Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, a prominent writer about life in Old Nubia, died on December 2 in Austin, Texas, at the age of 81. She was an emerita professor of comparative literature and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas. She is survived by her husband, Robert Fernea, also a major figure in Nubian Studies.
She joined the faculty at the university in 1975 as a senior lecturer, shortly after Robert became the director of the university’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. She chaired the Women’s Studies Program at the university from 1980 to 1983, and retired from her teaching position in 1999.
Her bestselling book Guests of the Sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village, about living in a rural community of southern Iraq, brought her international prominence. Her subsequent work, “A View of the Nile,” was widely noticed too. It is a memoir about the adventures of the young Fernea family in a Nubian village, where they lived while her husband was doing “salvage anthropology” before the Aswan Dam was finished. Some of the writings by noted Nubian author Haggag Hassan Oddoul closely parallel the descriptive materials in Fernea’s memoir.
She also wrote a memoir about her life in Morocco while Robert did some research there. Later in her career, she wrote or co-authored a number of scholarly works about Middle Eastern studies, and she was a prominent film producer. She received two National Endowment for the Humanities grants to support her work.
According to Kamran Aghaie, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University, Mrs. Fernea “helped forge an international reputation for the university’s Middle Eastern studies program.” He added, “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.”
In addition to her husband, she is survived by two daughters, a son, and several grandchildren.