Elizabeth 'B.J.' Warnock Fernea
Share
Share Elizabeth 'B.J.''s life story with friends and family
Send an Email
Or Copy this URL to Share
Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, University of Texas professor emerita of comparative literature and Middle Eastern studies, died Tuesday at the age of 81 after a long illness.

Fernea, who was informally known as "B.J.," joined UT in 1975 as a senior lecturer and was chairwoman of the Women's Studies Program from 1980 to 1983. She retired from UT in 1999.

Fernea and her husband, Robert, a former director of the university's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, spent time in countries such as Iraq, Lebanon and Morocco and lived in Egypt for eight years, where their three children were born. Fernea wrote three autobiographical books about her time in the Middle East: "Guests of the Sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village," "A View of the Nile" and "A Street in Marrakech."

"I think everyone thought revolution and so on would change everything,'' Fernea told the American-Statesman in 1997 about her first trip to the Middle East, in 1956. "But then, of course, it didn't."

Her scholarly books include "Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak," "In Search of Islamic Feminism: One Woman's Global Journey" and "Remembering Childhood in the Middle East: Memoirs from a Century of Change." Fernea also was a filmmaker, who earned two National Endowment for the Humanities grants. Her documentaries include "Reformers and Revolutionaries: Middle Eastern Women," "The Struggle for Peace: Israelis and Palestinians" and "The Road to Peace: Israelis and Palestinians."

"B.J. helped forge an international reputation for the university's Middle Eastern studies program," said Kamran Aghaie, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. "Her passion for women's issues in the Middle East was inspiring to all who knew her, and she will be fondly remembered as a friend and colleague."

Fernea is survived by her husband, her daughters Laura Ann and Laila and son David and several grandchildren. A memorial service will be held next week at St. Austin's Catholic Church.

To Plant Memorial Trees in memory, please visit our Sympathy Store.
Published in Austin American-Statesman from Dec. 4 to Dec. 15, 2008.
MEMORIES & CONDOLENCES
Not sure what to say?
View Printed Guest Book
23 entries
October 9, 2010
miss you BJ
Marc Perry
April 9, 2010
I have just finished reading 'Guests of the Sheik'. I enjoyed the book very much and it will always hold a special place in my memory. I am a great and voracious reader and this was a 'milestone' book for me. I went on line to find out the titles of her other writings and I found her obituary. I am saddened to read of her death. Although I never knew her I feel safe in saying the world has lost a wonderful person and humanitarian.
Alexandra Cook
December 18, 2008
B.J's transition was a watershed moment for me as I'm sure it was for many, many people. I experienced a floodgate of memories going back to 1967 when I first met Bob and B.J. while a student at U.T. I was also one of the 'lucky ones' who got to go to Morocco in the summer of 1971 with them, a pivotal event for many.

B.J. was a consumate hostess. The parties on New Year's day over the decades were legendary as were the wonderful Fernea dinners noted for excellent cuisine and great conversation.

I thank B.J. for enriching my life. I thank her, too, for her valient effort of bringing to the western mind what the lives of ordinary Middle Easterners, especially women, are like.

My deepest condolences to Bob and the children. You have been truly blessed to have had so much of B.J. for so long.
Carol Abbassi
December 18, 2008
I have known BJ for over thirty years and from the first day I met her in Marrakech,where we were shooting a film for British Television based on her book 'A Street In Marrakech', I knew I had not only found a friend for life but also an inspiration.We made three more films together in the Middle East, BJ morphing from writer to film maker at an age when most would be happy with a wonderfully successful career as a writer. We shared abandonment on the Syrian Border and Bomb Shelters in Palestinian refugee camps, road accidents in Egypt, bullets flying on the Beirut Campus,and midnight assignatons with Yasser Arafat. She was a great person to be with under those sort of conditions. Calm, almost sanguine,and with her wonderful attention to detail you knew she was probably counting the bomb blasts and remembering what pictures were on the wall in Arafat's ante-room and how many people were in the bomb shelter and how they were dressed, ready to write it all down afterwards. She also took great pride in her appearance and had a great sense of propriety, ignoring my panicked urgings to just rush to the bomb shelter , refusing to budge as she calmly changed out of her nightdress into full day-wear! I also remember her wonderful hospitality, sharing thanksgiving with her and Bob and the family, and having her stay with me when she visited England, where I will now treasure her brilliant recipe for salad dressing that she wrote in my cookbook. Distance is never an obstacle to true and lasting friendship and whilst I saw less of BJ over the past several year she was always one of my closest friends.The world will be a less vivid place with her passing.
Love to Bob, Laila Laura Ann and David at this sad time
Marilyn Gaunt,Ludlow,England
MARILYN GAUNT
December 15, 2008
So sorry to hear of B.J.'s passing. She was such a role model.
Elizabeth Bach
December 13, 2008
With special appreciation for B.J.'s life, work, and example.
Margaret Furse
December 13, 2008
To Bob, David and family...my deepest sympathy & fond
memories of the barn(Pool's) & the horses. My thoughts are with you. Ann Ayres
Ann Ayres
December 12, 2008
Memories of Elizabeth Warnock Fernea (“B.J”) from Heather and Edwin Taylor

Our memories of B.J. go back to 1954 in Chicago. Heather met her there; we had come here at about the same time. We soon moved in together, with another young woman. We rented an apartment owned by a University of Chicago faculty member. It was rather elegant and we had many parties. (B.J. always loved to entertain.)

We worked in the University’s admissions office, which was having difficulties recruiting undergraduate students. This was during the McCarthy era and for some reason the university had the reputation of having Communist leanings. While I stayed in the office handling undergraduate applications, B.J. was sent all around the country to many high schools to recruit students. She was away a lot, but when she returned we and another roommate were very happy to see her, primarily because she was a wonderful companion but also because she was a great cook and made excellent meals. She was well known for her culinary skills.

While we lived together, Bob Fernea came to Chicago to work on his PhD. They had known each other at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Their relationship grew close. Then Heather and Ed married. B.J. was not able to attend our wedding because she was recruiting many miles away.

Bob had an opportunity to go to Iraq to do research for his doctorate. Not knowing Arabic or much about the Middle East, B.J. was reluctant to go, but Bob was very persuasive. They married before going and took a crash course in Iraqi Arabic in Washington before they left the U.S. For two years they lived in a mud-brick hut in a tribal settlement, headed by a local sheik. Women were veiled, and B.J. had to wear the black abayah which covered most of her body. She spent much of her time with the women and children of the harem and learned about their customs. When the time came for the Ferneas to leave, the sheik gave her a beautiful Iraqi pendant, which she always wore. Sadly, it was stolen from the house they later bought in Austin.

In the years to follow, B.J. accompanied Bob to various Middle East countries, where they lived with the local inhabitants. This meant learning the local Arabic. First they lived in the medina of Marrakech for two years. Then they lived in Cairo, and their three children were born in a Cairo hospital. Her life in Cairo was very different from her life in Iraq. They had a fine apartment, with several servants, and met many people who became longtime friends. One was Prince Hassan, who was the only member of the Egyptian royal family who was allowed to stay after his cousin, King Farouk, was ousted. B.J. helped the prince write and publish his memoirs.

Next, Bob’s work took him to southern Egypt, to Nubia, where they lived with the local people, with whom they became fast friends, in circumstances that were rather primitive.

All these years, Heather and B.J. exchanged letters. Without doubt B.J.’s were more interesting! She was always an excellent writer. Bob suggested that her experiences were worth recording, and her first book, very well received, was about their days in Iraq: “Guests of the Sheik.” It is still in print.

Periodically they took leave from their work in the Middle East and came to Chicago and stayed with us. Our three children were fascinated by the Fernea children, who had many tales to tell about their lives. They could easily switch from Arabic to English, which amazed us all. Our two families became very close and we had an arrangement to bring up each other’s children in the event of one family’s death. The first time that I went abroad to a meeting with Ed, we were met on our return with our small daughter’s comment: “Oh dear. I guess we won’t get to live with the Ferneas.” Their exotic life, compared with our life in Chicago, was very appealing to her.

Eventually, they left the world in which they had been involved for so long. Bob had been asked to organize a Middle East department at the University of Texas. Those of us who knew what kind of life they had been leading couldn’t believe that the family could settle down in Austin. However, they made a good life for themselves there. Bob’s department was excellent, the best of its kind in any American university. B.J. taught various related subjects there and worked on more books about their life abroad, all of which were met with fine reviews.

They continued to stay for various periods and give lectures in those countries where they had formerly lived. They traveled together as well as separately. B.J. was making a name for herself in Middle Eastern studies. She published so much that eventually the U. of Texas granted her a PhD!

Heather’s contact with B.J. continued. She was delighted when B.J. asked her to accompany her through various Middle Eastern countries on a Fulbright grant.
B.J. had started making noteworthy documentary films about these countries and their people, and in time she asked Heather to help as still photographer for some of these films. This gave Heather the chance to become somewhat familiar with these countries and their people. The film, “The Struggle for Peace: Israelis and Palestinians” was broadcast as a PBS documentary in 1992. It was followed a couple of years later by “Making Peace Work: Israelis and Palestinians.” Both were well received. She was an expert at interviewing people. Her charismatic personality won over everyone she met.

Knowing and working with B.J. has made many years of my life much more worthwhile and memorable than it would have been otherwise. She can be thought of as the “grand old lady of Middle Eastern Studies.” We and the many others whom her life has touched will always fondly remember her.
Heather Taylor
December 9, 2008
I was lucky enough to meet Dr Fernea while working at the UT English Dept a few years ago. I remember her being so gracious talking to people such as myself who were interested in her experiences in the Middle East. A fascinating person. My deepest condolences to her family and friends.
Justin Leach
December 9, 2008
It was an honor knowing BJ when I living in Austin. My deepest condolences to Dr. Fernea and her family. May she rest in Peace, and may her memory be eternal.
Samar Sakakini
December 9, 2008
I offer my sympathy to the Fernea family in their time of loss. BJ was an extraordinary scholar and writer, whose curiosity and dedication to understanding the world and its people were truly inspiring. I will miss her friendship.
Joel Barna
December 8, 2008
Sincere condolences to the Fernea family for the loss of BJ. It was a special experience to meet the Fernea's in Casablanca in the early 70's and then again, later, in Austin.
Greg Swimelar
December 8, 2008
My condolences to the whole family for the loss of BJ. She was a warm, loving and a wonderful person. I share your sorrow, and I hope that all will go well. I have known BJ and her family for many years. Her warmth and great hospittality when I visited them at their homes was wonderful.
Her loss will be greatly felt, and will miss her.
Peace, Nouzha Swimelar
Nouzha Swimelar
December 8, 2008
You are in our thoughts and prayers.
Miles and Grainne Gilliam family
December 7, 2008
Our deepest and heartfelt sympanthies to all the Fernea Family! We are so sorry to hear of your loss. Our thoughts and prayers are with you all! May God be with you and bless you all at this difficult time.
David, Kim & boys, thoughts, love & prayers to you all.
The Miller Family
December 6, 2008
The Ferneas and I were fellow Old Middle East Hands, and I join with others in expressing a great sense of loss in BJ's passing. She was a dauntless field scholar and a champion of balanced reporting of findings. She will be missed.
Colbert Held
December 6, 2008
I read her books concerning women in the Middle East and various other things she wrote.
The work that she leaves behind is truly impressive and she will be missed!
Anonymous
December 6, 2008
Forty years ago, when I was a volunteer teacher in Baghdad, someone gave me BJ's book and recommended it as being as good an introduction to Iraq as I might find. Years later, arriving at UT as a junior faculty member, it was a real thrill to meet her and to get to know here as a colleague. Now back in Austin after nearly 30 years service in the Middle East, I regret I will not have the chance to meet this woman again who was an inspiration to me and to so many others. My wife, Joanne, once a student of BJ's and who is now in Iraq, joins me in offering our condolences to the Furneas.
John Cummings
December 5, 2008
I was so lucky to have B.J. Fernea in my life.
I send my deepest condolences to her family.
Mary O'Grady
December 5, 2008
As a UT grad student advised by Robert Fernea, I cherished the warm interest and friendship of BJ, as did all UT students who had contact with her. Her legacy is not only as a wonderful writer and scholar but also as a wonderful human being, a great friend to all.
Linda Giles
December 5, 2008
I first met BJ when her youngest, Laila, and my youngest, Ruth , were classmates in the Montessori school. Both families were new to Austin-it was the late 1960's. Other shared interests followed, and we saw each other a lot on into the 70's and 80's. Our mutual interest in the Middle East was but one of the numerous common interests. BJ was a good friend, an outstanding scholar and writer, but most of all, she will be remembered as a really fine human being.
Deena Mersky
December 5, 2008
BJ was an elegant woman, and I was glad to be able to work with her. I considered her a good friend. She was a valuable and shining presence.
Jim Hoggard
December 5, 2008
My most sincere sympathy to the Fernea family. B.J.'s life and work will continue to inspire all of us.
B. Maher
INVITE OTHERS TO ADD MEMORIES
Share to let others add their own memories and condolences