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What was that country like before the U.S. started bombing?

June 17, 2008

A couple of months ago Christine asked us to share books with her for a “summer reading list.”. She said that the books should have something to do with social justice or our work at FCNL. Because I didn’t think that the general public would be interested in a study I just read about the effectiveness of email subject lines, I instead racked my brain for what vaguely social justice related books I had read lately. I ended up having to define “lately” in broad terms, because the books that I enjoyed in the past couple of months ranged from a history of American consumer imperialism to a discussion of memory in Germany.

In identifying my books I stumbled upon a forgotten author who I enjoyed in high school. I was amazed how much more relevant Elizabeth Warnock Ferna’s books on the Middle East seemed to me now. Fernea, now a retired professor of English and Middle East studies at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote about the years she spent living Iraq, Morocco, and Egypt while her husband conducted anthropological research.

Fernea wrote three books of this sort, each telling of her stay in a different country. The later two, A View of the Nile and A Street in Marrakech, are both very good. But the one I suggested to Christine was Fernea’s first, and is set in 1957 Iraq. Guests of the Sheik takes place in a small tribal town in southern Iraq called El Nahra. As you may have surmised from the title, Fernea and her husband Bob stay in the village as guests of the Sheik, Hamid. They live in a small mud house and live according to the traditions of El Nahra, Fernea donning the abayah and observing the strict purdah that her neighbors do.

Some (or maybe just my classmates in senior seminar after we read Orientalism) may argue that it would be better to read a book by an Iraqi woman to learn about Iraqi women. Fernea’s description of life in a mid-century Iraqi village could be full of omissions and misperceptions. I think, however, that it’s helpful in overcoming the (forgive me) “otherness” of people in Iraq by discovering the society along with a fellow outsider. It helps that Fernea and her husband try their very hardest to be respectful and unobtrusive of the hosts and their lifestyle. Besides teaching you indelibly the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, this book also paints a picture of an Iraq before Sadaam Hussein and before the 2003 U.S. invasion. It also opens up a discussion of how to approach and learn about other cultures without imposing your own values on them.

So go out and get it! You won’t be sorry.

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