“Recording No. 1: 21st January 2022 (00:01-00:31) [Note to self: We are eating peanuts in his veranda (!)]”
This is how the transcript of my interview with a key activist of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), the most popular (but much maligned) social and civil rights movement in contemporary Pakistan, begins. The first 30 odd seconds of the voice recording is just that – the sound of crackling and munching of peanuts.
Dera Ismail Khan’s weather necessitated the peanuts, and the veranda. Peanuts are the quintessential winter snack. It had been raining the day before, but this was a crisp, cold morning, with just a hint of sunlight filtering in. Electricity only ever came in short spurts in this city of over 1.5 million in Pakistan’s Saraiki-wasaib, and there hadn’t been any all morning that day. So instead of the dark and dank indoors, I was camped out in A*’s veranda with my laptop and voice-recorder – munching, chatting, basking, field-working.
“(01:10 – 5:00) [Note to self: He is telling me about his arrest in Karachi. He had been arrested so many times before but never in this grandiose, dramatic fashion!]”
Researching state violence and the postcolonial legal security state from an ethnographically engaged perspective meant that my experiences of fieldwork were most often emotionally heavy, grim, risky. I cried, often. I was after all being called to bear witness – to grief, to rage, to the strained hope of resistance and to utter hopelessness – in the face of Law, and the inherent Lawlessness of the Law.
And yet this interview recording turned that dynamic on its head.
Other than the crackling of deshelled peanuts, the most striking sound throughout the recording was of laughter.
A* was telling me about his arrests by constantly cracking jokes about his interactions with the police and the intelligence agencies. And I was laughing so loudly that one would have to strain their ears to hear anything else in the recording, above the sound of my own laughter.
As I tried to transcribe the interview, I described my dilemma in a text to a friend.
“This interview is so unprofessional and hilarious, OMG! What was I thinking!”
But how did “hilarious” come to equate “unprofessional”? Where do humour, laughter and all things experiential figure in the field, and in the writing, of socio-legal research? Are they simply the residue, the insignificant leftovers after we scrape off the meaty “data” that informs our analysis? Or could we think of them as a form of ethical relation, as learning, as a practice of phenomenologically grounded theorising?
Adopting a mixed-methods approach for my research meant I relied a great deal on acquiring and interpreting legal documents. Yet, it was ethnographic encounters and in-person interviews where I partook, however briefly, in the lifeworlds of my research participants. Documents like a First Information Report or a court order outlined important legal technicalities. They listed the offences the state accused my informants of, and how courts dealt with those accusations. Nonetheless, it was cold mornings spent in verandas munching peanuts where the documents transformed into something more life-like: stories, for instance, of how a particular First Information Report actually led to an arrest – an experience that was scary and harrowing, but also one that, in retrospect, lent itself to many a humorous anecdote. It was also here that the somewhat straightforward story of law’s repressive apparatus as seen through the textual archive shapeshifted into grainier recollections: how, for instance, serving breakfast and chai (perhaps including peanuts?) to intelligence officers deputed outside my interlocutor’s door through freezing nights led to their warm acquaintance in due course. But not without a concomitant laugh at the absurdities of law’s life in action.
On the face of it, these stories and corresponding parts of the interview recording might be superfluous to the purpose of legal research. And yet, it was here, in the practice of what is otherwise marginal to fieldwork, to interviews and their analysis and to legal scholarship proper, that a thickly textured and richer picture of law and legal actors emerged. It was also here, in the margins and residues of productive legal research, that joy manifested in the face of debilitating accounts of law’s violence – over shared food, recollection of hilarious anecdotes and the ensuing laughter in my interlocutor’s veranda on a lazy afternoon.
*Sonia Qadir is a PhD Candidate at UNSW, focusing on criminal law, practices of counterterrorism and securitization and their colonial and imperial contexts.