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Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem…

Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood (1994)

by Fatima Mernissi

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Insightful and interesting. ( )
  Sullywriter | May 22, 2015 |
This was an early LT recommendation - and what a great one. Fatima Mernissi is now a feminist academic, and in this book she recounts stories from her formative years, growing up in a harem in Fez, Morocco, in the 1940s.

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.' ( )
1 vote wandering_star | Aug 24, 2014 |

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. ( )
  DubaiReader | Apr 7, 2014 |
Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood, is written by highly acclaimed Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi, and is, among many other things, about Mernissi’s own challenges and journey to understanding the world as a child, and later young adult, living and growing up in a traditional “harem” in Fez, Morocco during French colonial rule of the country. The memoir is compelling as it is presented through the eyes of the naive, often rebellious, and humorous little girl that Mernissi once was, and details the ways in which many of the strong women in her life, namely Fatima’s Grandmother, Mother, and Aunt, use theater, music, and most of all, stories, in order to express their own dreams of escaping the entrapments of the harem, whose walls they are unfortunately forced to stay in. Through the use of their lessons and artistic expressions, the women are able to impress their feminist ideals upon the young Mernissi, with the hope that one day, she, unlike them, will be able to escape harem life, and make an impact on the world as a woman.They encourage her to challenge the social and convention norms of who women, and human beings in general are “supposed” to be, and can thus do the same to all readers of such a text. Moreover, Dreams of Trespass offers insight into a part of the world that most students more than likely know little or nothing about, and thus de-mythicizes disillusions concerning Muslim women and their role in society during the time in which harems existed in Morocco. The autobiography is relevant and important to teach in classrooms as it both presents a narration from a strong female voice, which can potentially inspire students to make social changes of their own, represents the immense power of words, and also challenges misconceptions about the religion of Islam, and women’s position within it.
  CKADRI24 | Oct 28, 2013 |
I liked this very much. It was light without being shallow. Its primarily the memories of a girl growing up to about the age of ten in the 40's in a Moroccan family compound where purdah was kept. Sometimes it shades over into the fantastic, but that's part of the story she is telling, that women living physically restricted lives blossomed and flew in their imaginations - sometimes into silliness but still, they found a way to be joyous despite real restrictions and frustrations that she doesn't try to minimize. ( )
  bunwat | Mar 30, 2013 |
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Venni al mondo nel 1940 in un harem di Fez, città marocchina del nono secolo, cinquemila chilometri circa a ovest della Mecca e solo mille chilometri a sud di Madrid, una delle temibili capitali cristiane.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0201489376, Paperback)

In 1940, harems still abounded in Fez, Morocco. They weren't the opulent, bejeweled harems of Scherezade, but the domestic sprawl of extended families encamped around a walled courtyard that marked the edges of women's lives. Though born into this tightly sheltered world, Fatimi Mernissi is constantly urged by her rebellious mother to spring beyond it. Worried that Mernissi is too shy and quiet, her mother tells her, "You must learn to scream and protest, just the way you learned to walk and talk." In Dreams of Trespass, an enjoyable weave of memory and fantasy, it is clear that Mernissi's fertile imagination let her slip back and forth through the gates that trapped her restive mother. She spins amiable, often improbable tales of the rigidly proper city harem in Fez and the contrasting freedoms of the country harem where her grandmother Yakima lives. There, one of Yakima's cowives rides like the wind, another swims like a fish, and Yakima relishes twitting the humorless first wife by naming a fat, waddling duck after her.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:07 -0400)

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Overview: "I was born in a harem in 1940 in Fez, Morocco..." So begins Fatima Mernissi in this exotic and rich 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, deprived of access to the world outside, recreated it from sheer imagination. Dreams of Trespass is the provocative story of a girl confronting the mysteries of time and place, gender and sex in the recent Muslim world. In a book as evocative as anything found in A Thousand and One Nights, Mernissi, who was born in a harem in 1940 in Morocco, writes with great wit and color of the politics of seductions, of the harem as a metaphor, and of the world beyond--every woman's inaccessible obsession. Photos.… (more)

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