Poetry at the water cooler


Aziza is a Bedouin woman. A member of the Awlad ‘Ali tribe living on the northern edge of the Egyptian Western Desert. The Bedouin are a semi-nomadic people. Theirs is a patriarchal system. A system born of, and sustained by, the concept of gender complementarity. At its core is the deference of the weak (mostly women) to the powerful (mostly older male agnates). Their patrilineal system feeds off the power of ideals. Ideals that one must strive to uphold if they are to be deemed honourable, and morally superior to the non-Bedouin.

‘By framing ideals as values, in moral terms, it guarantees that individuals will desire to do what perpetuates the system’ Lila Abu-Lughod.

I was introduced to the writings of Lila Abu-Lughod last year. Her book Veiled Sentiments was gifted to me as part of my introduction to anthropological fieldwork. Those of you who know of Abu-Lughod’s work may be familiar with ‘Do Muslim Women Need Saving?’ and the divided responses of readers. Regardless of your own views on patriarchies and gender complementarity, what Lila Abu-Lughod writes about in Veiled Sentiments is a system. A system with a defiant, anti-system discourse housed comfortably within it. A poetic discourse of ‘little songs’ called the ghinnawa.

Aziza experienced a loveless marriage and a difficult divorce. She lived in constant fear of losing her son to her husband’s family, as is Bedouin custom. Now in the care (and control) of her cruel brother, she despairs, but never in the presence of those considered more powerful than her. In their presence she expresses indifference and stoicism. But in private, in the presence of those considered equal to or weaker than herself, Aziza expresses her despair freely through the ghinnawa:

‘Patience brought no fulfilled wishes
I wearied and hope’s door closed …’[1]

In our day-to-day we navigate the systems we live in without really considering why things are the way they are. When we do stop to think about why, we tend to start asking questions. Curly ones. Questions that remain contained within the invisible boundaries drawn by the system itself. For we know that to express our defiance beyond these boundaries is to risk the system’s wrath. The system isn’t stupid. It knows that anti-system sentiment is a threat. ‘Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer’ said Tsan Tzu. And the system listened.

Just as bridges have expansion joints that appear at first to weaken them, systems too create expansion joints of sanctioned anti-system sentiment to absorb the stressors that would otherwise see them collapse.

The ghinnawa are a perfect example of an expansion joint in a patriarchal system. A form of approved whingeing. A means through which the system can show it isn’t entirely uncaring (“we know you need to vent your frustrations”) while remaining in control (“here are the boundaries”). A strength born of flexibility.


Let’s take the northern edge of the Western Egyptian desert to the 45th floor of the modern office tower. To absorb the pressure of anti-system sentiment the organisation starts participating in these conversations. New roles are created (sustainability managers, diversity directors, chief purpose officers). Committees are formed. Blog posts abound. New categories of industry award appear. Conversations are taking place in designated spaces, at designated times, in designated ways. People are on stage telling personal stories. Rapturous applause ensues. The organisation can barely get through a conversation without using the same suite of topical buzzwords.

None of this, in and of itself is a bad thing. In fact, it’s very difficult to argue that it isn’t a positive leap forward on all fronts. But let’s not kid ourselves, the system is beginning to lead these conversations, in formulaic ways, in ‘appropriate’ places, at ‘appropriate’ times, in ‘appropriate’ ways. Branding enters stage left.

Just as what first appears as control, can sometimes be care; what first appears as care, can sometimes be control.

So, where’s the authenticity? Is Aziza’s poetry revealing that she is disingenuous in public? Maybe. But what if her poetry, and her expression of despair is simply living up to another, albeit paradoxical, expectation of the system she lives in? After all, the ghinnawa have been handed down over generations, virtually unchanged. They are formulaic, allowing for only minor expressions of individuality. The system knows these poems are recited. It values them. For the expression of despair in private demonstrates how difficult it is to remain stoic in public – if it were easy, it wouldn’t be so honourable.

We too, are Aziza when powerless. Am I being disingenuous when I constantly refer to my boss as a tosser when loitering at the water cooler, only to then stand up at a company event and praise his leadership? Are you being inauthentic when you speak about gender discrimination in the workplace at a conference and then say nothing when you see a woman’s ideas constantly dismissed at your own Board meetings?

I would say yes … and no. While public and private discourse may be oppositional in nature, ‘these oppositions are entangled and mutually implicating’[2]. They dance in concert within the parameters of the social system in which they dwell. To express pro-system sentiment publicly, and anti-system sentiment privately, is not to be inauthentic, but to make a strategic choice from the limited discourses you have available to you in a certain place, at a certain time.

We are all limited by the systems we live in. When we can no longer tolerate these limitations, we either leave the system, or it spits us out. Either way, we end up on the outside, shouting back in. To change the system from within is to continually balance on a tightrope of the internal and the external. Of simultaneously conforming and rebelling.

Of using prose and poetry.

Image: Thomas Vuillemin on Unsplash

[1] Abu-Lughod, Lila, 2016, Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in Bedouin Society, Oakland, California, University of California Press.

[2] Schedneck, J, 2013, ‘Gender and invested agency: cultural expressions in the United Arab Emirates’, PhD social sciences thesis, The University of Adelaide, retrieved 25 August 2018, p.i-321