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Guests of the Sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village

4.08  ·  Rating details ·  2,412 Ratings  ·  230 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.
Mass Market Paperback, 346 pages
Published 1969 by Doubleday Anchor (first published December 31st 1968)
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Aug 03, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: finished-reading
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
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
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
Becky Trombley
Dec 28, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Jun 18, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Regina Lindsey
Sep 26, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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,
Feb 19, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 1950s, memoir, iraq
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
Nov 02, 2008 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 29, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
An excellent (perhaps out-of-print) book about an Arab sheikh and his clan in southern Iraq. Written in the seventies by the wife of an American anthropologist, who went on to become an outstanding enthnographer in her own right, this remains one of the best inside accounts of authentic Iraqi family life and culture. Well worth hunting down.
Jennifer Jacobs
A very good book:)
It's a tale of a time before the whole Middle East went in flames,it was a time of peace when this book was written!And the author's husband is an anthropologist who was in Iraq for his study.
I absolutely luv her style,the way she describes this once exotic land,the people!No1 can believe just in 50 years that vary land is being ravaged by ISIS today!
It's a tale of an exotic land by eyes of an American newly wed woman,a land where men and women live with virtually no contact be
Mar 23, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoirs
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
Mark Klempner
Jan 18, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
May 22, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was assigned in one of my anthropology courses back in college. I think of it as my second wake up call to the reality of life in a Muslim culture and environment. As an ethnography I remember it being very personalized, almost more like a travelogue.

One of the parts that affected me the most and still creates a lot of my weltanschung of Muslim culture was a discussion about how in places like America aging parents are often put in nursing homes, a fact that was extremely shocking to the w
Mar 27, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: travel-the-world
This was a re-read for me, and I am so glad I read it again, I had forgotten so much. Elizabeth and her husband Bob move to an Iraqi village, soon after they are married so that Bob can do some research for his Doctorate. They have been invited to live in the compound of the local Sheik in El-Nahra. Although they will be living in a small guest house, most of their time will be spent separated during the day; Bob with the men, Elizabeth with the women. The Sheik's family live in the strict Shiit ...more
Dec 16, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I think this book is great, most of the time the author maintains a culturally relative perspective. Its great that a woman was able to write it. Many of the traditions and values of the Iraqis in the small village are portrayed adequately, however this novel is an ethnography so it depicts things through one persons view. And the religious aspects of it our very vivid. I enjoyed this book a lot and think its worth reading. You will learn a lot about the culture. This is not a generalization of ...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
Holly Celeste
Feb 02, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book was assigned reading for one of my women's studies courses in college. I loved it. The author's husband is in Iraq on business, and she spends the time there living with the women and learning about the differences (and similarities) of their cultures. She is great at reserving judgment. Where she is horrified that they must hide their hair and limit their travel, they are equally horrified that she is so far from her mother and has virtually no jewelry. It made a strong impression on ...more
Apr 09, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I thought this was a very readable account of an American woman's two year stay in an Iraqi village in the mid-1950s. Of course, much of what she described is probably very dated now, but I thought the author did a fairly good job of providing a glimpse into the life and culture of women in the village at that time. In the end, it is a tale of friendship across strong cultural differences and I thought it was written from an interesting perspective. Admittedly, I have not read many personal acco ...more
Julie Laporte
Apr 01, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'm now reading this for about the third time...began as a syllabus item in 1993 for a Interdisciplinary Studies: Middle East class at MSU. Its copyright is 196x, one year before the Iraqi revolution. An American woman travels with her newlywed husband to a remove village where he, as an anthropologist, is studying. Due to strict gender divisions, she is able to provide insight for him into the women's world of both the harem and the common peasant.

Great read!

OK, May 2010, just finished it AGAIN
Aug 20, 2007 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, memoir
I read this strictly to help me get ready to edit some of our Iraq war coverage, wanting something personal about the Iraqi people. This was a mesmerizing account of a woman who married an American anthropologist and ended up living among women in southern Iraq for a couple years. Her tales of the initial contempt and suspicion they had toward her, and then the way she was embraced and the lives she learned about among these sheltered and tribal women, were vivid and seemed as though they could ...more
I knew I would enjoy this book, but I hadn’t anticipated how emotionally invested in it I would become. The author brought this village to life for me, and not only did I have concern for her, but I grew to care for the women in the village of El Nahra almost as much as she did. Elizabeth was in the unique and rare position to be a part of a much misunderstood culture, and her gift to the world is giving a voice to their vibrant culture. I laughed and cried, and ultimately I feel enriched for ha ...more
Ann Marie
Jul 25, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, 5-stars
Absolutely fascinating. It was in the 50's but gave a realistic feeling of how it is to live in a harem and how the women and men actually thought. This is what struck me most as telling of the culture difference. Her women friends felt sorry for her because she didn't have her mother with her and had no children. She thought of herself as an educated American woman on a grand adventure with lots of advantages. They had no concept of companionship between a husband and wife. The fathers loved th ...more
Jul 05, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, memoir
Bought at Powell's in June. Started 7/5/08 finished 7/13/08. I read most of this while in SD for Grandma Schuldt's funeral.

I liked this book for the honest light it cast on the lives of women in Iraq 50 years ago. I wonder if anything has changed since this was written? It takes place in a small, secluded village outside of Baghdad. The most interesting thing was the realization by the author that her relationship w/her husband, the typical American marriage, appears to Iraqi women as one of lo
Nov 25, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Imagine getting married in 1957 and going immediately to a third-world country. Imagine living for those first two years of your marriage in a mud hut with two (non-connecting) rooms. Now imagine you're the wife and the place is southern Iraq - so you're wearing an abeyah and can speak only to women. Elizabeth Furnea, in her understated way makes this story of small town life a compelling and sympathetic human drama. This should be required reading for anyone spouting beliefs about muslims or Ir ...more
Aleksandar Matijaca
Apr 10, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: travel, history
An excellent travelogue. It describes in great detail the lives and sometime desperations of women of Iraq in the 1950s. After reading this book, I have come to realize that the gap in basic human understanding between the West and some parts of the middle east are so vast, that it may take centuries for any kind of understanding to really happen. This realization came to me towards the end of the book, when they went to a western "club" in Baghdad and when the Sheik saw that women were dancing ...more
This ethnography was required reading for an Intro to Anthro class. It is a lovely intimate portrayal of rural communal life in Iraq, and by the semester that I read it the U.S. had already begun the unjustified war in Iraq, which made it all the more poignant. I felt like I knew people over there who were being blown away as "collateral damage," and it was devastating. And that is the beauty of ethnography--its ability to show us what is universal in the human experience, despite all our differ ...more
Jun 17, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I read this book for the second time and enjoyed it just as much. I love the frank depiction of life in an Iraqi village through the eyes of a Western woman. So many historical autobiographical accounts are from a man's viewpoint, since only males were allowed to mix in the village life. And, while some of her experiences and views seem too circumscribed to be palatable to the modern reader, it is a glimpse into how things were 60 years ago. Very interesting!
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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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