In fact, Guests of the Sheik is, quite simply, one of the best ethnographies ever written. Today, of course, its description of rural Iraq is hugely relevant for Americans. But beyond its current salience the book excels in so many other ways as well. It succeeds in achieving the ultimate anthropological goal of painting a picture of both a society in general and a group of people in particular. It traces the development of the anthropologist as she moves from being a newcomer to an insider. It tells a story of rapport with a host community, but ends ambivalently by insisting fieldwork never erases the difference between the anthropologist and her ‘people’. Above all it is written so well, so clearly, so lucidly, and so honestly. At the end of the day you feel that the story succeeds not just because of the skill of the author, but because of the incredible bigness of her heart. Not everyone could have done this fieldwork, or been so charitable in describing it.
In fact, one of the problems of Guest of the Sheik is that it is so good, has such wide appeal, and is so easy to read that it would be easy to miss how great a book it is. Beneath funny anecdotes of housekeeping in Iraq lie a complex relationship with her husband and his fieldwork which allows readers to both read her account against the grain, but to attempt to triangulate both of their personalities through their views of each other. Her attempt to humanize Shiite ecstatic religious practice and the restriction of women to the private sphere is admirable, but sometimes not always articulable to the wider demand for social justice which prompts the exercise in the first place. Ambivalence about modernization, the inevitable human weakness of its proponents, and the good and bad reasons traditionalists had for rejecting it are all presented in a detailed way. This is a book that is easy to read, but it is also, literally, a book of enduring worth—one that can be read and discussed about again and again.
I have to look for it!