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“Guests of the Sheikh” by Elizabeth Wernick Fernea Essay (Book Review)

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Updated: Dec 13th, 2019

Introduction

The book, Guests of the Sheik by Elizabeth Wernick Fernea is an account of her experiences in El Nahra in Iraq. El Nahra is a small village situated on the southern part of Iraq. Fernea had travelled to support her husband conduct research for his doctorate studies. The book describes Fernea’s experiences during the trip in the 1950s.

The two had visited the village as guests of the tribe’s sheikh. Throughout the book, Fernea narrates her stories and experiences of living a different life from the one she was used to in America. The book is dominated by the experiences of tribal women in the village.

She tries to disabuse the western of the numerous misconceptions about life in Asian countries. The author explains the meanings of different events and rituals conducted by members of the El Eshadda tribe in order to get rid of ambiguities that inform the western ideologies regarding the culture of the Orient.

Fernea also explores different themes in the book in an effort to paint a clear picture of her experiences that are a reflection of the life in the small village.

Review

The first chapter in the book commences with a narration of the couple’s journey to a small village in southern Iraq where they would live until they completed their work. The chapter explores Fernea’s uneasiness with living in an unfamiliar environment and a new culture.

She resented the beginning of her marriage because they would live in a two-room mud hut without the facilities that are available in America. When Fernea arrived at the village, she was flabbergasted by the environment and the setting of the village. She had to make up her mind about donning the abaya in order to look like other women.

The abaya is a long cloak donned by Arabic women in accordance with their culture. Fernea had to wear the abaya because she wanted to look like other women and as such interact with them and learn more about their customs and beliefs.

At the beginning of her stay, she felt resented and unwanted. The tribal women were not hospitable. They took advantage of every available opportunity to make Fernea feel like an outsider. They laughed at her when she tried to speak Arabic and make bread.

In addition, they laughed at her because she did not have any gold on her (Fernea, 1965). These experiences made her feel uncomfortable for quite some time. However, the source of the tribal women’s jest turned into pity. They pitied Fernea because according to them, the reason why she lacked gold on her was poverty.

On the other hand, they were surprised because her husband had separated her from their family and brought her to a distant place far away from home. They considered Mr. Bob (the name they used to refer to Fernea’s husband) as a very cruel man because of separating Fernea from her family.

To the tribal women, family and tribe were the things they treasured most (Fernea, 1965). These experiences reveal the disparity between life in the west and the Orient. It is evident that the customs of Iraqi people are tough and stringent. The things they value highly are different from the things that westerners value most.

For instance, they were surprised that Fernea was childless (Fernea, 1965). They pitied her because in their eyes, she was too thin and a bad cook. Her thinness and lack of gold ornaments were signs of poverty. Her poor cooking skills were also a source of pity. She could not cook rice that was one of their favorite meals.

The women’s pity for Fernea moved them to volunteer to teach her a few things about their culture. They wanted to teach her how to cook and treat her husband well. In the process of being taught how to cook, a friendship blossomed between her and the tribal women.

This experience reveals how people of different cultures consider their customs as the best among others in the world. This phenomenon is present in the contemporary society. Certain nations believe that their principles, cultures, and political ideologies are the best and therefore, they try to impose them on other nations.

Life for Fernea was difficult because whenever her husband was working, she would spend her time alone. The tribal women did not visit her (Fernea, 1965). She had to adjust to village life. For example, she had to wear the abaya and live in a harem. Gradually, the women started sharing their experiences with her.

The friendship enabled Fernea to overcome the obstacles she faced while gathering information about the tribe’s culture and customs. She befriended many women including Laila, Aziza, Sherifa, and Selma (Fernea, 1965).

One of the things she learnt from the women was that tribe loyalty and affiliation was very important to an extent that women were only espoused to their cousins. According to the tribe’s customs, a cousin from the father’s side was the first choice for marriage (Fernea, 1965).

In case a woman failed to find an eligible cousin to get married to, she lived the rest of her life single. Women never got married to men from other tribes.

Women who did not get married ventured into studies and became Mullahs (faith instructors) (Fernea, 1965). The tribal women also taught her how to prepare rice, wear the veil properly, and take good care of her husband in accordance with their traditions.

As the friendship grew stronger, Fernea won the love and respect of the tribal women. They invited her to participate in their conversation as well as visit other women. She learnt that communication was restricted between men and women. The customs of the tribe controlled the actions of women in order to maintain their honor and protect them.

In case a woman was spotted with a man from another tribe, it was the responsibility of her father to kill her because of dishonoring her family (Fernea, 1965). The honor of such a family would be restored only after killing the daughter.

The book explores in detail Fernea’s visits to the tribe’s feasts, weddings, mourning ceremonies, and religious rituals. The krayas was a religious ritual conducted by a female mullah. On the other hand, taaziyas was a mourning ceremony that involved young men tying themselves in chains.

Fernea describes her experiences vividly thus enabling the reader to picture the kind of life in Iraq during the 1950s. In addition, her narrations help the reader to create a connection between life in the 1950s and today.

For example, her accounts of polygamy, separation of men and women, honor killings, and marriage are present in the contemporary cultures of many countries in the Middle East.

The book reveals the conservative nature of the Iraqi community. Many of the customs and practices explored by the author are present in the contemporary Iraqi society. Fernea’s style of writing reveals her amazement, excitement, as well as embarrassment upon learning new things.

Through the narration of her experiences, Fernea succeeds to show that even though the tribal women live a different life from that of women in western countries, they are happy and contented. In the contemporary society, there is a misconception that Arabic women are frail, inactive, and inferior members of the society.

However, Fernea dispels this misconception. Furthermore, she shows that customs, cultures, and beliefs are not the determinants of happiness and fulfillment. Even though the tribe’s customs are strict, the women are happy and fulfilled. Fernea had to adjust to the life of the women in order to fit, understand, and experience the traditions and customs of the El Eshadda tribe.

Fernea describes various experiences of her day-to-day life in the village. She talks of how she developed a friendship with the tribal women, and the process of learning their language. She describes the Shiite rituals such as veiling of women. Fernea focuses more on matters such as polygamy, hard manual labor, and religious customs.

Another issue that Fernea discusses is the society’s structure that is different from that of contemporary societies. Her experiences are clearly narrated owing to his amiable interactions with the tribal women. She describes how they behaved, lived, and communicated. There are moments of humor in the book that make it a good read.

For example, it is humorous when the tribal women accuse Fernea of indolence and ineptitude. She does not understand why they treat her like that. She is forced to stay alone and figure out how she could develop a congenial relationship with them (Fernea, 1965).

The author adjusts and lives like the women did in order to get information about their way of life. The information would be useful to her husband’s work. The book reveals a concealed aspect of life in the Middle East.

In the public domain, women are depicted as of low value to the society. However, Fernea’s narratives reveal that the society values women because they play a very critical role.

The author discusses their last days in the village as they prepare to leave. Fernea sits in the kitchen and dreads the thought of leaving the village and her friends. She had become friends with the tribal women and had adjusted to their way of life.

She hates the idea of leaving because she has been transformed into a tribal woman through her induction into the culture and traditions of the El Eshadda tribe. She had learnt to cook rice and take care of her husband in the same way the tribal women did it. When a taxi comes to pick her, one of the women weeps.

The friendship between them is so strong that it is difficult to say goodbye. The event is so emotional that Fernea also breaks down in tears. Her husband is shocked because she was not aware of the strong and amiable relationship between Fernea and the tribal women.

Two years in the village had transformed her into a different person. She had learnt to appreciate people who had a different culture and way of doing things.

Fernea’s experience moves the reader to wonder whether the western culture and the culture of the Orient will ever come to a consensus with regard to certain cultural themes and traditions. She successfully reveals some hidden aspects of the Iraqi culture that are only know to the Iraqi people and their visitors.

Conclusion

Fernea gives an account of her last days in the village. After completing their work, the author and her husband prepare to go back to America. By the time they had completed their work, Fernea was so accustomed to village life that she felt like one of them.

The book closes with a chapter that was written six years after Fernea and her husband left Iraq. Her husband goes back to Iraq village to visit the Sheik and brings Fernea a packet of letters as a gift from the women (Fernea, 1965). In this chapter, the author discusses the position of women in the Iraqi society six years after she left the village.

The book explores both traditional and contemporary themes that define the society. In addition, it shows a positive side of Iraq that is ignored by the media. The author explores both negative and positive sides of life in the village thus giving the reader an unbiased account.

Moreover, the book is detailed and discusses all the author’s experiences in a vivid manner. The experiences narrated by the author give the reader a clear picture of the Iraqi culture during the 1950s. The reader can compare the customs of the Iraqi people in the 1950s and in the contemporary society.

Reference

Fernea, E. (1965). Guests of the Sheikh: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

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