Thursday, January 13, 2011

Guests of the Sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea

genre: memoir/non-fiction

In the early 1950s, when Elizabeth Fernea was a young bride, she joined her researcher husband as he journeyed to a remote tribal village in Iraq, to live and study for nearly two years. As a Western woman, Elizabeth chose to integrate herself into tribal society by donning the traditional abayah (the long black cloak/veil), avoiding being seen by unfamiliar men.

Her time in the village is so full of learning, misunderstandings and bizarre experiences. She attends festivals and feasts. She lives in a mud hut and uses the same transportation as everyone else. She is bluntly honest about her short comings and blunders - as well as her wounded pride. I loved that she taught me as a reader so much about the lifestyle and nuances of the tribal culture but, yet, she didn't loose sight of herself as an occasionally anxious participant in the narration. There were no long explanations or interludes of "historical context," we just learned as she did.

Her need to have a friend and fit in, her concern about inadvertently causing offense, the way she purposely doesn't paint a perfect picture of the experience - these things made me trust her as a narrator and really connect with what she was going through. Most intriguing to me was the laws of purdah - the seclusion of women - and the intricacies of the relationships between women. There are so many social conventions to remember if you want to be a polite guest or hostess I loved to see the Iraqi womens' sense of self and their history, of their sureness of place in their family and in their society. I'd be interested in reading a follow up - to find out how women in this same part of Iraqi are faring today, nearly 60 years later.

Thank heavens for the "cast of characters" chart at the beginning! By the end of reading I maybe recognized ten out of dozens of names - they are just unfamiliar enough to me and similar enough to each other to take some patience. Despite my frustration at being unable to connect people on my own, I really did enjoy this very readable journey.

1 comment:

bermudaonion said...

I just love books like this! Thanks for calling it to my attention.

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