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A Review of

Guests Of The Sheik:
An Ethnography Of An Iraqi Village

by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea

 

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Summary

In the 1950's, a newly-married American woman named Elizabeth Warnock Fernea accompanied her husband to a rural Iraqi village, where he was performing field research for his doctorate in anthropology. This book describes her experiences.
Cover

 

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Fact Sheet

Title

Guests Of The Sheik: An Ethnography Of An Iraqi Village

Author

Elizabeth Warnock Fernea

ISBN

0-385-01485-6

Publisher

Anchor Books

Category

Non-Fiction: Near Eastern Culture

Rating

StarStarStarStarStar

Number of Pages

337

Published In

1965

 

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Description

In 1956, a newly-married American woman named Elizabeth Warnock Fernea accompanied her husband to a rural Iraqi village, where he was performing field research for his doctorate in anthropology. This book describes her experiences.

The book begins with newlywed Fernea's journey with her husband to the village where they will be living. It speaks of her misgivings about being such an outsider, entering such an unfamiliar environment, and shows her resentment at beginning her marriage living in a two-room mud hut with no plumbing.

The story is one of a U.S. woman learning how to live in an environment which is entirely alien to her. She speaks of her rebellion against wearing an abaya (long black cloak), and her loneliness of being an alien who doesn't speak the language and doesn't understand the lifestyle. Her description of village life is very much filtered through her own perceptions as a 1950's-era American woman.

Gradually, as the book progresses, Fernea grows to become more comfortable with village life, and becomes accepted by the local women. It is a story not only of rural Iraqi culture, but also of Fernea's personal development as she learns how to fit in.

As the story unfolds, Fernea covers her observations of the day-to-day life of the women in the tribe, the process of slowly making friends with them as she learns their language, and the local Shiite religious observances that she had the opportunity to observe. She talks about the veiling of women, the practice of polygamy in that village, the hard manual labor that is part of everyone's life, the religious customs, the food that people eat, the structure of society, and the encroachment of modern "civilized" life on the traditional rural culture.

At last, in 1958 the time comes for Fernea and her husband to return to the U.S., and they take their leave of the villagers.

A final chapter, titled, "Post Script", closes the book. Six years after Fernea left Iraq, her husband returned there for a visit and brought home a packet of letters for her from the women. In this chapter, she provides updates on "where they are now", six years later.

 

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Is It Right for You?

 

You Will Probably Enjoy This Book If...

  • You're interested in learning about what life was like in a rural Iraqi village in the 1950's.
  • You would like to see a side of Iraq that is very different from that portrayed in the news headlines.

 

This Book Probably Isn't Right for You If...

  • You're looking for a book that talks about how dancing fits into a Near Eastern culture.
  • You want to read about what modern-day cultures are like, rather than those of half a century ago.
  • You prefer to learn about cultures from people who were raised in those cultures, rather than from an outsider who "studied" them for a couple of years.

 

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What I Liked, What I Didn't

 

What I Liked:

  • This book provides a fascinating glimpse into the day-to-day life of women in one part of the Middle East.
  • The author holds nothing back — she tells of both the positive aspects of the village life and the negative, but does so in a respectful way.
  • The information offered in the book is very detailed. In many cases, the author talks about not only what the local customs are, but also why people do what they do.
  • The writing style is in the tone of a friend writing me letters telling me her experiences and reactions to them. It's the kind of book I can relax and enjoy even when I'm tired after a day of work.
  • The author isn't afraid to describe some serious mistakes she made living among the local culture, and what consequences ensued as a result of those mistakes. I respect her willingness to expose her own fallibility.
  • The very beginning of the book offers a list of the people described in the book and their relationships with each other. It's a tremendous help in keeping track of the everyone as their stories are told. The end of the book offers a glossary of Arabic terms and a complete index. These reference tools are all very helpful.
  • The final chapter, "Post Script", talks about what became of many of the villagers after the Ferneas left to return to their home in the U.S. It provides a nice closing touch to the book.
  • The book has an index that is helpful when wanting to go back and reread certain sections.

 

What I Didn't Like:

  • There are no photographs in this book, which I find disappointing. I would have liked to have seen pictures of the huts that the village lived in, pictures of the men in their dishdashas or women in their abayas, etc.

 

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Conclusion

This book makes fascinating reading for anyone interested in other cultures. It contains all the elements that make for great fiction such as character development, interesting plot, and a writing style that brings the story to life. Except, it's not fiction - it's the true story of the author's experiences living with real-world people, which makes the book even more interesting to read.

However, it's important to realize that the events it describes occurred in the 1950's. It would be a mistake to believe that Iraqi communities today are still exactly like the one the author observed. Also, it's important to remember that it describes a rural village, and it would be incorrect to assume that city life was the same.

I recommend the book for the insights it offers into Middle Eastern culture, but it's important to understand that it's specific to rural Iraq, and represents the culture of several decades ago. It's also important to remember that you're seeing the culture through the eyes of an outsider who studied these people for two years - you might get a very different picture from someone who grew up as part of the culture.

 

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Disclosures

There is nothing to disclose. I have never had any contact with anyone associated with this book.

 

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