Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society

Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society

by Lila Abu-Lughod

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First published in 1986, Lila Abu-Lughod’s Veiled Sentiments has become a classic ethnography in the field of anthropology. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Abu-Lughod lived with a community of Bedouins in the Western Desert of Egypt for nearly two years, studying gender relations, morality, and the oral lyric poetry through which women and young men express personal feelings. The poems are haunting, the evocation of emotional life vivid. But Abu-Lughod’s analysis also reveals how deeply implicated poetry and sentiment are in the play of power and the maintenance of social hierarchy. What begins as a puzzle about a single poetic genre becomes a reflection on the politics of sentiment and the complexity of culture.
This thirtieth anniversary edition includes a new afterword that reflects on developments both in anthropology and in the lives of this community of Awlad 'Ali Bedouins, who find themselves increasingly enmeshed in national political and social formations. The afterword ends with a personal meditation on the meaning—for all involved—of the radical experience of anthropological fieldwork and the responsibilities it entails for ethnographers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520965980
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/06/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 741,832
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Lila Abu-Lughod is Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science at Columbia University, where she teaches anthropology and gender studies. She is the author of Writing Women's Worlds: Bedouin Stories, Dramas of Nationhood: The Politics of Television in Egypt, and Do Muslim Women Need Saving?

Read an Excerpt

Veiled Sentiments

Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society

By Lila Abu-Lughod


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96598-0



The Community

One takes the road that leads west, leaving behind the stately buildings and palm-lined boulevards of Alexandria, passing rows of identical sand-colored buildings with balconies crowded with children, men in undershirts, women shouting across to neighbors, and clotheslines covered with multi-colored garments that dry instantly in the bright Egyptian sun. One must then cross a tiny bridge, which can accommodate only one lane of traffic. Awaiting their turn alongside horse-drawn carts and passenger cars are long lines of trucks and group taxis (those ubiquitous white Peugeot station wagons nicknamed "flying coffins" by cynical foreigners who too often see their abandoned carcasses of mangled steel by the sides of major roads). Only the pedestrians cross in a steady stream.

Once across the bridge, malodorous fumes and tall reeds herald the marshy shores of Lake Mariut. Fishermen by the side of the road hold high their catches, hoping for a sale. One continues on, leaving the lake behind, and comes to the beginning of the desert. This is not the impressive stark sand desert found far inland, nor the white sandy beach along the Mediterranean coast, nor even the steppe dotted with shrubs of spurge flax that lies twenty kilometers south of the coast. Rather, it is a flat, dusty place of packed earth, a limestone plateau dotted with factories and open-air storage areas for the new trucks and automobiles unloaded on the docks of Alexandria.

As one travels westward, these signs of the encroaching metropolis thin out, replaced by scattered one-story houses of stone or whitewashed cement. These crude structures, often painted yellow, light blue, or pink, embellished with simple hand-painted designs and surrounded by scrubby dwarf fig trees, are sure signs that one has entered the Western Desert, which stretches five hundred kilometers to the Libyan border and is the home of the Bedouin tribes known collectively as Awlad 'Ali. These houses have, for the most part, taken the place of the Bedouins' traditional tents of woven wool. Even summer tents, sewn from old burlap sacks, are not always left pitched near the houses, especially in this eastern edge of the desert where sedentarization has proceeded the furthest. A glimpse of a woman working confirms that Bedouins live in these homes: one notes the distinctive glint of silver on her wrists, a vibrant full-length dress gathered at the waist by a red cummerbund, a head covered in black.

The first time I took this road, all this was pointed out to me. I strained to see it, to commit it to memory, and I wondered if it would ever seem familiar. Once I had settled down in a community of Awlad 'Ali, my reaction was different. Each time I traveled this way, my heart raced as we passed the marshes and factories and came across the open spaces with their pastel houses. I knew that at the government checkpoint not far from the major town, when we turned off the road stretching through the desert south to Cairo, we would begin to pass the tents and houses of some of "our" relatives — which was how I came to conceive of the kin of the family with whom I lived. I always looked to see if I could spot my favorite aunt, hoping to be able to report the sighting to those ahead. They loved news from the world beyond.

Each time, I noted the change of season in the fields we passed. In winter, thanks to peripatetic rains, green barley shoots thrived in some patches and barely came up in others. The spring carpets of wildflowers disappeared during the summer months, leaving nothing but desiccated earth. An occasional camel grazed desultorily; small herds of sheep or goats foraged, nibbling on clumps of grasses in rock crevices. Crouching alongside the road might be a turbaned old man waiting patiently for a taxi to come by. An old woman might bounce along on her donkey. More rarely, a woman, her face swathed in the black headcloth that doubles as a veil, might walk briskly, a large bundle on her head, an infant on her back, and a couple of children straggling behind. I always turned to see if I could recognize them, again to report to those ahead.

Returning from the crowded and noisy streets of Cairo or Alexandria, I often felt relieved to see the open spaces, to note the silence. The only sounds were shouts in the distance, a braying donkey, a barking dog. As we approached the area where I lived for the whole period of field research, there was a bit more vegetation: palm trees, olive orchards, rows of spindly evergreens planted by the government to retard soil erosion, a guava orchard (maintained with great difficulty). Then came a barren area. A few houses and tents, widely spaced, stood out on the rocky ground. Some were made of stone and mud, blending into the landscape; some were painted pastels. One modern compound was made of white blocks. This was where I lived.

Turning off the road onto a track etched by a succession of cars bringing visitors and residents to the house, I strained to see who might be around. One never could predict. Usually the first to spot the car were the children, always on the lookout for activity. Their initial timidity would vanish as soon as they recognized the passenger. Some would run back to announce my arrival; others would run toward the car. By the time I arrived at the doorway, the women would have come to meet me, unless male guests were sitting out front. If men were there, I would greet them politely and hurry into the house. Just inside, out of sight of the men, I might find the women and girls, arms around each other, crowding the entrance. After putting away my things and distributing sweets I had brought, I would settle down to have a snack, drink tea, and catch up on what had happened in my absence.

I lived in this household between October 1978 and May 1980. Its composition shifted numerous times over the course of this period, but the core members were the head of the household, a charismatic, wealthy, and somewhat unconventional tribal mediator close to fifty years old, whom people referred to as the Haj (an honorific recognizing his performance of the holy pilgrimage to Mecca); his senior wife, who was also his paternal first cousin, a warm, plump, and intelligent woman who seemed older than her thirty-seven years; and many of his eighteen (by the time I left) children. Sometimes his second wife, whom he had unofficially divorced a year before my arrival, and all her children lived there; she spent the rest of the time in the old house in which they had all lived with his mother and his brother's family until I joined them. Not all her children accompanied her on these moves. Her nineteen-year-old son, the eldest of the Haj's children, lived in our household most of the time. During the second year I was there, the Haj's third wife joined us, bringing her three children. She and the Haj had argued months before my arrival, and he had sent her back to her family, intending to divorce her. When he discovered that she had been pregnant and had given birth to twins, he was persuaded to take her back. Later in the year the Haj's younger brother took a second wife, whom he brought to live in our household. Although he sometimes spent nights at his old house (with his first wife and his six children), he spent more time at ours. In addition, overnight guests — nephews and nieces, cousins and aunts, and even a woman peddler who attended the nearby market regularly — came and went.

This household was one of about fifteen in what its residents considered their community. There were fifty-three adults in these households, and about twice as many children, including all unmarried adolescents. The smallest household comprised a couple and their infant; the largest had twenty-five people living in four rooms in two houses, who, by virtue of sharing an economic base and food, were considered one household. The Bedouins describe households by the phrase "They eat from one bowl."

Bedouins view residential communities as social units defined by ties of agnation. The term Awlad 'Ali use for a residential community is naji', the same term they originally applied to the tent camps in which they used to live. Most camps take their name from the lineage or cluster of agnates forming the core of the camp, even though most also include other families that have attached themselves to the group — some are distant kin, some affines, some maternal kin, others are unrelated clients. Everyone referred to the community in which I lived as the camp of the family ('et, spelled 'ait by North Africanists) of the Haj's great-grandfather, which, strictly speaking, included only the five core households headed by the sons of two brothers. However, the 'et was usually understood in its extended sense as including two numerically weak and poor collateral lineages related genealogically four generations back, as well as a number of client families. Bonds of agnation among the core families were reinforced by patrilateral parallel-cousin marriages in the adult generation and in the upcoming one. Because people in so many of the community's households were joined by kinship ties, they visited constantly and often spent nights at each other's households. This was particularly true of the children, who were free to sleep either with their mothers, grandmothers, aunts, or (if boys) their cousins or uncles.

In the past, spatial arrangements within a camp accurately reflected social relations. Tents were pitched side by side in a straight line, all facing the same direction, with the tent ropes of adjacent households of kin crossing. At the center were the core households of the community, usually those of the senior kinsmen and their families, with more distant kin and clients occupying the periphery. Now permanent structures make the fit between social and spatial distribution less tight. Modern camps are a motley array of houses and tents. Nevertheless, houses of the core members of each community cluster together, and those who come from outside either set up tents near the households to which they are most closely attached or move into or build new houses nearby.

It would be a mistake to assume from this description that the cluster of houses was isolated, as is often the case in the less populated desert areas farther west. This community, lying between a town and village in the more densely settled eastern district called Mariut, was surrounded by other houses. Despite spatial proximity and an almost haphazard arrangement of houses, the social barriers between the households of separate communities (defined by tribal affiliation) were unmistakable, and the invisible boundaries well known. Our community had amicable, neighborly relations with some other communities; with others, there was little contact except through the men who prayed together on Fridays at the mosque attached to a nearby saint's tomb.

The degree of contact individuals had with those outside the community varied tremendously. The Haj had traveled as far as Qatar, to visit a friend he had met while falcon hunting in the Western Desert. Some of the men had been to the cities of Alexandria and Cairo. Most had been to Marsa Matruh, the largest city in the Western Desert, and even to Libya in the days before the border was closed. Nearly all of the men at least occasionally attended the major sheep market to the west and did business in the non-Bedouin market town to the east. Many went daily to the nearby town or the village between which their hamlet lay. The women were more restricted in their movements. All but the oldest women traveled only to visit their families, to attend weddings and funerals, and to see the doctors at the clinics in the nearby town and village. Older women were more mobile, often attending local markets if their health permitted.

The particular group of people with whom I lived was more traditional than some in the area, especially those in town, but it was also more involved in the major transformations in Bedouin life of the last few decades than poorer and more isolated groups living farther west. The members of this community considered town life corrupting and most of its inhabitants immoral, and they had no interest in moving there. The core families' longstanding wealth, which suffered a brief setback in the 1950s but was regained through the Haj's shrewd economic direction, had shielded them from government interference and freed them from having to cooperate in government settlement schemes. This economic viability allowed the core families to support clients and poor relations, thus keeping them within the group. It also enabled the community to set its own moral standards and maintain a separate identity.

All the trends in the shifting Bedouin economy (to be described in chapter 2) were represented in the diverse activities by which the members of this community supported themselves. The core families had large sheep herds, which they viewed as their main enterprise, and they had small camel herds for prestige. They had planted olive and almond trees and regularly pressed olive oil for their own consumption. They owned bits of agricultural land from which they hoped to make some profit. Every year they sowed barley. The first year of my stay, there was little rain and no harvest; the second year there was a small crop. The Haj, unlike his brothers, had contacts in Cairo and Alexandria for whom he acted as a middleman in real estate ventures on the coast, and in turn he was persuaded to invest with his partners in urban property. All of the brothers had engaged in smuggling in an earlier period. The various client families attached to these core families worked as shepherds and did odd jobs, including building, harvesting, painting, gardening, and so forth, for their patrons. They also raised rabbits, pigeons, and a few goats.

What changes in lifestyle they had made were voluntary adaptations to shifting conditions. Although they had taken advantage of government assistance in tree planting, they had built their own houses, and when the government claimed all Western Desert lands, they had arranged for the purchase of their traditional land. They had last migrated to desert pastures seven years before my arrival, but for a host of practical and emotional reasons they had stopped going; each year, however, the idea was raised anew. They had no electricity, although the Haj had purchased a generator that sat broken most of the time I was there. One house had tapped into a pipeline that brought water nearby, but most of the households sent their adolescent girls with donkeys carrying jerry- cans to fetch water from the main taps. In the spring, after the rains, people got some of their water from a well shared by several neighboring communities. They had requested that a government school be built nearby, which many of their children attended.

This sketch must serve as an introduction to a community that the reader will come to know in depth. The problem this book explores became apparent to me in the course of living with this group of people, and in part as a function of the interactions I had with them. Therefore, the reader will need some sense of the fieldwork experience before the theoretical issues are presented.


An honest account of the circumstances of fieldwork, not merely a perfunctory note stating the dates the anthropologist was in the host country, is, as Maybury-Lewis points out in his introduction (1967), both essential for the evaluation of the facts and interpretations presented in an ethnographic report and sometimes embarrassing. Especially for young anthropologists, perhaps insecure about their professional competence, the cloak of secrecy shrouding the fieldwork experiences of successful predecessors inspires fantasies. It is easy to imagine, for example, that these great figures were not plagued by doubts about their abilities, the adequacy of the material they collected, or their hosts' feelings toward them. Rather, they must have begun with the ideas set forth in their final products, polished, crisp, and profound. But on a day when people are busy and you are alone in a desolate landscape, suffering from fever and being eaten alive by fleas or annoyed by a child poking fun at you, the question of whether this is the experience that carries such dignified labels as "research" or the more scientistic "data collection" nags. And yet, the nature and quality of what anthropologists learn is profoundly affected by the unique shape of their fieldwork; this should be spelled out.

I do not believe that the encounter between anthropologists and their hosts should be the sole object of inquiry. Only a rare sensitivity and perceptiveness can redeem the solipsism of this project. However, to ignore the encounter not only denies the power of such factors as personality, social location in the community, intimacy of contact, and luck (not to mention theoretical orientation and self-conscious methodology) to shape fieldwork and its product but also perpetuates the conventional fictions of objectivity and omniscience that mark the ethnographic genre.


Excerpted from Veiled Sentiments by Lila Abu-Lughod. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

A Note on Transcriptions

One: Guest and Daughter
The Community
Poetry and Sentiment

The Ideology of Bedouin Social Life

Two: Identity in Relationship
Asl: The Blood of Ancestry
Garaba: The Blood of Relationship
Maternal Ties and a Common Life
Identification and Sharing
Identity in a Changing World

Three: Honor and the Virtues of Autonomy
Autonomy and Hierarchy
The Family Model of Hierarchy
Honor: The Moral Basis of Hierarchy
Limits on Power
Hasham: Honor of the Weak

Four: Modesty, Gender, and Sexuality
Gender Ideology and Hierarchy
The Social Value of Male and Female
The "Natural" Bases of Female Moral
Red Belts and Black Veils: The Symbolism of Gender and Sexuality
Sexuality and the Social Order
Hasham Reconsidered: Deference and the Denial of Sexuality
The Meaning of Veiling

Discourses on Sentiment

Five: The Poetry of Personal Life
On Poetry in Context
The Poetry of Self and Sentiment

Six: Honor and Poetic Vulnerability
Discourses on Loss
Matters of Pride
Responding to Death
The Discourse of Honor

Seven: Modesty and the Poetry of Love
Discourses on Love
Star–Crossed Lovers
An Arranged Marriage
Marriage, Divorce, and Polygyny

Eight: Ideology and the Politics of Sentiment
The Social Contexts of Discourse
Protective Veils of Form
The Meaning of Poetry
The Politics of Sentiment
Ideology and Experience
Ethnography's Values: An Afterword

Appendix: Formulas and Themes of the Ghinnawa

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