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Hiding Behind the Words – Anthropology Research Paper (300 Level Course)

Hiding Behind the Words – Anthropology Research Paper(300 Level Course)

Within cultures across the world people express themselves and what their cultures stand for through song, stories, films, and poetry. Through her studies in the community of Awlad ‘Ali and in her book Veiled Sentiments, Lila Abu-Lughod interprets and describes the importance the poetry genre has in the Bedouin culture which exists there.

Though poetry was not initially the focus for her ethnography, it became clear that it is an extremely important staple in Bedouin life that many anthropologists before her ignored or did not notice. This poetry or ghinnawa is used by the people of Awlad ‘Ali, especially women, in specific social contexts to describe private personal situations and close relationships. Ghinnawas are means to let out everything that must usually remain hidden during everyday social life, like the faces of these women, which also are hidden day to day.

The ghinnawas are more than just little poems speckled throughout conversations and seeming to serve no purpose. As Abu-Lughod discovered after finally paying attention to the lines she constantly heard, they had a meaning and a purpose for those that spoke them. To the women of Awlad ‘Ali and other Bedouin cultures, they served to convey the hidden feelings possessed by them in a world where they must keep their emotions to themselves. Abu-Lughod found herself intimately related to the Awlad ‘Ali which allowed her to really concentrate on areas of inner social life rather than political ideas or other areas solely focused on by other main anthropologists covering the same types of people. Abu-Lughod ultimately was able to draw a clear relationship between Bedouin poetry and society.

One of the most important discoveries made by Abu-Lughod was the fact that there was a “radical difference between the sentiments expressed in [the ghinnawas] and those expressed about the same situations in ordinary social interactions and conversations,”(Abu-Lughod 31). In other words, Bedouins joke and deny concern in personal matters and express anger in difficult situations making them seem defensive. All the while they express grief and actual feelings and sentiments in their lyrics that convey vulnerability and deep attachment to others. Some of the manners of expression for the Bedouins may be understood as more authentic. The significance of the poetry is especially clear in this situation for messages portrayed through the ghinnawas are deeply meaningful and culturally central. Messages conveyed in normal social situations may be misread making the poems “critical to an understanding of Awlad ‘Ali experience,” (Abu-Lughod 32).

Abu-Lughod argues that the ghinnawas deepen understanding of central aspects of Bedouin culture. They express the way the culture really affects the individuals within the community as opposed to what the individuals say or are prompted to say about their lives. The ghinnawa is about feelings people have about situations and human relationships.
Like most oral poetry though, ghinnawas tend to be formulaic and traditional but this does not restrain them from varying immensely in creativity and they are not limited by their formulas. According to Abu-Lughod, the range of sentiments is wide and the objects of these sentiments are varied (Abu-Lughod 183). Though this is true, two generalizations can still be made about the ghinnawas.

First, the poetry tends to be negative and sad (this excludes ghinnawas sung at weddings and circumcision celebrations). Bedouins express the notion that when they are happy there is nothing to sing about. These people turn to poetry to help them through personal difficulties such as lost loves. An example taken from Veiled Sentiments shows this pain, “Tears increased, oh Lord… the beloved came to mind in the time of sadness,”(Abu-Lughod 179). Ghinnawas are rarely happy and in Veiled Sentiments, an old man said, “I sing to soothe myself. Especially in times of trouble– that is when you sing,” (Abu-Lughod 183).

The second generalization to be made about ghinnawas is that nearly all of the poems Abu-Lughod heard had to do with sentiments arising from interpersonal relationships. The most common references were to romantic love relationships between men and women (Abu-Lughod 183). Lovers use ghinnawas as a language of love and communication. In the past lovers would exchange the poetry and as some do now but now the form is written rather than sung. It was most noted though that people sing the ghinnawas when in the presence of the same sex when the opposite is nowhere nearby. At these times, most people recite rather than sing the ghinnawas and they do so in the middle of conversations. In these informal situations, people tend to sing about themselves and they situations in life. Usually in the context of these situations, the speakers either recite comments about the situation or actual sentiments felt about the situation. When related to Abu-Lughod’s argument about the central aspects of Bedouin culture, we see that the expressions of the sentiments of personal life and intimacy are also discourses of defiance.

A reason for this may spark from the need for people to be strong and invulnerable in public. Hearing someone share sentiments makes them appear weak. If we examine the ramifications this could have on Bedouin culture, weakness in public could represent a weakness when standing up to evil elements and succumbing to temptation. The possibility of this could spell disaster in a culture where the utmost purity and protection against evil is most highly valued. Defiance comes from the conscious descending of the speaker’s guard allowing things to possibly enter the mind and corrupt it. For the most part though, ghinnawas are not viewed as defiant and rather they are valued for their resourcefulness in sharing personal thoughts and feelings.

Culturally, on a gender level and perhaps of most importance to Abu-Lughod’s argument is the idea that ghinnawas most benefit women in a society where they are not to be heard any more than they are seen, which is not much. From the start boys are more desirable and more highly valued in Bedouin society than girls. Girls are seen as necessary for help with a mother’s household work, companionship with the mother, later care in life and an emotionally close relationship. Unfortunately though, they are still not preferred to boys even by their emotionally close brothers for economically, the brothers are the woman’s social security. A daughter will eventually leave and belong to somebody else but a boy will provide and support the mother in the future. This secondary status placed on girls is “based on a kind of moral inferiority defined by the standards of the honor code by which individuals are measured,” (Abu-Lughod 123). According to Abu-Lughod, males and females are symbolically opposed in Bedouin thought. Being opposing forces and secondary in status only leaves women with the obligation to come second and leave their feelings and desires covered so that they may work and do as they are supposed to in front of and for men. In this society which demands a woman to remain hidden both physically and emotionally, ghinnawas are the perfect emotional outlet.

Ghinnawas not only allow feelings to be conveyed to others, but they are done so in a manner that the poems can almost only be understood in the context by which they were spoken. Those that hear a poem will not really understand it until they know who it was that spoke it. Sometimes the speaker can be determined by the poem before she is actually revealed. Knowledge of the life of a woman and her experiences allows the analysis of the poetry given and her feelings depicted are understood as those she felt at the time of the situation.

This is all while keeping in mind most poems are negative, thus the situations tend to be sad ones such as a lost love or death. The secrecy of understanding poems only in their contexts permits women to continue sharing sentiments in their own world that is lived in silence while in the presence of men. The main way to maintain this secrecy amongst the women though is to not even share their ghinnawas in front of men at all, for they are sacred amongst the women and are only shared within the female groups. In her early studies of the ghinnawas, the male leader’s wife scolds Abu-Lughod herself when she shared a woman’s poem with him and asked him to decipher it. She was told never to reveal women’s poetry to men (Abu-Lughod 27).

A woman’s sentiments and body are to remain hidden in Bedouin society and Abu-Lughod really aims to express the value ghinnawas have culturally in a world where honor is given to those that shut themselves up and out from the polluting outer world.
A woman that veils is raised to understand that purity and modesty is achieved and respected by protecting herself from the outer world which can possess evils and temptations. A woman who wears a veil is untouched and unseen making her desirable for she has established an honorable reputation as one who has not tempted others herself. If the woman were to expose herself to the elements, her soul and body would become vulnerable to the evils that lurk and her entire belief system could be sacrificed. This observation is highly linked to Abu-Lughod’s argument about the cultural importance of the ghinnawas.

A woman who keeps her mouth closed and does not demonstrate any real feelings to upsetting situations is honored and revered as one who is strong. She also is not vulnerable to the elements for she can keep herself together for practical purposes. When work is to be done, there is no room or time to stop and lament a lost love. Thus, much like the veiling, sentiments are to remain hidden away. In this respect, we can understand how Abu-Lughod’s title Veiled Sentiments related to her argument. Ghinnawas are indeed just that, sentiments which are veiled or hidden from the main players in society and only revealed in more intimate circumstances such as around women who can associate and understand the emotions being experienced. Once one comprehends Abu-Lughod’s work it is understandable to concede that without ghinnawas, the Bedouin society would be a most cold, defensive, and shallow environment. Thus, it is of utmost importance for these short poems to exist so that the real members and the souls of Bedouin society can be seen rather than the decoys they consciously present.

It becomes possible after hearing and analyzing ghinnawas to grasp a real understanding for the central aspects of Bedouin culture, which we cannot usually see such as the importance love and family. This is wonderfully argued and examined by Lila Abu-Lughod in her important book, Veiled Sentiments.