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Writing Women’s Worlds: Bedouin Stories

Writing Women’s Worlds: Bedouin Stories
by Lila Abu-Lughod University of California Press, 1993, $12.00.

Writing Women’s Worlds is an unforgettable experience. The stories of life in an Egyptian Bedouin extended family halfway across the world are as compelling as the confidences of a close friend. What makes this book magical is not only the content, but also the immediacy of the tales. Abu-Lughod, a trained anthropologist, explains her decision to construct this, her second book on the Awlad ‘All Bedouins, as a collection of almost entirely uninterrupted personal narratives.

Paramount in Abu-Lughod’s text is the voice of Migdim, the family’s “old mother” (matriarch). She recounts how she helped her married-too-young daughter hide in the goatpen rather than sleep with her new husband. She discusses the relative merits of sons and daughters; and she trades jokes with her women friends about the sexual desires of aged women, seeming to give lie to the Western image of oppressed and repressed Arab women (“Men experience nothing compared to women,” one family friend proclaims. ‘”Do they think giving birth is easy? It is as hard as war.”). Migdim’s complains that her sons disregard her opinions, and that all major decisions are ultimately made by the men.

Abu-Lughod’s work also illuminates the transition of these Bedouin from a nomadic to an agricultural existence. Narratives convey the community’s pride in its ability to outwit the Egyptian government’s land-claiming policies (in one much-loved family tale, a codicil stating that the Egyptian government cannot nationalize agricultural lands spurs family members to plant an entire orchard in one week, much to the chagrin of Egyptian officials and to the vast delight of the Bedouin). The joy of such maneuvers, however, is tempered by hints at the negative impact of such settlement on the lives of these women; increased contact with neighbors, it seems, has prompted some men to impose tighter behavioral restrictions on the women of their families.

If Writing Women’s Worlds includes heated discussions among Bedouin women on the tensions between themselves and “town women”. Readers learn how the Awlad ‘Ali women made red, yellow and white dresses out of World War II parachutes from battles fought over their heads. One section of the book concerns the relations between the three co-wives of Migdim’s son Sagr (two of whom are traditional to the degree that they do not pronounce their husband’s name aloud, the third of whom does not pray or veil herself and who displays a crudeness shocking to the other women). This is in contrast to the world of Migdim’s granddaughters, whose lives embody the conflicts between traditional Bedouin values, modern education, and the Islamic fundamentalism of schoolmates. These young girls’ ditties are quite different from those sung by the older women (“If he doesn’t get a television / I swear I won’t make up my eyes”).

Writing Women’s Worlds is as comprehensive as it is personal and can be read piecemeal or from cover to cover for purposes ranging from education to entertainment. It’s a moving and luminous portrait of women.