09 July 2007

Guests of the Sheik

Annegb recommended Guests of the Sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea a month or two ago and I have to second her recommendation. This is one of the best books about Muslims that I've read. It's certainly not perfect in every way, but it is excellent in many ways.

Fernea lived in Iraq for two years in the late 1950s (so it's definitely dated) with her husband shortly after they were married while he was conducting research. Most of their time was spent in Al Nahra, a smaller village. Her husband relied on her interactions with the women of the village because he was largely kept from them.

This is not your typical book about Muslim women, especially one written by an American. In some ways it would have been better if Fernea knew more about the history, culture, and religion of the people she was living with before she got there, but the fact that she didn't was an advantage in some ways. She simply writes what she experiences. She learns Arabic while she's there so she can communicate with the women and in many ways leads a native life while she is there- veiling, only spending time with women, etc.

But it's Fernea's slow path to acceptance in the village that makes this book worth reading. For the first several months she visits the women of the village to try to make friends and get to know them, but feels she's not getting anywhere. No one comes to visit her and she feels like an outsider. Finally one day some women come to her house, but instead of the success she hopes for, the women criticize her cooking, her housekeeping, and it seems everything about her lifestyle. Fernea writes, "Six months before, I would not have believed that I could be so upset at being accused of laziness and incompetence by a group of illiterate tribal women."

Things do improve soon after though, when some women teach Fernea how to cook Iraqi-style rice and they find out she can embroider (I kept thinking through the first chapters that instead of formal visits, Fernea needed to find common ground, like embroidery, or ask for help, especially with cooking). She slowly becomes part of the village in her own way.

Fernea's reflections at the end of the book are particularly useful:

I could still recall vividly...the frustration of not being able to understand what was said to me. That circle of unfriendly women...Sheddir spitting out my good bread on the floor. And the chastening realization that the women had pitied me. Pitied me, college-educated, adequately dressed and fed, free to vote and travel, happily married to a husband of my own choice...

What kind of charity combined with compassion had persuaded them to take me in?

Something everyone has to learn when they live in a foreign country, no matter who they are. This book is highly recommended. (And while we're at it, sheik is pronounced shaykh, not chic.)


  1. Yes, this is definitely a good book. I hear that it made some waves when it first came out because it was unusual for ethnologists such as the Ferneas to talk about their own personal experiences among the people; they wouldn't refer to themselves in the first person. This book did help me to understand a little bit better the culture of the region, and I hear that it's not all that different right now. In the cities, yes, but of course in the countryside it's going to be very much the same for very long.

    And, if you wanted to be really technical, in Arabic it's pronounced "shaich," with a German "ch" like "ich."

  2. Dear Amira,
    Thank you for sharing this book. I have been reading more memoirs of this sort but have not had as much luck in my choices.