Visiting in Zabid

Anne Meneley, Tournaments of Value: Sociability and Hierarchy in a Yemeni Town.
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996, xxx + 216 pp., glossary, index, ISBN 0-8020-0883-6 and 0-8020-7868-0 (paper), HQ1730.7.Z9Z325 1996

Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 40 (1998):#4

Of the several book-length ethnographies now available on Yemen, none dealt exclusively with the Tihama region until Anne Meneley's recent anthropological study of urban visiting in Zabid. Was it the heat that deferred so many anthropologists to amore conducive highland climate? If you have visited Zabid in the summer, you will realize this is not an idle question. Meneley (p.31) records a quip from Zabidi women that goes "If we go to hell[nar] after we die, we'll say, 'Oh is this all? This is NOTHING, we're from ZABID!'" But mad dogs and anthropologists often do go out in the midday sun, and Anne Meneley arrived in Zabid inJune, 1989, with her architect husband, Vaidila Banelis. We can all be glad she did, since the present volume is a welcome contribution to understanding an important part of a very diverse Yemeni society. This is a refreshing read to soften the rigid contours of our understanding of Yemen from the sheer published bulk on highland towns and tribal contexts.

I have always been attracted to quotes at the openings of chapters. Having finished reading the book, I see why the quote chosen to introduce the book's Introduction is "In the distinctive sphere of our social life, we can never remain at rest"(Marcel Mauss, The Gift). Certainly Zabidi women never remain at rest. As Meneley (p. 3) explains up front: "Everyday life among Zabidi women involves a complex series of social events, governed byan elaborate etiquette, through which familial social status and community identity are constituted. This vibrant sociability is the motif for this book." As you visit this ethnography, you will be welcomed by a readable text chock full of ethnographic examples. It is the kind of ethnography that I like to read -- no attempt to dazzle with obfuscation but a ready and steady pace to explain what it means to be social by someone who went through it in context.

The book is divided into eight chapters,sandwiched between an introduction and conclusion. The introduction gives useful background on the social context of Zabid at the time the author lived there. A central thesis of the book is succinctly summed up in the chapter entitled "Tournaments of Value," i.e.,"Zabidi women, through hosting and visiting, create rather than merely uphold the honour of their families" (p. 38). The chapter and book title stem from Appadurai's acclaimed The Social Life of Things in describing dynamic competition in public arenas. The first two chapters describe the issue of visiting by women of the elite families, drawing on Meneley's participant observation and interviews. Chapter three zeroes in on social structure, the nature of the bayt economically, structurally, symbolically. Here the issue of marriage arrangement is also discussed. Then the author examines the issue of modesty, a dominant theme in the study. This provides an interesting comparison to the ethnographic study of the Awlad Ali Bedouin by Lila Abu Lughod, one of Meneley's mentors at NYU. The Zabidi term, istihya', is described as "an umbrella-like concept to which other emotions are structured in reference" (p. 81). Included here is a brief discussion of female circumcision (informants were quite reluctant to discuss this), a practice not found in the highland areas. Note that this is literally "circumcission" of a newborn infant girl, not the clitoridectomy or infibulation practiced in parts of Egypt and Africa. Chapter five returns to visiting as such, with a focus on the etiquette involved. A key argument here evolves around the"conspicuous consumption" or at least the overt displays houses use to gain admiration in Zabidi society. The next chapter expands on these and other themes in relation to visiting at weddings and mournings, which Meneley describes as "moments when the host family essentially demands recognition from its associates" (p. 140). Emotion is discussed in the next chapter followed by the role of moral worth and piety, with the prominent example of attending mawlids. The conclusion uses two case studies of houses to draw together the main points of the book. Ultimately, Meneley argues that for the elite families of Zabid "one must balance the desire to be a member of a distinguished family in this world with the obligation to be a humble, pious person before God" (p. 194). Hearkening back to the opening quote, the last line gives the crux: "One can never remain at rest or relax one's vigilance in comportment" (p. 194).

There is much to praise in this book. I start first with the sound sense of professional ethics. Meneley's Zabidi informants requested that no real family names be used and none are. "There are no photographs of those with whom I worked, as this would be an infringement of their standards of modesty," adds Meneley (p. xiv). "Instead there are pictures of their male relatives and children, of the men's counterparts of women's social events, and the houses they inhabit." Some anthropologists routine lygo ahead and publish only by the standards of their own society, but Meneley rightfully returns the respect shown her in the field.

This is also solid ethnography. Whether or not you agree with every interpretation, data are provided to enlighten the reader. While her own role as outside ethnographer is carefully considered, it does not (nor should it, I think) take center stage. This is a book about what Zabidi women of elite families do when they visit and why they and the anthropologist think they do it. There are numerous comparisons to other studies in Yemen and on related issues in the Middle East, most notably the work of Dale Eickelman and Lila Abu Lughod. Gender is an overriding concern from the first page, yet this is not so much a book about Zabidi women as it is about the roles they play in the context observed by the anthropologist. In short, we can use more of this level of ethnography for Yemen and indeed anywhere in the Middle East.

The book is quite deliberately not an ethnography of Zabid, nor can it be used to describe a coastal or Tihama societal structure as such, however much we may be tempted by the simple lack of suitable comparative data for the region. This is, of course, healthy, since all ethnography is local before it can be stretched to other purposes. It is also very much an ethnographic-present presentation. Given the rich history of Zabid,one would hope the author would integrate historical data into future publications on her research. There is much of value to come from such a union.

All books have weaknesses in the eyes of reviewers, even our own when we choose to admit it. A weakness I find here is the lack of information from the Khadim or Akhdam point of view. How the elite families view the so-called Akhdam is a prominent feature in the text, yet it is not clear what the Akhdam think about all this. Surely the earlier work by Delores Walters,also at NYU, on Akhdam in 'Abs might have shed more light on the Akhdam issue Meneley had painted for her from an elite Zabidi brush. Indeed follow-up research on these kinds of class issues would be most useful, especially given the ambiguous role "Akhdam" (to the extent "they" call themselves that) plays in Yemeni social politics.

Another missing element in the analysis is the sort of hard data about visiting patterns, marriage arrangements and household economic status that a more sociological study might have included. I am reminded here of Martha Mundy's analysis in Wadi Dahr, where the mapping of family networks plays a critical role. Were these data impossible to collect? I doubt such a statistical thrust would invalidate the arguments in the ethnography, but certainly they would expand in a supporting role on the intuition that drives much of the analysis here. We are, as is often the casein the discipline, at the mercy of the anthropologist leading us by the hand through the limited data provided.

Without attempting to analyze each sentence,I noticed a number of printing errors. These include: "follow" for"followed" on p. 71, the word "of" is missing on line 8 of p. 75, the word "the" appears twice in a row on line 22 of p. 178, "rurual" for"rural" on p. 197. The meager glossary has several careless errors. For example, "'arb'ayõn" cannot be correct usage,"bukhûr" is usually "bakhûr", "dâ'õf"should have a dot under the d, "farah" should have a dot under the h.

The bottom line? Anyone concerned about Yemeni social structure or with an interest in Zabid needs to own this book. It is a valuable contribution to Yemeni Studies and a clear and concise ethnography with shelf value and inspiration for others to do similar research.


Book Excerpt: Introduction

"...Within a few days we had found a charming, if tired, house to rent. The once-wealthy owners had fallen on hard times, and the section of their house we were to rent was long past its prime. Its comfort and charm revived a bit after the bats and pigeons had been evicted and our landlords arranged for the windows to be fixed. We also installed a new front door --complete with doorbell -- and fixed the wooden partition between the two sections of the house. In this way, we ensured a certain degree of privacy and established ourselves as a 'family' distinct from that of our landlords. I am grateful for the aid of my landlady. Without even feigning the faintest interest in my research, she nonetheless furthered my understanding of Zabidi society a great deal with her explicit lectures on comportment. In time I welcomed her designation of herself as my 'mother in Yemen' who would watch over me while I was far off from my mother in Canada. Although I insisted on an independence that was hardly daughterly, we became very close.

We were welcomed in Zabid with a warmth and generosity notable even in Yemen, a country known for hospitality,despite some ambivalence about non-Muslims from the 'deacadent' Western world. Our arrival in Zabid coincided with the beginning of the wedding season and before we had finished arranging our house,both my husband and I were swamped with invitations to weddings -- my husband to the men's events and I to the women's. In Zabid, weddings are the most important cultural events. Zabidis consider an invitation to a wedding reception the perfect way of introducing a foreigner to the style of Zabidi hospitality of which they are immensely proud. Huge tent like structures are erected; wooden frames are covered in cotton fabric, and are decorated to convey an air of opulence. The interior walls and ceilings of the tents are covered with brightly coloured carpets. Bunches of bananas and ornaments covered in jasmine flowers are hung from the ceilings. At my first wedding reception, I found couches arranged like bleachers to allow all of the guests -- at least a thousand -- a view of the raised dais. Here the bride sat in all her finery, surrounded by dozens of wildly excited little girls, who were vying with each other for a chance to dance to the music which was blaring from speakers. The guests were hardly less splendid that the bride, bedecked with gold jewelry and brilliantly coloured gowns. Jasmine flowers set off their hair, and their hands and feet were adorned with henna and khidhab (a temporary black tatoo in a lacy design.) I found the sheer scale of events as astounding and impressive as my Zabidi hosts had hoped I would, and this gathering was only one in a series of week-long parties celebrating this particular wedding, and this wedding was only one of the dozens of similar weddings held that summer.

The necessity of recognizing others in the community by accepting invitations to their homes or wedding parties was immediately obvious. I expected women's visiting to be important as it is so often mentioned in ethnographic and travel literature about the Arabian Peninsula. However, I was not prepared for the emotional intensity that accompanied the organization of these visits. Women's social life in Zabid is a hectic one of perpetual motion, and obligations to others are forever being weighed, juggled,fulfilled, or neglected. The process of recognition draws on terms like 'anger' [za'al], 'love' [hubb],and 'shame' ['ayb] and is subject to continual negotiation.

Learning about one's expected social obligations was not mysterious. Zabidi women are not at all reluctant to express what they think of one's behaviour and try to direct it in what they consider appropriate ways. The constant questioning of another's activities is an accepted convention employed in the service of interpreting and often altering the actions of others. In my first few months in Zabid I witnessed countless discussions of who had not shown up at so-and-so's wedding,of a person who had neglected one family for another, of an invitation improperly delivered or neglected entirely, and I was questioned often about my whereabouts. Immediately after I related where I had been the evening before, the interrogating woman frequently would respond with a snort and say, 'Why did you visit her instead of me?' This intense questioning was not limited to me;indeed, such interrogations are so commonplace as to be practically greetings in themselves. I soon imitated the rest of the women, who answer such queries evasively in hopes of avoiding angry accusations of neglect.

The whirl of the wedding season quieted somewhat with the beginning of the school year in the fall, although daily visits and formal invited parties continued. Keeping up with my social calls was time-consuming, but it was essential to my research. Zabidi women proudly demand respect in the form of proper greetings and visits: without these proprieties, a relationship does not exist, even for the purpose of 'research.' Not only is visiting competitive, but, on another level, sociable engagement with others is an essential element of moral personhood. My research would not have advanced without the acceptance granted to me because I behaved like a 'proper' person. Indeed, for the most part people were uninterested in whether I did research or not. My relationships were constituted as friendships rather than as ones of researcher and informant.

It is largely through the training I received in how to fulfill properly obligations to friends, neighbours, and acquaintances that my understanding of Zabidi society is derived. People who come to live in Zabid, I was told, must 'become citified' [utamaddanu], a process which is said to be accomplished when strangers begin to participate in social life in the appropriate Zabidi fashion. From a Zabidi perspective,the term connotes sophistication and refinement of manners. The confidence with which they uphold the rightness and superiority of Zabidi social life is immensely 'persuasive' both to zabidis and to outsiders who move there."

[Anne Meneley (1996) Tournaments of Value, University of Toronto Press, pp. xi-xii.]

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