Precis on Lila Abu-Lughod’s Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society

Posted on May 23, 2012 by


Abu-Lughod, Lila (1999) Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society. University of California Press 271 pages + (317 total) by Brian J. Delas Armas

Lila Abu-Lughod’s Veiled Sentiments is an eight-chapter book about an ethnographic study in a rural Bedouin community in Egypt aimed at illustrating the complexity of culture. Her central argument is that there are two discourses used by Bedouins, one displaying honor and modesty, and a contradictory discourse in which people display emotions that might usurp a position of honor. The apparent contradiction acts as a piece of evidence for Abu-Lughod in the argument that “it is impossible to reduce Bedouin “culture” to the official social and moral ideals encapsulated in the code of honor and modesty” (Abu-Lughod 1999: p. xvii).

She divided the book into two parts: 1) the ideology of Bedouin social life and 2) the discourse on sentiment. In her discussion of her ideology, she offers a third-person perspective in delineating the subtleties of the kinship and moral code system, reminiscent of Margaret Mead’s descriptions of Samoan kinship in Coming of Age in Samoa. She spends much of the four chapters showing the norms of Bedouin and its foundations in upholding ideals and honor. The second section of discourse on sentiment however shows that Bedouins can and do buckle in their daily struggle to uphold those ideals; poetry is an important discourse that allows them the space to express some resistance against those ideals and resist their realities.

Her methods were accordant with her maintaining a role as a guest and adopted daughter. Her father, knowledgeable about Arabic customs, had helped her gain entrance into the community, which initially established her reputation as coming from a good family, thus allowing her to blend in, while conducting research. She spent a year in a half in a household as the adopted daughter of a tribal mediator. The household included his senior wife, many of his eighteen children, and a carousel of guests including his second and third wife, and their children, nephews, nieces, cousins (p. 4). The household contained 53 people, and there were 15 such households that formed the “community.” Through her host, Abu-Lughod engaged in participant-observation, spending a lot of her research “on ordinary social terms”, preferring to write notes from memory at night or moments during the day (p. 24).

Abu-Lughod’s data does not strongly support her argument that “individuals use poetry to express special sentiments”  (p. 186). Abu-Lughod uses a string of case examples of individuals performing poetry for her. The case examples are each briefly described and show the reactions of community members.  However, each of the cases are presented in isolation from one another, brought up when only they fit the description of the typology of a poem.  Abu-Lughod gives no context as to why they produced their discourses. She provides no clarification of how she came across these particular cases, the histories of these particular cases, how it is used by other community members, just that they had performed the poems for her in their conversations. She does note that some poetry is requested more than others but the Bedouins in Abu-Lughod’s account present no statements about what the poetry means for them.

For example, in the case of a man Rashid, she notes the predicament of losing his new bride, his reaction, and community members’ reaction to his reaction; the case shows how important it was for him to maintain the Bedouin code of honor, relying on statements from his brother, cousins, (p. 94). Attempting to proving her statement that they use poetry to express special sentiments, she shows Rashid’s poem, his reaction, and community members’ reaction to his poem (pp. 188-189); the case shows that a) part of the community can be flexible in their reactions and b) that there is a contradiction between what they may value and what they might feel. However, there is no explanation as to how and why Rashid approached her; it is unclear how other community members react, and/or whether or not other “individuals” other than her informants use poetry to express special sentiments.” Perhaps Rashid was just a talented outsider in the community and just wanted to show his talent for her, but this is left up to mystery.

In my estimation, Abu-Lughod’s work as applied to Anthropology does not succeed in demonstrating her main argument: the “enormous complexity” of culture (p. xviii). She spends half of her book discussing the ideals and rules of her chosen culture, the Bedouins, and does give examples of the enforcement of those ideals and rules, which gives the reader the impression that the culture can indeed be reduced. However, the work is still with Anthropological merit. What she does show is that a culture/community can contain contradictions, and that within the public discourse, poetry can be a space for marginalized members, groups, feelings, objects to gain credibility and assert their own honor.