Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society

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University of California Press, 1999 - Social Science - 317 pages
4 Reviews
Updated Edition With a New Preface

Lila Abu-Lughod lived with a community of Bedouins in the Western Desert of Egypt for nearly two years, studying gender relations 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 her analysis also reveals how deeply implicated poetry and sentiment are in the play of power and the maintenance of a system of social hierarchy. What begins as a puzzle about a single poetic genre becomes a reflection on the politics of sentiment and the relationship between ideology and human experience.
 

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Veiled Sentiments by Lila Abu-Lughod
Review by Melissa Hannequin, Fairfield University, Connecticut, USA
17 October 2012
Lila Abu-Lughod’s Veiled Sentiments is an ethnography on the Bedouin tribes of Egypt, near the Western Desert and Libyan border. Abu-Lughod did her fieldwork between 1978 and 1980, and lived with a host family in a particular Awlad ‘Ali (Bedouin) community. The anthropologist had initially planned to study “the patterning and meaning of interpersonal relations, in particular between men and women.” (25) However, Abu-Lughod soon discovered the prevalence of informal poetry performances by many members of her community. These poems are called ghinnawa to the Bedouin. Thus, she changed the course of her research to instead focus on the use of poetry in personal expression and confidential communication. This somewhat drastic change of plans (although her new topic embodied elements of social interaction as well) portrays an ethnographic strength: Abu-Lughod was flexible about what would be her specific research. She let the important aspects of the Awlad ‘Ali come to surface and then pursued this poetic discourse understanding that it had some great presence and role in the community. This is indicative of a transformation from classical to modern anthropology, in which the researcher works retrospectively rather than prospectively. Thus, unlike previous anthropologists such as Margaret Mead, Abu-Lughod’s objectives of research evolved while she was in the midst of her research. Lila Abu-Lughod’s eventual research goal was to study the sentiments that are portrayed through the Awlad ‘Ali poetry form. Specifically, she intended
to show that sentiments can actually symbolize values and that expression of these sentiments by individuals contributes to representations of the self, representations that are tied to morality, which in turn is ultimately tied to politics in its broadest sense. What are individuals symbolizing about themselves through expression of these non-virtuous sentiments? (34-5)
After looking at the poetry and sentiments through individual expression, Abu-Lughod turned to the large scale in terms of the politics of the discourses of sentiment, ideology, and ideology in its connection to the human experience. (35)
Abu-Lughod begins Veiled Sentiments with an informative preface to the new edition, which gives historical context to the time when she did fieldwork in western Egypt versus the state of the country and community today. This accounts for the differences between then and now, such as the increasing role of globalization on the Awlad ‘Ali. She also takes this time to express her discomfort in rereading her ethnography, particularly in the presentation of people in the book as subjects in a scientific project. This uneasiness about rereading is a problem that many anthropologists must feel in retrospect, so it is helpful that she touches on this before the reader moves into the ethnography. This admission is also honest and refreshing to a reader who may not have thought in those terms. Abu-Lughod is critical of herself and her methodologies, which is crucial for any researcher.
Abu-Lughod then moves into the body of her ethnography with grace. Her overall diction and style of writing are informative and honest. The writing is narrative, as it tells a story about the people she lived with, and it seems that she uses this ethnography as a way to transfer Bedouin stories to a larger audience. She moves through the ethnography discussing the confidentiality of poetry (e.g. it is not appropriate to tell a woman’s poem to a man), the sentiments discussed in poetry (mourning the death of a child, matters of love), autonomy and hierarchy, sexuality (which is especially private), issues of honor and vulnerability, and finally the ideology and politics of sentiment. The overarching theme is that poetry is used as a vehicle to express sentiments that are not necessarily talked about in the open; poetry is a particular discourse of how to express taboo
 

Contents

I
xi
II
1
III
37
IV
39
V
78
VI
118
VII
169
VIII
171
IX
186
X
208
XI
233
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About the author (1999)

Lila Abu-Lughod is Professor of Anthropology and Gender Studies at Columbia University. She is the author of Writing Women's Worlds: Bedouin Stories (California, 1993) and editor of Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East (1998).

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