Elizabeth Fernea’s Guests of the Sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village

Elizabeth Fernea’s Guests of the Sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village

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"You arrive at a village, and in this calm environment, one starts to hear echo."
-- Yannick Noah

The writings of various ethnographers and anthropologists are intended to inform and educate the reader by imparting awareness and understanding of unexplored cultures. The value of such a work is directly related to the author’s familiarity with the culture. For instance, an individual intimately acquainted with a situation have different insights, but also different biases than an outsider. Elizabeth Fernea’s work "Guests of the Sheik" is a combination of the two perspectives. It documents her immersion into the society and culture of El Nahra, a village in Iraq, during the first two years of her marriage to Bob, an anthropologist. Her honest and frank narrative provides a fascinating glimpse at the lives of the men and women living in the village and the relationship Elizabeth, affectionately referred to by the people of the village as Beeja, has with them.

Elizabeth begins her journey apprehensively, but not without excitement. She takes many of her western ideas with her to El Nahra, but quickly discovers that in order to be accepted she must embrace the local customs. The practice of purdah, or the seclusion of women, is one with which she struggles immediately and often. Her preconceived notions regarding the veiling and seclusion of women seem to show that she regarded the practice as removing women from society. Upon her arrival, she realizes that, as the only woman without an abayah, she is a curiosity, and reluctantly changes her position on the garment, thinking “Well, it seemed I’d capitulated; I was going to wear that servile garment after all. I discovered that my principles were not as str...


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...e women form a crucial part of this society, and are integral to its maintenance. In spite of her early hesitance and her preconceived notions of the status of women within this society, Elizabeth learns that every member has a place within the social hierarchy. While Elizabeth, or Beeja did not manage to change the society of El Nahra as she thought she might, she was given a place within it and granted respect from both the women and men of the society.



Works Cited

Fernea, Elizabeth. Guests of the Sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village. New York: Anchor Books, 1969.

Joseph, Suad, “Gender and Relationality among Arab Families in Lebanon,” Feminist Studies 19:3 (1993): 465-486.

Pierce, Leslie. The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire. London: Oxford University Press, 1993.

The Holy Qur’an, Al-Ahzab 33:53.

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