Elizabeth Warnock Fernea — BJ to her friends — “passed away last Tuesday at the age of 81”:http://www.utexas.edu/news/2008/12/04/fernea_obit/ (“LA Times obit here”:http://www.latimes.com/news/obituaries/la-me-fernea8-2008dec08,0,5829335.story). I am probably the wrong person to memorialize her. We never met, never corresponded, studied radically different topics, and had little in common beside BA degrees in anthropology from the same school awarded more than four decades apart. Fernea was best known for her short book Guests of the Sheik, which it took me years to read. As a graduate student I saw it lined up the used book racks alongside books by Ashley Montagu and Robert Ardrey — just one more of those many paperback editions published in the 60s to feed the massive waves of boomer graduate students whose detritus became my childhood. It wasn’t until later on in life that I actually bought a copy, sat down, and decided to figure out what all the fuss was about.
In fact, Guests of the Sheik is, quite simply, one of the best ethnographies ever written. Today, of course, its description of rural Iraq is hugely relevant for Americans. But beyond its current salience the book excels in so many other ways as well. It succeeds in achieving the ultimate anthropological goal of painting a picture of both a society in general and a group of people in particular. It traces the development of the anthropologist as she moves from being a newcomer to an insider. It tells a story of rapport with a host community, but ends ambivalently by insisting fieldwork never erases the difference between the anthropologist and her ‘people’. Above all it is written so well, so clearly, so lucidly, and so honestly. At the end of the day you feel that the story succeeds not just because of the skill of the author, but because of the incredible bigness of her heart. Not everyone could have done this fieldwork, or been so charitable in describing it.
In fact, one of the problems of Guest of the Sheik is that it is so good, has such wide appeal, and is so easy to read that it would be easy to miss how great a book it is. Beneath funny anecdotes of housekeeping in Iraq lie a complex relationship with her husband and his fieldwork which allows readers to both read her account against the grain, but to attempt to triangulate both of their personalities through their views of each other. Her attempt to humanize Shiite ecstatic religious practice and the restriction of women to the private sphere is admirable, but sometimes not always articulable to the wider demand for social justice which prompts the exercise in the first place. Ambivalence about modernization, the inevitable human weakness of its proponents, and the good and bad reasons traditionalists had for rejecting it are all presented in a detailed way. This is a book that is easy to read, but it is also, literally, a book of enduring worth — one that can be read and discussed about again and again.
Of course in some sense Fernea was not an anthropologist, her husband is. She was a filmmaker, an essayist, a literary critic. But she was anthropological in the sense that she spent her life actually writing about people and places (remember that sense?). At times her insistence that the things that separate us are far smaller than the things which bring us together threatened to verge into a feel-good optimism — she simply couldn’t (to judge by her writings) muster the cynicism and irony that future generations would take as their master tropes. She has passed on, but her work remains. Perhaps now is a time for us to begin reading it once again.