Lila Abu-Lughod, Writing Women’s Worlds (California, 1992).
Edmund Burke III, ed., Struggle and Survival in the Modern Middle East (California, 1993).
These two books take an innovative biographical approach to furthering understanding of Middle Eastern societies. Lila Abu-Lughod’s Writing Women’s Worlds presents a close look at the lives of Awlad ‘Ali women in Egypt’s western desert. Edmund Burke’s 24 biographies in Struggle and Survival in the Modem Middle East include entries by anthropologists, historians, sociologists, political scientists and general writers. Though dissimilar in many respects, the two books share the common aims of challenging stereotypes and the standard methodologies of their respective fields.
Abu-Lughod critiques the practices of typification and generalization that generate and demarcate distinguishable “cultures” for anthropological analysis. She focuses on a small number of individuals, delves deeply into the stories of their interconnected lives, and pointedly avoids drawing conclusions about Bedouin culture. Burke’s volume targets the overly simplistic views of imperialism, modernization and nationalism that characterize much historical writing. For Burke, like Abu-Lughod, detailed biography undermines the impulse to collapse the diversity of Middle Easterners’ life experiences into undifferentiated representations of a homogeneous group. Taken together, the two works provide an opportunity to reflect on the multiplicity of ways “other” lives can be written and the relative effectiveness of different narrative styles of portrayal for breaking the boundedness of cultural categories.
Writing Women’s Worlds begins with the author’s story of her return to visit Awlad ‘Ali friends, accompanied by her new husband. This personal preface not only sets the stage for the intimate tone of the narrative ethnography that follows, it also highlights Abu-Lughod’s unusual position. Many of the concerns she outlines in the formal academic introduction, specifically those related to author positionality, come into sharper focus by virtue of her self-proclaimed “halfie” status as an academic of both Western and Arab identity. Abu-Lughod goes to great lengths (the introduction runs just over 40 pages) to describe her particular interest in problematizing analytic observer stances which facilitate clear-cut, hierarchical splits between self and other. Her choice of a narrative style in which she places herself in the “middle” — neither erasing her presence nor emphasizing it — is intended to minimize objectification. The decision to leave out a conclusion is another strategic move designed to downplay the authority of the expert’s voice.
Even though she breaks with some of the more standard conventions of ethnographic presentation, Abu-Lughod stops short of a radical disavowal of authorial power. She is explicit about the fact that she has selected the stories, in large part on the basis of salient themes for her Western audience. Her trepidation about the ethics of having brought such personal stories into the public eye is also telling. The narrative is divided into five chapters: “Patrilineality,” “Polygyny,” “Reproduction,” “Patrilateral Parallel-Cousin Marriage” and “Honor and Shame.” Abu-Lughod has chosen the terms most typically associated with the study of Middle Eastern women in order to make a post-modern point — her stated goal is to undo the titles with the text. In a similar vein, Abu-Lughod indicates that the hadith and Qur’an quotes that head each section are meant to be more contrapuntal than consonant. The notion of having the narrative deconstruct the terms that organize it is intriguing. But without author interpretation and analysis to clarify the process, one is left with the disconcerting feeling that although the terms are expanded by sheer force of detail, in most cases they do not come apart.
Of all the chapters, “Patrilineality” comes closest to achieving the disjunction Abu-Lughod intends. Centered on the strong character of Migdim, an aging matriarch who plays a crucial role in resolving disputes and maintaining order among her children and in-laws, the stories here illustrate her very vocal resistance to the trappings of patrilineal society. Other chapters have less punch. “Polygyny” revolves around the stories of three co-wives, ‘Azza, Gateefa and Safiyya, and is sensitive to the subtleties of this often stereotyped relationship. The standard theme of rivalry between co-wives is offset by Abu-Lughod’s description of the shared suffering (especially during childbirth) which brings the women together. Even with this nuancing, though, “polygyny” retains its strangeness and its power to distance the cultural “other.” Similarly, the unnecessarily protracted account of Selima’s defloration in the chapter on “patrilateral parallel-cousin marriage” does little to discourage the tendency to perceive Western culture as more “civilized.”
In spite of the fact that Abu-Lughod’s presentation falls short of actually making all the theoretical inroads she alludes to in the introduction, the stories, liberally interspersed with songs and poetry, are enjoyable and informative. Through her evocative portrayal of three successive generations of Bedouin women, Abu-Lughod provides much insight into the changes wrought in the tribe’s economic and social order over the last century.
Burke’s anthology proposes to correct the predominance of elite views of Middle Eastern history by presenting biographies from social strata typically not foregrounded. Burke expresses the hope that this kaleidoscopic presentation will be enough to counter essentialist views of Middle Eastern and North African peoples. The biographies, drawn from countries across North Africa and the Middle East, encompass many religious and ethnic points of view and describe in multi-layered detail a wide variety of occupational and political struggles.
The opening selections — the lives of a Maronite Christian, a Moroccan Jew and a Circassian slave — immediately establish Burke’s claim to diverse representation. Each portrait provides a wealth of information about standards of living, access to education and social mobility in these different communities.
The quick shifts from one cultural and geographical setting to the next effectively frustrate attempts to generalize. These shifts would also frustrate most non-specialized readers were it not for the context provided by the editor’s introduction to each story. The chronological organization — “Pre-Colonial Lives,” “Colonial Lives” and “Contemporary Lives” — lends additional coherence to the project. The book highlights parallels in the historical situations of individuals, and at the same time documents the multiplicity of responses to imposed conditions.
The manner of telling these biographies is as diverse as the subjects themselves. Most of the selections which are the products of archival research are predictably straightforward third-person narratives. Ehud Toledano’s piece on Shemsigul, the Circassian slave woman, and Sherry Vatter”s collective biography of journeyman weavers stand out stylistically, and are similar cases of making the most of what information is available. Toledano includes the text of police records from the Egyptian National Archives that document the testimony pertaining to charges Shemsigul filed against the slave trader who raped her. The direct quotes bring the historical functioning of the institution of slavery to life at the same time that they provide insight into one slave woman’s character. The chapter on journeymen weavers opens with an imaginary dialogue between workers discussing the injustice of the master craftsmen’s decision to lower piece wages, sparking a rebellion in the 1870s. This short scenario adds texture to the generalized description of journeymen weavers’ working conditions.
The numerous contributions based on interviews also divide along lines of relative attention to the personal and the political. But the styles of presentation bear more scrutiny. Nels Johnson, in his presentation of Ahmad, a Kuwaiti pearl diver, appears in the text but only rarely are his perceptions vocalized and brought to the fore. Most selections, though, are stories told without reference to the dynamics of interaction with the informants. What would the contributions to Struggle and Survival or Writing Women’s Worlds have looked like if those who were interviewed were allowed to take a more active role in the editorial process? If Migdim describes her life in terms of how she used to milk the sheep and make butter and cheese, if Ahmad says he was not exploited as a diver, why are their views of themselves dismissed? Only the last chapter of Writing Women’s Worlds exposes us to an extensive self-representation: Kamla’s school essay is presented along with her commentary about what she has written. Mehdi Abedi’s autobiographical piece in Struggle and Survival, a collaborative effort with Michael Fischer, is the only selection in which the native informant speaks for him- or herself.
Both books do a great deal toward correcting common misperceptions of cultural and ethnic homogeneity in the Middle East. A change in the methodology of telling their stories, to give Middle Easterners more control over the way they are represented, might contribute to more fully breaking the boundary between self and other.