“When you see [them], record first and then write.”

How to bear witness, record, and archive a landscape of disappearance requires a rethinking of our modes of doing our work. Indeed, anthropologists have long been working to document disappearing worlds. As Ruth Behar puts it, “Anthropology is the most fascinating, bizarre, disturbing, and necessary form of witnessing left to us at the end of the twentieth century.” While Behar’s 1997 work focuses on death, memory, return, and the “vulnerable” self as the observer, in the time of a global pandemic like COVID-19, the value of ethnographic fieldwork as a form of witnessing has become increasingly important, especially when many things are disappearing at an alarming rate.

Image description: This is a photo of Old Ma’s phone screen, showing a man covering up the Arabic on a sign in 2019. A man stands on a ladder under an awning, applying what looks like a large sticker to cover the green Arabic writing on a restaurant shop sign. The remainder of the sign, in Chinese, remains visible. 

Image description: Outside a mosque in a small city between Gansu and Qinghai, a large blue-green, onion-shaped dome that would normally be seen on the top of a building, sits on a lawn ,surrounded by grass and trees. There appear to be a few pieces missing from the dome’s surface. Behind the dome is a row of high-rise residential buildings.

My archival work has been inspired by anthropologists and digital humanities scholars as well as my interlocutors from the field. In 2020, I met with Old Ma, a knowledgeable local Hui Muslim scholar from the city of Xi'an in Northwest China. When I asked him about the disappeared halal signs, Old Ma pulled out his cellphone and showed me some photos of halal signs taken in November and December of 2019. “Look, things can disappear really fast.” Knowing me as an anthropologist, Old Ma insisted, “When you see [them], record first and then write” (你看见了,先记录下来,以后再写). 

Inspired by my interlocutors like Old Ma, I have come to realize, perhaps more than ever, a renewed sense of urgency to see ethnographic fieldwork as a method of “witnessing” in the times of pandemic. It is paramount to take the lead from our interlocutors and reevaluate the importance of witnessing the now and the disappearing/disappeared.