Jayme's Reviews > Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society

Veiled Sentiments by Lila Abu-Lughod
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's review
Apr 01, 2014

really liked it
bookshelves: middle-east, egypt, cultural, non-fiction

First off I loved this book. I read through it almost (not quite but almost) as one does through fiction. Lila Abu-Lughod's concentrated account of Bedouin life, from her semi-internal perspective, is beautiful.

My eyebrows did raise in irritiation during the first chapter. I anticipated a dry, highly academic analysis of a people group. I was not looking forward to this. And in the first chapter of method-explanation, Abu Lughod does use that certain--often obnoxious--bank of anthropological vocabulary that tends to make me roll my eyes. She likewise uses overly pretentious words where more modest ones would not only suffice, but would probably better match Abu-Lughod's rich, insightful narrative (cows need not graze 'desultorily', however factual that may be). I felt that she was trying to remind the reader that she was an athropologist, while explaining that she lived as a woman bedouin. It was unnecessary, but perahps a hazard of the field.

That notwithstanding, Abu Lughod chose to focus first on the concepts of honor, propriety and autonomy in Bedouin society and she does this wonderfully and with a clear affection for the people she lived with and asked questions of. Being half-Arab she was given, perhaps, more leeway and access than--say--a white western male might have (that being a large number of anthropologists). She talks about how the Awlad 'Ali (this particular Bedouin tribe) find expressions of longing, attachment, dependance, concern and affection to be inappropriate and un-Bedouin-like. She speaks to how sexuality is considered highly dangerous, because it can evoke these inappropriate emotions and it is likely to disrupt the proper heirarchies and relationships between elder and younger, kin and non-kin, man and woman.

The latter half of the book--and very emotionally compelling--deals with how the Bedouins say what they cannot say via their poetry: primarily through ghinawas (little songs) that express longing or loss in terms sufficiently ambiguous, so that one cannot be accused of breaching social protocol, and damaging the dearly-held honor code.

In truth, the second half of this book almost brought me to tears because of how well and how intimately Abu Lughod describes the vital role of poetry in a society that holds itself to such strict codes of honor and standards of behavior. If you are an Arabic speaker, you have the added bonus of seeing the poems both in the English translation, and also in a transliteration of the original, which I greatly appreciated. I read them out loud to myself (or whispered them if others were around) and I could vividly picture the women of Awlad ‘Ali singing these poems to say what they cannot say about their lives.

For anyone interested in: a more down-to-earth anthropological study, Bedouins, culture, poetry and the middle-east, this is highly recommended.

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message 1: by Eve (new) - rated it 3 stars

Eve Keep in mind, this wasn't written as a novel; it was written as an ethnography. Veiled Sentiments was written for other anthropologists, not for the general public. Those obnoxious anthropological terms are technical, not exaggeratory.

Kirsten I agree with Eve.

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