while conducting my early research in the village of Pshatavan (situated right along the Turkish-Armenian border) I was – to my surprise – introduced to a Georgian anthropologist from Friedrich-Schiller University in Jena. She was an anthropological researcher who had been living in the village for a year. I found her bold approach both inspiring and challenging, as it pushed me to extend my notion of field work far beyond the scope of comforts I enjoyed in my eight-story Soviet bloc down Komitas Prospekt. It was then, more than ever, that I had come to realize that in order to unravel the standpoint of my respondents it was indispensable that I immerse myself in their lives and learn to see – in spite of all the diverse biographical trajectories that divide us – the world through their eyes.

It was furthermore interesting to experience how the rules of Armenian hospitality affected my research. Assuming the role of the guest meant being able to easily cross the door step and to be seated at a table richly set with local fruits, pastries and in many cases the traditional oghi, a strong fruit-based moonshine. However, more and more I came to realize that as soon as I pushed the button of my recorder, the stories my respondents were telling me were the stories which ‘a good Armenian ought to tell somebody from abroad’, whereas the stories that truly mattered to them were kept firmly locked behind the language of etiquette. This situation was further aggravated by a still wide-spread and persistent feeling of distrust, which can be traced back to the period of the Stalinist terror. Gaining trust is indeed the key to unlocking what the German socio-psychologist Philipp Mayring calls the “subjective structures of meaning” – but it is a delicate skill which takes time to master. It might take one more cup of coffee (when you already feel awake), one more shot of moonshine (when you already feel drunk) or one more cigarette (even if you are yet to become a smoker).


From the very outset, the conditions for my field work in the Lake Van region were much different than in Armenia. On the one hand, I was by far more familiar with both the language(s) and the Turkish society. On the other hand, I lacked what I had appreciated most during my one-year stay on the other side of the border – time.

In fact, the beeline from my home in Yerevan-Arapkir to the north-eastern edge of Lake Van is less than 200 km. However, with the Turkish-Armenian border being closed due to the diplomatic deadlock that followed the Nagorny-Karabakh war, only one alternative route remains – Turkey via Georgia. After a 5-6 hour ride by marshrutka either directly along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border in Tavush or through the mountainous gorges of Lori, I finally reached my first stopover, Tbilisi. From there you go west until you cross the Turkish-Armenian border and sooner or later you end up in the home town of Kazim Koyuncu, Hopa. From there you head north, further inland, either to Kars or Erzurum and from there take the bus to your final destination: Van.


From Armenia to Turkey through Georgia – Map Data © 2015 Google

Since I did not have many acquaintances there, an Armenian-American colleague from UCLA helped me contact a local school teacher from Yüksekova. Little did I know back then that only a few days later we would have barbecue with his extended family in the mountains of Hakkari, perform a Kurdish adaption of “House of the Rising Sun” in the traditional shalvar trousers, and spontaneously shoot a short documentary in the abandoned ruins of an Armenian monastery on Lim Island. While hoping to find a host for the first nights, I instead found a long-lasting friendship and a fellow traveller that also gave me a ride from time to time to the villages no dolmuş agreed to take me to.

As time was scarce, I was well-advised to heed to what many fellow-researchers will agree on is the inviolable principle of field work: have your recording device ready. Always. While I had to put much effort into finding the right respondents in Armenia, in Turkey each and every one could be a potential respondent simply by meeting the criteria of being a current resident of the Lake Van region. Thus, I started with the contacts I had in the city and from there gradually expanded my research into the rural areas.

After roughly two weeks I was ready to head out to the western side of the lake, to Bitlis, Mush and Varto. My stay in the region had coincided with the campaign for the Turkish general elections of June 2015. When I reached Bitlis the whole city was in a carnevalesque mood, the streets full with garlands of flags representing the entire spectrum of Turkish political parties. Unlike Van and most other cities in Eastern Anatolia which had been rebuilt from scratch, Bitlis had largely retained its medieval architecture with its twisty alleys and richly ornamented stone houses.


HDP campaigning before the 2015 elections, Bitlis (Turkey) – © David Leupold

I first headed out to the Dzaprkor district, where a journalist I knew was living. To my surprise in the garden in front of his family’s house stood an abandoned building inscribed with Armenian inscriptions. After spending roughly one year in the realm of memories shared by my respondents in Armenia, the confrontation with the physical remainder of this past felt almost surreal. Formerly owned by an Armenian tobacco trader and allegedly used as a stronghold for Armenian freedom fighters, the building now remained nothing more than a silent witness to a distant past. Rarely did I feel throughout my months of fieldwork the strong connection which persists between the two worlds divided by a physical border as I did at this place. Rarely did I feel more distinctively how the accounts from both sides of the border conjoin into one story. After being served some delicious glorik (small meat balls), the father of the journalist lit a small logwood fire and while drinking black tea – cup after cup – delved into stories of a past when the streets of Dzaprkor district had been filled with the voices of Assyrian tradesmen and Armenian craftsmen. Voices that remained mute for an entire century.

Now the streets are filled with different voices: Turkish commands distorted in the megaphone of an armed akrep jeep mingle with infuriated Kurdish chants: berxwede Kobanê, her biji Kurdistan (“resist Kobane, long live Kurdistan”). On the main square of near-by Varto, local residents are expressing solidarity with a 19-year old youngster who went to fight for Rojava – only to return from Kobanê in a coffin.

It is in these moments in which you understand that the laws of the field are indeed very different from daily academic routine. No matter how strong you try to stay focused on your research topic, no matter how clear-cut the research design you prepared back home – the moment reality takes over everything crumbles to pieces and falls to the ground. And with this, you witness all your petty assumptions and nicely-prepared conceptual models buried underneath it.

And then you get up on your feet again. And you thrust your way through the debris of yesterday’s refuted assumptions towards a better suited approach. In fact, field work means for me being in a constant struggle both with the environment that surrounds you as well as with the standpoints you take. It is a worthwhile struggle: a struggle to get a better grip of reality.


[Field work was done between September 2014 and August 2015.]

David Leupold holds a B.A. in Contemporary Middle Eastern Studies from Otto-Friedrich University Bamberg and a M.A. in Comparative Social Sciences from Humboldt University Berlin and Middle East Technical University Ankara. His fields of interest include: collective violence, politics of remembering and forgetting, and memory as a form of local resistance. Leupold works as a freelance writer for The Social Science Post. His PhD project explores memory of violence in light of national myth and multicollectivity in the contested geography of Eastern Turkey/Western Armenia/Northern Kurdistan.