I recently visited a small Turkish village that seemed in many ways similar to the 1950s Iraqi village Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, known to her friends as B.J., described in her now classic ethnography, Guests of the Sheikh, from the muddy lanes to the daily lives of its men and women. Having just learned of B.J.’s death on December 2, 2008 at age 81, I thought a lot about her while I was there, about how we are all part of a chain of experience that links one generation to the next and about how my own experience of fieldwork — and how I try to live my life, teach, and mentor my students — is still inspired by her example. A few days after I returned to Istanbul, I went to an exhibit of Orientalist paintings and came face to face with a life-size portrait of Lady Mary Wortley Montague, the wife of the British consul to the Ottoman Empire who in 1716-1718 lived in Istanbul, learned Turkish and wrote about her experiences visiting the Ottoman harems with enormous sensitivity and ethnographic detail, the first foreign woman to do so. B.J. was a link in that line of compassionate, humanistic observers of the Near East going back to Lady Montague and forward to the rich and dense circle of fellow travelers forged among the many women that B.J. mentored.
In 1956, newly married, B.J. accompanied her social anthropologist husband Robert Fernea on a two-year field study of al-Nahra, a village in southern Iraq. Generations of students and scholars have read B.J.’s masterful account of her experiences and been influenced by her portraits of Iraqi women’s solidarity, self-confidence and sometimes ribald humor. In this and her later books on women in other parts of the Middle East, B.J. encouraged Western readers to see beyond their expectations into Muslim women’s rich and complex lives. She channeled Middle Eastern women’s voices through her own writings and documentary films, by facilitating the publication of their work and by mentoring women in the region as well as at home.
After her husband received his doctorate from the University of Chicago, they moved to Cairo where he taught at the American University. Their three children were born there. In 1966, they moved to the University of Texas at Austin where, after years of staff jobs, B.J.’s publications were finally recognized and she was appointed senior lecturer in the English department and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. In 1985 she was elected president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America, and in 1990 was promoted to full professor.
I first met B.J. when I arrived in 1981 as Bob Fernea’s new graduate student. While Bob trained me in anthropology, B.J. taught me how to put together a book and how to throw a dinner party for 30 people. She taught me that it’s all possible, nothing to get excited about — just stay calm and do it. Once when I commented on how enormously productive she was, despite taking care of a household and three children, she told me, “You have a choice. You can take a nap, or you can write.” When I was about to go into the field for the first time, she gave me this advice, “Write down absolutely everything.” That advice turned out to be crucial for writing a good ethnography, since you never know in advance what will be important, the telling detail. More importantly, B.J. demonstrated to all of us the humanity of the research process. Her relationships with the people she met and wrote about were personal, rather than an academic enterprise. She cared about them and what they had to say, and that is what makes her written work and her films so compelling.
I am honored to have been counted among B.J.’s many friends and lucky to have met her at a time when I was fairly raw clay beneath her steady hand. She was a compassionate observer and a hands-on advocate. And while B.J., always modest, would have been the first to deemphasize her own role as interlocutor, she was our link to that great lineage of Western women in the East, who listened and learned, and opened the eyes of the world.