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Joseph E. Suzanne, Fertile Bonds. Bedouin class, kinship and gender in the Bekaa Valley, University Press of Florida, 2013, 233 p.

Mauro Van Aken

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1The importance of kinship ties and their idiom in marginalized communities in the Middle East and elsewhere is a focal theme in anthropological literature. Reinventing bonds and their symbolical and material meaning in everyday life has been historically one of the main neglected issues in understanding poverty, local coping strategies, class formation and policy making. This is even more true of pastoral communities, which tend to be relegated in social studies to the “traditional” conservative and “tribal”’ stereotypes even marginalized in anthropological studies.

2Joseph’s work on the “fertile bonds” in the Bekaa Valley refocuses attention on Bedouin patterns of solidarity and acceptance, tackling one of the most ancient and widespread underlying misconceptions about female reproduction in the global south: the unquestioned assumption that large families and high fertility are symptomatic of the patriarchal subordination of women and therefore, emblematic of social retardation. Such colonial stereotypes have been reproduced in contemporary political patterns in the Middle East, where political and military intervention have been legitimized and where policy making and the national development agenda are greatly influenced by a set of representations focused on Arab women as victims of their cultural environment exacerbated by rural modernization.

3If the small nuclear family has become emblematic of modernity and the liberated woman, it is because of the pathologization of high fertility among the “others”: a false dichotomy is created equating small families with reproductive freedom, economic well-being, and health advantages while large families are equated with reproductive oppression, economic hardship and health disadvantages.

4As the author argues, the aim of the study is “to tell a different story about the demographic lives of women” in Bedouin agro-pastoralist communities in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. The attempt is not easy, since quantitative demographic methods have rarely been applied in ethnographic or qualitative studies: here the author tackles a delicate point of convergence between biology and politics “without naturalizing nurture and socializing nature”. In fact, “a critical analysis of the social facts of birth and death requires re-imagining the dialectic between nature and nurture, between biology and culture and their articulation with power”, issues pertaining to the relationship between culture and nature that stands as a central epistemological debate in social and anthropological studies.

5If the “theoretical approach is best described as biodemography infused with critical notions of spatiotemporality, structure-agency and social justice”, a highly specialized definition within the anthropological discipline, the issues at stake reflect on women’s studies, gender and kinship relations research in the Bekaa Valley and throughout the Middle East, including local adaptations, marginalized communities, conceptualized nurture, child education in the context of social disruptions (war, revolution, internal migration, changing lifestyles, social marginalization) and normative western feminist misrepresentations of gender and reproductive rights. Indeed, the “stereotype of a rural, illiterate, poor, barefoot and pregnant woman who needs to be ‘rescued’” is one of the elements of “collusion between capitalist modernization, feminism and racism”.

6Since Abu-Lughod wrote Veiled Sentiments: honor and poetry in Bedouin Society, little has been done to complete our understanding of local practices among pastoral communities or the “cultural evaluation of children, of large families, of marriage and the changing notions of love and intimacy”. This implies that we must consider high Bedouin fertility within the local context, and not simply take the fertility statistic as universal proof of local “backwardness” in the face of emancipatory modernity.

7According to Joseph, the wider Bedouin transition from nomadic pastoralism to a more sedentary and proletarian economy, produces a level of fertility concomitant, not with disease, death and abject poverty” but with low mortality, adequate nutrition and good health. Such data contradict the widespread image of backward Middle Eastern women.

8These results may in turn, be explained through various cultural practices like low consumption, hard labor in a mixed economy that affords access to the means of production and egalitarian practices like food-sharing and partial access to high-quality health care.

9If Malthusians and neo-Malthusians have normalized nurture by attributing high fertility rates in conditions of poverty or by demonstrating “little compassion for the social struggles of peoples in colonial and imperial situations both historically and at present” (10), the attempt in Joseph’s work is to dispense with local agency in evaluating structural relations (class, kinship, ethnic segmentation) in favor of inequality and patterns of marginalization. It is because “Bedouin women and men appeared to enjoy discussing their reproductive and productive lives” that the chapters of this book plunge deeply into local practices to produce vision of the future based on the fertile bonds of kinship.

10In chapter 2, nomadic lives are studied in a phase of transition to sedentary habitation as a marginal minority in the Bekaa, in this way adjusting to economic adversity: the reproduction of the Bedu-fellah (Bedouin-peasant) dichotomy, and a new Bedouin positioning with respect to the loss of land and autonomy and the devaluation of pastoral customs and way of life (chapter 3), their subordinated status within a new class division and concomitant lack of access to resources, a process which reflects the fact that “the Bedouin, for the most part, do not own the means of production for entering into exploitative economic relationship; they rely on family labor”(64) while “traditions of hospitality, food-sharing, patterns of economic assistance, adherence to these cultural beliefs in practices has helped deter the spread of potentially exploitative social relations”.

11The critical analysis of local and regional demographic data helps deconstruct the gender myths (often colonial feminist constructions of individual liberty based on racial, class and gender polarities) through demographic realities (chapter 4) and local perspectives. Bedouin femininity in fact, is not synonymous with dependency, subservience and compliance. Men recognize that women are not extensions of them and have independent and sometimes conflicting interests (78). Interestingly, Bedu women describe children as “partners in labor”, who provide on-going support and help in taking care of their parents in old age, in a context where a small family is viewed as being a lonely and poor family.

12Several aspects are studies in the local definition of kinship ties and meanings (as polygamy or marriage of patriparallel cousin), which everywhere stands as strong social affirmation of kinship solidarity, in a context where, under wage labor regime, the family is no longer the economic unit of production. In facing material poverty and dispossession, and the “poverty” of exogenous and ancient stereotypes, the book depicts contemporary social and cultural patterns representing the future through children and the cultural values of a pastoral community. As a local expression puts it, “children put away (protect) the house and the house puts away the children. Children make you feel proud in front of other people” (92).

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Mauro Van Aken, « Joseph E. Suzanne, Fertile Bonds. Bedouin class, kinship and gender in the Bekaa Valley, University Press of Florida, 2013, 233 p. », Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 138 | décembre 2015, mis en ligne le 26 septembre 2014, consulté le 22 octobre 2017. URL : http://remmm.revues.org/8802

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Mauro Van Aken

University of Milan-Bicocca

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