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Author photo. Elizabeth Warnock Fernea in her office at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Texas at Austin, late 1980s

Elizabeth Warnock Fernea in her office at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Texas at Austin, late 1980s

Elizabeth Warnock Fernea (1927–2008)

Author of Guests of the Sheik

Includes the names: Elizabeth Fernea, Elizabeth W. Fernea, Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, Elizabeth Warnock Fernea -

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Elizabeth Warnock Fernea was a writer, anthropologist, and filmmaker who spent much of her life in the field documenting the struggles and turmoil of the lives of women in Middle Eastern and African cultures. Her husband, Robert A. Fernea, also an anthropologist, was a large influence in her life, and they collaborated on many projects. She was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and grew up in a mining town in Manitoba, Canada. At age 14, after the outbreak of World War II, the family moved to Portland, Oregon. She earned a bachelor's degree in English from Reed College, where she started calling herself "B.J." and the nickname stuck. She did graduate work at Mount Holyoke College and at the University of Chicago. In 1956, as a newlywed, she went with her new husband to stay in the remote Iraqi village of El Nahra, where he was doing fieldwork for his doctorate. To accommodate his studies, she lived as the local women did -- separated from the men, wearing the veil, and covering herself in public in a black abayah. The couple stayed in the home of a sheik, and Elizabeth spent her days with the women of the sheik's harem. By the time she left two years later, she had won the affection of the women with her efforts to learn their language and culture. The experience provided the material for Elizabeth's first and most famous work, her memoir Guests of the Sheik, An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village (1969). The Ferneas then moved to Cairo, where their three children were born, and Robert taught at the American University. In 1965, they returned to the USA and settled in Austin, Texas, where he taught at the University of Texas and she began writing books. In 1975, after serving in a number of staff jobs at UT, she was appointed senior lecturer of comparative literature and Middle Eastern studies, and eventually became full professor. She chaired the university's Women's Studies Program from 1980 to 1983 before retiring in 1999.Her other books included In Search of Feminism: One Woman's Global Journey (1998), for which she traveled to nine countries over two years; The Arab World: Personal Encounters (1985), written with her husband; and Children in the Muslim Middle East (1995), a collection of essays that she edited. Elizabeth Fernea produced several documentaries about the Middle East, including Living With the Past: Historic Cairo (2001).
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