Thursday, August 15, 2019

WITMonth Day 15 | "Lives of Three Generations of Bedouin Women" by Nuzha Allassad-Alhuzail | Review

You know how I often say that I feel "unqualified" to write reviews of certain books? Sometimes that's because a book just isn't to my taste and I don't feel that I can adequately speak for readers to whom the book is geared. Sometimes it's because the book involves literary references that I'll never be able to place. Sometimes it's because the book is on a topic that is far beyond my scope of experiences/knowledge, and I just have to trust the writer.

This review falls into this latter category.

The book I'm reviewing is not actually called "Lives of Three Generations of Bedouin Women"; for starters, it was written in Hebrew and this is simply the translation of the subtitle, and also not quite. In Hebrew, the full title translates to When the Shadow is Big, It's a Sign that the Sun is Going Down: The Lives of Bedouin Women through the Lens of Change (כשהצל גדול סימן שהשמש שוקעת: חייהן של נשים בדואיות בראי השינויים). But what it really is, at its core, is the lives of three generations of Bedouin women, a sociological case study looking at grandmothers, mothers, and daughters, each of whom reflects a generation in flux and a changing culture. For convenience's sake, I'll be referring to the book from here on out as Lives.

I picked this up entirely randomly. I almost never read nonfiction in Hebrew, and even the nonfiction I read in English is rarely sociological or academic in nature. (At least... academic in fields beyond my own scientific ones.) But somehow I did spot this on the shelf, and somehow I did decide to read the back cover, and as I did, I realized that I have never read anything by any Bedouin writer. Given that my familiarity with Bedouin culture is fairly limited and mostly secondhand, I decided I needed to read this book. I began it that evening and finished reading it the following day.

Lives is very much an academic work. In it, Dr. Nuzha Allassad-Alhuzail tracks various pieces of Bedouin culture changes through interviews of 10 Bedouin women, per generation. She selected 10 sets of grandmothers, mothers, and granddaughters who were willing to sit for extensive interviews. Most issues, she notes, were unguided - Allassad-Alhuzail frequently points to topics that each generation of women raised themselves. The study is fascinating from a lot of perspectives, giving voice to a community that is practically invisible in Israeli culture. Allassad-Alhuzail covers issues from polygamy, women's education, women's freedom, domestic violence, and more. She further places Bedouin societal changes within the context of greater social changes in the Western, Israeli, and Arab worlds overall. One of the more fascinating observations she includes in the book is the degree to which the shift from nomadic tents to fixed buildings frequently stripped women of long-held freedom; women-only spaces often entirely disappeared from Bedouin settlements. Thus, her research seems to suggest that the "mothers" generation faced greater struggles in terms of gender dynamics than their more traditional mothers had.

There's a lot I find fascinating about Lives. The book is written in Hebrew and is thus geared primarily for an Israeli audience, which obviously frames a lot of how it's written and meant to be interpreted. But while Allassad-Alhuzail certainly gives her readers a basic primer on Bedouin culture, she still focuses on very specifically Bedouin matters. She discusses the cultural shock that Bedouin culture has gone through, since effectively being forced into government-approved settlements. She discusses changes to religious traditions, that have shifted and changed over time. She discusses sexism through a variety of lenses, and this in particular is fascinating as a feminist reader, being reminded yet again that feminism can mean very different things in different cultural contexts.

For example, Allassad-Alhuzail points to an increase in young Bedouin women wearing more religious/covered clothing, but that this does not appear to reflect a greater religious fervor among these women. Instead, Allassad-Alhuzail notes that this clothing (which is tellingly not traditional Bedouin dress, but Muslim Palestinian-Arab) reflects a sort of armor. A young woman who is deemed conservative, well-covered, and modest will be allowed to leave the house and continue her studies. This observation struck me for a lot of reasons, but it also put a lot of personal interactions into a specific context that I had never really thought of before.

In one field, however, Allassad-Alhuzail frequently frustrated me. She spends quite a bit of time discussing Bedouin's status as indigenous peoples and comparing the fight for Bedouin rights to those of other indigenous peoples around the world, which was obviously enlightening, interesting, and very important. Yet she then attempts to draw parallels to European colonialism that simply don't apply, while also pointing to that sort of Palestinian-ification of Bedouin culture... without addressing how much Palestinian culture itself has changed in the same time period. Or that Palestinian culture itself is no longer quite as homogenous as she presents. Or the way pan-Arabism imposes certain cultural norms in a distinctly colonial fashion as well. (At no point does she acknowledge the plethora of Christian Palestinians mostly found in the north of Israel; Palestinian refers to Muslim Palestinian and glosses over modern, significant cultural distinctions between Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza with a casual broadness that is simply not reflective of reality.) Nor does Allassad-Alhuzail much address Bedouin status in other countries. It comes up in the discussion of the Bedouin indigenous status with some references to Egypt, but goes entirely ignored when specifically addressing government policy as regards Bedouins. It seemed like an odd omission in a book that is... all about changes in Bedouin society.

Yet even this frustration only emphasized how interesting I found Lives and how important I think it is. This is a book that does exactly what I often seek from the women in translation project - it introduced me to a thoroughly unfamiliar cultural context, demanded I truly involve myself in it, and then challenged me. The fact that the book is nonfiction only made it more enjoyable, in this case; I can (and will!) argue about how Allassad-Alhuzail attempts to frame pieces of her work in a broader cultural climate (hey, neither of us are experts on that!), but I have no interest or right whatsoever to argue with her about the facts of Bedouin culture. And these, Allassad-Alhuzail conveys clearly, cleanly, and intelligently. The book is informative and interesting, explanatory and engaging.

This is the sort of book I genuinely can't imagine ever getting translated, but it should (even if, again, I think that Allassad-Alhuzail takes some liberty in expanding her thesis to other fields). It's a cultural study from within that culture. It's an honest examination of good and bad; Allassad-Alhuzail writes of her own struggles as being the oh-so-rare-almost-unheard-of woman Bedouin PhD candidate. She explores her own status within the community, both as an academic and a social worker, and also how this shaped her study. She notes places in which her own experience aligns with those described by the other women of her generation; she frequently reminds the reader that she is writing from within, though the presentation is pointedly for without. I would love to see this reach more readers, whether in Hebrew, Arabic (the original interview language, albeit not of the book itself), or any other language.

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