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Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing Blog


Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing


Archive for the 'East Jerusalem' Category

Death and Social Duties during COVID-19 in Dar al-Hawa

Maya De Vries Kedem29 June 2020

By Laila Abed Rabho and Maya De Vries

As in the rest of the world during COVID-19, in Dar al-Hawa, al-Quds, social distancing regulations have impacted the social behaviours and norms that we were used to, changing our lives. Schools, universities, workplaces and mosques have been completely shut down. People stayed home and it was forbidden to walk more than 100 meters away from your home for about three weeks. There were cases of patients testing positive in Dar al-Hawa from the beginning of the crisis – first, one patient, followed by another few people. This raised people’s awareness that anyone could be infected, and social distancing is important.  Hence, the strict prohibitions that came with the new social distancing norms were received relatively well, despite the difficulties we’re following them in a relatively small and crowded place like Dar al-Hawa. In addition, many families share the same residence or residential space with their older parents, so young parents and grandchildren immediately felt that they are responsible for keeping the older people living with them safe and healthy. That feeling of shared responsibility helped enforce the new norms of behaviour that COVID-19 forced upon all of us.

One of the most challenging things at the beginning of COVID-19 pandemic was the fact that visiting family or friends’ houses was not allowed. In Dar al-Hawa, there are several occasions when social visits are an obligation – for example, during holidays like Ramadan or Eid al-Adha and when someone passes away.

Before coronavirus, when a person died in Dar al-Hawa, their family would announce their death through the Muezzin of the mosque. Usually, the Muezzin would turn on the speakers and as he calls for prayer out loud, he also announces the person’s death, letting the entire neighbourhood know about it and enabling everyone to operate according to the accepted social norms around visiting the deceased’s family. In addition, prior to COVID-19, the process of preparing the body for burial took place in the mosque, together with the deceased’s close family and followed by the option to honour the deceased for the last time before taking his or her body to the cemetery. Usually, men carry the coffin while praying and heading to the main cemetery for the burial ceremony. Women who are not from the immediate family are not accepted in the cemetery and cannot participate in the burial ceremony.

Some of these norms have changed due to COVID-19. While the muezzin still calls the deceased’s name through the mosque’s speakers, gatherings inside mosques and houses are not allowed. The process of purifying the body prior to burial has also stopped and is not taking place at the mosque but at the hospital. The burial ceremony itself has also stopped, as there is a limit of only 20 people. The restriction on the number of people is significant in Dar al-Hawa, as most of the families typically consist of over 20 people who define themselves as first degree relatives. The social norm of gathering and participating in the burial ceremony is not the only thing that has been altered.  The custom of neighbours and other family members bringing food, mainly breakfast, during the three-days mourning period, has also completely stopped. People were afraid to eat something that they did not cook themselves and did not want to take responsibility for accidentally infecting someone with the virus through the sharing of food.

The mourning period lasts for three days and takes place at the deceased’s home. The family’s duty is to open a mourning tent if possible or to receive visitors in the living room.

During the beginning of the current health crisis, particularly in the first two months, when gatherings and visits were forbidden, the opening of mourning tents did not happen – most of the offering of condolences moved from face to face to online correspondence, being sent mainly through WhatsApp and Facebook messenger, including video calls.

This different way of sending condolences also occurs among Palestinian families who originate in Jerusalem and live in Jordan can enter Israel since the Peace agreement between Israel signed in 1994 allows it. The Palestinian community in Jordan generally has broad family ties to the Palestinians living in Jerusalem and Israel[1]. Previously, such interactions and movement were easier, as families travel to Jordan or enter Israel from Jordan to attend either the funeral or the mourning.

Another custom that has been suspended because of the coronavirus is one that happens on the third day of mourning when the deceased’s family prepares food to feed the visitors at their home while reading suras (chapters) from the Quran, a religious duty during the third day of mourning. But when there are no visitors, there is no need for this custom.

All these important practices constituting both a religious duty and social norms around death have become impossible to maintain. However, as COVID-19 becomes part of our lives, it seems that big, open mourning tents can return as it becomes easier for social distancing rules to be followed inside them.

Aside from all these challenges, Covid-19 has brought about some other changes which are actually beneficial.  During the strict lockdown period, Laila and Maya talked to several women who had been caring for their sick husbands for a long time.

For them, the lockdown was quite a positive development since all family members stayed home, including children and grandchildren, the direct consequence of which was that the burden of care did not fall on them alone. For about two months, they said, they felt less lonely. Social distancing from the rest of the world brought together the nuclear family and, in the case of Dar al-Hawa, when families live in the same household, or near each other, directly benefitted the older population.

In a way, it seems that the physical help and in-person support that older women received from their children and grandchildren were much more important than any online assistance or communication that was so popular in public discourse while COVID-19 dominated our lives.

Recently, Laila and I went to offer condolences to one of her relatives in Dar al-Hawa. She told us that she has been feeling less lonely since visitors who come to offer condolences now call in advance to set specific times to visit in order to avoid overcrowding, meaning their visits are spread across a longer time, thus extending the three-day mourning period, but on the other hand – that the bitter coffee pot the deceased’s family pours to each visitor is constantly being put to work. This stream of many mourning days can be exhausting but at the same time, it this very constant stream of visitors that may help reduce this her feeling of loneliness after separating from her husband.

Since death, according to many of the people we spoke with in Dar al-Hawa, is considered as fate and something that can only be decided by God, during our visit we felt that there is a genuine acceptance of the situation, even if the deceased’s death came as a surprise. “It always comes from God”, we were told.  The acceptance of death is accompanied by sincere sadness, but God’s will helps overcome this sadness and allows people to move on with their life. As people accepted death, they also accepted the new social distancing norms quite easily as these are perceived as God’s will: death is in His hands and so is the coronavirus.

Coffee pot in Dar al Hawa

[1] Habeeb, W. M. (2012). The Middle East in turmoil: Conflict, revolution, and change. ABC-CLIO.



How to use your smartphone: Insights from a pilot course in Dar al-Hawa

Maya De Vries Kedem6 March 2020

Blog post written by Maya de Vries and Laila Abed Rabho

Please note that the participant names used in this blog post, as well as the neighbourhood name ‘Dar al-Hawa’, have been pseudonymised for reasons of anonymity and confidentiality. Dar al-Hawa is the pseudonym for a neighbourhood of 10,000 people in al-Quds (East Jerusalem).

One of the very first observations we had in the field site of Dar al-Hawa was that most people, young and old, own a smartphone. However, when delving deeper into the ways in which they used their phones, we discovered that their digital skills were very limited, and the use of different apps other than WhatsApp, is almost non-existent. Following the goals of the ASSA project, it was clear to us that part of our fieldwork should be to enable individuals to learn and improve their digital skills – an aim also aligned with what Kurt Lewin (1964) called research action in the fieldsite.

It took us more than a year to bring everything together, including finding the right organisation, the right space, getting the timing right, and finding future participants willing to join the course. When it finally happened, we were able to create a pilot course consisting of 12 meetings running for 3.5 hours each. Each of these sessions focused on one thing only, and that is teaching students how to use a smartphone. We partnered with a local organisation called “Good Thought”, a non-profit organisation established in 2003 which aims to reduce social gaps in Israel by providing teaching technical and digital skills to underprivileged groups. Good Thought already teaches similar courses, but they are usually aimed at helping students learn how to use a computer. When we approached them, it was after having spent a long time in the fieldsite, visiting people’s homes and seeing and hearing from different individuals who told us that they don’t have computers or laptops, just smartphones. Hence, we insisted that the course should be focused only on the smartphone. Because of this, the project was effectively a pilot one for the staff of Good Thought as well.

The first meeting took place on the 25th of November at the community centre in Dar al-Hawa, where 17 people arrived to receive information about the course. Eventually, only 15 people registered to attend the course – 4 women and one man. Since the state of Israel has previously declared that it aims to encourage its population and institutes to become more ‘digital’ and thus increase ‘digital equality’[1], we were lucky to receive significant subsidies for the course, meaning each participant only paid 20 NIS for the 12 meetings (NIS = Israeli New Shekel, this is the equivalent of about £4.41).

The leading instructor was N’, a Palestinian woman from al-Quds (East Jerusalem) who is a teacher by profession. Maya de Vries was her assistant throughout the course. In terms of participation and attendance rates, the course was a big success, as more than half of the participants attended 100% of the meetings, and the second half attended around 80-90% of the meetings. This indicates that participants were pleased with the content of the meetings and found it meaningful and helpful. Throughout the course, participants shared these feelings with us and told us how happy they are to be part of it. They also shared with us the fact that this course gives them a reason to get out of the house, and reduces some of the loneliness and boredom they experience on other days of the week when they don’t have other activities planned. One of the participants,  Malak (aged 78) said the course “was something to wake up in the morning and feel happy for”. Here, the act of learning and developing digital skills as part of a group with a mutual goal provided sociality as well, which is something that can be lost in older age.

N’ and de Vries also came to learn difficult it is for individuals who do not speak Hebrew or English to control their smartphones, even if the language of the device itself was set to Arabic. During a lesson about how to use the MyVisit app (a government app assisting users in booking appointments with various formal institutes like electricity companies or the National Insurance Institute etc.), we did not manage to find an Arabic version of it. Hence, those who did not learn Hebrew or English at school were excluded from this particular lesson and completely depended on their group mates as well as N’ and De Vries, to help them.

Figure 1: The MyVisit App (in Hebrew). The smartphone is held by one of the participants. Photo by Maya de Vries (CC BY)

We also came across several government-provided apps and websites which either did not have any Arabic content or had little Arabic content. Furthermore, only 3 out of 15 participants had an email account, and many government-provided apps require email registration to use. Although now each participant has an email account, which they created as part of the course’s assignments, they still found it more difficult to use these. Thus, if the government wants to increase digital participation among different groups, they should think about Whatsapp as an easier-to-use, more functional tool.[2]

In addition to the matter of digital inequality, we also considered the sociopolitical gaps related to the geopolitical conditions of Dar al-Hawa and al-Quds in general[3]. For example, we discovered how difficult it is for this age group to both click on the touch screen as well as wait for their ‘request’ to be uploaded. Many times, we had to explain to our students that they need to be more patient and wait for the app to upload their request, or for the website to appear. We repeated this instruction until our very last meeting – we do not think there is a clear solution to it other than continuing to practice using these tools.

Figure 2: Learning how to turn on the flashlight/torch on their smartphone (Photo by Maya de Vries CC BY)

WhatsApp is the most used app on participants’ phones – they all have it and they all know how to use its basic features such as sending messages and forwarding messages and photos. Nevertheless, we dedicated two lessons to WhatsApp use, including taking photos and selfies, which were not practicalities most of the participants were familiar with. We also taught them how to create a new group and how to record messages. Following WhatsApp, the second most popular apps were Facebook Messenger and Youtube. No one had any health apps on their phone, not even apps related to their health clinic, which has an Arabic language app.

One of the ASSA project’s findings across various field sites, including Japan and Ireland, was that ‘step counter’ apps are in widespread use among the populations studied. These step counters were not used by our participants, not even the versions that are free and built into their phone, although some had heard of step counting and the fact that there was an app on their phone that did just that. No one had actually opened the app, however.

Unfortunately, 12 meetings are simply not enough to teach participants all that smartphones can offer their users. This was something our participants felt during the course as well, and during the final session, they asked to have a second round of the course so they can learn more and develop their skills by learning how to use things like digital banking as well as other features we did not have the time to teach.

Going beyond the skills taught to the participants, as we quoted Malak before, we also heard, in the final session, how happy the students were when coming to the course and learning new things that can assist them in becoming less dependent on their children and grandchildren. Such feelings around the practicalities of independence should be more present among the older population in Dar al-Hawa. Thus, by creating more similar future courses, we are also hoping to make local older people’s lives easier and happier by increasing their knowledge in the digital arena.

Figure 3: The last session’s feast: participants brought home-cooked food to celebrate their achievements during the course. Photo by Maya de Vries (CC BY)



[1] See more here (in Hebrew): https://www.gov.il/he/departments/digital_israel
[2] We hope to create a greater change and solve this problem.  At the end of March, we are meeting with a representative from the E-Government office (Mimshal Zamin in Hebrew), thus hoping to work with them on both the language gaps, specific the Arabic one, but also on other accessibility issues for older people.
[3] The asymmetry in the education system has a long history, mainly starting after the 1967 annexation of East Jerusalem. For more, see the following Ir Amim report at http://www.ir-amim.org.il/sites/default/files/Education_Report_2017-Fifty_Years_of_Neglect.pdf