Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
29 March - 4 April 2001
Issue No.527
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Elizabeth Warnock Fernea:

Part of it all

She slips between countries and cultures with ease, never fully belonging but always at home

Profile by Fayza Hassan


Meeting Elizabeth (BJ) Fernea for the first time, I was struck by how closely she fitted -- superficially at least -- the archetypical middle-class American housewife who came of age in the 1950s, as she was portrayed in popular films: protective of her household, serious about her duties and scarcely prone to nonsense.

The first word that came to mind was "reliable" -- someone one would go to when in trouble, who would own a first-aid kit to quickly dress a wound and be able to shake one out of depression with a few insightful words spoken across a kitchen table, while sharing a pot of tea. But Fernea is not baking cookies for her grandchildren, knitting booties for the new arrival her daughter is expecting any day now or tending the potted plants on the porch of her Austin (Texas) home; instead she is sitting with me in a Zamalek apartment with a breathtaking view of the Nile, excitedly describing the educational documentary film she is making for American public television, and for her students in the States, about the Cairo quarter of Al-Darb Al-Ahmar. Such are the unpredictable twists of destiny.

She has already made several such documentaries about the Middle East, which have been shown in classrooms around the United States. This time, restoration of the area of Al-Darb Al-Ahmar and the way its inhabitants are participating in the process are the topic of her study. Fernea has invited Caroline Williams, author of the very popular Islamic Monuments of Cairo: A Practical Guide, to act as a consultant on the monuments. She, on the other hand, is concentrating on capturing the spirit of the place through its occupants. Fernea finds the experience thrilling. She had never done work on monuments in general and is now captivated by mediaeval Cairo and the dynamics emanating from people's relations with their native historical quarter. She had produced documentaries on women at work and Palestinian women, but never contended with formidable ancient buildings and their fate.

News of the project has travelled fast, and now, says Fernea, "European television is concerned," so she will have to go to Europe soon to negotiate the airing terms.

Fernea is not a stranger to historical Cairo, though. She lived here from 1959 to 1965 while her husband was teaching anthropology at the American University in Cairo (two of her three children were born here), and she used to visit the Muski every week with her friends. It was an exciting foray into a different world -- only an easy taxi ride from Cairo's residential quarters; and she found there many exotic products which she had come to appreciate. She did not at the time make the connection between what had become familiar sights and the legacy that the surrounding monuments represented.

Last year, however, going through historical Cairo, she was suddenly struck by the idea of capturing the area on film for viewers in the United States who usually hear and see little about Egypt, if one excepts the scant information on things Pharaonic, the publicity blurbs intended to attract potential tourists and the politically slanted propaganda. She wanted to show real Egyptians and the way they lived normal lives in a setting full of historical memories, "for sadly, the people of the Middle East still remain as distant from the general American public as they were nearly half a century ago... Today, on television, on film, Arab peoples are seen running for cover in Beirut or Jerusalem, in Algiers or Basra; they turn away from the lens of the television journalist, shield themselves behind veils, robes, sunglasses, tears; or, masked, brandishing weapons at the screen. The very nearness of the television images, presented without explanation or background, accentuates the differences between 'us' and 'them'; they dress differently, look different, seem to worship a different god... These images of the Arab peoples regularly seen by millions of Americans are far removed from our own impressions, our own experiences of the Middle East," she and her husband Robert A Fernea wrote in The Arab World, Forty Years of Change (Doubleday, updated and expanded 1997).

Awed as she may be by the grandeur of mediaeval Egyptian architecture, Fernea is adamant nonetheless that the place belongs to the people first and foremost, that it is their presence that renders it so poignantly alive. The people have always lived in the area, she says, and cannot be expected to pay active attention to their historical surroundings -- any more than one would worry about the street one was born on: "Look at Naguib Mahfouz," she points out. "I was struck by the fact that his novels evolve in the quarters of Islamic Cairo, but that he never mentions the monuments except in passing. That is because they are really part of the natural environment that everyone is familiar with. He is therefore taking them rightly for granted."

She perceives any plan of displacing the inhabitants of Al-Darb Al-Ahmar to effect its restoration properly as ridiculous: pure nonsense. Besides, she says, she dislikes the word monument, which she feels describes something dead, something no longer there, and reminds her of a grave or a tomb. Clearly her experience in Al-Darb Al-Ahmar has been so very vibrant that it has obfuscated the presence of several mausolea in the vicinity...

Fernea prefers the term "majestic buildings" to describe the architecture of Islamic Cairo, a phrase suggested to her by restorer Nairi Hampikian. What really disconcerts her, though, is the new fashion of farming out the revamping of these "majestic buildings" to ordinary building contractors with no restoration skills. She has just visited Ibn Tulun [mosque] and "couldn't bear it." Ibn Tulun, she says, is part of the world heritage and, apart from the Great Mosque of Samarra, it is the oldest mosque in the Middle East which still retains at least a few of its original features. What is this preposterous idea of wanting everything to be completed by 2002 or whatever date the powers that be have arbitrarily set? she wonders. According to her view, restoration is a lifelong process, a labour of love that can only be accomplished by trained craftsmen and where heavy machinery has no place.

photos: Randa Shaath
The kind of restoration she truly enjoys, on the other hand, is being carried out at present by architect Salah Zaki who started "on his own, without any money" fixing some of the houses, "not palaces, people's houses, which he thinks are as representative of the past as the monuments," with the occupants' help. "'Get the permit for the alterations, buy the pipes for the plumbing and the fixtures,' he [Salah Zaki] said to them, 'and I will find workmen and we will get the work done'." He has done four houses already, says a delighted Fernea, and now he will be getting some funding to carry on with others. It is very obvious that only socially oriented restoration makes sense to her. "If Salah continues to restore houses," she says, "I am confident that the tightly knit fabric of the area will be preserved and remain stable and solid."

On her return to the US last year, she contacted a friend at CBS television in Austin who advised her to do a short demo tape rather than writing a lengthy proposal. The tape was met with so much interest that, six months later, she received funding from the Ford Foundation to realise her project. Here she is, then, once more in Cairo with a complete crew she has managed to infect with her driving keenness to produce "Living with the Past: People, Monuments and Ecology in Medieval Cairo." According to Fernea, Egyptian members of her crew, like her production manager Murad El-Issawi for instance, were not well acquainted with Al-Darb Al-Ahmar and only discovered its richness and complexity while working on the documentary. That is why she is planning to produce an Arabic version of the film, which she will give, (not sell) to Egyptian television since "the project has been funded," she says. It is typical of her, I soon discover, to think of the impact any Western-inspired venture may have on the local population. Her own assessment is never academic, but stems from a genuine concern for those with whom she is called upon to share her life, whether for weeks or years.

In the introduction of her most famous book, Guests of the Sheikh, an Ethnography of an Iraqi Village, originally published in 1965 by Doubleday (and subsequently reprinted in 1969 and 1989), Fernea very simply stated: "I spent the first two years of my married life in a tribal settlement on the edge of a village, in southern Iraq. My husband, a social anthropologist, was doing research for his doctorate from the University of Chicago. This book is a personal narrative of these years... The village, the tribe and all of the people... are real as are the incidents. However, I have changed the names so that no one may be embarrassed, although I doubt that any of my women friends in the village will ever read my book." The year was 1956, and that was the beginning.

After we have talked for a few hours, I feel that these lines are the most representative of the way Fernea comes across. Perhaps her childhood prepared her for the role she was prepared to play. Her father was a mining engineer who was sent by his firm to Canada. Growing up in the wilds of the country during the Depression was quite an experience: her father had refused to house his family in the American compound, a set-up he found undemocratic, but chose instead to live with the ordinary folks in the town. The children on her street were not fond of Americans and she discovered how it felt to be an outsider. She remembers watching children passing below the window of their apartment: "It's not that we hate you," they shouted, looking in the direction of their floor, "it's just that you're American." It took her a long time to understand the implications of what she had just heard, but it helped her a great deal later, planting in her the seeds of tolerance. Her mother, on the whole, had a harder time than her daughter, as she loathed the cold weather, but she had made a deal with her husband: she would accept to live with him in Canada if they went back to the US for the holidays. They both respected this arrangement.

The local school, remembers Fernea, was an excellent one and because it was the Depression, it was staffed with excellent teachers who had not been able to find work in America. When the war broke out, the family went back to the US, where Fernea entered a "good" high school, but after the advanced lessons in French and Latin that she had enjoyed in Canada, she found the American curriculum less than challenging and spent many hours reading novels behind a propped-up text book.

Later she enrolled in an excellent liberal arts college where she spent four very interesting years. This is where she met Bob, who eventually went on to the University of Chicago for his graduate studies. "In those days," says Fernea, "women did not go on to accumulate degrees, but rather worked to help their husbands obtain theirs." She therefore took a job in the development office of the university until Bob's doctoral project was accepted and he was ready to head to Iraq for his research.

With her background and the example of her mother in mind, she did not hesitate to follow her new husband to the other end of the earth, with only the faintest idea of where he was taking her. Arriving in a strange land, armed with a light baggage and (useless) elementary Arabic (hastily studied at Georgetown University before taking off), but with a "willing to learn" attitude, she made little sense at first of what she heard and saw; yet she not only adapted to the less than usual circumstances, she embraced them almost at once in earnest. Instead of moaning about the lack of comfort, she turned her energies to doing some anthropological research of her own. Unlike many scientists before her (and, unfortunately, after her) the outcome of her observation was never judgemental. She did not bully her way into the intimacy of her tribal hosts, did not offer unsolicited advice nor sneakily consign disparaging criticism to her notebook; rather, she shared as much as possible in the life of the women, eager to absorb a new dimension in relationships which, though alien to the ones she had been accustomed to, she nevertheless accepted as equally valid.

It wasn't easy at first, of course. Arriving on a rainy night in January 1956 after a harrowing trip to Al-Nahra, a small village in southern Iraq where Bob had preceded her, Fernea found the conditions in which she would be living appalling. She was already balking at the thought of having to wear an abayah whenever leaving her home, but she donned it nevertheless, having decided beforehand that she would adopt the lifestyle of the women, avoiding contact with the men and remaining secluded at home. But what a home it was! "Home. Home indeed," she wrote in Guests of the Sheikh. "I could not even see a track in the mud ahead of us as the old Ford taxi slid around through puddles in the growing dusk... As Bob wrestled in the dark with the padlock on the house door, the trees in the garden around me rustled and sighed and my shoes squished in the mud... [T]he lock snapped open. [Bob] flicked a switch and a single bare electric globe went on, illuminating a small, dusty, incredibly littered room... Above my head I heard a strange sort of twittering and I looked up at the high beamed ceiling.

'What's that?' I found I was almost shouting.

'Only a few birds, for heaven's sake,' answered Bob in an exasperated tone."

That was enough for Fernea to pull herself together. She did not burst into tears nor demand to be returned at once to her aunt's suburban garden in Chicago where her wedding reception had taken place not so long ago. Her heart went out to Bob, who had been struggling on his own for three months in this less than desirable setting. She was annoyed with herself "for acting like the bride arriving in the palazzo and finding the plumbing unsatisfactory." This may have been the awakening of Fernea's true pioneer spirit, but more importantly it underlined one of her more endearing traits, a genuine humility embodied in her belief that she has a duty to share the burden of the less fortunate without complaint, a price to pay for being lucky enough to belong to another, trouble-free world to which she will eventually return.

But if Fernea occasionally went back to her suburban life, and to teaching English literature then Middle East studies, giving courses in the English department titled "women's studies," a provocative course that she dubbed "Middle Eastern women's feminism?" as well as literature and society (she retired from her teaching position two years ago), it was never for long. For the past 40 years she and her husband have remained involved in studying, writing, filming and teaching about the Middle East. Right now she is working on a book whose tentative title is Memories of Middle Eastern Childhoods and she revels in the diversity of accounts that she has received from various contributors narrating their childhood experiences in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Israel. "I have to go home to see my daughter's new baby, but I will be back," she says. "There is too much going on and I want to be part of it."

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