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University of California Press
Writing Women's Worlds: Bedouin Stories / Edition 1

Writing Women's Worlds: Bedouin Stories / Edition 1

by Lila Abu-LughodLila Abu-Lughod
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Lila Abu-Lughod draws on anthropological and feminist insights to construct a critical ethnography of a small Awlad 'Ali Bedouin community in Egypt. She explores how the telling of stories of everyday life challenges the power of anthropological theory to render adequately the lives of others and the way feminist theory appropriates Third World women.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520256514
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 04/07/2008
Edition description: First Edition, 15th Anniversary Edition, With a New Preface
Pages: 306
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Lila Abu-Lughod is Professor of Anthropology and Gender Studies at Columbia University. She is the author of Veiled Sentiments (UC Press) and Dramas of Nationhood: The Politics of Television in Egypt. She is the editor of Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East and the coeditor, most recently, of Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory.

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Writing Women's Worlds

Bedouin Stories

By Lila Abu-Lughod


Copyright © 2008 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-93497-9



A man came to God's Messenger and said, "O Messenger of God, who is most entitled to the best of my friendship?" The Prophet said, "Your mother." The man said, "Then who?" The Prophet said, "Your mother." The man further said, "Then who?" The Prophet said, "Your mother." The man said again, "Then who?" The Prophet said, "Then your father."

Tradition of the Prophet Muhammad

On a quiet day toward the end of 1979, the second year I had been living in the community, I asked Migdim whether she would tell me her life story. She said, "When you get old you think only of God, of prayer, and of the oneness of God. What happened has passed, you don't think about it. You don't think about anything but God." And she refused to say any more. Then, as now, the only decoration on the walls of her one-room house was a faded black-and-white photograph behind finger-printed glass. It showed her as a younger, upright woman standing proudly next to her eldest son, now called Haj Sagr to recognize his status as someone who has made the pilgrimage, both wearing the distinctive white clothing of Meccan pilgrims. Although she was now bent nearly double and walked only with the help of a stick, she still had the many social duties of a world where the mutual visits of relatives and friends are the stuff of social relations. As the matriarch of one large family and the oldest sister in another, she was expected at weddings, sickbeds, and funerals, as well as at feasts to welcome home those who had been released from prison or had returned from the pilgrimage to Mecca. Even when she was at home she was always busy with something — spinning, winding yarn, sewing burlap sacks together to patch the old summer tent, seeing to the goats, giving advice, or bouncing a grandchild on her lap.

By the time I returned in 1986, seven years later, she could hardly stand and walked only to go outside to the bathroom or to do her ablutions for prayer. An eye operation had been unsuccessful, and she squinted to see people. She rubbed her red eyes and often kept them closed. Sitting hunched over all day, a blanket over her lap, she had more time for me. When I asked her to tell me her life story she said, "I've forgotten all of that. I've got no mind to remember with any more." But then she went on, "We used to milk the sheep. We used to pack up and leave here and set up camp out west. And there we would milk the goats and milk the sheep and churn butter, and we'd melt it and we'd put the clarified butter in the goatskin bag and we'd cook wheat until it was done and we'd make dried barley cheese."

She laughed, knowing how formulaic this "story of her life" was. That was all I got, though, from my direct questions. For her, like the other women I knew in this community, the conventional form of "a life" as a self-centered passage through time was not familiar. Instead there were memorable events, fixed into dramatic stories with fine details. One of the most vivid I heard from Migdim was the tale of how she had resisted marriages her father had tried to arrange for her. I even heard more than once, nearly word for word, the same tale of how she had ended up marrying Jawwad, the father of all her children. I heard it for the first time one evening that winter; she told it for the benefit of her sons' wives, Gateefa and Fayga, and some of her granddaughters.

She explained that the first person whom she was to have married was a paternal first cousin. His relatives came to her household and conducted the negotiations and even went as far as to slaughter some sheep, the practice that seals the marriage agreement. But things did not work out. The time was over fifty years ago, just after the death of her mother.

"He was a first cousin, and I didn't want him. He was old and he lived with us. We ate out of one bowl. His relatives came and slaughtered a sheep and I started screaming, I started crying. My father had bought a new gun, a cartridge gun. He said, 'If you don't shut up I'll send you flying with this gun.'

"Well, there was a ravine and I would go over and sit there all day. I sat next to it saying, 'Possess me, spirits, possess me.' I wanted the spirits to possess me, I wanted to go crazy. Half the night would pass, and I'd be sitting there. I'd be sitting there, until my cousin Brayka came. And she'd cry with me and then drag me home by force and I'd go sleep in her tent. After twelve days of this, my cousin's female relatives were dyeing the black strip for the top of the tent — they were about to finish sewing the tent I'd live in. And they had brought my trousseau. 'I'll go get the dye for you,' I said. I went and found they had ground the black powder and it was soaking in the pot, the last of the dye, and I flipped it over — POW! on my face, on my hair, on my hands, until I was completely black.

"My father came back and said, 'What's happened here? What's the matter with this girl? Hey you, what's the matter?' The women explained. He went and got a pot of water and a piece of soap and said, 'If you don't wash your hands and your face I'll ...' So I wash my hands, but only the palms, and I wipe my face, but I only get a little off from here and there. And I'm crying the whole time. All I did was cry. Then they went and put some supper in front of me. He said, 'Come here and eat dinner.' I'd eat and my tears were salting each mouthful. For twelve days nothing had entered my mouth.

"The next afternoon my brother came by and said to me, 'I'm hungry, can you make me a snack?' I went to make it for him, some fresh flatbread, and I was hungry. I had taken a loaf and I put a bit of honey and a bit of winter oil in a bowl. I wanted to eat, I who hadn't eaten a thing in twelve days. But then he said, 'What do you think of this? On Friday they're doing the wedding and today is Thursday and there aren't even two days between now and then.' I found that the loaf I was going to eat I'd dropped. 'Well,' he asked, 'do you want to go to So-and-so's or do you want to go to your mother's brother's?' I said, 'I'll ...' There was an eclipse; the sun went out, and nothing was visible. I said, 'I'll go to my maternal uncle's.' I put on my old shoes and my shawl on my head and started running. I ran on foot until I got to my uncle's. ... I was in bad shape, a mess."

Migdim praised her uncle's wife for giving her refuge and explaining to her uncle what the problem was. "May God have mercy on her, she was a good woman." But her uncle sent her back the next morning, with instructions to his son to accompany her and to deliver greetings to her father and to ask him to oblige him since he had comforted his niece. If he were to delay a bit, perhaps she would come around.

"So I went home. After that I didn't hear another word. The trousseau just sat there in the chest, and the tent — they sewed it and got it all ready and then put it away in their tent. And autumn came and we migrated west, and we came back again. When we came back, they said, 'We want to have the wedding.' I began screaming. They stopped. No one spoke about it again."

Grandma Migdim's story had two more episodes of failed attempts to arrange marriage for her, episodes in which she did more of the same. She cried, protested, threw bowls of fresh food, and went to bed without eating. In the first instance her father's new wife intervened, so her father refused the proposal claiming that Migdim's little sister was too attached to her and their mother's death was too recent.

Then came a group of men who arrived in the morning and waited all day for her father to come home. He refused them, calling them stingy. Migdim explained what happened then. "Jawwad's aunt, married to my uncle, ran over to her brother's camp and told him, 'Come on, come on. The others have given up their claim to the woman. They came to ask for her and he refused them.' Her brother, the old man, came right away and asked for me for his son. My father agreed. Then the women came singing with the men who brought the sheep for the engagement. They had paid bridewealth of fifty Egyptian pounds for Jawwad's aunt Mastura, so my father said, 'We don't want to do anything different. What we gave you give us.' But one of their relatives said 'No, we should increase it by twenty Egyptian pounds.' But by God they never did give those extra twenty pounds. My father never did see them. Whenever I used to come home for visits riding on a donkey my father would say, 'Hey, why don't you give me that donkey? They promised it to me but never gave it.'"

Remembering the previous engagements, one of her granddaughters interrupted her to ask, "Grandma Migdim, did you eat and drink at that engagement?"

She answered, "Yes, I ate and drank." But then, as if to assure us of her virtue, she added, "Although I swear by my soul that it wasn't in my thoughts nor was it in his. Not at all. It was his father who'd seen me when I was young. I was energetic, really smart. He'd say, 'That girl, if only my son could have her.'"

Fayga, her youngest son's new wife, commented, "Bread and salt." God wills certain people to share meals and life.

Migdim agreed. "Yes, it was bread and salt."

With a smile, Migdim's son's wife (and cousin) Gateefa asked, perhaps for my benefit, "And what did they give you for your trousseau, my grandfather's family?"

Migdim itemized: "They gave me, my dear, a shawl, and a red belt, and a silk belt, and a white blanket, and a black headscarf, and large rice platters."

I interrupted to ask whether she had been brought in a bridal litter on the back of a camel, and she answered, "Yes, it wasn't far. I rode in the litter. It had a woven blanket over it with an entrance at the front. I was young and I was scared I'd fall off."

Gateefa returned to her teasing about the trousseau. "And didn't they bring you a washtub?" Everyone laughed about the new utilitarian objects brides now bring with them.

"No washtub, no cooking pot, nothing. There weren't such things. The old ones were poor. Nowadays women's brideprices aren't what brideprices were, and trousseaus aren't what trousseaus were. Now they bring teapots and kettles and kerosene burners and cakes and cookies and candy."

"And washtubs and pots and wooden chests and towels and ...," continued Gateefa.

They laughed at themselves and then went quiet. Suddenly Grandma Migdim referred to my tape recorder with its red light glowing in the kerosene-lit room. "Your friend there, doesn't he talk?"

The girls laughed and said knowledgeably, "No, this one just listens to the talk, grandmother. It doesn't speak." Then they begged her to sing.

"Far away, no news of you comes
even if you come to mind, O beloved ...

Dear one, who in sleep comes near
is distant on the earth ..."

Were these songs about her husband, long dead? Or about the past? Or was she perhaps thinking of me, whose loved ones were far away?

Having Sons and Daughters

By Jawwad, Migdim had seven children who lived, four boys and three girls. Her four sons and their families now make up "the camp." One daughter lives nearby. The other two are married to men from distant areas and only come for visits on the major religious holidays, when they hear someone is ill, or to attend weddings and funerals. Migdim's daily life revolves around her sons, their wives, their children, and their grandchildren.

I asked Migdim where her children had been born. Most had been born in this camp or further west, near Alamein, at their spring pastures. A single daughter had been born east of the camp, and it was through her story that I later began to hear about the family's experiences during the Second World War. Some births were memorable for Migdim. She had never had a doctor attend her deliveries; she even maintained that she never had other women hold her.

"I always gave birth by myself," she said, illustrating with the story of her second-to-last son. "I gave birth to him alone. I had no one with me but God. We were out west, inland from Alamein. That day I did the wash. I washed up everything. In the morning I had washed my hair and braided it with henna and cloves. I cooked too — a pot of rice with yoghurt sprinkled with some butter from the goatskin bag. ... My sister-in-law and my husband's aunt were visiting, and they asked for lentils. So the other women started making some flatbread and cooking the lentils. It got to be sunset — the days were short at that time of year.

"My husband had gone to sleep in the tent, taking the two older children. ... I went to sit with the old women for a while as the girl cooked the lentils. My little boy fell asleep in my lap, so I said, 'I'll go put my son to bed.' They said, 'Stay until we eat supper, then we'll all go to bed.' I said, 'I'll come back soon. But if I don't come it means I don't feel like eating.' We'd had something to eat in the afternoon, and in those days people didn't used to eat much.

"I went off to put the boy to bed. I had three cramps while I was putting him down. I never came back for the supper. I circled around the tent, tightening the guy ropes. They called to me, 'Come have dinner, come have dinner.' The sun had gone down and they called out, 'Come have dinner.' But I didn't want any. I scooped out a hole in the sand and went to sit by it. I brought out a straw mat and a donkey's burlap pack-saddle and I put them down and sat on them, outside by the corner of the tent. When the labor pains hit, I'd hold on to the guy rope's tension bar. One hand between my legs, and one holding on to the rope above. The sheep came home after sunset, close to the time of the evening prayers, just as the child was coming out. ... When the child broke through I lifted myself up by the pole, lifted my clothes up until the child dropped.

"When my sister-in-law came out to pee she heard. She ran into the tent and told the women, 'Migdim has given birth!' They came running. 'Where? Where?' they asked, and I told them, 'The child has a forelock [a boy]. The child with its forelock dropped.' So they lit a fire and wrapped the boy and they moved me inside. They cooked a pot of special food that night, and made tea. And the man was sleeping near us, in the corner, and didn't wake up. The women set up a compartment for me in the middle of the tent. He was sleeping with the children in the corner and didn't wake up.

"In the morning my mother-in-law killed a chicken for me and was cooking it when a woman neighbor of ours came over. 'Poor dear! Poor dear! When did she deliver? Why, just yesterday she was doing her wash and there was nothing wrong. Poor thing!' I tell you, from the minute the old woman said, 'Poor thing' — God protect me, God protect me — I was seized by cramps. Something (may it be far away from you), something rang in my ears. And something covered my eyes so I couldn't see. I prayed, 'There is no god but God, there is no god but God,' until my mouth went dry. That was all the woman had said when they had to come running. Something blinded me, blinded me and knocked me out. My mother-in-law came and started moving my head, she made me sniff a burning rag. Well, I tell you, I didn't taste that chicken she was cooking. I never even saw it. I always have bad cramps after I give birth. My cramps are bad then.

"I delivered my other children alone," she added. "I had no one with me but God." When I asked Migdim why, she answered, "The women laugh and they talk and they bother you. You'll be as sick as can be and they'll be making a lot of noise around you. I don't like them around." When I asked if she would also cut the umbilical cord herself she said, "No, after the baby has dropped they come. They come and they cut the cord." Then I asked why it was said that the woman who has just delivered is close to God. She laughed at my piece of knowledge. "Yes, people say that. By God, it's difficult. Ask the woman who has given birth, ask her about death. She has seen it."

Four more times Migdim "saw death." One child died. Of the last three, two were born in Alamein. The third, a daughter, was born southeast of where they now lived permanently. I wondered what they were doing there. "We had set up camp there," she explained. "The Germans had come. Airplanes came and started bombing. They moved us there, south of the railroad tracks, and told us to set up very small tents. 'Don't make the tents big, keep them small!'" she remembers them saying.

"They moved the whole camp; everyone had to move south of the railroad tracks. The English had come to Alamein. The Germans and English started fighting. ... A plane started flying over the army camp, and they hit it with their artillery. It headed south and went to bits and caught fire. It was on fire until it landed way over there, in the desert south, and burned up."


Excerpted from Writing Women's Worlds by Lila Abu-Lughod. Copyright © 2008 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Preface to the Fifteenth Anniversary Edition
Preface to the First Edition
Keeping the Names Straight

ONE Patrilineality
TWO Polygyny
THREE Reproduction
FOUR Patrilateral Parallel-Cousin Marriage
FIVE Honor and Shame

Transcriptions of Arabic Poems and Songs

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