In this groundbreaking work, anthropologist Farha Ghannam utilizes 20 years of field research in the working-class neighborhood of al-Zawiya al-Hamra’ to deconstruct the notion of masculinity. She is aware that her own status greatly changed over these years as she went from newlymarried grad student to established professor with child. Additionally, her accessibility was also affected by her association with American universities, and mediated by her Jordanian origins and her religion (Islam). It is clear that she established close ties through her many years in the neighborhood with the same families.
In this study, Ghannam examines the meaning of masculinity through several processes: growing up, marriage, finding a career, aging, and death. While these stories are told through the lives of a handful of her close interlocutors, the voices of other men, women, and children around them ring loud and clear. Women, in particular, are important for a number of reasons. First, Ghannam chose to “adhere to social norms when it came to male/female interaction” and she stayed away from segregated spaces (e.g., the male-only part of the mosque, the neighborhood coffeehouse, and bangosmoking sessions) (p. 24). Second, by having strong female connections, Ghannam came to understand the powerful role that women have in creating and defining masculinity. She argues that “women, especially mothers and sisters, work to ensure that male relatives master or perfect the existing norms that define the proper man … their interventions are often geared toward reestablishing the hierarchical relationships that privilege men over women and … husbands over wives (p. 105).
The role of mothers is abundantly clear in the case of Ahmed, Ghannam’s case study for “growing up.” The author witnessed the trajectory from his mother’s difficult pregnancy with a husband working abroad, his tragic death, and her raising Ahmed to age 12. The widowed mother is torn between overwhelming affection and the firm, stiff hand needed to raise a proper man. Ahmed is surrounded by an orbit of influences including other male and female relatives, the neighborhood, and American television. By the time he is 12, he is capable of running complex errands far from home, but he is also keenly aware of his body and his grooming, obsessed with his dark skin and curly hair, and demands the right oils to control his unruly locks. Indeed, part of Ghannam’s fieldwork entailed interviewing barbers, pharmacists, and hairdressers to discuss “how bodily representations changed over time” (p. 21).
Ghannam excels at thick description as she takes the reader on a journey into the lives of Samer, the confirmed bachelor who finally marries, and Zaki, who once monitored the lives of his sisters, but now, given [End Page 161] his own (poor) circumstances, is monitored by them. Particularly poignant is her chapter on death, which examines the “intersection between gender, class, and age in shaping bodies and health” (p. 134).
Ghannam’s conclusion takes the reader to the revolution of 2011. Here she argues that previously the nation has been represented as a woman, “cherished, honored, and protected.” However, she sees parallels between the creation of a “proper government (hukumah) and a proper man: protection, support, and provision” (p. 163). She presents this as a new finding, and only cites only the work of Beth Baron to discuss the former. The work of Lisa Pollard more fully articulates the tropes of motherhood and nation, and it also discusses the work of post-independence politicians in seeking masculinity as a defense against these visions (See, The Family Politics of Modernizing, Liberating, and Colonizing Egypt [Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005]; and, “From Husbands and Housewives to Suckers and Whores,” Gender and History, Vol. 21, No. 3 [November 2009], pp. 647–69).
There is little to criticize in this seminal work. One other question the reader might have is a methodological one. The author explains early on that this work builds upon her 2002 research, where perhaps some of these...