This "wonderful and enchanting" memoir tells the revelatory true story of one Muslim girl's life in her family's French Moroccan harem, set against the backdrop of World War II (The New York Times Book Review). "I was born in a harem in 1940 in Fez, Morocco..." So begins Fatima Mernissi in this illuminating narrative of a childhood behind the iron gates of a domestic harem. In Dreams of Trespass, Mernissi weaves her own memories with the dreams and memories of the women who surrounded her in the courtyard of her youth -- women who, without access to the world outside, recreated it from sheer imagination. A beautifully written account of a girl confronting the mysteries of time and place, gender and sex, Dreams of Trespass illuminates what it was like to be a modern Muslim woman in a place steeped in tradition.
Mernissi excels at descriptive writing but falters at re-creating her childhood self. Young Fatima is almost too intellectual to be believed, posing problems of religious freedom and women's rights in unusually precise academic language. It often seemed that the adult Mernissi, a professor of sociology at Morocco's top university, allowed her older self to overwhelm the younger one. Luckily, she makes up for this flaw with rich, detailed writing that creates vivid mental pictures of a vanished world. Each chapter, which seems to focus on description rather than narration, brings to life a dozen small worlds, like the precious family terrace and the peaceful public bath houses. This occasionally makes the book feel unfocused, but never to the point that I wanted to stop reading. This would be a good choice for people interested in women, Islam or Morocco, or simply for people who enjoy beautiful writing about far-off places.
The French colonists have had relatively little impact on tradition, but a wave of social change is sweeping across the Arab world, and many of the older women in the harem - Mernissi's aunts and cousins - want to embrace it. Some of Mernissi's uncles have already left the harem, tired of communal family life.
But for the ones who remain, the ways they can challenge convention are relatively limited - for some, merely abandoning traditional embroidery patterns in favour of a bird spreading its wings leads to criticism.
But Mernissi shows us very clearly that although these women have no power, they do have agency. They admire the new Arab film stars and singers, although they can only leave the compound to go to the cinema on very rare occasions. Cousin Chama tries to run past the guard to go to the cinema, and puts on plays on the terrace about early Arab feminists. ("The problem with some of Chama's favourite feminists, especially the early ones, was that they did not do much besides write, since they were locked up in harems. That meant that there was not much action to be staged, and we just had to sit and listen to Chama recite their protests and complaints in monologue.")
This is an easy-to-read memoir which is also an eye-opening insight into a world which is frequently misunderstood. I honestly think that everyone should read it - my aunt, for example, would never be induced to read a book if told it was about the early years of a feminist, still less a Muslim one, but I think that she would be fascinated by the stories and charmed by the style.
The terrace exit route was seldom watched, for the simple reason that getting to it from the street was a difficult undertaking. You needed to be quite good at three skills: climbing, jumping, and agile landing. Most of the women could climb up and jump fairly well, but not many could land gracefully. So, from time to time, someone would come in with a bandaged ankle, and everyone would know just what she'd been up to. The first time I came down from the terrace with bleeding knees, Mother explained to me that a woman's chief problem in life was figuring out how to land. 'Whenever you are about to embark on an adventure,' she said, 'you have to think about the landing. Not about the takeoff. So whenever you feel like flying, think about how and where you'll end up.'
This was a book I'd been meaning to read ever since I visited Morocco two years ago, so I was very happy that my English/Arabic book group chose to read it for this month's discussion.
Although it appears to be a memoir, the author's web site refers to it as a work of fiction and Wikipedia notes that this fact appears in the French (and Arabic) version, but not in the English one.
There are various sorts of harem around the world and the author describes two distinct types in her narrative. There is the rural farm where the author's mother was raised, which allows the women to leave the compound to shop, farm and ride horses, while the closed and gated harem in the city of Fez requires the women to have permission to exit and the gate is zealously guarded by a gatekeeper.
The author was raised in Fez, where the weekly trip to the hamam or local baths at the end of the street was pretty much the only reason allowed for exit.
One exceptional outing described in the book was a visit to the local cinema, where a morally acceptable film was showing. The women wore veils and sat together in a long row. Tickets were then purchased for the row in front and behind so no-one else could sit there and be unacceptably close.
In this closed environment the women entertained themselves with story-telling and plays. The divorced aunt, Habiba and Fatima's older cousin, Chama, were the leaders in these exploits. I got the impression that these happened fairly frequently and could often become somewhat uproarious.
The other source of entertainment was the weekly beauty session preceding the visit to the hamam. Various potions would be concocted with recipes handed down through generations and zealously guarded. Face masks, hair treatments and henna were all applied and not removed until they reached the baths.
I found all the descriptions of this enclosed life decidedly claustrophobic. Meal times were shared, bathing, entertainment and cooking were all communal. There was very little time that could be spent on one's own. There was reference to depression amongst some of the women too. But there were positive aspects as well; support was always available at times of need and the children were raised in an environment where there was constantly someone around for advice or assistance. Siblings and cousins all lived together, playing all sorts of games and getting into various scrapes.
Supposedly narrated by Fatima as an eight year old child, some aspects of this book seemed a bit too academic, but the overall picture was well described. The author left us with a detailed feel for the characters and the life they lived in that place and time.
Set in the early forties, this way of life is no longer the norm in Morocco. The protagonists foretold of a time when women would have freedom of choice, to be educated and perform a useful function in a more liberal society.
I found this a bit of a slow read and put it down part way through to read something lighter, hence the three stars. Interesting but not a page-turner.