Rugh, an anthropologist and wife of a diplomat, rented a room in 1981-82 in a Christian village outside Damascus seeking a quiet place to write up her notes on Egyptian family life. Then, during her eight months semi-resident there, she became engrossed in the domestic life of her landlord family. In an informal, charming, and profound account, Rugh begins with narrative, reporting on the personalities and activities she encountered. Over the course of the book, the writing becomes increasingly analytical, ending with a superb dissection of the assumed (and therefore invisible) premises of family life in both the unnamed village and the author's sophisticated American circles.

The differences between these two are huge. At base, Middle Easterners see their lifetime interests "best served through long-term commitment to families," while Americans believe the key to happiness lies in individuals who can "cope on their own outside the parental family." To illustrate this difference, Rugh cites a Western reporter asking an elderly Egyptian woman whether she has realized her full potential, to which comes this uncomprehending reply: "I am a daughter, wife, mother, sister, aunt, grandmother. What else do you want me to tell you?" This difference has amazingly wide implications, ones Rugh deftly explores. Here's one: American parents go to great lengths to help their children form friendships outside the family, and this leads kids to find a "powerful base" in non-family groups that deeply shapes their values. In contrast, Syrian families discourage contact outside the family unit, not trusting the little ones to handle the "subtleties" of these intricate and somewhat adversarial relations; better they should stay within the safe familial confines. As a result, Rugh suggests, Americans cope better with change but Syrians have no problem with adolescent rebellion.

Non-Western peoples may adopt other facets of Western life but Rugh rightly concludes that "as yet there is no revolutionary worldwide convergence toward anything like a single family type." The differences she describes here are likely to persist, perhaps even deepen.