Guests of the Sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village
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Guests of the Sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village

4.09 of 5 stars 4.09  ·  rating details  ·  1,555 ratings  ·  165 reviews
A delightful, well-written, and vastly informative ethnographic study, this is an account of Fernea's two-year stay in a tiny rural village in Iraq, where she assumed the dress and sheltered life of a harem woman.
Paperback, 368 pages
Published October 1st 1995 by Anchor (first published December 31st 1968)
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Though the subtitle is "An Ethnography," I was pleasantly surprised to find this book didn't read at all like the dry, clinical anthropological commentaries I've read elsewhere. The writer is the wife of an anthropologist, who accompanies him to Iraq for his graduate work, and as such we see the entire story through her eyes. She lives and eats and works as the women of the village do -- in full hijab -- almost entirely secluded from her husband. I was expecting some sort of pitiable account of...more
This book is a late 1950s ethnography of a small shiite village in rural Iraq. The information in this book is 60 years old.

Elizabeth Fernea married her husband in 1956 and followed him to Iraq so he could finish his doctorate in anthropology. For two years they lived in a mud hut in a rural Shi'it village. Fernea did her best to assimilate into the local culture during her two year stay. She strictly followed their customs of gender segregation and always covered herself with the veil that lef...more
From the back cover of the book:
"A delightful, extremely well-written, and vastly informative ethnographic study. Guests of the Sheik is an account of the author's two-year stay in the tiny rural village of El Nahra in southern Iraq."

Can you imagine? It is 1957 and Elizabeth (known as Beeja in the village) and her husband are newlyweds, Americans, and Bob is doing anthropology studies. They move to a small mud hut, Elizabeth dons the abayah, and they both start the struggle of understanding the...more
In the early 1950s, when Elizabeth Fernea was a young bride, she joined her researcher husband as he journeyed to a remote tribal village in Iraq, to live and study for nearly two years. As a Western woman, Elizabeth chose to integrate herself into tribal society by donning the traditional abayah (the long black cloak/veil), avoiding being seen by unfamiliar men.

Her time in the village is so full of learning, misunderstandings and bizarre experiences. She attends festivals and feasts. She lives...more
The first couple of chapters were not that engaging for me, in fact I almost imposed the 50-page rule, but I'm so glad I didn't. Once the author's life in the village begins, you are drawn into to another world. I became attached to many of the people in this book, and when she and her husband left the village, I felt I too was saying goodbye to good friends. Here 50+ years later I wonder about them, who may still be alive, how much their way of life may have changed. One thing I envied about th...more
Becky Trombley
This book was originally published in 1965, and is still in print. Many university students continue to study this book in anthropology courses. It is important to consider the time frame in which this book was written. Elizabeth Warnock Fernea traveled and lived in a small Iraqi village for two years with her anthropologist husband in the late 1950's. Her observations and experiences are the basis for this book.

My sensibilities were challenged early on, in the intro, as the author stated that a...more
Regina Lindsey
I love history. I love politics. I love current events. There were two seminal events that influenced that love. The Iranian hostage crisis was one of those two events. During those 444 days I was glued to the TV watching every unfolding moment that related to the attempts to resolve the crisis and the upcoming 1980 election. Lately, I've been reminded that I view those incidents through the lens of a pre-teen and wanted to delve into a study to understand the context more.

On November 4, 1979,...more
It was nice to finally read a book about life behind the veil that wasn't depressing! I had to read this book for an Anthropology class I'm taking and was very happy with what I gleaned from it! The veil was in no way portrayed in a negative, oppressive light. Instead, it was seen as practical in ways, protection in others, and as part of tradition! But in this little village, an American woman gained appreciation for not only the veil, but for the culture and women who she slowly grew to love....more
When he came home for Christmas vacation last year, my son (majoring in Middle Eastern Studies) gave each of the women in his life (siblings & mom) this book to read, and set an appointment for us to take some time to discuss before he went back to school. It's the story of a young American woman's first two years of married life living in a tribal settlement on the edge of a village in southern Iraq. It's non fiction, but very readable. A great window into Iraqi culture and history.
This was a required reading book for an introductory anthropology class that I took. It is probably one of my favourite books that I have ever acquired this way. In fact, it was so well-written that until almost halfway through the book, I didn't even notice that the story was 50 years old. I was a little deflated at the end when the story just suddenly came to an end, and I had to remind myself that it was an ethnography, a record of this one particular year, and not a novel.
Ella Brooke
I liked this book because it covered a topic I know virtually nothing about, rural Iraqi society. The fieldwork was done in the 50s, so I'd be very interested to read a more current ethnography on El Nahra and see how they compare. Also there were parts that I found it obvious the author is not an Anthropologist, but overall it was a worthwhile read and I learned a lot from it.
I read this book for an english class - wasn't at all what I expected. My favorite part of the book was how it tore down all my judgements about why women wear a veil. It's mainly about Elizabeth's interactions with the women in the town she is staying in. A great primer for learning something about the middle eastern culture.
Really enjoyable memoir about an American woman living in rural Iraq with her husband during the 1950's.
When I went to the Middle East, I was very interested to learn how the people there viewed their lives. I remember regretting that I could not ask a traditional woman what she felt about her daily life because strange men are not allowed to speak to women.

I bought this book to see if it could somewhat remedy this, and I am happy to say that it did.

Although the events in the book are 60-some years old, I feel they are still relevant and the prose reads smoothly.

This is because, in spite of the bo...more
A late 1950s ethnography of a small town in Iraq. What makes this book particularly interesting is that the research was conducted by a woman. As a result, a different perspective is given then the typical male-written ethnographies of the era. It makes for an interesting read regardless of the readers field because the book is written in novel format.

There are some judgements made by the author that clash with modern anthropological theory. A few times in the novel individuals are made out to...more
"Guests of the Sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village" is a fascinating memoir written by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea of the two years she spent in an Iraq village in the 1950s with her husband Bob, who was conducting research for his doctorate. During this time, she and her husband lived in a mud house in a conservative Shiite sect where women were heavily veiled and lived "behind walls" in seclusion, not meeting or mixing with men. In beginning this adventure, the newly married Fernea had limi...more
Dec 10, 2012 M K rated it 5 of 5 stars
Shelves: memoir
I recently discovered the art of memoir only in the last two or three years. At first, I didn't know the genre "memoir" but I fell in love with reading books about every day peoples lives. I have read many over the last couple of years, including famous well known people. Some of those I have enjoyed, but my favorites are those that I can identify with, those books in which I can see myself, those (mostly) women who have struggled and learned like I have.

I think Guests of the Sheik must have be...more
Spoiler Alert: This review contains descriptions of dramatic events from the book.

Elizabeth Warnock Fernea provides the reader with in depth descriptions of cultural activities, religious practices, recipes, as well as societal and familial relationships. As one would expect, Fernea experiences culture shock upon first arriving at the southern Iraqi village El Nahra. When she first meets some of the prominent women in the Sheik’s harem she feels she is the subject of their judgment and ridicule....more
I found this book very interesting. It delved into the subculture of one Iraqi village, El Nahra. The customs, traditions, everyday life and expectations of the people in this society were intriguing. The book was definitely worth reading from this view. It shows how human nature can evolve in different parts of the world, as well as how other cultures can accept a newcomer, as shown in the story. Elizabeth is the new wife of an anthropologist, and they move into the small village, into a mud-br...more
Sep 28, 2012 Tess added it
When I first was assigned this book as part of a class, I was worried I would find it dull and painful to read. It’s actually quite the opposite. As soon as I read the first few sentences, I was hooked.
Something really interesting about the book was that it was published in 1965, by a woman nonetheless. In this modern day and age, I expected to quickly become bored with the aged story. However, this didn’t happen once. I found myself hooked on the information Elizabeth Fernea was providing. I...more
I was just bitching that there weren't enough books about living in the Middle East from female perspectives, and then someone recommended this one to me and it's the best. The author was really plopped in the middle of a remote Iraqi village, where people were totally unfamiliar with American culture and didn't speak English. This wasn't a sheltered account of what it's like to live underneath the veil, and it is so totally shocking. One funny little thing that surprised me, though, was it seem...more
I think about this book a lot. I read it a few years ago (and apparently stopped updating Good Reads around the same time) and yet it still comes to mind. Unlike so many other books I have read over the last few years that are based in the Middle East or have characters and families that are from there - this story is true. Told from the perspective of an American who moves with her new husband to Iraq, I was captivated by the culture in which she became immersed. Although this does take place a...more
A very intriguing read on the culture of a remote Iraqi village. BJ (Elizabeth), the lady in the story, traveled to this village to be with her newly married husband, who was doing work for a research degree. Living in Iraq for two years, she was able to learn arabic well enough to understand conversations and participate. Because BJ adopted the social customs and etiquette of the rural village in which she lived, she was able to be included in the inner circles of the Iraqi women. The book took...more
Elizabeth Warnock Fernea writes about her life in an Iraqi village accompanying her husband. After reading this book as an anthropology student in college, I became fascinated with the Middle East. Fernea writes about the hidden world of the harem which is often misunderstood because little is known about it. She puts a human face and positive perspective on it. I appreciate Fernea’s attempt to bridge misunderstandings between the west and Middle East.
This was an intriguing true story that revealed both the daily life and special occasions of the women living in a small village in Iraq fifty years ago. The tale of this author's experience as an American woman living in this village becomes a unique opportunity to learn about the way of life, thoughts and emotions of not only the Iraqi women but also of a foreigner trying to adapt and "fit in". Stereotypes are challenged and often broken by many of the women in the books, including the author....more
Hongbin Wang
The book is a surprise. I picked it up casually in a bookstore but cannot lay it down since. It's a page-turner. The writer has some gift for writing. Because of my experience in Iraq, I am aware of how valuable this book is. The writer doesn't pass easy judgement and doesn't condescend. The writing once again tells us the truth that writing as it is is self-sufficient. Any preaching or teaching or enlightening is laughable.
A thoroughly absorbing, well-written novel. Elizabeth Fernea's entertaining account of her time spent in El Nahra in southern Iraq during the 1950's, is uniquely insightful.

Settling in a new land, learning the language and culture, the ways of the people, and hoping to be accepted would be frightening for anyone. Fernea handled herself with grace and humility and was quickly befriended by the women of El Nahra.

The descriptive narrative left me feeling, hearing, seeing and smelling the sites and...more
Mark Klempner
There is a great dramatic irony present when reading this book now. Originally written in the 1950s, it is simply excruciatingly sad to become intimate with these simple villagers of Southern Iraq knowing that what suffering is going to come their way as a result of the sanctions and/or bombings that began forty years later and continued for more than 20 years. The lovely, stable way of life that they maintained may have been deeply flawed from our Western point of view, but no one can deny it i...more
Marissa originally suggested this book to me after her trip to Turkey in the summer of 2007. I found a copy used, interested in expanding my knowledge of Islam and it sat on my shelf for a long time until a week ago. For some reason, perhaps the modern looking cover, I expected Guests of the Sheik to be a current ethnography, but it became evident very quickly that this narrative of life in an Iraqi village was published a long while back (in 1965 to be exact). It is an easy read and gives an in...more
Picked up at a yard sale when I was still a kid, this book is one of several that undoubtedly contributed to my interest in learning about life in other cultures, about the incredible range of human experience. I still have it, and still remember it--which speaks well for it!

While the world described in these pages has now passed into history, it's worth reading both to understand the possibilities of a different cultural structure and to understand the lifestyle of a previous generation, now re...more
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Elizabeth Warnock Fernea was an influential writer, filmmaker, and anthropologist who spent much of her life in the field producing numerous ethnographies and films that capture the struggles and turmoil of African and Middle Eastern cultures. Her husband, the anthropologist Robert A. Fernea, was a large influence in her life. Fernea is commonly regarded as a pioneer for women in the field of Midd...more
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