ANCHOR BOOKS EDITIONS, 1969, 1989
Copyright © 1965 by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Anchor Books, a division
of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in
hardcover in the United States by Doubleday in 1965. The Anchor Books edition is published by arrangement with Doubleday, a division of
Random House, Inc.
Anchor Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Fernea, Elizabeth Warnock. Guests of the Sheik: an ethnography of an Iraqi village / Elizabeth Warnock Fernea. p. cm. Reprint. Originally published: 1969. 1. Women—Iraq—Nahr. 2. Nahr (Iraq)— Social life and customs. I. Title. HQ1735.Z9N344 1989 89-27687 306’.09567’5—dc20 eISBN: 978-0-307-77378-4
Copyright © 1965 by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea
For My Mother, Elizabeth Warnock
Cover Title Page Other Books by This Author Copyright Dedication Introduction Cast of Characters PART I
Chapter 1. Night Journey: Arrival in the Village Chapter 2. The Sheik’s Harem Chapter 3. Women of the Tribe Chapter 4. Women of the Town Chapter 5. Gypsies Chapter 6. Housekeeping in El Nahra Chapter 7. Problems of Purdah Chapter 8. I Meet the Sheik
Chapter 8. I Meet the Sheik PART II
Chapter 9. Ramadan Chapter 10. The Feast Chapter 11. Moussa’s House Chapter 12. Weddings Chapter 13. Salima Chapter 14. One Wife or Four
PART III Chapter 15. Summer Chapter 16. Hussein Chapter 17. Muharram Chapter 18. Pilgrimage to Karbala
PART IV Chapter 19. Autumn Chapter 20. An Excursion into the Country
PART V Chapter 21. Winter Chapter 22. Jabbar Becomes Engaged Chapter 23. Death in the Tribe and in the Town Chapter 24. At Home in El Nahra
PART VI Chapter 25. Back to Baghdad Chapter 26. Leave-taking
Post Script Glossary of Arabic Terms
About the Author
I spent the rst two years of my married life in a tribal settlement on the edge of a village in southern Iraq. My husband, a social anthropologist, was doing research for his doctorate from the University of Chicago.
This book is a personal narrative of those years, especially of my life with the veiled women who, like me, lived in mud-brick houses surrounded by high mud walls. I am not an anthropologist. Before going to Iraq, I knew no Arabic and almost nothing of the Middle East, its religion and its culture. I have tried to set down faithfully my reactions to a new world; any inaccuracies are my own.
The village, the tribe and all of the people who appear in the following pages are real, as are the incidents. However, I have changed the names so that no one may be embarrassed, although I doubt that any of my women friends in the village will ever read my book.
Without their friendship and hospitality, and that of other Iraqi and American friends too numerous to mention, this book quite literally would never have been written. I want to thank my friend Nicholas B.
been written. I want to thank my friend Nicholas B. Millet for drafting the sketch-map which has been used o n this page in this book. I owe a special debt of gratitude to two people. Audrey Walz (Mrs. Jay Walz) read the incomplete manuscript and advised me to
nish it. Her enthusiasm, together with her sound judgment and critical ear, have aided the book’s progress immeasurably. My husband, Robert Fernea,
rst encouraged me to write Guests of the Sheik. His interest and his intellectual honesty helped me face the realities of living in El Nahra and, later, of trying to shape that experience into the book which follows.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
1 Night Journey: Arrival in the Village
The night train from Baghdad to Basra was already hissing and creaking in its tracks when Bob and I arrived at the platform. Clouds of steam billowing from the engine hung suspended in the cold January air as we hurried across, laden with suitcases, bundles, string bags and an angel-food cake in a cardboard box, a farewell present from a thoughtful American friend. We were on the last lap of our journey, and I found myself half dreading and half anticipating the adventure we had come almost ten thousand miles to begin.
“Diwaniya! Diwaniya!” “Those are the coaches we want,” said Bob, taking my
arm and steering me down the platform past crowds of tribesmen arguing heatedly or sitting in tight quiet groups, their wives swathed in black to the eyebrows, with children on hip and shoulder; past the white-collar Iraqi effendis in Western suits and past the shouting German tourists.
An attendant in an ill- tting khaki wool uniform helped us board and guided us to a compartment, where he dusted the worn leather seats with his coat
where he dusted the worn leather seats with his coat sleeve. We sat down. I found my stomach was churning and I glanced quickly at Bob to see how he was taking the long-awaited departure.
I knew he was nervous about my reception in El Nahra, the remote village where we were now headed and where he had been living and working as an anthropologist for the past three months. He was no more nervous than I, who knew little of El Nahra except that no one spoke English there, that the people were of the conservative Shiite sect of Islam, and that the women were heavily veiled and lived in the strictest seclusion. No Western woman had ever lived in El Nahra before and very few had even been seen there, Bob said, which meant I would be something of a curiosity. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be. And we were to be guests of Sheik Hamid Abdul Emir el Hussein, chief of the El Eshadda tribe, who had offered us a mud house with a walled garden. Our rst home, said Bob—a honeymoon house. But who had ever heard of a honeymoon house made of mud?
“Hil-lal Diwaniya! Samawa! Bas-ra!” bawled the conductors. “Yallah!” The train began to move past the station and the line of waiting taxis and horse-drawn carriages.
“Well, we’re o ,” announced Bob, a little too heartily. He motioned to the hovering porter and ordered some
He motioned to the hovering porter and ordered some beer to celebrate our departure. “Maybe we’ll have some rain before we get to Diwaniya.” He stood up to peer out of the window.
I looked out, too—expecting what? A friend to wave goodbye? Three months ago I had come to Baghdad as a bride and the city had seemed strange and alien to me then, a place so far removed from my experience that I had nothing with which to compare it. Now, headed for an unknown tribal village, I did not want to miss my last glimpse of Baghdad, which seemed a dear familiar place.
Clouds hung low and dark in the bit of sky I could see between the buildings and the townspeople and tribesmen, carriages, cars and donkey carts that moved more and more quickly past the train window. The winter night was coming fast, and as we left the Tigris River behind, the lights were on in all the hotels along its banks—the Semiramis, the Zia, the Sindbad. We passed rows of mud-and-mat serifa huts with kerosene lanterns flickering in their doorways, a series of smoking brick kilns, a mosque with a lighted minaret, more serifa huts, and then there was nothing to see but the dark horizon and a few date palms and the wide, empty plain.
“Aren’t you excited?” asked Bob. “I can’t understand you at all. Here we’ve been waiting and planning all
you at all. Here we’ve been waiting and planning all these weeks for you to come down, dear, and now that we’re on our way at last, you sit there as calmly as though you were going shopping or something.”
At least I look calm, I thought; that’s good. “Yes,” I brought out. “I am excited.” We sipped our
beer. And also scared, I added to myself. I had to get along well in El Nahra so I could help Bob with his work. But would I be able to? Bob had warned that we could certainly expect the women to be friendly at rst, in the customary hospitable Arab way, but he couldn’t be sure how they would react after the initial period.
In the dining car I was the only woman, and the men stared at me curiously. We went back to our compartment and watched the dark landscape while the train pushed slowly south. I had thought, and Bob had agreed, that the women might accept me more readily if I met them on their own terms. Thus, although I had balked at wearing an all-enveloping black abayah, I had elected to live like the women of El Nahra—in relative seclusion behind walls, not meeting or mixing with men. But what if, in spite of my e orts, the women shunned me and left me to myself, more of a hindrance than an asset to my husband? Two years alone in a mud house, I re ected. Hardly an enchanting way to spend a honeymoon.
The weather was certainly not welcoming; a midnight
The weather was certainly not welcoming; a midnight rain in Diwaniya poured down as we ran from the train to the waiting room with its single wooden bench. I sat by the luggage while Bob looked for a taxi or a carriage to take us to the government rest house; even if the weather had been ideal, we could not have continued on to El Nahra that night. The village lay only ten miles southeast but there was no regular transportation except for occasional trucks and taxis which did not travel after dark.
While I waited, people gathered to stare at me again, and I slowly became aware that, among the crowds of middle-class Iraqis and townspeople, I was the only woman without an abayah. I began to be self-conscious. This is ridiculous, I told myself. Why should I have to wear that ugly thing—it’s not my custom; the arguments with Bob about the abayah returned in a rush. Bob said I ought to wear it, since everyone else did. Since we were guests of the sheik, he added, it would make everything easier if I wore the abayah; the sheik wouldn’t have to punish people for insulting me. Insulting me! I had been indignant. “They say an uncovered woman is an immoral woman,” Bob had explained, “and the tribesmen ask why a woman should want to show herself to anyone but her husband.” I remembered my furious reply: “If they can’t take me as I am—if we have to make arti cial gestures to prove we are human beings too—what’s the point?” Now,
am—if we have to make arti cial gestures to prove we are human beings too—what’s the point?” Now, although I hated to admit it, my principles were weakening before my embarrassment as more and more people gathered to whisper and point and stare. I wished from the bottom of my heart that I had borrowed the abayah o ered by a Baghdadi lady friend and could bury myself in its comforting anonymity.
After half an hour’s carriage ride through splashing mud we were ushered into a side wing of the rest house, the place where women were allowed to stay if accompanied by their husbands. I broke out our angel- food cake to eat with the tea Bob had ordered before we lay down to sleep with the rain dripping into the puddles outside our curtained window.
Although the sun was shining in the morning, the taxis were still not able to move on the muddy roads outside the city, so I was deposited in the home of one of Bob’s friends to wait. The lady of the house was called Um Hassan, mother of Hassan, her oldest child, “like my husband is called Abu Hassan,” she explained slowly and patiently in Arabic. Um Hassan was a perceptive woman. She took a long look at my tweed coat and red scarf.
“You’re going to live in El Nahra?” she asked incredulously.
I said that I was.
I said that I was. Without another word she produced an abayah. “You
wear this, dearie,” she said (or the Arabic equivalent thereof), “and you’ll feel a lot better.” As I began to protest, she stopped me in midsentence. “You can borrow it. I’ll have one made for you here.”
Her son brought samples of black silk; a dressmaker came and measured me. The abayah would be sent by taxi next week, said Um Hassan, and I could return hers then. Well, it seemed I’d capitulated; I was going to wear that servile garment after all. I discovered that my principles were not as strong as my desire to be inconspicuous and well thought of in my new home.
Um Hassan and I drank several glasses of hot sweet tea and I was urged to eat lunch while I waited for Bob to return. My mood was hardly improved by the long face Um Hassan pulled when I struggled to ask about El Nahra in my scanty Arabic.
“You won’t stay,” she prophesied. “You won’t be able to stand it. No cinema, no paved streets—and the food! No chickens—if you get one, it’s nothing but bones.” To make sure I had understood, she rattled in their dish the chicken bones I had picked clean at luncheon.
Bob nally arrived at dusk, tired and annoyed; we would be sharing a taxi with six other people and he had had to pay double to assure that he and I would have the front seat to ourselves.
have the front seat to ourselves. “The driver can’t even promise we’ll get through, the
road is so bad,” he admitted. “But I think we’d better try it; we can’t sit in Diwaniya for the next three days.”
Um Hassan showed me how to keep the black silk abayah on my head and around my body by clutching the two sides together under my chin. At the doorway I turned to shake her hand, stepped on the hem of the abayah, and it slipped neatly o my head into a little pile on the doorstep. The men in the waiting taxi stared popeyed, and one of Um Hassan’s little boys sti ed a giggle while Bob helped me recover the abayah and I tried to maneuver myself and the unfamiliar cloak into the taxi without losing it again.
Bob looked at me. “I do think you’ll be more comfortable,” he said. I knew he meant the abayah but I was beyond discussion of the matter at this point.
“We’ll soon be home,” he said. “Don’t worry.” He put his arm around me comfortingly, but he’d forgotten the abayah too, and only succeeded in dragging it o my head again. “Sorry,” he muttered, and together we dragged the silly thing back up.
Home. Home indeed. I could not even see a track in the mud ahead of us as the old Ford taxi slid around through puddles in the growing dusk.
“After we pass the shrine of Abu Fadhil, the local saint, we pick up the El Nahra road,” Bob was saying,
“After we pass the shrine of Abu Fadhil, the local saint, we pick up the El Nahra road,” Bob was saying, and although I didn’t believe there could be anything ahead of us in the muck, a single electric globe gradually became visible, high up; it was burning on the very top of the shrine’s brick dome. The mud-and-thatch houses nearby were shut tight and darkened by the rain; they rose up on either side of us like deserted tombs. Only a donkey braying within indicated life. Night was coming; already the huts were merging into the at landscape, and as we passed them and edged forward into empty elds of mud, the horizon itself slowly merged with the dark sky.
We drove on into nothing. No lights were visible in any direction; no other taxis, people or animals were on the road. In the back seat the men were quiet, and we could hear, very loudly in the silence, the splash of mud against the sides of the car and the ominous bangs and creaks as the undercarriage hit the ridges of ruts. Wind swept in through the windows, empty of glass panes. Even in my borrowed abayah and overcoat and sweater, I shivered in the damp air.
The ten miles took almost two hours, but we were stuck only once. The driver sighed, the men in the back seat got out and tied their long garments or dishdashas up, and Bob rolled up his trouser legs. Directed by loud shouts from the driver, the seven of them, shin-deep in mud, rocked the car back and forth in the slime, and
mud, rocked the car back and forth in the slime, and nally, when it would still not budge, literally lifted it
up and over the bad place, the driver gunning the motor as hard as he could to help. We nally got to solid ground, the men emptied their shoes of water, and Bob looked ruefully at his mud-soaked khakis. Everyone climbed back in the car and we drove on.
Eventually the men stirred. Bob was pointing ahead to where a faint light could be seen. Dark shapes of palm trees loomed in front of us, and we rounded a bend and rolled over the last rut onto pavement and into a blaze of uorescent lights: the main street of El Nahra. Bob indicated the jail and the school and the mayor’s house. The street was deserted, but the uorescent street lights burned brightly all the way to the bridge, where we stopped at an open co ee shop. The back-seat passengers got out and a few men sitting drinking a late- evening cup of co ee raised their hands in casual salute to the taxi. We crossed the bridge and turned right onto a mud road, which followed the irrigation canal past dark walls and a lean-to co ee shop. “This is the tribal side of the canal,” said Bob, “where we live.” Here there were no uorescent lights, only old-fashioned street lamps glimmering dully in the muddy waters. I could make out big trees next to the water.
A dog began to bark, and another. Within minutes what seemed to be hundreds of dogs were howling
what seemed to be hundreds of dogs were howling furiously around us.
“It’s only the watchdogs of the tribal settlement,” Bob told me. “They always bark when a stranger comes near. That’s what they’re for.”
We turned left away from the canal, the dogs still barking, and the taxi stopped at a high mud wall, where Bob unlocked the padlock on a wooden door and carried in the bags. I gathered my abayah around me, picked up my purse and the angel-food-cake box and went through the door into a garden, following Bob up a narrow path to a small dark house as the rain spattered down onto the leaves in a sudden shower.
As Bob wrestled in the dark with the padlock on the house door, the trees in the garden around me rustled and sighed, and my shoes squished in deep mud. I shifted my feet, transferred my parcels to one hand so that I could get a rmer grip on the abayah. Water dripped from my bangs down my forehead and into my eyes.
The lock snapped open. “Don’t expect too much,” warned Bob as we stepped over the threshold. He
icked a switch and a single bare electric globe went on, illuminating a small, dusty, incredibly littered room.
“I’ve been living in one room,” he o ered, “but now you’re here we can x up the other. In fact you can probably fix this one up better too.”
you’re here we can x up the other. In fact you can probably fix this one up better too.”
I stood by the door. Books, papers, clothes, blankets and dishes were piled on an old wooden table covered with dirty oilcloth, on a broken-down sofa, on a single iron cot which stood against a stained and cracked whitewashed wall. Among the dusty papers stood a tin can; the label stated that Robertson’s strawberry jam had been or still was inside. Most of the earth oor was hidden under woven reed mats which in turn were covered with a dusty rug. Above my head I heard a strange sort of twittering and I looked up to the high beamed ceiling.
“What’s that?” I found I was almost shouting. “Only a few birds, for heaven’s sake,” answered Bob
in an exasperated tone. I looked at him and he looked back blankly. At that
point, somewhere inside of me, I knew what I should do. For it had been hard for Bob too; he had searched for this village for months, gone through all the preliminaries that were necessary for us to settle down here: asked for permission to stay, found the house, moved into a strange place all by himself, and prepared the way for me. His Arabic wasn’t very good either, but he had gone right ahead. I could have made a lighthearted joke about living in a mountain, no, desert cabin (loud, foolish laughter), with all the mountain, no, desert greenery (more silly laughter), where God paints
cabin (loud, foolish laughter), with all the mountain, no, desert greenery (more silly laughter), where God paints the scenery, etc., etc., etc., and we could have laughed it o together, the tense journey and the staring, pointing people and the exhausting drive through the mud. We could have had co ee and talked about the abayah and kissed each other and it would have been all right.
But I couldn’t do it. I felt only a ood of irrational resentment against my new husband for bringing me here, where not only was the bed not big enough for two, but the ceiling was full of birds’ nests!
“Do you want to see the other room?” he asked. We went outside into the rain and mud again. “No connecting doors in this hotel,” he added lightly.
He unlocked a second padlock and the door swung in, releasing a dank and musty odor. He turned on another bulb, lighting a bare room that held a camp stove, a table with a canteen of water on it, and more birds whirring in the beams.
“Shall we nish the tour with a quick turn around the garden, ending at the outhouse, which, experience has shown, is the best outhouse in the whole damned neighborhood?” Bob was trying his best to buoy up my sagging spirits, and I tried to answer in the same vein, but nothing came out.
“My dear B.J.,” he said gently, “you don’t need to wear your abayah in your own private garden.”
wear your abayah in your own private garden.” I was still clutching the despised abayah tightly under
my chin. “Never mind, it keeps o the r-rain,” I stuttered,
feeling stupid and miserable and annoyed with myself for acting like the bride arriving in the palazzo and finding the plumbing unsatisfactory.
The outhouse was simple—mud walls and roof and a brick-lined hole in the ground. Bob had given me a
ashlight so I could pick my way back through the muddy garden to where the door of the house stood open and the single light shone out.
When I got back, he had cleared a passage through the boxes and bags and straightened the bedclothes. We lay close together on the narrow iron cot and I clung to Bob, who slept almost immediately. I lay awake remembering my bachelor cousin, who had toasted Bob and me at our wedding. “Here’s to the roving life!” he had said, raising his glass of champagne punch. “Here’s to adventure and the non-stu y approach. Your very good health!” It seemed years, rather than months, since that bright June day in my aunt’s suburban Chicago garden when we had said goodbye to our families and friends and set o , in a shower of rice, for Georgetown University to study Arabic. That, too, seemed long ago after the boat trip to Beirut, the ride over the desert road to Baghdad, the months of waiting and working
road to Baghdad, the months of waiting and working until Bob found the right area for his research in social anthropology. The lawns and towers of the University of Chicago and the faces of my family against the June garden faded slowly as I listened to the strange birds chirping softly above my head, to the rain falling on the thatched roof of our mud house and to the sound of Bob’s regular breathing; finally I, too, slept.
Loud knocking at the door awakened us. Bob turned over and nearly fell out of the narrow bed.
“That must be Mohammed,” he said. “Mohammed,” I muttered sleepily. “Who’s
Mohammed?” “The servant the sheik assigned to us; he’s a nice boy.
Brings water and shops and cleans a little and does the dishes. You can meet him after breakfast.”
“But can’t I shop?” I asked. “I’d enjoy going to market.”
“Heavens, no. The women don’t appear in the market ”
The knocking continued while I thought of something to say to that, but before I got it out Bob was up, pulling on his trousers and shouting through the door in Arabic, “Good morning, Mohammed. I’ll be out in a minute.” To me he said, “You stay here. I’ll get the stove going
To me he said, “You stay here. I’ll get the stove going and fry some eggs, if Mohammed has remembered to bring them.”
I dressed by electric light, for although the clock said eight-thirty, the window of the room had no glass panes and the wooden shutters were tightly closed. Overhead the birds were also waking up, and when I opened the door one flew out in a rush and I found myself staring at Mohammed, a tall thin man in what I was to nd was typical tribal dress: white dishdasha, wool sport coat, tan aba or cloak, and black-and-white head scarf. (The scarf was called a kaffiyeh, Bob said, and the heavy rope which held it in place was an agal.)
Mohammed smiled broadly, showing a row of beautiful white teeth. “Ahlan wusahlan,” he said. “Welcome.”
Bob came out of the other room. We all smiled at each other awkwardly until Bob broke the impasse. “Come on and eat,” he said. “Mohammed, please heat some water so I can shave.”
We set the plates of eggs and the cups of Nescafé down on the table. I tried to wipe the oilcloth, but it was caked with layers of dust. Bob turned on his radio to the BBC news, which came through sporadically between loud hums and bleats of static.
“That’s Radio Moscow jamming,” explained Bob between mouthfuls.
between mouthfuls. From the ceiling a feather wafted down onto the eggs.
I snatched it off. “Those blasted birds!” I cried. Bob reached over and took my hand. Don’t cry, I
warned myself. “Place isn’t much, is it? But really it should be quite nice when we get set up. I’ve been counting on you to x it. The roof is good. We could replaster the walls. What do you think we need?”
“A bigger bed.” Bob smiled. “Actually, I thought of that. John Priest,
this young American engineer in Diwaniya, has a three- quarter mattress he’s willing to sell us, and an apartment-sized refrigerator too. His company is providing him with everything, so he doesn’t need the stuff he brought over.”
“What about a stove?” “We do have the camp stove, but it’s true, it uses too
much expensive gas. I’ll see what I can find. What else?” His eye followed mine to the big nail on the back of
the door and another which had been pounded into the plaster wall; on these hung all of his clothes that weren’t scattered about the room.
“Maybe a cupboard or a wardrobe to store things in.” “Yes, good idea. Well,” said Bob, rising, “I’d better get
moving if I’m going to do everything today.”
“Yes, good idea. Well,” said Bob, rising, “I’d better get moving if I’m going to do everything today.”
“This morning? Now? You’re going now?” “I have to. Those two boxes we shipped with us, with
the blankets and the folding table and chairs, must be in the Diwaniya station. I can’t leave them there more than twenty-four hours. And the next taxi should be going in about nine-thirty.”
“Don’t leave me alone here the first day, please Bob.” “B.J.,” said Bob, “be reasonable. I have to get those
boxes. And you’re not alone. Mohammed is here. See what you two can do with the place. He’s shy, so take it easy with him. He can go to the suq and buy whatever you need.”
“Okay,” I answered. “I’m sorry. But don’t be gone too long.”
“I promise you I’ll be back as soon as I can, okay?” “Okay.” He kissed me and I was left alone at the table
with the wind blowing through the cracks in the shutters and birds ying about the cluttered room. Then, without warning, the electricity went off and I sat in darkness.
If Mohammed had not been in the next room, I probably would have thrown myself on the rumpled cot and howled from sheer self-pity. This wasn’t what the romantic, roving life should be at all, I said aloud, and drained my cup of Nescafé in the dark.
drained my cup of Nescafé in the dark. A light knock sounded at the door. Mohammed. What
would I say? More important, what would he say and how would I know what to reply if I couldn’t understand him in the first place?
Mohammed gulped once or twice and adjusted his agal and ka yeh. Looking at him, I decided he was pretty scared of me, too, and this gave me new courage. I smiled. He smiled in return and held aloft an Iraqi sterling pound note. He pointed out the door in an exaggerated fashion. “Mr. Bob,” he said loudly, and pointed to the pound and to the door again and enunciated, “suq, suq.”
Aha, he was going to the market; Bob had given him the pound note. “What do you want?” he asked in Arabic.
That was a greater problem. I rummaged in the suitcase until I found the Arabic-English dictionary and thumbed through it, Mohammed watching me intently, until I found the words I wanted. I went slowly—nails, rope, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, meat.
“No,” interrupted Mohammed, “no meat.” “Why?” He launched into an explanation. I shook my head.
Then he made an unmistakable sound and gesture as though he were about to cut his own throat and said, “Tomorrow, not today.” They don’t butcher today, but
though he were about to cut his own throat and said, “Tomorrow, not today.” They don’t butcher today, but tomorrow, I realized.
Feeling quite pleased with myself at this small linguistic success, I smiled again at Mohammed. He smiled too, cleared his throat and adjusted his agal and kaffiyeh.
“Eggs, sugar, salt?” “Yes, there is,” replied Mohammed. I pushed ahead. Matches, a broom, soap–struggling
with the unfamiliar words, but Mohammed was too polite to laugh at my ludicrous pronunciation. During our entire stay in El Nahra, Mohammed never laughed at us, no matter how silly some of the things we did must have seemed to him. Occasionally, if we appeared about to make a serious faux pas, he might mildly suggest another course of action. But afterward he would always spread his hands as if to say, “Naturally whatever you do, whether you take my advice or not, is perfectly all right.” And Mohammed never, apparently, gossiped about us, although the temptation must have been great. In the rst weeks after we arrived Bob noticed Mohammed in the co ee shops as the guest of many men who had never bought him tea before; perhaps people were curious about the strange Americans and believed Mohammed to be the best source of information. But we learned on good authority that Mohammed politely drank the pro ered teas and
source of information. But we learned on good authority that Mohammed politely drank the pro ered teas and co ees (why not?) but never divulged a word about what the Americans ate and what they did when they were alone at home. Mohammed was a Sayid, one of the thousands of Moslems who claim descent from the prophet Mohammed. He was also a gentleman. Although he worked for us, he did not work only for wages. We became his special responsibility; he explained to Bob that our reputation had to be protected like that of his own family.
When Mohammed had set o for the market and I was nally alone, I icked the light switch again and again. What had happened to the electricity? Only in the evening did I discover that the current was turned o every morning at nine-thirty and switched on again at four in the afternoon. This was to save wear and tear on the generator, which was underpowered for the needs of the village. Meanwhile I was in total darkness, and when I opened the shutters it was so cold in the room that I put on my coat. In a few days I learned to wear several layers of clothes all the time and leave the shutters open so I could see.
A stroll in the garden. Yes, I would take a stroll in the garden, although the phrase from Victorian novels seemed hardly appropriate in this setting. Yet despite its present sodden state, the garden was a pleasant place. The high mud wall gave us complete privacy and the
The high mud wall gave us complete privacy and the very tall date palms would provide shade against the summer sun. There were patches of grass, a small vegetable garden overgrown with weeds, an apple tree, banana trees and many other shrubs and trees I did not recognize then, lemon and bitter orange and oleander. From the slight rise in the center of the garden where the house stood, a banked mud path ran down under a large grape arbor to the edge of the wall. Near the grape arbor was a mud-brick oven. I had never seen one closely before and went over to peer into the cylindrical interior, blackened by the daily bread baking of previous inhabitants.
In the farthest corner stood the outhouse and in the opposite corner some tangled rosebushes were blooming. Here, although I stood on tiptoe, I could see nothing but the cloudy sky and the tops of the palm trees in neighboring gardens. The sheik’s beautiful young wife, for whom this house had been built, had been well protected here from prying eyes, I thought, and intruders would have had an uncomfortable time getting in over the prickly camel-thorn that was arranged like barbed wire, six inches high, all around the top of the wall.
From my corner of the garden I looked back at the house, mud-colored, rectangular, at-roofed. Its two wooden doors, one for each room, had once been
wooden doors, one for each room, had once been painted blue, the color to ward o the Evil Eye. The shutters, banging open in the wind, had once been blue too. A crack zigzagged down the wall from one window to the ground where the plaster of mud and straw was washing away from the baked-brick sides. The roof beams, jutting out at regular intervals like square eaves, were covered with a thatch of mud and reed mats that looked quite inadequate to keep out the rain. What kept the roof from leaking? I would ask Mohammed. How would I make him understand? Never mind; I would ask Bob later.
Mohammed banged on the gate several times before entering the garden. He was laden with parcels and I went up to the house to see what he had bought. He paused at the door of the living room to take o his muddy shoes, and I looked at my own, caked with mud from the garden walk, and took them o too. Mohammed said, in careful Arabic, “That’s better.” He pointed to Bob’s slippers, dry and clean by the bed, and I put them on. How practical, I thought, and thereafter always took o my dirty shoes at the door and slipped into clean ones.
We spent the rest of the morning trying to bring some order out of the chaos in the living room.
Mohammed asked only one favor of me the rst day. Half in sign language and half in simple Arabic,
Half in sign language and half in simple Arabic, repeated over and over again, he asked me please not to tell anyone he washed our dishes or he would be shamed among men for doing women’s work. I said of course I would not tell anyone. He brought a copper jug of water to ll our barrel canteen, he beat the rug, and swept the oors with a tool not much bigger than a whisk broom. I indicated I wanted a reed mat for the other room. He nodded, but said it would be a week before it could be made. He strung a clothesline in the garden, hammered nails for pictures, and announced he was going home to eat lunch. Lunch—I had almost forgotten lunch.
“Will you come and eat with my mother?” asked Mohammed.
“No—no, thank you very much,” I said hastily. “There is food here.” I suspected Mohammed had asked me out of token politeness, and that his mother would hardly have been prepared for a guest, but even if she had, I didn’t feel I wanted to face any more new situations at the moment.
Mohammed left and I bent over to rummage for a can of soup in the boxes around me. My back was to the door and I heard no footsteps, but suddenly I was aware that someone else was nearby. I turned around to nd a grizzled old man in a shabby aba standing just behind me at the open door. I jumped up, knocking over my
me at the open door. I jumped up, knocking over my chair, and the poor old man, as startled as I was, gestured wildly toward the round tin tray on his head, which he lowered carefully to the oor. It was food— hot lunch, in fact. He seemed to be struck dumb at the sight of me, or perhaps he was dumb to begin with, for he did not utter a sound but pointed toward the door, then toward the tray and to me, and backed out of the door. I heard him hurrying down the path, apparently upset by the encounter. He was no more so than I.
In a minute or two I managed to laugh at my fright and sat down to eat the chicken and rice, mashed greens and bread which someone (Mohammed told me later it had been the women of the sheik’s house) had so thoughtfully provided for me. There was more than twice as much food as I could possibly eat, so I scraped the leftovers into storage jars, washed the plates and put them back on the tray. When the old man returned, presumably for the tray, almost creeping to the door this time, he stared in astonishment at the empty plates and then at me. With a heavy sigh, he shouldered the tray and left. It was not until many days later that I learned the Arab custom of serving much more food than they expect you to eat. The leftovers go to women, children, family servants and to the poor. In my jars I had probably saved several people’s lunch, including the old man’s. And he—I learned from Mohammed that it was Ali, servant and gardener of the sheik—thought I had
man’s. And he—I learned from Mohammed that it was Ali, servant and gardener of the sheik—thought I had eaten it all! So the rst tale that went round the settlement about the American lady was that, although she was thin, she had a fantastic appetite!
After lunch the sun came out brie y, and then it rained. Mohammed warned me that if the rain continued, Bob might not be able to return that night. The clouds in the sky seemed to be shifting, and I looked to Mohammed for confirmation.
“Enshallah [God willing] he will come,” he said. Mohammed pumped up the camp stove and I peeled
potatoes and tomatoes. Darkness fell, the electricity came on, and Mohammed indicated he would wait for Bob near the taxi stand in town. There was nothing else to do, so I sat down in the living room and pretended to look through my Arabic-English dictionary. We had cleared away most of the boxes and litter and had moved the table to the side of the room. I had scrubbed the green oilcloth with a brush, and a colored geometric pattern was now visible in the rug, thanks to Mohammed’s sweeping.
From the tree outside my shuttered window many birds called, and the few who nested in our beams answered. Will he come or not? I looked outside again. It was not raining, but the sky was overcast. Back in the room the radio emitted static, bits of Arabic music and the deadening hum.
room the radio emitted static, bits of Arabic music and the deadening hum.
After eight o’clock I heard rain on the roof and my heart sank. But then there were thumps and the sound of an automobile revving near the wall. I ran down the path to open the gate.
“Go back in the house and stay there,” called Bob. “There are a whole lot of men to help with the stu and you shouldn’t be seen.”
I did as I was told, crouching by the living-room shutter, where, through the cracks, I could see boxes and more boxes and nally the refrigerator being carried into the other room. An English-speaking voice, not Bob’s, was giving orders; that must be John, the American engineer. Would we have company for dinner?
“Put on your abayah now and come out,” Bob shouted, “so the men can put the wardrobe into the living room.”
Again I did as I was told, slipping on my muddy shoes as I went out the door. With much grunting, the men edged the big wardrobe through the narrow door. Bob paid them off and they left.
John said he would be delighted to stay for dinner. Originally from Cincinnati, he was on an exploratory water-drilling trip for an American rm under contract to the Iraqi Government. It was his rst job since
to the Iraqi Government. It was his rst job since graduation from engineering school.
“A small contribution,” he said and produced a bottle of beer, which we split three ways and drank while we looked over the loot. The refrigerator was small, but enough for our needs. The folding table and chairs would be ideal for both eating and working.
“I asked Abu Saad to have a screened cupboard built for the kitchen,” said Bob. “And what do you think of
for the kitchen,” said Bob. “And what do you think of that?” Gleaming against the dark earth oor and mud- gray walls was a white enamel two-burner kerosene stove. “The oven is portable. You can use it on top of the stove or not, depending on what you want to cook,” said Bob, demonstrating.
“Where’s Mohammed?” We found him standing in rapt admiration before his
own image in the full-length mirror on the wardrobe door. He was adjusting his agal and kaffiyeh.
Mohammed smiled. “Kullish zein [very good],” he said, indicating the wardrobe. Of heavy oak, it occupied at least a third of the wall space on one side of our room, boasted two lower drawers and two full-length mirrors in addition to the double closet space.
“It’s awfully big, and it was a little expensive,” confessed Bob, “but it was the best buy I could nd. Let’s eat. We’re starved.”
After a meal of boiled potatoes, sliced tomatoes and canned corned-beef hash with fried eggs, I brought out the remains of the angel-food cake. Mohammed said good night and John, Bob and I were left around our oilcloth-covered table, drinking Nescafé while the charcoal brazier smoked and glowed.
“Did you get along all right with Mohammed?” asked Bob.
“Oh yes, he seems a very nice boy,” I answered, and
Bob. “Oh yes, he seems a very nice boy,” I answered, and
then told them about my lunch tray. They howled with laughter.
“Poor Ali,” Bob said. “You’ve probably given him such a fright he won’t come to the garden for days, even to cut grass for his sheep.”
John stood up. “I’d better go,” he said. “It’ll take me at least an hour to get back to Diwaniya on that damned mud road. But thanks for dinner. I can’t remember when I’ve had angel-food cake.”
“Thank you for all your help,” we answered, practically in unison. “Come see us any time.”
He nodded and looked around him, at the beamed ceiling, the worn but bright rug, the outsized elegant wardrobe. “You know, I didn’t believe it when Bob told me,” he con ded. “Mud hut, earth oors and all that jazz. But you’ve really got quite a nice little place here.”
Bob saw him to the gate and I collected the empty co ee cups and carried them into the kitchen. The rain had stopped and a cold wind had come up, clearing the sky so that a few stars were visible. Shivering, I stepped back into the living room, which was still warm from the dying charcoal re. Well, I thought, I suppose we could build a bookcase of boards and bricks and cover up the sofa and chairs with something. The mattress really does make the bed bigger. It won’t be bad, I
really does make the bed bigger. It won’t be bad, I decided, and realized to my surprise that I was actually looking forward to fixing up our first home.
2 The Sheik’s Harem
An invitation to lunch with the sheik was delivered early next morning. This meant that Bob would eat with the men in the sheik’s mudhif or guest house and I would lunch in the harem, or women’s quarters. The harem. What would it be like? What would the women be wearing? What should I wear?
“Something attractive,” said Bob promptly. I stared at him. “And try to be natural,” he counseled. “Well, I wasn’t exactly planning to be unnatural,” I
retorted. He had not even heard me. “And keep your eyes open
and try to remember everything you do and see.” “Yes, dear.” “You might write everything down as soon as you get
home if I’m not here.” “Really, Bob, stop fussing so. I’m nervous enough as it
is.” “I’m not fussing,” he said, and then he looked at me.
“Well,” he explained, “I’ve been here for two months
“Well,” he explained, “I’ve been here for two months and the sheik’s family, which is the word they use to refer to the womenfolk, hasn’t even been mentioned in my presence. So I can’t help but wonder about them. And it’s a rather important occasion for you, too—your debut into local society.”
Mohammed came with a jug of water and announced that Ali had been commissioned to fetch us.
“Hmmmm,” said Bob. “It’s just up the road, but of course we walk right through the center of the settlement from our house to the sheik’s mudhif. Sheik Hamid is probably sending Ali to make sure the children don’t bother you.”
“Bother me? Even in the abayah?” “Well, you’ve been here two days without anyone’s
having a look at you except Mohammed and Ali. If you’re curious about the sheik’s women, think how curious they must be about you!”
By the time Ali came for us, I couldn’t decide whether I felt like a debutante being presented at court or Joan of Arc going to the stake. And since it had been dark when I arrived, I really had no idea of what lay beyond our gate. The sun was shining and the mud on our path was drying fast. As Ali opened the latch a group of small boys in dishdashas jumped away from the gate and stared and giggled until Ali shouted and ourished his stick at them, whereupon they ran ahead, turning
and stared and giggled until Ali shouted and ourished his stick at them, whereupon they ran ahead, turning back at every other step to look at us again.
“Ali says he is sorry for the boys’ rudeness,” Bob said. “Actually, the women probably sent them out as scouts and they’re running back to the harem to tell them you’re on the way.”
No one else seemed to be on the mud-rutted road, however, which was bare of trees or greenery of any sort and was lined on both sides with mud houses set close together. Only high walls and blind fronts of mud brick faced the street; I was to learn later that the doors were usually on the side or in back, to allow the family more privacy in their comings and goings. All the walls, like mine, were topped with several inches of prickly camel-thorn.
“Why isn’t anyone else out?” I whispered to Bob, and, as if in answer, a woman emerged suddenly from one of the alleys between the houses, balancing on her head a tray of what looked like round gray pancakes. Seeing us, she uttered an exclamation and pulled her abayah over her face.
“Why did she do that?” I asked. “Does she think I have the Evil Eye or something?”
“Oh, no,” said Bob. “The women always seem to cover their faces quickly when caught unawares by strange men. She’s carrying camel dung,” he added
strange men. She’s carrying camel dung,” he added matter-of-factly.
“Camel dung?” “They make it into cakes like that and dry it in the
sun for fuel,” he explained. And when I looked back, that was what the woman
was doing, arranging the dung cakes in geometric regularity on the sunny side of the road.
“Just keep walking,” said Bob. “But this empty street is kind of eerie,” I answered. I
simply could not resist looking around once more. As I did, a kind of whispered laugh or exclamation went up and down the street, where women in black abayahs stood by the walls or peered out of the doors of nearly all the houses, looking after me.
“The women are all standing at their doors, staring,” I said to Bob.
“Never mind, it’s not much farther. Look, there’s the sheik’s mudhif!”
Ahead was a clearing, at the edge of which earth had been built up to form a large square platform. On this stood the sheik’s guest house or mudhif, framed by a grove of date palms, green and lustrous in the dun- colored landscape. I had not expected the guest house to be so big. The tribesmen near the entrance were dwarfed by the thirty-foot arch of the mudhif, which
dwarfed by the thirty-foot arch of the mudhif, which looked like an enormous quonset hut open at both ends. Great bundles of swamp reeds, arched over and anchored in the ground, formed the ribs of the structure which stretched at least 150 feet back toward the palm grove. Only in the entrance arch was the bunching visible for overlapping reed mats covered the sides and roof. We heard afterward from archaeologist friends that the plan and structure of the mudhif have origins in antiquity and that some of the earliest Sumerian temples may have been of just this shape.
Flying from the capstone of the entrance arch was a white ag with a crescent and star appliquéd upon it in red.
“I think that may be the tribal ag, or perhaps the sheik’s personal flag,” whispered Bob.
A few horses were tethered near the mudhif and more men, in aba and agal and kaffiyeh, were gathering in the clearing. As we approached, a tall man disengaged himself from one of the groups and came toward us. Bob turned o to meet him. “Good luck,” he whispered, and I was left alone to follow Ali, who bore left, away from the mudhif, toward a large square mud-brick building which I had not noticed before.
This must be the harem, I told myself; it was here that all of the sheik’s family lived, though Bob had said that in the past it had been used as a fortress in tribal wars
in the past it had been used as a fortress in tribal wars and later against Ottoman and nally British soldiers. The gun emplacements could still be seen on the roof and the thick mud-brick walls were honey-combed with holes just large enough to accommodate a rifle barrel.
Ali led me all the way around the fortress to a narrow opening and motioned me through. I was standing alone in a large open courtyard, the hard-packed earth of which had been carefully swept just that morning, for I could see the marks of the broom in wide swathing arcs on the ground. The only visible object was a central water tap with a small brick wall around its base. To my right, to my left, and in front of me stood low, square houses built out into the courtyard from the shelter of the compound’s high mud-brick walls. These, I was to discover later, were the apartments where each of the sheik’s wives lived separately with her children. Through the entry-ways of these at-roofed apartments, arched and plastered with mud, I could see daylight in other, small inner courts.
Where was everyone? The entire compound seemed empty. I turned back, but Ali was gone and I faced the courtyard alone, where now, from doors all around the court, women and children began to emerge. Little girls in long-sleeved print dresses and boys in candy-striped dishdashas ran and leaped toward me, then ran away giggling only to turn in a wider circle and come forward
giggling only to turn in a wider circle and come forward once more. The women—it seemed like hundreds of them—advanced more slowly, in their owing black abayahs, their heads coifed and bound in black, all smiling and repeating, “Ahlan wusahlan [welcome]. Ahlan, ahlan. Ahlan wusahlan.” Most of them came at a digni ed pace, but the younger women could not contain their excitement, it seemed, for they would caper a bit, look at each other, choke with laughter and then cover their faces with their abayahs as the woman with the dung cakes had done. I stood still, not certain whether I should advance, until an old woman came close and put a motherly hand on my shoulder. She looked into my face and smiled broadly, which warmed her deeply wrinkled face with a kind and friendly expression despite the fact that many of her front teeth were missing. She had three blue dots, tattoo marks, in the cleft of her sun-tanned chin. She nodded and, still with her hand on my shoulder, steered me across the court.
We went in procession, the women closing ranks around me, the children still jumping and leaping on the outskirts of the group, past the water tap, to a shorter mud wall. Here, at an open doorway, a lovely, quite eshy young woman awaited us; she was a startling contrast to the women about me, for she wore no abayah, only a dress of sky-blue satin patterned with crescents and stars. She had tied a black fringed scarf
crescents and stars. She had tied a black fringed scarf around her head like a cap, leaving her long black curly hair free to fall loosely around her shoulders.
“Ahlan wusahlan,” she said and shook hands with me, laughing in a pleased way, to show perfect teeth. Heir dark eyes were outlined heavily with kohl.
“Selma, Selma,” called the children, “let us come in too.”
“Away with you,” she said good-naturedly, but made no attempt to back up her words as she led the way, through her small inner court, to a screen door where I was ushered into what seemed to be a big bedroom.
“Go on. Out! Out!” she said to the children, but they crowded in anyway after the women. There was only one chair in the room and Selma motioned me to it. I sat down and found myself face to face with a roomful of women and children, squatting opposite me on the mat-covered floor and staring up at me intently.
Selma had taken my abayah and hung it on a peg near the door. “You won’t need it here,” she said, pointing to herself, although she was the only woman there without it. She sat down at my feet. I felt uncomfortable sitting in a chair while everyone else sat on the oor, so I got up and sat down on the oor with them.
Selma looked upset and leaped to her feet.
Selma looked upset and leaped to her feet. “No, no, the chair is for you,” she said and took my
hand to pull me back up. “You are the guest.” I sat down in the overstuffed chair once more. There was a brief pause. “Ahlam wusahlan,” said Selma in the silence. “Ahlan, ahlan wusahlan,” chorused the roomful of
women. I cleared my throat. “You are Selma?” “Yes,” she said, laughing again in that pleased and
very attractive way. “How did you know?” “Everyone knows because you are the favorite wife of
the sheik,” replied an admiring young girl, and tweaked at Selma’s blue satin skirt. She was a bit embarrassed, but pleasantly so, and swiped mildly at the girl, who ducked successfully and then giggled.
“And what is your name?” Selma asked me politely. “Elizabeth.” “Alith-a-bess,” she stumbled over the unfamiliar
combination of syllables, and several others tried out the word and failed.
Selma laughed. “That is a di cult name. We can’t say it.”
“I have another name,” I o ered, knowing that diminutive names were often used here. “It’s B.J.”
diminutive names were often used here. “It’s B.J.” She picked that up as “Beeja.” “She is called Beeja,”
she said, and so I was named. I asked the name of the girl sitting closest to me. “Basima,” she answered and pointed to her neighbor.
“Fadhila. Hathaya. Fatima. Rajat. Samira. Nejla. Sabiha. Bassoul. Sahura. Sheddir. Laila. Bahiga.” How would I ever remember who they were? They looked that day so remarkably alike in their identical black head scarves, black chin scarves, and black abayahs. It was months later that I began to notice the subtle di erences that the women managed to introduce into the costume: Fadhila always wore a fringed scarf, Laila’s abayahs were edged with black satin braid; Samira’s chin scarf was fastened on top of her head with a tiny gold pin in the shape of a lotus blossom.
But the dominant presence in the room, watched by every eye including mine, was the dazzling Selma, of ample but well-de ned proportions, her air of authority softened by laughter. Mohammed had told me that Selma had ve children. From her face, I guessed she could not yet be thirty, but childbearing had already blurred the lines of what once must have been a remarkable and voluptuous gure. The blue satin dress was cut Western style, but longer and looser; it moved in several directions when she moved, for Selma apparently felt that corsets were unnecessary. Her feet
apparently felt that corsets were unnecessary. Her feet were bare (she had left her clogs at the door), but each slim, bare ankle bore a heavy gold bracelet. Gold bracelets were on both arms, several heavy gold necklaces swung against the blue satin dress, and long dangling gold ligree earrings caught the light when she moved. In her gold jewelry and blue satin and black silk head scarf, her eyes gay and almost black in her white face (whiter than that of any other woman in the room), she was attractive by anyone’s standard and must once have been startlingly beautiful. I felt quite dowdy in my skirt and sweater and short-cut hair, and was only glad I had put on fake pearls and gold earrings.
Selma o ered me a long thin cigarette, which I refused; she pressed me again, but I said I did not smoke.
“It is better not to smoke,” said the old woman who had guided me to Selma’s door. “Haji Hamid does not like women who smoke.”
Selma looked at the old woman. “Kulthum,” she said, “Haji Hamid is my husband as well as yours,” and then deliberately lit cigarettes for herself and several others. In a few minutes the room was full of sweetish smoke, unlike any cigarette smoke I had smelled before. Kulthum said nothing, but I noticed she did not smoke.
I looked around me at the scrupulously clean room. Its mud-brick walls were newly whitewashed. I pointed
Its mud-brick walls were newly whitewashed. I pointed upward, trying to indicate that the beams here were the same as the ones in my house. This was a fairly complex idea to get across, for at rst the women thought I had seen something lodged in the beams and everyone peered and whispered. One woman stood up to get a better look. When they nally realized what I was struggling to communicate, they laughed, no doubt at the simple-mindedness of the conversational tidbit I had contributed. Later I found that every house in the village was built in exactly the same manner, so obviously my house had beams like this one!
“Haji Hamid’s bed, the sheik’s,” said a girl, pointing to the large double bed.
“And Selma’s,” said one of the girls, snickering. She showed me in mime how they lay together in a close embrace. Everyone laughed and Selma blushed with pleasure. I glanced at Kulthum, but her wrinkled face showed nothing.
The intricate ironwork of the high-posted bedstead had been gilded, suggesting an opulence which was reinforced by the bright pink satin spread falling in flounces to the floor. The same pink satin had been used to cover a small radio on the night table. Over the bed hung an oil painting of a mosque; above that was a large faded photograph of Emir Feisal, father of the Iraqi dynasty, on horseback. A pair of large crossed Iraqi
Iraqi dynasty, on horseback. A pair of large crossed Iraqi flags topped the king.
Selma noticed me looking about and got up to identify the many photographs and pictures which covered the walls. The man with the strong bearded face was Abdul Emir, Hamid’s father. I had heard of Abdul Emir, for he was a famous warrior in Iraq who had led the 1933 insurrection of the Diwaniya tribes against the British-backed Iraqi Government. The rebellion had been so nearly successful that the British had been obliged to cut the area’s water supply in order to put the tribesmen down. According to Bob, people in Diwaniya still spoke of this event, and it was whispered that the government continued to punish the tribal confederation by refusing to pave roads and by delaying electricity and other modern services as long as possible.
In another photograph Abdul Emir sat in a chair in a garden, anked by nurses and surrounded by well- dressed tribesmen. He looked thin and ill, but he sat rigidly forward, gripping his knees with long, bony hands. The men in the picture were leaders of the tribes united in the confederation led by Abdul Emir, Selma told me, reading aloud their names from the caption and thus demonstrating her education, for—although I did not realize it then—she was the only woman in the room who could read uently. Selma added that Abdul Emir had died soon after the picture was taken, and
Emir had died soon after the picture was taken, and Hamid had succeeded to the sheikship. Four portraits of Hamid, taken at various periods in his life, attested to his present eminence.
Selma now began to rummage in a wardrobe, the only other large piece of furniture in the room. There were two chests with padlocks and, against the far wall, mats, blankets, rugs and long narrow pillows were piled nearly to the ceiling.
“For the mudhif,” said Kulthum, following my eye. “Many tribesmen stay at the mudhif when they come to market, and many strangers stop here too.”
Tradition decrees, Bob had said, that any guest may expect food and a bed for three days without any questions asked. Since these tribal guest houses are the only hotels on the bare southern plain, two or three guests an evening was usual. But from the pile of bedding it looked as though Sheik Hamid could easily sleep thirty or forty people.
Selma, who had gone out, returned now with a tiny cup of co ee which she presented to me on a green cut- glass plate. I sipped it slowly and set it down on the plate. Selma took it from me and handed it out the door to a waiting servant.
After the co ee, conversation lagged. A baby began to cry, a thin baby with horrid-looking red sores on its face and neck, and the mother pushed aside her foota, or
and neck, and the mother pushed aside her foota, or chin scarf, pulled out her breast and gave it to the child. The women regarded me xedly. I smiled. They smiled. A very small girl with tousled hair and tiny gold earrings got up and touched my skirt, then buried her head in her hands in confusion. The women laughed. I laughed.
For some reason this set o a convulsion among the children, who all along had been dgeting but subsiding at slaps from the nearest woman. But now they were stirred to greater pummeling and quarreling—so much so that Selma rose, took a stick and set about them in earnest.
“Out, out, out!” she cried, and several ran out with mock screams and yelps of pain.
“They are so di cult, children,” said Selma, and sat down near me again.
She o ered me another cigarette and I declined. When was lunch, I wondered? I had been in the room more than an hour and simply could not think of another thing to say, even if I had been able to remember any more Arabic. I crossed my ankles; a dozen pair of eyes followed the movement. I uncrossed my ankles; there was a short silence. My hostess ung herself into the breach and asked me how much my nylon stockings had cost, whether my skirt was ready-made and if my earrings had come from my family or were a present
cost, whether my skirt was ready-made and if my earrings had come from my family or were a present from my husband. I unscrewed them and handed them around; one of the women scratched to see if the gold would come o . All of these questions took time and had to be repeated again and again so I could understand. When my faltering replies came out in Arabic the women could not help laughing, but, out of politeness, they did so behind their abayahs.
I asked Selma how much her ankle bracelets cost. “Forty pounds,” she said proudly, “for one,” and
pulled out the pin so that it could be taken o and examined. It must have weighed at least half a pound. “All gold,” she added.
The women began pointing out her individual necklaces and bracelets, telling me the cost and the Arabic name of each. Later I estimated that Selma wore on her person at least $1000 worth of gold. She said that the pieces of jewelry had been presents from her father and from the sheik, and repeated, “It’s mine, my own.”
This was literally true, I found. A woman’s jewelry is her own insurance against disaster, and the community may take action against men who attempt to seize their women’s gold.
At the door a great commotion was under way, as a maidservant tried to break through the crowd, stepping
maidservant tried to break through the crowd, stepping over women and children to bring me a copper basin and ewer, soap and a towel. She indicated that no, I was not to put my hands in the basin, she was to pour the water over my hands. Slight giggles at my clumsiness were silenced by a look from a tall girl with many gold teeth, who introduced herself as Alwiyah, the sheik’s oldest daughter.
After I had nished washing, Selma rose with Alwiyah and handed me my abayah.
“It is time for lunch, ahlan wusahlan,” she said. In my abayah I followed Alwiyah and Selma across
her little private courtyard to another larger room where a table, covered with a white cloth, was laden with plates of food.
Selma shut the door ostentatiously but the children and women clustered around the windows to watch. One chair was drawn up to the table. “Am I to eat alone?”
Selma and Alwiyah nodded and smiled. “Oh, no,” I protested, “this is too much—you must eat
with me.” Selma and Alwiyah exchanged startled glances,
whispered together and then Selma called for two more chairs. She sat down opposite me and Alwiyah sat at the side. Selma shook with inner laughter, and the crowd at the windows roared, for what reason I could not fathom.
side. Selma shook with inner laughter, and the crowd at the windows roared, for what reason I could not fathom. When, afterward, I had sat on a mat to eat and felt foolish myself, I realized why the women had found Selma’s and Alwiyah’s rst venture at table amusing. Traditionally, to eat alone, served by one’s host, is an honor, but Selma, sensing my discomfort, was doing things my way. She nibbled a bit of meat, taking a spoonful of this and that, enjoying herself and the audience reaction hugely. Alwiyah did not; she smiled regularly and made polite remarks, but was apparently too bound by custom to eat a mouthful.
The table was covered with ten or twelve di erent dishes: kebab and grilled kidneys; a salad of hard-boiled eggs, potatoes and beets; half a chicken in tomato sauce; mashed greens; two kinds of rice, one topped with a crisp crust, one mixed with nuts and raisins, chopped carrots and bits of chicken liver. There was a pitcher of watered yogurt to drink, and for dessert I was o ered a soup plate of heavy white cornstarch pudding with an odd, but not unappetizing, avor. “It is rose water,” said Alwiyah.
Every time I paused, Alwiyah would urge me to eat more, but I finally laid down my spoon.
“You have eaten nothing,” scolded Alwiyah, and Selma put another kidney on my plate. But I was determined, and in spite of haranguing from the women (a matter of form, I discovered later) I stood up and we
determined, and in spite of haranguing from the women (a matter of form, I discovered later) I stood up and we returned to the bedroom where the servant brought the washbasin and ewer again.
The crowd had already gathered for the second round, and the air seemed more relaxed now as I successfully
nished washing. We were just beginning to nod and smile at each other again when the sound of a man’s voice outside sent the women and children scurrying away like a ock of frightened chickens. I was left alone in the room with Selma, who hurriedly donned her abayah and ran out the door, leaving me alone in the room.
I had no idea what was going on, or what was expected of me. Should I, too, don my abayah? Should I leave? Should I get under the bed? Before I had time to rise, Selma was back, rummaging in the cupboard for a heavy ri e and a full cartridge belt, which she handed out the door. The man’s voice said something else, and she returned to me.
“The sheik and your husband are going partridge hunting,” she said. “Do you want to go home now or stay until they come back? Do stay,” she added.
I wasn’t sure what arrangements were involved, but staying seemed the easiest course of action. The man’s footsteps died away and in a moment the women and children trooped back in and Selma took o her abayah
children trooped back in and Selma took o her abayah once more.
“Ahlan, ahlan wusahlan,” they repeated. The silence was broken by the arrival of the servant
with a tray of tea glasses. Selma served me herself, and then o ered tea to Kulthum and to Bahiga, the other wives of the sheik. Both were much older than Selma: Bahiga light-skinned with big wide-open gray eyes, her face beginning to show wrinkles, Kulthum wrinkled and old enough to be Selma’s mother.
“Where is your mother?” Kulthum asked. I told her she was in America far away, and when Selma repeated this in a better accent, the women clucked in sympathy.
“Poor girl,” they said. “Poor child.” To be alone without any of one’s womenfolk was
clearly the greatest disaster which could befall any girl. I rummaged in my wallet … unfortunately no picture of my mother, but I came on one of Bob and handed it to Kulthum. She seized on it and passed it around to the other women, who examined the picture from every angle and finally pronounced him hilu [handsome].
“But why didn’t he let your mother come with you?” persisted Kulthum. I was at a loss to explain, but Selma interrupted with another question.
“Do you have any children inside you—here?” she pointed to her stomach.
pointed to her stomach. “No.” “No?” I said I had only been married for six months. “Enshallah, you will have one soon,” said Kulthum,
and patted my hand. “Children are gifts of Allah. I have five sons and two daughters, thanks be to God.”
“How many do you have?” I asked the other wife, Bahiga.
“Five living,” she said. “Two died.” “Selma?” “Two sons, three daughters,” she replied. “When you have children, you will not feel so alone
without your mother,” prophesied Kulthum. The room was small and getting progressively more
stu y and smoke- lled by the moment, for the population, although it changed regularly, never numbered under twenty. Women were coming and going all the time. A few would get up and leave, those remaining would shift position and more would come in, greet me, and sit down. I had the feeling that runners had been all around the settlement, and women were coming from every house to look me over. I was suddenly overcome with weariness and my face felt hot. Selma looked tired too, but the women sat on, smoking, nodding, and murmuring, “Nitwanness [we are here to
nodding, and murmuring, “Nitwanness [we are here to enjoy ourselves].” I looked at my watch; it was after six but I knew I could not leave until the men came home.
I cleared my throat and told Selma the browned rice at lunch had been very good. How had she prepared it?
Selma looked pleased and began to explain. “Eat more rice, Beeja,” advised Kulthum. “You are too
thin.” “Yes, yes,” cackled an old woman, “does she have any
breasts at all?” grabbing her own dropped bosom and then pointing at me. There was a loud burst of laughter.
“I certainly do have breasts,” I began indignantly, but Selma, always the polite hostess, was ahead of me.
“It is pretty to be thin,” she said. “No, no, Selma! It is better to be fat.” “You are very pretty.” Selma stood up unexpectedly, took in both hands the
loose roll of esh around her waist and said, “You call this hilu [attractive]? No. I eat too much rice.”
She looked to me for con rmation or denial. I was torn; what should I say—no, Selma, you are pretty, ergo I am ugly and thin and have no breasts, or yes, I agree you are too fat and you should go on a diet immediately? Fortunately the women intervened before I even had time to form my sentence in Arabic.
“No, no, Selma, you are pretty,” they said, and one
“No, no, Selma, you are pretty,” they said, and one added, “without all that rice you wouldn’t have such
ne breasts and such a good big behind,” illustrating her meaning quite graphically. Selma tossed her head and laughed and sat down again.
“That,” shouted another, “is why Haji Hamid loves you more than Kulthum and Bahiga.”
I looked around quickly, but Kulthum and Bahiga had gone. The conversation seemed about to take an interesting turn when the servant girl banged on the screen, hissed something to Selma I did not catch, grinned at me and wiped her face with her dusty black veil, all at the same time.
Selma rose. I’m sure she too was relieved. “The men are here and your husband wants you,” she said. “The servant will go with you, because it is getting dark.”
I donned my abayah, trying to wrap it around me as the women did, but not succeeding very well. Selma said kindly:
“Soon you will know how to wear the abayah.” “Don’t they wear the abayah in America?” asked a
woman in surprise. “No, no,” said Selma. “Why not?” she said to me. Again I could think of no reply but Selma was saying
Again I could think of no reply but Selma was saying something to the woman.
“Then why does she wear it here?” persisted the woman.
“Because she is polite,” said Selma, and nudged me gently toward the door. The group followed, repeating the traditional farewells, “Ahlan wusahlan” “Tiji daayman [come often],” “Allah wiyach [God go with you].” Selma bade me good night at the door of her own courtyard, but the other women and children walked to the entrance of the compound, where Ali waited to accompany me home.
In the mudhif, lanterns had been lighted, and the tribesmen going in and out were silhouetted in the shadowy arch. Stars were coming out in the vast sky above the mud houses and walls. Women passed us, silently padding down the path, bearing jugs and cans to fetch the nightly supply of water from the canal. I could see no faces, but several spoke to me. Ali and I stood aside while a ock of sheep, baaing and snu ing, shu ed along past, raising a ne cloud of dust into the evening air as the boy shepherded them home.
Bob was waiting at our gate. “How did it go?” he said. “Fine, I think,” I answered. “I was obviously the
biggest curiosity to hit the compound in years, but they were nice about it. But I’m really tired out.”
were nice about it. But I’m really tired out.” “Come tell me everything that happened,” he said,
and we walked up to our house together. It seemed very cozy and calm and peaceful after the hubbub and strain of the afternoon.
When I mentioned Selma’s eating with me, he said that was a very good sign.
“Twenty years ago,” he said, “a Shiite Moslem here would not eat food which had been touched by Christians, and any dish from which a Christian guest had eaten or drunk was smashed so that the in del wouldn’t contaminate the faithful.”
Although he knew this was no longer true among most of the men, he had feared the women might still feel this way, since they were relatively more isolated.
“Selma was very friendly, and a good hostess. She’s been to school, you know.”
“No, I didn’t. What is she like?” “Selma?” I considered. “She seems very good-natured;
runs the compound, I’d say; laughs a lot; is intelligent.” “Yes, but what does she look like?” “She’s beautiful,” I replied promptly, “running to fat,
but still beautiful.” “I thought so,” Bob said. I looked at him. He had never seen Selma but
I looked at him. He had never seen Selma but assumed she was beautiful. Because he had heard stories about her beauty? That was unlikely, since men did not discuss women in public. Because her inaccessibility had surrounded her with mystery? Then the abayah and the seclusion were an asset to Selma, for they only increased her attractiveness. And they did not seem to hinder her much in her private life either, for she had seemed to me a happy and contented woman.
But I was still curious. “Why did you assume she was beautiful, Bob?” “Well, I hear that the sheik gave her family 1500
English pounds when he married her, and she is his fourth wife. Wouldn’t you assume from that that she was pretty special?”
“Yes, Bob, of course.” I couldn’t help laughing at his male naïveté.
“Why are you laughing?” “Oh, nothing,” I said. “Let’s have some more co ee
before we go to bed.”
3 Women of the Tribe
In a day or two Bob resumed his interviews and suggested I might start visiting the women regularly and begin to keep a journal. To help him complete his picture of tribal and village life, I was to record observations about women and children and activities within the home, areas which he had no opportunity to study.
“Just go,” he said. “The sheik has told me several times that you will be welcome in any house in the settlement.”
“No one has come to visit me,” I pointed out. “Never mind; it may not be the custom here,” said
Bob. “You make the first move.” I was too shy simply to knock on every door along the
path, but fortunately during the rst days my reluctance did not matter. Mohammed invited me to call on his mother, and in his house I met many of the Sayids, six families who were not members of the El Eshadda, but who lived with the tribe in a sort of noblesse oblige relationship. Because of their descent from the Prophet, the Sayids are bound to be treated with some respect,
the Sayids are bound to be treated with some respect, and are used as mediators in tribal disputes. In return for their services as peacemakers, the Sayids receive the protection of the tribe, and they had been given parcels of land when they rst came to settle with the El Eshadda. The ancient practice of giving other special privileges to Sayids—plowing their land free, grinding their grain without payment—was less observed now than before. But the Sayids still received alms on religious festivals, and Laila, the local seamstress, later told me she always sewed without charge for Mohammed’s sister.
The Sayids had their own small mudhif on the edge of the settlement, around which their houses clustered wall to wall. The rst time I visited Mohammed’s family, he called for me after supper, carrying a kerosene lantern to light the way. We turned o the main road into a dark and narrow alley which wound among the low mud houses, each marked by one or two lanterns hung inside the walls. Electricity was expensive, and only the sheik and his brothers could a ord it. At the end of the alley the Sayids’ mudhif loomed, also lit by lantern light, and, framed within its shadowy vault, a few men sat cross-legged, smoking and playing backgammon. The slap of the wooden pieces on the game board came to us distinctly over the sound of their voices.
Ahead, in a doorway, stood the gures of two women,
Ahead, in a doorway, stood the gures of two women, tall, straight and thin like Mohammed—his mother Medina and his sister Sherifa. Medina held a second lantern high. “Ahlan wusahlan,” she said, and we crossed their dark court, where I could hear the cow munching in the corner, into a tiny room, swept clean and almost empty. I sat on a mat covered with a rug and a white sheet. Sherifa insisted that I make myself comfortable with a long pillow also covered with clean white linen. She then brought in a charcoal brazier and we sat around it, warming our hands against the cold.
They served me fruit on that rst occasion, which I knew was a great extravagance for them, but afterward when I went to visit I was o ered, like all their other guests, a glass of lemon tea made by brewing the skin and seeds of dried lemons (numibasra). Medina made it especially well.
I spent many such evenings in Mohammed’s house, where I was treated almost as a relative, and where the atmosphere was relaxed and the conversation gay. The family, once well-to-do and highly respected in the community, had retained a general air of taste and dignity in spite of misfortune. They still owned 200 acres of land, but because of soil salination, a mounting problem in the area, less than twenty acres could be cultivated. Their present poverty-stricken state was mitigated by Mohammed’s job with us. They were “gentility in straitened circumstances” but they were
mitigated by Mohammed’s job with us. They were “gentility in straitened circumstances” but they were cheerful about it, and that made all the difference.
When the family land had rst begun to salt up, Medina’s husband had left El Nahra to nd work. He had not found it, but in Kut he had found a rich sheik whose personal charity was the support of Sayids, so he had settled there, and only visited El Nahra when he was sick or needed help. Medina made the best of it. She was only forty- ve, but she looked seventy, so thin that every bone in her hand was visible. Her skin was seamed and wrinkled by years of work in the hot, drying sun, her mouth shriveled into empty gums. Her black garments had been new many years ago, but she wore them as though they had been bought yesterday; she still hennaed her ngernails and outlined her eyebrows with dull blue kohl. When she was feeling poorly, which was often, she lay on a mat and her voice became the dry, cracked whine of an old, old woman. But when she felt well she sailed down the alley like a queen, her black garments owing behind her. In the afternoon sessions in the sheik’s house she was always treated with courtesy and respect. She talked animatedly and smoked, one after the other, the cigarettes o ered by Selma—she was too poor to buy them herself. The women listened to her attentively and laughed at her jokes; she had a way of gesturing with a cigarette and tossing her head back as she talked—she had style. I
tossing her head back as she talked—she had style. I never met anyone who disliked her. Women would bring her food from their own limited stores and visit her in droves when she was too sick to get up from her pallet.
Sherifa carried herself like her mother, with a dignity not always seen among the poorer people in the settlement. I was told that when Sherifa had been younger, she had been very handsome, and her husband had bought her much gold jewelry. But the man went bad, no one could explain why; he had deserted Sherifa after her baby boy died; she was now neither widow, virgin, nor divorcee, and hence had no future. Yet she was intelligent and industrious and her advice was much sought after by other women and girls. She kept chickens and sold eggs; she raised lambs in the spring and sold the meat and wool. She helped keep the family alive.
The younger brother, Abad, was twelve, ambitious and clever. He was in the sixth class at the local primary school, and at night he sat on the path under a street lamp to study his lessons, for the two lanterns in his house were not strong enough to read by.
There was an older brother, Abdul Karim, who seemed to have been born without energy. Theoretically he was a sheep trader, but few people had seen him at work. His wife, Fadhila, was vigorous and attractive,
work. His wife, Fadhila, was vigorous and attractive, with strong arms and bright eyes; she laughed from deep inside, a loud, healthy laugh which infected even the dourest old ladies. Her greatest sorrow was that she had no children. According to local beliefs, it was always the wife who was at fault in these matters. In a society where childlessness is grounds for divorce, Fadhila, despite her health and energy, was judged inadequate as a woman and as a wife.
Fadhila and Abdul Karim lived in their own room, across the court from that of Mohammed, Medina, Sherifa and Abad. Each household was economically separate, but Fadhila and Sherifa shared the chores, bringing cans of water from the canal several times a day, sweeping the court, feeding the cow, the lamb and the chickens, baking the barley bread and doing the cooking, the dishes, the laundry. Fadhila preferred the dishes and the laundry because it gave her an opportunity both morning and evening to exchange gossip with the other women of the village who squatted along the canal, scouring their pots with the gritty silt of the bank and scrubbing their families’ clothes in the muddy irrigation water.
Down the alley lived the sheik’s gardener and servant, my guide, Ali, with his wife, Sheddir, and their grown son and daughter. Their house was even more modest than Mohammed’s. A small court where Sheddir cooked
than Mohammed’s. A small court where Sheddir cooked on a Primus stove, a lean-to for the cow and chickens, an oven for bread, and one tiny rectangular room where the entire family slept on mats on the oor because they could not a ord a bed. One wooden chest, its blue paint peeling, contained their few possessions. A lantern hung on a nail, and on the mud-and-straw walls of their room pictures had been pasted or tacked—pictures cut from magazines of Mohammed the Prophet, of a traditional Arab beauty in abayah and fringed head scarf.
Ali’s salary as the sheik’s gardener and servant was minute; most of what he earned was in kind. He had access to the garden to cut grass for his cow, and he always received a small share of the sheik’s grapes which he could trade in the market for barley our or rice. Ali was saving money to help his son get married. Since Ali was a poor man, only twenty pounds was needed for the bride price, the sum set by custom within the tribe and paid by the groom’s father to the bride’s father. The bride’s father uses part of the money to help his daughter buy furniture, household goods and her trousseau. But twenty pounds was half of Ali’s annual income. How, then, to hurry up the procedure? Ali’s daughter was of marriageable age, too, and since paternal rst-cousin marriage was the preferred marriage in any case, Ali was negotiating with one of his brothers who also had a boy and a girl. If the fathers could simply exchange children, two marriages would
could simply exchange children, two marriages would be made for the price of one and the family line would be assured of continuance. A fair exchange. This was the kind of strategic arrangement which many poor fellahin families strove for. Otherwise a man might wait ten years to get married, for it took at least that long to save the required amount.
Sheddir, Ali’s wife, while cutting grass in the garden one morning, invited me to visit her, and I did, twice. After that I did not feel as free to do so, for each time I came they spent an embarrassing amount on delicacies, fruit, co ee, sweet biscuits. I knew that wherever I went in the settlement, except perhaps for the houses of the sheik and his brothers, my arrival was bound to put a strain on the family’s nances. Their traditional sense of hospitality always struggled with their slim budgets, and usually hospitality won. I would protest vigorously when this happened, but it did no good, for I was only following the accustomed pattern: a guest always protested at the honors done him to show his host how much he appreciated them. So I made excuses to Sheddir and asked her to visit me instead.
Occasionally, when I passed the house of our next- door neighbors, a family of weavers and dyers, the gate would be ajar and I could see bright yarns and rugs displayed in the court. I had been debating whether or not I might call on the weavers unannounced when one
not I might call on the weavers unannounced when one morning Bob came to tell me to drop everything and come at once. Saleh, the weaver, had been in the mudhif that morning. Bob had expressed interest in his loom and Saleh had promptly invited him over, adding that I would be welcome to come and sit with his family.
Since Bob was with me and the men of the family would be around, I fully expected to be ushered into an inside room and served tea behind a closed door while the men disported themselves in the court. But when the gate was opened, the women in their abayahs were sitting in full view at one end of the court; they beckoned to me. That was one of the few occasions when Bob and I visited within sight of each other, although we did not speak. The men sat in another corner, far from us, and the women covered their faces with their abayahs whenever Bob passed near them. Still, the weaving paraphernalia was spread all over the court, and there was a good deal of covert peeping through the abayahs as Bob and Saleh walked around, looking carefully at everything.
I recognized one of the women immediately by the thin, scab-covered baby she carried on her hip; it had been she who had given the baby her breast during my first visit to Selma.
“I am Hathaya, Saleh’s daughter,” she said. “Ahlan
“I am Hathaya, Saleh’s daughter,” she said. “Ahlan wusahlan.” I sat down with the group of black-garbed women who served as background for the vivid display in the court. A swath of bright red wool six feet long and nearly three feet wide splashed across the court from the pit loom near the family house almost to the mud wall. Looking closer, I saw that this was the woof of a rug in the process of manufacture; long strands of red yarn were stretched taut and fastened to wooden pegs driven into the hard-packed ground. Already a geometric pattern of black and red pyramiding squares and rectangles was emerging from the pit loom, where Hathaya’s husband Mahmoud sat and threw the shuttle. I could not understand why he seemed to be sitting on the ground until I was told that the loom was set in a dugout nearly three feet deep and pedals controlling the woof were operated from below. All around us newly dyed yarn was drying in the morning sun. Yellow, red, orange, green, the skeins were draped over the wall, spread across the roof of the lean-to and hung on makeshift frames of sticks, covering every available inch of the dun-colored walls with gaudy loops of twisted color.
Flu y piles of raw sheep wool had also been spread out to dry. Hathaya picked up a soft handful and tossed it to another woman, who produced from the pocket of her dress a spindle and showed me how she twisted the bits of eece into strands of yarn, which were then spun
her dress a spindle and showed me how she twisted the bits of eece into strands of yarn, which were then spun on the wooden spinning wheel and nally woven on the loom. In addition to rugs the family made abayahs, which were dyed black for the women but left the wool’s natural color for men.
“How much does one cost?” I asked. An old woman held out the corner of her abayah for
me to finger the rough homespun. “For this kind, half a pound,” she said, “if you bring
your own wool. But a ne one, very warm, for winter, costs three pounds.”
“How much wool does it take?” “The wool of two or three sheep, washed and dried,
will make one abayah,” she said. While Saleh took Bob around I drank tea with the
women, who talked to me so fast I could scarcely understand a word, and who laughed hilariously at my stumbling answers. In this house there was no restraining presence such as Selma, no protection such as that o ered by my special relationship with Mohammed’s mother and sisters. These women had me to themselves, to do with as they pleased. The children plucked at my abayah and touched my shoes; the women would call them o , then draw near enough to touch the material of my abayah themselves. They talked loudly about me, indi erent to my presence or
talked loudly about me, indi erent to my presence or possible comprehension. However, I caught a few comments: my heavy shoes (horrible); my skin (white); my husband (not bad); my skirt, visible when I sat down even though I kept my abayah around me (good wool, but too short); and my cut bangs (really strange, quite awful in fact). They wondered audibly what I had on under my skirt; when they asked me outright, I pretended that I couldn’t understand.
One old woman, who talked the loudest and the fastest, kept insisting that I should drink another glass of tea (good for the blood), patted my hand and told me not to worry (about what, I was not sure), yet she simply could not restrain her mirth. Every time she looked at me she would go o into a good-natured cackle which was in itself so infectious that the children and women would automatically join in. Somehow, in this situation I was not upset at being considered an amusing object, as I sometimes was on later occasions. Perhaps it was the sun on the bright yarns, the lovely rug spread in the court, the men and the women so proud of their industry and so pleased to be able to show it o . Or perhaps it was the naïveté of the women’s unashamed curiosity and amusement. They did not laugh simply to observe my reactions. They poked me and pinched me and laughed in all sincerity, simply because they were curious and found me terribly funny. After a while the waves of mirth became contagious; I
because they were curious and found me terribly funny. After a while the waves of mirth became contagious; I began laughing too, at nothing in particular, and soon we were all guffawing together.
When the men sat down in the opposite corner to have their tea, I was given the tour of the loom and the spinning wheel. Would I like to see Hathaya spin? I would. She did. Everyone was pleased. But the baby, in the arms of another woman, began to wail and Hathaya picked it up and gave it her breast. Would I like to see their house? I would. A small, dark room, reminiscent of Ali’s house, then another larger, airier room where Saleh slept, which was lled with neat piles of folded rugs and abayahs.
“Tell your husband you want one of these beautiful rugs,” said the old woman slyly; she was Saleh’s wife and no fool. She had decided, and rightly, that I might very well be a pro table source of business as well as a divertissement.
I said I certainly would. “Are these for sale?” I asked, indicating the piles.
“No,” she said; these had been woven on order and were now waiting payment. The people would come in about a month after the harvest, when the fellahin were paid for their grain by the merchant in El Nahra. “But don’t worry,” she added quickly, noticing I was turning away. “Just save the wool from ve sheep, and we will
away. “Just save the wool from ve sheep, and we will make you a special rug in beautiful colors.”
Hathaya pointed out that we had no sheep. The old woman looked thoughtful for a moment.
“Ask Mohammed,” she said. “He will nd you some wool to buy in the autumn, after the sheep are shorn. And then bring it to me, and we will draw a ne pattern and …”
She was interrupted by a shout from the court. Bob was leaving and nodded to me to follow.
“You must come visit us every day,” said the old woman, and went o into a nal paroxysm of laughter. I said she must come and visit me; the women looked at each other and smiled. Would they come?
“God willing,” they replied, and I picked my way past the yarns and the bright rug to the gate where Bob waited.
“Ahlan wusahlan,” said Hathaya. Her baby was wailing again; she turned from us and helped it to nd the breast. The gate shut and we were again on the dusty path, which was drab compared with the gaiety and color we had left behind.
4 Women of the Town
Across the canal from the tribal settlement of mud-brick houses lay the village itself—more mud-brick houses, shops, a small covered bazaar, and a mosque distinguished from all of the other mud-brick buildings only by a small mosaic. “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is His Prophet” was spelled out in faded blue tiles above the door. Date palms and a few eucalyptus trees gave shade along the bank of the canal. The urban side of El Nahra was reached by a new cement bridge which had recently replaced the pontoon footbridge; the old bridge had risen and lowered as the canal lled and emptied, but the new one arched proudly over the canal, oblivious of the water or lack of water underneath.
The American Point Four engineer who advised the Iraqi Government on the construction of this new bridge had suggested it be built of cement blocks; it had been. He had neglected to allow for the fact that it is di cult to get onto a high cement bridge from a dirt road without proper approaches, which did not of course exist in El Nahra. Hence, although the villagers were pleased with the new bridge, many of them cursed it in
exist in El Nahra. Hence, although the villagers were pleased with the new bridge, many of them cursed it in the winter, for when the dirt roads turned to mud, the horses and donkeys and even the cars would slip and slide and skid, trying to gain enough purchase to get onto the slick cement of the arch.
The engineer had also pointed out that the old bridge was really very badly situated—down the canal from the main street, where it joined the tribal settlement with the mosque. What was needed, he said, was a central location. Accordingly, the bridge was built to accommodate such modern ideas; it was moved up the canal and now spanned the hub of the village, joining a group of busy co ee shops on the tribal side to the bazaar entrance and taxi stand on the other, urban bank. What the engineer did not know, and of course no one dreamed of telling him, was that the old bridge was inefficiently situated for a very good reason: to allow the women to pass over, unnoticed, to either side of the canal, to visit friends or pray in the mosque without being exposed to the stares of the strange men who always lled the co ee shops or lounged at the entrance to the bazaar.
Now the new bridge facilitated social intercourse among the men, it was true, and it was certainly a time saver for the taxi drivers who had to deliver passengers to the tribal side, but it considerably cut down the social life of the women. They could no longer slip across the
life of the women. They could no longer slip across the bridge to see a friend and slip back without their absence being noted. They could no longer wind through alleys to the back entrance of the bazaar, make a small purchase and return home discreetly. With the coming of the new bridge, each foray across the canal became a major undertaking. Who knew who might be sitting in the co ee shop who might remark that so-and- so’s family was running about town these days. For a model wife stayed at home, cared for her children and for her house, prepared good food for her husband and his guests, and kept out of sight of strangers. So, although few people really noticed it and only one or two of the women even remarked on it, in fact the women went out much less often after the new bridge was nished and the old bridge was dismantled and sold for firewood.
The main street of El Nahra, neon-lighted, was a continuation of this new bridge. Here were the o ces of the government o cials assigned from Baghdad to administer the village and its immediate area. A boys’ primary school (400 pupils), a girls’ primary school (175 pupils), the mayor’s office, the jail, the government dispensary with its resident doctor, the police station, and the post office lined the street. On a side road facing the canal was the o ce of the irrigation engineer, the one indispensable man among the government o cials,
one indispensable man among the government o cials, for on his authority the oodgates which channeled water from a branch of the Euphrates River were opened and closed. The village and the surrounding farm community depended on the water supply for life.
Along this bank, near the irrigation o ce, were the most modern dwellings in El Nahra, two or three well- built houses of fired brick, with tiled floors and carefully cultivated gardens. This was the fashionable, the “right” side of the canal, and the tribal settlement was obviously on the wrong side. Why on earth didn’t Bob and I, foreigners and not destitute, live on the right side of the canal, I was asked by the women schoolteachers, the mayor’s wife, the engineer’s sister and the doctor’s wife, the handful of middle-class ladies in the town who entertained me at lunch and tea, polite, pleasant, and quite puzzled as to our presence in this remote village and our house among those of the tribal fellahin.
Khadija, the engineer’s sister, was from a tribal group herself and could hardly contain her curiosity about the women of the sheik’s house; she had never visited them, as they were not of her social group. Paradoxically she would have liked nothing better, for she enjoyed visiting the hut of the man who cultivated her beautiful garden. In the gardener’s one-room shack she could sit on the
oor with his wife and daughter, drinking tea and gossiping. This kind of visit was all right—the gardener and his wife were her servants; she was expected to be
gossiping. This kind of visit was all right—the gardener and his wife were her servants; she was expected to be kind and visit them occasionally, bringing small presents of tea and sugar. But the sheik’s house? Never. She was above that sort of thing now. Her brother Jabbar, the engineer, was a self-made man. An attractive, intelligent and ambitious boy, he had graduated highest in his class from the time he entered his village primary school until he nished secondary school in his provincial capital. His achievements brought him a scholarship to the engineering college in Baghdad. Now he was an e endi, a white-collar worker; he had risen higher than any member of his family before him. His younger sister, brought to El Nahra to keep house for him, had assumed his social status without his education and intelligence; unfortunately, she had not even Jabbar’s good looks in her favor. She worked at dressing smartly and learning to make crème caramel, she obediently visited the teachers and the mayor’s wife, tried hard to keep up with the latest song successes of Abdul Wahab and Um Khalthum, and asserted that she wanted to learn to read and write, but she was equipped for her role neither by training nor by native intelligence.