Saturday, October 01, 2005

Book Review: Guests of the Sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village

In the 1950's, American writer Elizabeth Warnock Fernea spent the first two years of her marriage to fellow-American Bob Fernea, an anthropologist, in El Nahra, a small village in Southern Iraq as guests of the Shiek of the tribe. This book is a personal narrative about life behind a veil in a community unaccustomed to Western women.

When Fernea arrived in El Nahra, both she and her husband agreed that she would have to don the abaya (long black cloak traditionally worn by Arabic women) if she wanted to make inroads to the community of tribal women and learn more about their ways and customs.

At first, the tribal women wasted no time in making her feel like the awkward outsider. They would laugh at her attempts to speak Arabic, her bread-making abilities and the fact that she was wearing no gold. Later, these were the very same things that made them pity her. They presumed she must have been poor not to have gold and they were perplexed that her husband (whom they called Mr. Bob) would take her so many 1000's of miles away from her family. Because to the tribal women, family and tribe means everything, they presumed he must be a cruel man to have done such a thing. To add to that, she was too thin in their eyes, wore her hair too short and didn't have a child. They wouldn't have traded even one day of their lives for hers! To top it all, she didn't seem to know how to cook an Arabic staple---rice! Out of pity some of the women from the Sheikh's harem volunteered to teach this poor, rather daft American lady, how to cook "properly" and slowly a friendship between her and the other women, started to blossom.

Soon they were having her over to tea and confiding to her all their trials and tribulations. For instance, she learned that tribe loyalty and affiliation was so strong that women only married their cousins, preferrably from their father's side. If they couldn't find an eligible cousin, they would stay single but never could they marry someone from a different tribe. Many such unmarried girls would then devote themselves to their studies and become Mullahs (teachers of the faith). She learned early that there was no social communication between the sexes and that the women's actions are strictly dictated and curtailed, ostensibly for their protection and honor. She learned also that if a woman was seen in the company of a man who wasn't closely related to her, she would bring dishonor on her family and it was then incumbent upon her father to kill her, thus restoring the family's honor.

She also visited, with the women of the harem, local weddings, feasts, krayas (sixteenth century Shiite religious rituals, presided over by a female mullah) and taaziyas (mourning ceremony during Moharram where young men in procession flagellate themselves with chains bound together in bunches to mourn over the death of the prophet). Her vivid, detailed descriptions of all of these functions are a delight to read and a wonderful social/cultural commentary of Iraq in the '50's. I must say here, although this book describes Iraq in the '50's, I think a lot of the issues the author touches on, like honor killings, polygamy, segregation of the sexes, education only for boys etc., are definitely relevant in some Middle-Eastern societies even today.

I think the author does well to show her readers that although the Iraqi tribal women may lead lives that are so different from what we may ever want for ourselves or our daughters, most of them are completely happy and satisfied with their lot. In other words, she is quite effective in dispelling the myth that women who wear the abaya must be weak and passive. From having spent years in the Middle East, I know that many Arab women regard the veil as a garment that protects and provides anonymity rather than one that hinders and robs them of equal rights. Best of all, the author has shown us that no matter the cultural differences between people, each one of us wants the same things in the end---to be happy, to be well, to do good, to have good friends and so on.

This book should definitely be on the shelves of every high school and university library because it's a wonderful study of Iraqi society in the '50's.