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Guests of the Sheik, Elizabeth Warnock Fernea.

April 3, 2016

Guests of the Sheik: Ethnography of an Iraqi Village, Elizabeth Warnock Fernea.  Anchor/Doubleday, 1989.  (First published 1969) 

 4 stars

An excellent account of Muslim women by an American woman who stayed for two-years in the 1950s in a tiny, traditional village where she and her husband were conducting anthropological research.

Elizabeth Fernea (1927-2008) was a young bride when she accompanied her husband in 1956 to an isolated village in southern Iraq where he was conducting research for his doctoral dissertation.  Activities in the village were sharply divided along gender lines, and she made friends with the women and kept careful notes about their activities and attitudes.  A warm and sympathetic listener, she gives us an unusually clear account of what life was like for them as they existed on the edge of modernization.  Fernea went on to become one of the first scholars to focus on women in the Middle East. She and her husband lived in other parts of the region and returned to the United States to both be part of the faculty of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas, where she also served as Director of Women’s Studies.  She has written other books and directed films in her attempts to explain women from different cultures to each other.

In Guests of the Sheik, readers are brought inside polygamous marriages and shown the daily struggles and joys within them.  We see the negotiations around marriage and why the women believe that any marriage is better than remaining single and isolated.  Because the village is Shiite, we learn the particular rituals of grief which they practice, separately as women led by a women mullah.  Yet Fernea was aware of how shallow her knowledge of the Iraqi women was:

How little I really knew about the society in which I was living!  During the year I had made friends, I had listened and talked and learned, I thought a great deal, but the pattern of custom and tradition which governed the lives of my friends was far more subtle and complex than I had imagined.  It was like the old image of the iceberg, the small, easily recognizable face on the surface of the water giving no idea of the size or shape or texture of what lies beneath.

She realized that her Iraqi friends did not desire her own way of life.  She had no children, was too thin, and could barely cook rice.  But they accepted her into a culture that was dramatically unlike her own.

I have no idea the degree to which Iraqi women still live as they did when Fernea stayed with them almost fifty years ago.  What is clear is that she describes patterns from which present-day Iraqis have come.  She has done so with grace and appropriate humility.  She has given us all valuable insight and information about the seldom-understood topic of Muslim women.  And her book is a delight to read.

I enthusiastically encourage other readers to read Guests of the Sheik.  I hope I can find some of her other books.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 3, 2016 6:18 pm

    It would be fascinating to have a modern day version of this to see if things have changed much

  2. April 4, 2016 10:07 am

    It is difficult to put ourselves in the situation of these women. Yet, the attitudes, even of 50 years ago, must still effect the thinking of that regioin. We need to understand and I am grateful to those whose writing helps us do so. Pat.

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