Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Review: Guests of the Sheik

Taking advantage of my long weekend, I just finished reading Guests of the Sheik, An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea. Not nearly as dry as its subtitle suggests, the book is the story of the author's 'honeymoon' in a Shiite tribal settlement circa 1958, or as the intro describes is:

I spent the first two years of my married life in a tribal settlement on the edge of a village, in southern Iraq. My husband, a social anthropologist, was doing research for his doctorate from the University of Chicago. This book is a personal narrative of these years... The village, the tribe and all of the people... are real as are the incidents. However, I have changed the names so that no one may be embarrassed, although I doubt that any of my women friends in the village will ever read my book.
The writing is quite transparent, and you come away knowing little about the author and her husband's opinions (you briefly hear about her husband arguing with some of the men in the village who are convinced Marxism represents the ideal future for Iraq, and there are some friends of theirs who are missionaries whom she visits several times), which in some ways simply serves to make it seem more as if you yourself are immersed in the tribal world in which she lived for two years. In this sense, it's a very good way to get a feeling for what tribal Islamic society was like in Iraq fifty year ago, without the layers of editorializing that most authors seem to feel is necessary in such exercises. Though the author clearly prefers her own culture to that she is immersed in, this is not a book about the suffering of Islamic women, or the possible liberation of Islamic women, or how Islamic women are really better off than their western peers. It's simply about what these particular women's lives were like, a life which is in many ways very alien to Westerners, and yet which clearly is set within the same universal human nature which we all share.

If you have an interest in everyday Islamic culture, this book is well worth reading. My only two frustrations with it are that a) it's fifty years old, and I very much wish I could find something similar written within the last ten or better yet within the last two years and b) a more detailed follow-up chapter would have been really interesting. The author's husband, at least, returned to the village for a time ten years later, and the author remained in correspondence with several of the women in the village. Given some of the ways in which Iraqi culture and politics changed over the ensuing fifty years, I've be really curious to know how those changes played out at the ground level, in this particular Shiite village.

Two things particularly struck me. One was that alien customs often aren't as much so as they seem. The author is surprised at the how strongly the women she meets feel about only marrying men within their own tribe. However the reason gradually becomes clear, in her descriptions of the verious engagements that take place. Since in traditional Islamic culture (at least as played out in that time and place) a man and woman were not supposed to meet face to face until their wedding day, marrying a man from your own tribe gave a woman a back-door way of selecting her own husband. Since boys and girls of the tribe all played together until age 11 or 12, a woman would know all the men close to her own age fairly well. A number of the women in the tribe had specific men among their set of old playmates that they had picked out as a hoped-for future spouse, an arrangment which could then be made by the woman's family.

The other insight that struck me was the extent to which it is very hard to overcome cultural barriers. Near the end, when the author and her husband have moved to Bagdad to do some library research before leaving Iraq, the sheik whose guest they have been comes to visit Bagdad and invites them out to a Western nightclub. The sheik vacations in Lebanon in the summers and considers himself able to appreciate Western ways. Yet he sees them through his own lens of interpretation. Seeing the couples dancing to American music, he remarks of the shamelessness of the tarts cavorting with their clients. The author is on the point of explaining that these are just ordinary people, many of them married couples that the author know from the embassy and various engineering firms, when she realizes this would really do very little good. The sheik already has set very clearly in his mind what constitutes a tart, and claiming these women as acquintances will only diminish them in his eyes, not exonerate the dancing couples. By living according to tribal custom for eighteen months, they have shown themselves to be respectable people in the eyes of the village, but that hasn't served to make the villagers think any better of western culture, merely convince them that a few westerners are decent because they follow tribal customs.

1 comment:

susan said...

Hi. There is a reissue of the book, with a visit in the 90's I believe. Telling about their trip back to the village. its in a compilation book called The Arab World.