The first question I am usually asked when I sit down for an interview is what I would like to drink. From the vaulted offices of the Arab League to the newsroom of the state-run newspaper to the sparsest house in rural Egypt, taking coffee or tea together is a pleasant ritual throughout the Arab world. In my many trips to the region I find this pleasantry, born of legendary Arab hospitality, is an enjoyable alternative to the hasty business meetings and interviews so common to my home country of America. Doing research in this part of the world poses challenges and opportunities to the investigator, a central one of which is gaining access. Access to informants is tied up with issues of identity and language, cultural awareness and concerns about safety of the subjects as well as the researcher. This article discusses how these issues play out in the field and is primarily based on dissertation research I conducted in Egypt in 2006 and 2008.1

The question of access is not only one of access to individuals but to entire countries. The ability to right of entry to a particular site can often depend on the researcher’s country of origin and funding sources just as much as interpersonal relations. My research focuses on new media and cyberactivism in the Arab world. I had initially intended to study Lebanon in addition to Egypt but had to drop the former because of practical considerations about funding and safety. Many donor agencies will not give funding for research in countries with a high level travel warning from the State Department, which made it difficult to obtain and maintain funding for Lebanon. Civil violence and the outbreak of war also posed challenges to conducting research there since the airport often becomes a casualty of fighting and travel become difficult and dangerous. Furthermore, people, especially the journalists and activists I interview, tend to be unavailable during such times. And until one gains access to a country one cannot gain access to one’s subjects. I found that despite my personal connections in Lebanon I had far greater access in Egypt because of donor funding decisions. Although Egypt is a police state under emergency law, it has been ruled by the same president for more than two decades and is thus relatively stable.