Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
5 - 11 April 2001
Issue No.528
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Robert Fernea:

A feeling of hope

The voice of reason, the grain of salt

Profile by Fayza Hassan

photo: Randa Shaath

The crowd was thick at the Sony Gallery for Thomas Hartwell and Enric Marti's photography exhibition, "Peace That Kills." Among the visitors, one man stood out: he was wearing a cowboy hat. The crowd was too dense for me to get a look at his face. "Who is that?" I asked Hartwell's wife, Randa Shaath. "Bob Fernea," she said. "He is a famous anthropologist." And an obnoxious Texan? She smiled fondly. "He is not like that at all; wait until you meet him."

I met him at Randa's house the following week. I knew about his interests from reading Guests of the Sheik (Doubleday, 1989), written by his wife, Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, and The Arab World, Forty Years of Change (Doubleday, 1997) authored by both husband and wife. I had also heard a great deal about the magnificent work he had done documenting Nubia and its inhabitants before they were uprooted from their native villages. The magnificent volume that came out of this expedition, apparently the only study documenting the Nubian communities before the resettlement, was published by the University of Texas and printed in Switzerland. The photographer, George Gerster, had really done an outstanding job, Randa told me. There are rumours that AUC Press will be reprinting the book (which is out of print) in the near future.

Fernea taught anthropology at the American University in Cairo from 1959 to 1961 and during the past 40 years he has been a constant visitor to the Middle East, but especially Egypt, where his children were born. He is fluent in Arabic, a language, his wife told me, he loves to speak. As I drove to our appointment, I was really looking forward to meeting him, despite the cowboy hat.

Unfortunately I missed a turn in the heavy traffic on my way to Zamalek and arrived almost an hour late at Randa's. Fernea was already there, minus the Stetson. He looked much younger than I imagined, his face well tanned and unmarked by the telltale signs of those who have reached the age of retirement. He brushed away my apologies with a smile: "I have been beautifully entertained for the past... [he looked rather intently at his watch] 45 minutes," he quipped. As I struggled unsuccessfully with the cellophane wrapping of the tape I intended to use for the interview, he commented wryly: "Don't worry, you're not alone: like the rest of us, you are dealing with the adult-proof packaging that seems to have taken the market over."

Having managed to insert the tape at last, I felt quite rattled and asked him if I could smoke to soothe my frayed nerves. I was quite sure he would frown, as most Americans do these days, but he was quite gracious about it and in fact assured me that it did not bother him at all as long as the windows were open. They were. I finally settled down. "You don't smoke, of course," I said, trying to draw him into an argument. He doesn't any more, but he did for a long time, having started at the tender age of 14. One day, when he turned 50, he decided that he wanted to live a little longer, so he simply quit. Soon after, he took up jogging and yoga, and never felt the need to smoke again. And no, Clinton had nothing to do with it. He dismissed the former president with a shrug. He did not seem about to start a long sermon on the dangers of lighting up, however, and we dropped the subject.

Fernea comes across as an easy-going person, who takes situations as they come, and what he hears with a grain of salt. He has a good critical mind and a solid sense of humour. Young people would say he is cool. I found him comfortable to speak to and I was in no hurry to fulfill my assignment by asking him leading questions. I was happy to let the conversation take its own course.

For a while, we discussed the reason for the scarcity of American tourists in Egypt that he has noticed on his walks around Islamic Cairo. He put it down to the fact that his fellow-citizens have come to associate the Middle East with images of violence. We agreed that there was much misinformation about Arab countries in the West: "Since we retired, BJ [his wife Elizabeth] and I teach a course to older adults who want to acquire more education," he said. "We teach six seminars on the Middle East. We don't get paid for it, but we enjoy it, so we don't mind. Most of our students have been extremely receptive to what we have to say. The problem is that there are very few people willing and able to speak reasonably about the Arab world."

As we drifted inevitably towards sharing our views on the Arab-Israeli conflict, a strange insect flew in from the open window. "It's a horse-fly; it stings," I said nervously. Fernea looked at it competently. "It is just a spider," he informed us after completing his examination and with a tissue paper lifted it delicately and released it outside without causing it any harm. I was suddenly struck by the graceful ease with which he moved, but it would be a while before I discovered the reason why a man his age was so agile.

We resumed talking about the Jewish lobby's influence in the United States and Europe and ordinary, well-informed Americans, who do not have a similarly structured organisation through which to air their views.

Fernea came to the Middle East in 1956 as a graduate student, but in those days, he says, he did not pay much attention to what was going on around him regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict. As he began to find out more and more about the problem, he could not figure out why a small group of people (the Palestinians) were being taken advantage of to make up for what had happened during World War II in Europe. He couldn't understand the justice of the situation. "It was highly unfair. Two wrongs cannot make a right, so what is going on?" he wondered at the time.

When he went back to the US, he found out that anyone trying to express such opinions was likely to be accused of anti-Semitism. "It was so unbalanced," he says. "You couldn't get the other view across without risking [to unleash] a feeling that had developed after the second World War about the Jews having been treated so terribly by the Germans that they deserved [compensation]. But what did this have to do with Palestinians? It was the Germans' problem, not the Palestinians'. And to this very day, I feel the same way about the matter. But things have changed now," adds Fernea after a slight pause. "It is true that younger Americans have a more balanced view of the situation." Books on the Arab world, suggests Randa, can go a long way towards informing the world about the Middle East. She picks up Fernea's book on Nubia and for a while we pore over images of women, bright-eyed-children, small white villages, and houses displaying designs on the walls and typical arches that are quite different from the ones seen in fashionable Egyptian resorts, which, we have been led to believe, are exact reproductions. Fernea commented that Nubians had their own way of positioning their houses so they could catch the wind.

In 1961, Fernea travelled up the Nile with his mother to visit the temple of Abu Simbel. He had heard about the temple and the project to move it. "I looked around," he recalled, "and there were all these villages, and I said, 'what about the people? What will happen to the people?' Nobody seemed to know much, so we got the idea of doing some salvage ethnography to give them [the Nubians] a record of their own way of life before it disappeared. The Nubians really liked this book, and they are trying to republish it in Arabic. This is why I am going to Aswan tomorrow, to visit a man who has done an Arabic translation. I don't know what is going to happen, but I would like very much to see an Arabic edition. Some wealthy Nubian gentleman seems interested in financing the project."

The mention of the wealthy Nubian gentleman, his vast apartment in Zamalek and chauffeured limousine, led Fernea to comment on the changes he noticed in Egypt when he returned this time: "It has become much more crowded and much more of a consumer society. I am amazed to see all these luxury products in stores and displayed in shop windows... and people are buying them. You can buy a Harley-Davidson down the street in Zamalek. There are of course [economic] problems, not all of them have been solved, but to my mind, Egyptians are nowadays much better dressed, even the poorer ones, than they used to be 10 years ago. You can see a certain kind of prosperity on the streets of Egypt that goes down to the lower classes. That makes an impression. The shirts that men are wearing are quite smart."

Fernea is hoping that Egyptians will be able to keep up their new higher standard of living, "because it would be very hard to give it up after they have struggled so hard to reach a certain level of affluence. Hopefully the economy will continue to grow." He does not think that Egypt has become totally dependent on the fluctuations of the global market; rather, he believes that a measure of informal self-sufficiency has not been taken into consideration: "There is another economy underneath the one reported officially, which seems to be moving along at a rapid rate, whether it is goods sold on the street by people who are bringing them in, or the market down in Al-Darb Al-Ahmar that has so much stuff coming in and moving out... People work at two or three jobs and manage in ways that are very difficult to report; things may be better than they appear in official reports. That is what I think. There is a feeling of optimism. One does not sense Egyptians as discouraged people."

He has been spending a great deal of time in Al-Darb Al-Ahmar, where BJ is shooting a documentary film and where he enjoys going as "a supportive spouse" and an informed observer. He also does some interviewing: "When they need an older man to be impressive, I get myself done up and I do the interview." Fernea really loves being part of the action, because it allows him to get acquainted with the inhabitants of the quarter. "People there are presumably rather poor," he says; yet he has felt an atmosphere of enthusiasm created by people who like what they were doing and want to continue doing it. "There is a sense -- not of prosperity, exactly, but of possibility: they have imagination about the future, they are looking forward to things. It is very different from a depressed economy."

Apart from doing a bit of fieldwork in Al-Darb Al-Ahmar, Fernea enjoys watching the crew at work and the way they have grown together in their relationship, from initial uneasiness to warm camaraderie. He also likes sitting at home watching the day's tapes. As he describes the process of making a documentary, I suddenly wondered if he went to Al-Darb Al-Ahmar with the hat. I rather thought he did.

Contrary to my belief, he was not born in Texas but in Oregon. He only settled in Austin after his return from Egypt. He has lived there for 30 years but does not feel like a real Texan -- no more than he would have become a real Egyptian if he had lived here instead. "So why do you wear a cowboy hat?" I couldn't help asking. "To keep away the sun," he said. It had been evening at the Sony Gallery and the exhibition was an indoor affair, but I decided to let it pass.

His father died when he was 14, and the family, moderately prosperous until that point, became moderately poor after his death. Fernea worked part-time while he was in school and at different jobs during the summer when he went to college. "But I was very optimistic: I had the same attitude as the Egyptians," he laughs. He came into the world at the right time, he explained.

He was born in 1932 and by the time he entered the job market men were in short supply. Nowadays, he tells his students who have graduated and cannot find a job that it is not a reflection of their abilities. It is a matter of opportunities, supply and demand, nothing else. He never had any trouble finding a good job and when he finished college there were plenty of opportunities to land a satisfying teaching position.

He chose to come back to Egypt because he liked the country, however. The first time he visited this country, he was coming from Baghdad in the middle of the summer in 1956. It had been very hot there. When he arrived, he thought Egypt was the most beautiful place he had ever seen. He decided he wanted to live here and returned for a visit in 1958, then again in 1959 for a three-year spell to teach anthropology and geography at AUC. "It was the best time to be an American in Egypt [after the nationalisation of the Suez Canal]. The Americans had stood against the French and the British and they were heroes. I've never felt so good here since."

He met his wife in college, but they only began dating when he was in graduate school. They were married, they went to Iraq, she wrote Guests of the Sheikh ("a very popular book since that time") and then they had the children. Suddenly Fernea bursts out laughing at the way his story sounds: "So there you have it: I was a poor child, I had a typical American story of becoming better off, then I retired and I am rich." As he looks back on his life, he says, he feels that he has had plenty of opportunities and had absolutely nothing to complain about. "Not a bad life for an adopted child who was a ballet dancer." I was startled. Where was this coming from? "You were a ballet dancer?" I repeated rather foolishly. He played the piano in a dance school as one of his summer jobs. There was no one to lift the 25 girls of the corps de ballet, and he volunteered. After a while, he had decided that he could only be a mediocre dancer and had turned his sights towards another profession, which would bring him more rewards.

Fernea, then, has done most of what he had wanted to do and enjoyed every moment. So why has he retired? "Long ago, my mother advised me always to leave a party while I was still having fun."

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