Fertile Bonds: Bedouin Class, Kinship, and Gender in the Bekaa Valley

cover image

By: Suzanne E. Joseph

Fertile Bonds: Bedouin Class, Kinship, and Gender in the Bekaa Valley. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2013. 256 pp. $63.81. ISBN: 978-0813044613.

Volume: 1 Issue: 8

December 2013

Review by:

Steven C. Dinero, PhD

Philadelphia University

Philadelphia, PA

Ethnographies about the changing lives of the Bedouin communities of the Middle East and North Africa have become relatively commonplace over the past few decades. Growing out of the Orientalist tradition of Patai, Musil, and Lawrence, the late 20th century saw a spate of these works, including, most notably, Emanuel Marx’s landmark monograph, Bedouin of the Negev (Praeger, 1967).

No work of note considered the Bedouin of Lebanon, however–until now. This volume seeks to fill a long standing void in the anthropological literature by analyzing the changes now occurring among the Bedouin communities of the Bekaa Valley. Specifically, Joseph seeks here to look at social change most especially, and to do so by analyzing the communities through the lenses of reproductive behaviors, fertility patterns, gender role change, and shifts in regional demographic growth and development.

For example, Joseph looks at the intersections of family size, levels of polygyny, and divorce rates in the evolving Bedouin community (pp. 87-88). In so doing, she seeks to find evidence here of the ways and means through which women are now exercising greater control over their bodies, their relationships with one another and further, their ability to leverage new aspects of their growing power and control vis-á vis their husbands and other men in the community.

Similarly, she looks at the role of social cohesion and kinship. Using consanguineal marriage as her primary area of discussion, Joseph addresses the ways and means through which kinship is repeatedly reiterated, forged and maintained during a period of stress and change (p. 101). At the same time, however, Joseph also rightly notes that economic class (that is to say, wealth and poverty) also play a key role here; across the spectrum of Bedouin (and indeed, non-Bedouin) communities, it is the poor, in addition to women, who often serve as the vanguards of “traditional culture” (pp. 109-11).

She poses a discussion of the demographic-transition model of socioeconomic development to make this case. She writes: “Villagization and rural industrialization precipitated a decline in Bedouin pastoralism and an increase in agricultural sharecropping and wage labor. Once Bedouins [sic] lost access to the means of production (in terms of livestock and grazing lands), they became increasingly reliant on their labor for survival” (p. 127). Dependence upon monetary finances rose, while in turn, just as the model suggests, family size has slowly begun to shrink (p. 130).

Such conclusions in and of themselves are hardly unexpected. What is unexpected, and what makes this volume worth reading and worth using as a brief but handy reference, is its effective usage of a critical feminist framework. For much too long, Western feminists have viewed women’s concerns such as fertility, polygyny, hijab/modesty dress, and other aspects of Muslim/Middle Eastern life through an Orientalist’s neo-colonial perspective. The “oppressed woman” narrative is strongly ingrained in the minds of many objective observers. And yet here, Joseph is one of very few to recognize this shortcoming in the literature (pp. 73-77), and it is here too that this volume is particularly strong.

That being said, the book does suffer from a few shortcomings of its own–most if not all of which I attribute to the editing process, if not to the author herself. The one issue which I feel is the most outstanding concerns the inclusion of Chapters 7 and 8. Virtually all of the material here is ideally suited to the interested demographer, but seems to go off on a tangent relative to the previous six chapters. For me at least, it reads like a literature review for a dissertation with little connection to Bedouin communities widely, or to the Bekaa specifically. One almost gets the sense that this material has been added on in order to lengthen the book. In my view at least, it adds little to the argument already constructed in the rest of the volume.

I have a few additional quibbles. For such a brief work, it seems strange that there would be repeated material, sometimes almost verbatim (pp. 85, 111, and so on). Further, the Index is incomplete. Terminology is inconsistent: For example I think that in 2013, it’s safe and reasonable to refer to the “Zionist entity” (pp. 15; 21) by its actual name without suggesting any political bias, and that seems to be the case here too when the “Israelis” are also mentioned (p. 44). Lastly, for the popular media to add an “s” to “Bedouin” to make it plural may be excusable; but here, in an academic work?

Unfortunately, the list of distractions goes on. The Bekaa Bedouin are repeatedly compared to the men and women of the Bible–a questionable methodological approach, in my view, which does not further the author’s argument. Nor, for that matter, does it help to compare their condition to that of the Jews of Europe during the Nazi period (p. 68).

All of this being said, this volume has quite a bit of interesting information to offer. If one is willing to negotiate through some of its weaker areas, there is a wealth of worthwhile theoretical and empirical material to be found and mined.

Reviews By Year

Reviews By Category