Veiled Sentiments Summary

Lila Abu-Lughod

Veiled Sentiments

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Veiled Sentiments Summary

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Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society by Lila Abu-Lughod is considered a classic among literature in the field of anthropology. First published in 1986, the work stems from the late 1970s and early 1980s during which the author lived among the people in a Bedouin community in Egypt’s Western Desert. There, she studied gender issues, morals, and the traditional poetry that the people use as a vehicle to express their inner feelings. The poems coupled with the analysis that Abu-Lughod presents give an indication as to how significant the poetry is in how the society develops and of the role of power in the class levels. The poetic genre becomes not just literature but a comment on the complex nature of the culture from which it arises.

Abu-Lughod, with a PhD from Harvard, comes from a background of academia. Her father is Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, a Palestinian scholar, and her mother is Janet L. Abu-Lughod who is known for her work as an American urban sociologist. Lila Abu-Lughod gained recognition for her Bedouin research related to the Awlad ‘Ali tribe. She focuses on three main concerns: the connections between power and cultures, the politics of knowledge and representation, and the issues and questions surrounding the topic of women’s rights as it exists in the Middle East. Veiled Sentiments, her debut book, examines cultural expression in an Egyptian Bedouin community.

Abu-Lughod traveled to the Western Desert of Egypt to study The Awlad ‘Ali Bedouin tribe’s ghinnawa poetry. She was originally introduced to the Awlad ‘Ali by her father. From 1978 through 1980, she lived with the tribe as one of them. Many of her experiences and observations described in Part 1 deal with the identity the Bedouins have in relationships. Further, she examines the Bedouins’ system of ethics and honor and their romantic relationships. She shares that the Bedouin culture requires that individuals maintain an outward appearance of strength and emotional aloofness. They should keep their feelings private and display no signs of weakness or sentimentality. The concept of honor plays a highly important role in their culture. This includes both family honor and individual honor.

Marriages in the Bedouin culture are arranged by the family, their objective to keep and expand the family’s honor. The idea of honor is so important that the effect a marriage has on a family at large is more important than any effect it might have on the individuals involved. Along with honor, independence is an essential element of the society. Women and children are dependent on men but this is not viewed as being inconsistent with the idea of independence. They are able to assert themselves, albeit not in major ways. It is thought that willingly being submissive brings them honor in their position in the larger picture. Another facet of the way male and female roles are reflected in society finds that the more independent a man is from a financial standpoint, the more wives he is able to support. Having, and being able to provide for, a large number of dependents is considered a sign of honor and respect.

Part 2 of Abu-Lughod’s text examines the ghinnawa poetry which deals with the everyday interactions in society. By creating poetry, the Bedouins are able to express their feelings in an acceptable way while at the same time not going against the expected (and accepted) code of honor. Some ghinnawa poetry is contemporary while some is the repetition of poems handed down through the oral tradition. Thematically, the poems most frequently deal with romantic love, sorrow, and loneliness—topics that are taboo in the culture’s normal day-to-day conversations. Talking of one’s own sadness brings shame upon the person, but reciting ghinnawa poetry can bring sympathy, thus providing an emotional outlet while still preserving the code of honor.

The New York Times praised Veiled Sentiments for the unique perspective it brings to its subject. “Building from this understanding of the ghinnawas, Ms. Abu-Lughod presents a fascinating, fresh interpretation of the mechanics of the twin codes of Bedouin behavior: the ‘code of honor’ against which ‘real men’ are tested and the ‘code of modesty’ which she sees as a means for those falling short of ‘real manhood,’ whether men or women, to attain moral worth. The argument is compelling—it makes sense of honor killings, the veiling of women, and a seemingly excessive sexual modesty. There is a certain excitement here, as the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. It becomes clearer how the Awlad ‘Ali, despite their more sedentary lives and government attempts at control, can continue to follow the Bedouin ‘ideals of manly autonomy and tribal independence’ and define themselves by their lineage rather than their activity or place of settlement. Veiled Sentiments is a scholarly work and its language is that of the specialist. But the subjects covered will also intrigue the general reader.”