Everyday Life in the Muslim Middle East

  • Published

Everyday Life in the Muslim Middle East, 3rd ed. by Donna Lee Bowen, Evelyn A. Early, and Becky Schulthies (editors). Indiana University Press, 2014, 481 pp.

This is an important book in many respects, particularly for security studies professionals to read and reflect upon. It is also useful for nonspecialists, who can learn fascinating lessons about life, customs, habits, and so much more in the Muslim Middle East. The book covers many aspects of life in the region, including gender relations, expression, generations, community, and Islam in everyday life. While it is impossible to summarize all 37 chapters, several stand out in importance, clarity, and scholarship.

The chapters by Dawn Chatty and Jenny White on marriage, divorce, and family dynamics make for insightful reading, as does Sherine Hamdy’s reading on the family and religious dynamics of kidney transplants in Egypt. Chapters on sexual and reproductive issues cover Tunisia and Iran and indicate how parental pressures and interpretations of Islam can cause particular complications for young women (though chapters on sexuality were inexplicably interrupted by a chapter on Qatari car culture). Ziba Mir-Hosseini illustrates the complexities that Islam—as understood in Iran—adds to divorce. Donna Bowen’s piece on the contradictions faced by young Jordanian women in wearing hijab raises significant questions about religious and cultural choices; does hijab mean purity, conformity, or something else? Melani Cammett’s chapter on social benefits in Lebanon shows both how the state often fails but that private providers such as Hezbollah and the Future Movement fill in some of the void. Diane Singerman’s chapter on jobs in Egypt shows a similar dependence on informal networks to overcome the friction of state agencies.

Donna Lee Bowen’s chapter on zakat (Islamic tithing) is priceless, as is Robert Bianchi’s piece on the sociology of the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, which shows the challenging side of hajj bureaucracy. Evelyn Early’s discussion of religious television reminds of Egypt’s tradition of “moderation” (wassetiyya) despite radical religious media voices. The oft-misunderstood Sufi appear in Brian Silverstein’s reading, which is important to understand, partly because Sufism is connected to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The last section on performance and expression contains a chapters by Walter Ambrust on the constructed martyrdom of Sally Zahran, who was beaten to death during Egypt’s 2011 uprising; Jonathan Shannon’s on the sounds of the Syrian civil war, with antiregime songs and musical notes to the unity of Syria; and Steven Caton’s analysis of poetry from Yemen’s civil war; and Lila Abu-Lughod on music of the Western Desert. These are fitting conclusions for a book that truly details and presents daily live in the Muslim Middle East.

Like many edited books, this one suffers from too many short chapters, and the sections are not always cohesive. Numerous chapters are constructed from a few personal stories (divorce in Iran, for example), so generalizations become difficult at best. There are strengths, though, that make the book valuable, including the quality of fieldwork performed by the authors, most of whom spent time in troubled places like Gaza and gained the trust of their contacts, providing astute commentary on the cultural and political conditions they encountered. Chapters like Simon Hawkins vista of Tunisian medina vendors makes up in rich descriptions what it lacks in generalization.

David S. Sorenson

Air War College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."