Emotions in their Cultural Contexts: the Case of Lila Abu-Lughod’s Analysis of Bedouin Ghinnawa

 The night of the beloved’s parting

Cloudcover, no stars and no moon…

(A ghinnawa in Abu-Lughod, 1985)

Before I was introduced to the anthropological study of emotions, I have always thought of my feelings, may it be of love, annoyance, anxiety, anger, or grief, as something that exclusively resides in the realm of my person – somewhere, as the poem alludes to, hidden in the cloudcover, no stars and no moon. It is, for me, something that is personal, private and secluded from the prying eyes of the public. For one, this may be because I was raised in a family that is never totally honest and transparent with our emotions. There seems to be (at least this is how I feel it) an unspoken rule in our family to settle, cope or appropriate our own individual emotions, until of course to the point of breakdown when one simply needs to talk it out to our parents or my sisters. Secondly, added to this pervading family attitude, is my adoption of ‘western’ values and mindset that glorifies privacy of emotions and individual freedom, something that may be attributed to my exposure to American media and ‘white’ literature.

It is quite interesting then to read Lila Abu-Lughod talk about emotions and how its study is “essentialized, relativized” (Abu-Lughod and Lutz, 1990, 3) and given focus as an important ‘psychobiological process’ that reverberates in a movement from within and then occasionally (but ultimately) shared by a community – emotions that becomes social and public. Her study focuses on emotions as cultural products reproduced in individuals as an embodied experience. Abu-Lughod argues that we must ask not just what the cultural meanings of various emotions are and how emotional configurations might be related to social life, but “how emotional discourses are implicated in the play of power and the operation of a historically changing system of social hierarchy” (Abu-Lughod and Lutz, 1990).

Lila Abu-Lughod is an Egyptian-American anthropologist who did much of her fieldwork among the Bedouins in Egypt, especially in the community of the Awlad ‘Ali. She is internationally recognized for her contributions to feminist anthropology, to studies of power and resistance (inspired by Foucault) and to the politics of gender in the Middle East (www.anthrobase.com). She explores these and other issues in her monograph “Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society (1986)” and in “Shifting Politics in Bedouin Love Poetry” as part of a collection in “Language and the Politics of Emotion”. She further explored the dynamics of emotions and the politics of sentiments in a feminist perspective in “Modest Women, Subversive Poems: The Politics of Love in an Egyptian Bedouin Society”.

In Modest Women, Subversive Poems and Shifting Politics, Lila Abu-Lughod describes a genre of poetry known among the Egyptian Bedouins as ghinnawa:

[… ] known in Egypt as the ghinnawa (little song) and in Libya as ‘alam or sob. Reminiscent of Japanese haiku in its brevity and condensation of language, but the American blues in emotional tone, the ghinnawa could be considered the poetry of personal life. (Abu-Lughod, 1986)

The ghinnawa, added Abu-Lughod, are “recited in the midst of ordinary conversations between intimates although they are also sung when people are alone working” (1986) and often “special weight is attached to the messages conveyed in this medium and people are moved, often to tears by the sentiments expressed.” (1985). As recited poetry, often in weddings and other gatherings, they are private expressions of emotions that come to inhabit the public sphere. One description gives us the cultural and personal significance of the ghinnawa:

It is one of the most cherished types of Bedouin poetry, and people find it very moving. One woman said, ‘Beautiful poetry makes you cry.’ The poems carry sentiments, especially about people’s personal situations and their intimate relationship about people’s personal situations and their intimate relationships to others. One of the most common themes of the ghinnawa is love. (1986)

The title of her essay “Modest Women, Subversive Poems” (1986) already captures the essence of the dynamics happening in the ghinnawa poetry and the Bedouins.  Abu-Lughod talks about how hasham, or modesty defines the Awlad ‘Ali women, an “internal state of shyness, embarrassment or shame” and in her analysis, marked by a strong feminist stance, “the denial of sexuality” (1986). Hasham defines the good woman, while gawya (willful) and ghaba (slut) describes a bad girl or woman. She mentions several cases of these traits but it is clear from her articles that a woman ought to be distant and passive, no excesses for desire or love, showing no public affection to her husband, or veiled in the sense of self-effacement mandated by the community. Yet Abu-Lughod is careful not to sweepingly target Islam for this attitude:

“Rather than looking at Islam, we need to look at Bedouin social structure, based on the priority of social relationships of consanguinity and organization in terms of patrilineal descent, to understand why expressing sexuality or romantic love might be defiant. “ (1986)

But here the interesting question was raised: why are the ghinnawa poems full of romantic, sometimes implicitly sexual, and just generally un-hasham content? One example she cites is the case of Safiyya who was divorced from the man she had been married to for almost twenty years and who “showed an aggressive nonchalance that was fairly typical of the way Bedouin women speak of their husbands, trying to appear uninterested”, an attitude that fairly speaks of hasham. Yet Abu-Lughod describes a scene between Safiyya and several other women in which Safiyya suddenly recited a poem “that everyone knew was about her husband” (1986). Here appears a different Safiyya, a woman full of loss and love:

Memories stirred of the beloved

Should I release, I’m flooded by them…

Oh eyes of mine be strong;

You cherish people, and then they’re gone…

Abu-Lughod further emphasized that “modest women regularly expressed ‘immodest’ feelings in ghinnawas”.  This seemingly polar attitude and sentiment was analyzed by Abu-Lughod in the context of the social structure of the Awlad ‘Ali Bedouins. She considers the semi-nomadic, agnatic, patriarchal and patrilineal characteristic of the Awlad ‘Ali as important causes of this disjunction between hasham attitude and the subversive nature of the ghinnawa. She explains that “love and the bonds it might establish between individuals are not just threats to the framework that orders social relations, but are also talked about as threats to the solidarity of the paternal kin group” (1990) and that “through their poetry [they declare their] experience more than what their modest actions reveal” (1986). As a group based on an agnatic political system and a cultural preference for “patrilateral parallel cousin marriage”, love and marriage are considered as threats to this system and hence subsumed in the code of the hasham under the “prior and more legitimate bond of kinship.” (1990) She explains further:

The threat marriage represents to the solidarity of the agnatic group and its challenge to the authority and control of the group’s elders is counteracted at every point by social and ideological strategies. (1986)

Abu-Lughod calls the ghinnawa as “the Bedouin discourse of defiance” (1990). Emotions stifled by hasham and the exacting social structure opens up like a dam in the freedom of poetry. We must note that the Bedouins are nomadic desert people before the Egyptian state imposed structures external to their customs and traditions and that they are proud of their noble past as politically independent, hence sentiments “that challenge the social system and the authority of the elders, are not just tolerated or not disapproved of but actually admired” (1990). The ghinnawa then are celebrated as distinctively Bedouin and that the defiance that it embodies captures the very essence of how they see (or saw) themselves as autonomous and free. She also shows how this emotional discourse in the form of the ghinnawa come to have new social meaning and a different social basis as the Bedouin political economy is being transformed. She concludes with the use of discourse as the object of analysis in the study of emotions, “inseparable from and interpenetrated with changing power relations in social life” (1990) and emotions as “something worth analyzing critically rather than universalizing”(1990).

Several insights can be gleaned from the case presented to us in the Shifting Politics and Modest Women, Subversive Poems. One is the method of analysis used by Abu-Lughod in explicating the play of the cultural and personal spheres using verbal art and another is the local application of her conclusions.

Abu-Lughod’s use of oft-considered ‘non-documents’ such as oral narratives, songs, poetry or folklore genre adds to the growing body of studies that reclaims fragmented voices in order to assert these non-documents’ force in the world. Cyril Conde’s “A Theory of Kadungung in Ibalon and Osipon”, Reynaldo Ileto’s “Pasyon and Revolution”, Herminia Coben’s “Verbal Arts in Philippine Indigenous Communities” and Rosario Cruz-Lucero’s “Ang Bayan sa Labas ng Maynila” are indeed fine specimens of this kind methodology. Conde, for example, uses the osipon genre of Bikolano literature to stitch together the lost fragments of the epic Ibalon, while Ileto uses the narratives in the Pasyon to provide a “history from below” and an alternative view of Philippine History from 1840-1910. These non-traditional sources of information rest on interpretive approaches to make (more) sense of mainstream academic areas thereby representing other contexts and forces that shape a community.  Coben writes that these performances of verbal art are “situated in a social context” and it is “precisely that social interaction that enables verbal art performance to transform, not simply reflect, social life” (2009, 1).

Abu-Lughod was aware of these social interactions when she interpreted the dynamics of ghinnawa within the social structure of the Awlad ‘Awli Bedouins. The spoken word then, may it be in the form of poetry, riddles, sawikain or osipon, forms an important part in the methods of anthropological inquiry because it exists within the cultural ideal and subsists in the psychic energies of the individual within a culture. Cognitive and Psychological Anthropology will find a treasure trove of information within these forms verbal arts waiting to be explicated and ultimately to help us, as Geertz claimed, “understand the other’s understanding”.

Several local applications of her method can be relevant to a wide variety of subject matters. One example is the folk narratives (e.g. the tutul of the T’boli) of Indigenous Peoples regarding climate change, issues they are currently facing (i.e. land acquisition, indigenous peoples rights) or even to a study of the sentiments towards politics and politicians expressed implicitly or explicitly in the Bikolano tigsik. Abu-Lughod’s conclusion that emotions also reside in the public sphere, often hidden in verbal arts, yet articulating hidden tensions in the social life of the individuals, is also applicable in the study of different cultural groups in the Philippines. In this Sama Dilaut riddle, for instances, the sentiments of the sea-gypsy comes alive:

Music from the sea, dancing ashore.

(Waves and coconut palms)



Angigal mandea.]

(Goyak maka selok)

(Coben, 2009, 356)

Here, the Sama Dilaut paints using a commonplace genre, the tension in which he is in, of being a “flotsam” as the Tausug would pejoratively refer to them, of being geopolitically marginalized, and then one can also sense the intimate “conjunction of the land sea” embedded in his worldview. All this in one riddle of the Sama Dilaut. How much more in a compendium of Philippine verbal arts?

In the ghinnawa, Abu-Lughod found a veritable source of information that opens up a community’s ideals, structure and the individual’s appropriation of her emotions within a very exacting, even stifling social structure. She showed the pragmatic force of poetry (and other verbal arts) in the anthropological understanding of emotions that is both personal but sometimes (relative to the culture) acquiring a social dimension.

Indeed, the ghinnawa speaks of love, loss, partings and joy, and  at the same time revealing a people’s soul – hiding, in a cloudcover, no stars, no moon…

Sources Cited:

Abu-Lughod, Lila and Lutz, Catherine A. Language and the Politics of Emotion (Studies in Emotion and Social Interaction). University of Cambridge: Press Syndicate (1990).

Abu-Lughod, Lila. Shifting Politics in Bedouin Love Poetry. In Language and the Politics of Emotion (Studies in Emotion and Social Interaction). University of Cambridge: Press Syndicate (1990). 24-45.

___________________. Honor and the Sentiments of Loss in a Bedouin Society. In American Ethnologist, Vol. 12, No. 2. (May, 1985). 245-261.

___________________. Modest Women, Subversive Poems: the Politics of Love in an Egyptian Bedouin Society. In Bulletin (British Society for Middle Eastern Studies), Vol. 13, No. 2. (1986). 159-168.

Coben, Herminia M. Verbal Arts in Philippine Indigenous Communities (Poetics, Society, and History). Manila: Ateneo de Manila Press (2009).

www.anthrobase.com. Abu-Lughod, Lila (b. 1952). Retrieved on July 10, 2013.


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