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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What I Liked, What I Didn't
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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.
There is nothing to disclose. I have never had any contact with this author.
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