Sentiments: Honor and Poetry In a
LILA ABU-LUGHOD. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. xix + 317 pp.,
plates, notes, appendix, bibliography, index. $38.00 (cloth).
Institute for Advanced Study
Poetry, Auden said elegizing Yeats, makes nothing happen. Whatever the force that dictum mayor may not have for the modern West, where poetry has tended to become an intellectual luxury good or a cultural avocation, it certainly does not apply to the Bedouins of the Egyptian Western desert. As Lila Abu-Lughod shows in this brilliant study of moral constraint and personal expression among some 160-odd farmers and herders settled along the Mediterranean west of Alexandria, the making of verses and the reciting of them can, in a society where the spoken word remains more than a mere vehicle of "communication," be a most consequential business. Among the Awlad 'Ali-a spread-out tribe of ex-nomads that stretches over 500 kilometers of scrub tree desert-the formation of identity, the definition of sentiment, and the organization of power all respond to it. In Abu-Lughod's book, detailed, immediate, and superbly composed, it is possible to see not only how this is so but what it implies, something of a sea change, for the study of culture.
The main axis of Abu-Lughod's analysis is a contrast between two quite different sorts of discourse present among the Awlad 'Ali: a public, strongly assertive, rhetoric of male honor and female modesty centering around anger, dominance, strength, and autonomy, and a private, retiring, carefully oblique rhetoric of personal affection, centering around grievance, dependence, weakness, and loss. Poetry plays a role in both discourses, but it is in the latter, where the capacity to say and not say something at the same time is of particular value, that its force is critical. In the brief, elusive, oral lyrics about abandonment, jealousy, love, and longing ("like Japanese haiku in form ... like the American blues in content and emotional tone" [po 27]) that, away from the ears of men, women exchange with one another like so many furtive gifts, a whole ideology, counter to the official one of pride and decorum, and subversive of it, is formed. "Poetry is ... the discourse of opposition to the system and of defiance of those who represent it: it is antistructure just as it is anti morality" (p. 251).
The general outline of Awlad 'Ali social life is not all that unfamiliar, and indeed is perhaps a bit stereotypically sketched. Local settlements, political relations, and property institutions are formed around explicitly drawn agnatic connections, with the attendant stress on purity of pedigree. Noble ancestry confers moral character, which men demonstrate by adherence to a rigorous code of personal honor, and women by submission to a no less rigorous one of personal modesty. Within this overall, "blood of ancestry" groundplan, more immediate "blood of relationship" ties link families and individuals by (as one local theorist puts it) "son-ofa-bitch bonds you can never break" (p. 51). Women are the wards and dependents of their close patrilineal kinsmen, who, often enough in this inward-marrying system, include their husbands; lineages have jural rights to children born to wives of their members, however the mothers may feel about the matter; and within the family, fathers "protect" sons, elder siblings younger ones, brothers sisters, husbands wives.
The male code of honor that governs this intensely moralized social structure has as its supreme value autonomy-the ability, and the strength, to act independently: a fact that leads to marked differences in status and power between the rich and the poor, the assertive and the retiring, the adept and the bumbling. "A real man stands alone and fears nothing," says another retailer of social axioms. "He is like a falcon. A falcon flies alone. If there are two in the same territory, one must kill the other" (p. 88). The female code of modesty complements this highflying ethic by emphasizing deference, docility, piety, chastity. The soft voice, the pliant will, and above all the masking of sexuality (of which the veil, on which Abu-Lughod has some beautifully observed and nuanced pages, is only the most striking expression) are what keep the falcons aloft. "[The] greatest threat to the social system and to the authority of those preferred by [it] is sexuality [p. 119] ... The more women are able to deny thei r sexuality, the more honorable they are" (p. 152).
So far, not so unusual; ideal-typical. The real originality of Abu-Lughod's analysis lies in her discussion in the second half of the book, "Discourses on Sentiment," of how it is those most constrained by this iron cage of moralism-women--construct a counterpoint to it. It is not that women dissent from the official code as such. They regard men submissive to women, or even attentive to them, as fools or donkeys, think "the more willful the boy, the better" (p. 109). and call any woman who contravenes the public ethic, even if only by talking too much, shameless at best, a slut at worst. Where the resistance comes, and the questioning, is in those oil-drop lyrics, half plaint, half defiance: "Held fast by despair and rage/the vastness of my soul is cramped ... " (p. 191).
The weight of the public system, bearing down on men and women alike, but more cruelly and inescapably upon women, hurts the latter-to echo Auden's elegy again-into poetry. In the verses Awlad' Ali wives, mothers, widows, girls, and divorcees sing to one another in their male-free spaces, a whole world of love and vulnerability takes form within, and against, the ascendant one of pride and modesty. In showing us the way this world is constructed, the materials out of which it is constructed, how it has its effects, and what those effects are, Abu-Lughod opens to view an eloquent, half-hidden discourse of social pain and moral protest, an interior critique of the vanities of honor. Some books extend discussions, others launch them. This is one of the latter.
Book Review, in: American Ethnologist, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Aug., 1987), 567-568.
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