Written by: Jake Yeandle
Summary of Contents
Daughters of Tunis, by Paula Holmes-Eber, is an ethnography that was published in 2003, with the majority of research coming from trips that Holmes-Eber took in 1986-1987 and later, when she revisited in 1993. The ethnography follows four stories of four different women, all of whom have different backgrounds – some are married, some are not, some are educated and some are not. This diversification in the women studied allows for Holmes-Eber to show the differences in their kin networks and how they interact with each other. Daughters of Tunis takes a detailed look at the social, economic, and cultural practices within this particular area of the Middle East and tackles topics such as the role of men and women throughout the community, the ways in which someone’s home is used for public and private relations, wealth/class differences between certain families and how that affects their social networks, and the role of increasingly prominent education in a place so deeply rooted in cultural tradition. Aysecan Terzioglu summarizes the book particularly well in describing that it is written in such a way that “enables non-Middle Eastern readers to relate to the social lives and concerns of women in Tunis” (Terzioglu 2011).
Evaluation of Characteristics
Good student ethnographies, in my opinion, are pieces of writing that are relatable for students. Over my vast experience as a student (I feel like 14 years of schooling gives a person just about enough credibility to be able to use his or her own opinions), I have noticed that the majority of students, when assigned a reading of any kind, feel like they would rather walk up and down Nicholson Tower five times than touch the book or download the PDF file. My point being that student ethnographies need to be engaging, not full of scientific jargon, and written with that fact in mind, if they want to grab any sort of traction with their audience. That being said, I think that Daughters of Tunis does a great job of appealing to their student readership. I’ve isolated 3 of the most relevant features from Marcus & Cushman’s list of ethnography characteristics that apply to this book. Firstly, Holmes-Eber ensures that there is a plethora of ethnographic field data in this book. She incorporates it into every chapter telling stories of her visits, interviews, and meetings with the women of Tunis. For example, in Chapter Six, ‘Intimate Economies’, she has a conversation with Nura about assistance and sharing patterns within her network and how often she visits her family saying, “It is clear that Nura feels very close to her natal family” (Holmes-Eber 2003). There is one thing that I believe is lacking in her field data though, and this is the same point Lilia Labidi made in her review, Holmes-Eber did not collect any information from any men (Labidi 2006). In my opinion, this may give a skewed view of the ethnography given the fact that is written by a woman, contains all information from women, and yet gives a description of the whole culture Perhaps the ethnography would have been more fulsome if there were interviews from males as well. The next important characteristic present in this ethnography is the language within it. This will mix two of Marcus and Cushman’s characteristics together – ‘Scientific Jargon’ and ‘Use of Native Concepts & Discourses’. At no point within this ethnography did I feel it was too “jargon-heavy”. Even though Holmes-Eber used native language throughout the ethnography, she managed to keep a balance throughout the book making sure she explained any foreign words or phrases. For example, on the very first page she quotes a lady named Hannan saying, “Aq’ad, aq’ad”, which she then translates into ‘sit sit’ in the English language (Holmes-Eber 2003). The last characteristic that I think is the most influential in this ethnography is Willis & Trondmans “Centrality of Culture” characteristic. Even though, as Holmes-Eber points out, the examined culture is going through extensive change, their long-held traditions are still extremely important. The book provides the reader an insightful lens; by painting a picture it allows us to experience a ‘world’ that we may not be able to otherwise. This is illustrated when Holmes-Eber discusses male-female interaction and how, traditionally, it was not prevalent before marriage, as arranged marriages were the norm. But as education has become more widespread “women and men are increasingly having a say in selecting their own mate” (Holmes-Eber 2003).
Out of the multiple audiences we’ve studied over the course of the semester there are a few that I think would benefit from reading this ethnography. The first is, of course, a student audience as I talked about previously because of the fact that Holmes-Eber made this ethnography so relatable for the student level. The next readership that could benefit from this ethnography is area specialists, not so much for the topographical depth of writing, but if a specialist were interested in doing work in that location then this book would be most helpful. It would be important to understand the workings of the society to navigate and cultivate relationships within the community to help access certain places and areas; this ethnography could certainly assist with that.
The novel had multiple benefits for myself and in a broader context as well. While I had a general understanding of Middle Eastern culture before, this ethnography opened my eyes to the real details of a culture that I didn’t know before. For example, I had great interest in learning about the extremely tight knit kin networks that are present in the culture. A couple of instances that particularly caught my attention were the kin blocks or kin apartments as they were called, where kin networks could extend horizontally and take over an entire block or extend vertically and consume an entire apartment building. Another cultural aspect that was interesting for me was the detail surrounding Ramadan that I hadn’t necessarily understood properly before; “Hannan’s apartment is now bustling, filled with her eight guests and the excitement and anticipation that always hangs over every household as dusk creeps over the skyline during Ramadan” (Holmes-Eber 2003). It was excellent being able to read about the entire experience, the dead air around the vendors during the day and then the sheer excitement leading up to the ending feast. It was interesting to be able to see the holiday from their perspective and to get a new understanding of it.
In terms of a broader context, I think the novel introduces a couple of really great points for discussion. The first point being the role of traditional norms in an ever-changing world. Education is playing a significant role and is a considerable transforming factor for the Middle East. As women become more highly educated, they become more aware of the worldly standards and this, in turn, is affecting how life is lived in the Middle East. For example, male and female interaction prior to marriage is now increasing due to the fact that females are becoming more educated about life outside of the Middle East and realizing that this type of interaction is the norm. That also brings up the broader conversations about gender roles within these Middle Eastern countries that this ethnography sheds light to. There is a sentence that stood out to me in the second chapter that really illuminated this; “Middle Eastern cultures equate women with the domestic domain and men with the outside world” (Holmes-Eber 2003). It would be interesting to delve into this conversation further, the roles of males and females, and reference back to the corresponding quality of life.
Holmes-Eber, Paula. Daughters of Tunis: women, family, and networks in a Muslim city. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2003.
Terzioglu, Aysecan. “Daughters of Tunis: Women, Family and Networks in a Muslim City. “Association for Feminist Anthropology, August 8, 2011. http://afa.americananthro.org/book-review/daughters-of-tunis-women-family-and-networks-in-a-muslim-city/http://afa.americananthro.org/book-review/daughters-of-tunis-women-family-and-networks-in-a-muslim-city/
Labidi, Lilia. “Labidi on Holmes-Eber, ‘Daughters of Tunis: Women, Family, and Networks in a Muslim City’” H-Gender-MidEast, April, 2006.https://networks.h-net.org/node/6386/reviews/6601/labidi-holmes-eber-daughters-tunis-women-family-and-networks-muslim-city