Old people have better things to do than talk to me

During fieldwork, I always dreaded doing interviews with elderly people. A good interview happens when you manage to draw someone out, allow them to (quickly) feel comfortable talking, and  hope that they are interested in the story they are telling. Only then will someone provide details that you could not have foreseen asking about.

Doing this with very old people, for me, seemed next to impossible. First, older people were always seemed far more suspicious of me. And then, if they weren't, they often didn't understand what I wanted; for them, most of my questions were so painfully obvious that they did not warrant more than a few words. Throw the deafness that afflicts those in their 80s into the mix, and well, there it is.

Of course, when I would go to a new place and explain my research, everyone always thought of the oldest people in the village I could talk to. Without fail. It sort of made sense: I wanted to learn about agriculture and land ownership from the 1950s onward, and in theory these old men were alive for the whole period I was interested in. So off we would go, often unannounced, and often when I was woefully underprepared for an interview that I would probably would have bombed even if I had been prepared. 

Going back through my notes, the best/worst one happened early on, in November of 2015. I was with a young guy - a college student in his last year - who at the behest of his father (we had friends in common) was helping me make introductions in his village. He was a good sport about it, and a few of his friends with nothing else to do that afternoon, also came along. We show up unannounced at the shop of Abu Qasem, a man who I think was in his late 80s, perhaps had hit the 90s. He has a small shop where he's selling vegetables. It was an old stone building and dark, and while I don't think there was central electricity, I think there was a TV on. Anyways, we all sit down and the boys explain who I am, turn to me, and are like: OK, go ahead and ask him whatever you want. Here is how the interview went:

"How did people make money in the 1950s? What was the main source of livelihood?"

"They grew things." 

"And what sorts of crops did they grow?"


"And, um, how did they grow it?"

"With a donkey and a plow." 

It was painful. And then I ask about 1967. The narrative here usually is that after the occupation, people quit farming and went to work as a wage labor in Israel, neglecting the land. But Abu Qasem comes up and says, in so many words:

"The problem with 1967 was that afterwards, the women and children stopped listening to men." 

Wait, what? I ask him to elaborate. The guys are probably suppressing smiles at this point, but what do I know.

And then he launches into this incredibly detailed story about his friend's wife which ends with him seeing her in the living room or something. He intended it to deliver some sort of moral lesson (directed at the young guys? Me? All of us?) but the guys with me can't hold it together. The giggles they were holding back turn into laughter. This doesn't go over well.

"After 1967, the world fell apart. Now the women are in charge and (turning his gaze upon the youth, thankfully not me) there are no men left today." 

At this point they are cracking up. I'm still sitting there trying to figure out how on earth this all went south so quickly when Abu Qasem stands up. The adhan is going off, and he needs to go and pray.