For too long Islamic studies have existed in an academic ghetto which reinforced the essentialist view shared by the Islamologues, that Islam was somehow 'different' from the West. A more fruitful approach is taken by Michael Gilsenan in Lords of the Lebanese Marches, based on field work he conducted in a Sunni Muslim rural area of North Lebanon during the early Seventies, before the recent civil war. This beautifully written book describes the culture of masculinity in its multiple refractions through violence and narrative, joking and play, a world where status and power are organised vertically, where big landowners use the small landowners as their strong-arm men to control the sharecroppers and labourers at the bottom of the social hierarchy and to compete for supremacy with their rival lords. Sharaf, 'the honour of person and family, which is particularly identified with control of women's sexuality, is crucial to the public, social identity of men.' The sharaf of the mighty is linked with the destruction of the sharaf of others: great lords gain honour by ritually humiliating subordinates, whom they force to transgress their own codes of honour. Not surprisingly, life at the bottom is brutish and insecure. The poorest women and their children must undertake work that others regard as shameful. They are powerless to resist sexual exploitation or abuse by their masters. It is not so much these actions themselves, as the stories to which they give rise and which give them meaning, that interest Gilsenan. 'Men struggle to reproduce, memorialise and guarantee narratives of being and place in the world against the ruptures, absences and arbitrariness mat continuously subvert them.'
LRB 1 August 1996 | PDF Download