Everyday Life in the Muslim Middle East

By Hurd, Robert | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 31, 1994 | Go to article overview

Everyday Life in the Muslim Middle East


Hurd, Robert, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Everyday Life in the Muslim Middle East

Edited by Donna Lee Bowen and Evelyn A. Early. Indiana University Press, 1993, 327 pp. List: $16.95; AET: $12.95 for one, $16.95 for two.

Reviewed by Robert Hurd

The authors have set out to create a general introduction to daily life in a region that few Westerners can claim to understand. At first, the idea of a single book that explains everyday life in a region that stretches from Morocco to Afghanistan and includes a number of different ethnic groups seems both impractical and unwieldy. However, Bowen and Early present a series of essays, short stories, poems and photographs that deal concisely and clearly with what would otherwise be a difficult subject.

Like Edmund Burke's Struggle and Survival in the Modern Middle East, this book focuses on the activities of ordinary people and the institutions that shape their lives. Many social scientists have demonstrated how the study of daily lives illuminates abstract cultural concepts. In choosing the daily lives of Muslim inhabitants of the Middle East, Bowen and Early are exploring the shared values and common history transmitted to these Middle Easterners through the religion of Islam.

Bowen and Early have divided their study into five sections: generations and life passages; gender relations; home, community, and work; popular expressions of religion; and performance and entertainment.

While an individual essay within a given section explores the ideas or activities of a certain people in a specific country, it may also help to explain aspects of Muslim society common throughout the Muslim Middle East. For example, Donna Lee Bowen's essay "Pragmatic Morality: Islam and Family Planning in Morocco" not only discusses the ideas of several Islamic scholars on contraception and family planning, it also introduces the role of the ulama and Islamic law in modern Muslim society. Although not every essay can be used to make wider generalizations, the editors have supplied an introduction to each section and comments on the essays to guide readers to their overall significance.

The book's first section, generation and life passages, utilizes poetry, folktales, personal narratives, and excerpts from Middle East literature, in addition to scholarly essays written by Western academics. This provides readers with direct exposure to Middle Eastern activities and emotions that might be lost in a work that relied solely on academic observations.

"Traditional Songs from Boir Ahmad" demonstrates how tribal women in Iran express their emotions at times of birth, marriage, and death through the use of songs, each containing images and metaphors that relate to the values and traditions of the tribe. The folktale "Of the Dust and the Wind" relates some of the Afghan traditions of arranged marriages. It also alludes both to the economic difficulties of providing for a marriage and the migration of the male labor force in search of economic opportunities, conditions which plague many of the less prosperous Middle East countries. …

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