Review: Guests of the Sheikh

Guests of the Sheikh, by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, is an excellent introduction to rural Iraqi culture.  As a newlywed in 1956, the author moved with her anthropologist husband to a Shia tribal settlement adjoining a village in Diwaniya.  For two years, Mrs. Fernea wore the abaya and lived in purdah, secluded or veiled from all men save Mr. Fernea and a household servant.

However, she entered the society of the tribal and village women. The book, published in 1965, is a sharply-observed, simply written narrative of Mrs. Fernea’s observations and experiences.  The subtitle is “An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village,” but Mrs. Fernea omits theory and analysis.  Her matter-of-fact prose (she is a journalist) is accessible and almost flat, but ultimately quite affecting.

The date palms on the opposite bank were gray with the accumulated dust of the desert summer and the fields we passed were brown and dry.  Only the stubble of the small summer crop remained.  On each side of the road the flat, dun-colored land stretched away for miles, broken only by the cuts of small waterways carrying water to the fields and the dips of old canals, their dry hollows green with a little shrubbery nourished by some dampness remaining in the soil.  Here and there a single fellah was visible against the horizon; his dishdasha tied up around his waist to allow freedom of movement, he broke the dry ground with a hand hoe, preparing the land for autumn planting.

The book offers interesting benchmarks for present observers of conditions in Iraq’s countryside.  The village (whose population is not mentioned; 400 pupils in the boys’ primary school) has a chlorinated water system and “five or six” homes in the tribal settlement are connected.  The village’s power comes from a generator that runs when the mayor orders it – for example, to run his fan in the summer.  Soil salination is a problem and men that can no longer cultivate their land turn to sheepherding or migrant labor.  Employment as an armed guard or retainer is not unknown.

This is one of the most helpful books on Iraq that I have read, and apparently a classic of Middle Eastern ethnography.  I recommend it to anyone interested in Iraqi society.  It is in print but I could not find Mrs. Fernea’s husband’s dissertation on irrigation.

Guests of the Sheikh


One Response to “Review: Guests of the Sheikh”

  1. Elizabeth Warnock Fernea « Zeal and Activity Says:

    […] Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, the pioneering scholar of Arab women and the Middle East, has died.  We reviewed her excellent Guests of the Sheikh here last month. The Los Angeles Times has a sympatheic obituary: [W]hen she left [the Iraqi village of El Nahra] […]

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