Changing Bedouin Life as Exemplified by the Al-Maria Family: Background information when reading The Girl Who Fell to Earth

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The Girl Who Fell to Earth

A Memoir

by Sophia Al-Maria

The Girl Who Fell to Earth by Sophia Al-Maria
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    Nov 2012, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jo Perry

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Beyond the Book:
Changing Bedouin Life as Exemplified by the Al-Maria Family

Print Review

Bedouin life has been slowly changing from a traditional nomadic existence to a more settled permanent one. Al-Maria's family effectively illustrates this transition.

Al-Maria adjusts to her Bedouin family's ancient way of life precisely at the same time that its members must adjust to modernity. The family had been experiencing what Al-Maria describes as "a long, slow retreat into the concrete domesticity of modern sedentary life." Not all is bad: "Compared with the poverty they were used to on their travels, not having to carry your weight in water was positively luxuriant."

But convenience has a price, paid largely by the women. The style of dress changed, for one thing. Bedouin girls in the family used to wear bright calico dresses without full-body veils. Where they used only to cover their faces they now covered their whole bodies in black, a new custom to protect their honor (and identities) now that they lived in closer proximity to neighbors with "forked tongues."

The Al-Dafira tribe, which Al-Maria's family belongs to, had a difficult time adapting to urban life. "In the '80s, governments of many Gulf countries had planned boroughs and filled them with relocated Bedouin. Parts of the Al-Dafira tribe had been crossing back and forth through the neck of the peninsula between Saudi and Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE for generations," she writes, "While the disorienting effects of industry and modernity dizzied the tribe, invisible lines were being drawn in the sand under their feet and on the papers they couldn't read. Sides of the border were taken and families were broken up. Each patriarch had to choose his nationality: Saudi or Qatari or Emirati?"

The city of Doha Her family eventually chose Qatar and the city of Doha, which is full of gleaming skyscrapers, hotels and malls. Despite the modern building, ancient rules govern the way the city's inhabitants live. Al-Maria explains that her cousins might not have been to the downtown area of Doha, but "had to serve as the go-betweens for their parents in the transition from the desert to the city, helping the older generation to fill out paperwork, fix electrical outlets, and learn to work a washing machine."

Interestingly enough, Doha itself has struggled to synthesize the old and the new: A New York Times article describes the disconnect residents of Doha feel within the gleaming modernity of their city: "Qataris number just 225,000 of a population of 1.8 million, and interaction between them and the rest feels as lifeless as the miles of plastic grass that line the boulevards . . . Qataris feel comfortable not at the Islamic Museum or Jean Nouvel's latest addition to the skyline, but rather in a majlis, one of the traditional segregated salons that stand as a fixture of social life."

Picture from Qatar embassy

Article by Jo Perry

This article is from the February 20, 2013 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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