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Dreams Of Trespass: Tales Of A Harem Girlhood Paperback – 4 Sep 1995
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About the Author
Fatema Mernissi teaches sociology at University Mohammed V in Rabat, Morocco. She is the author of more than eight books, including Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood, Scheherazade Goes West, The Veil and the Male Elite, and Beyond the Veil.
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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.
I look forward to exploring other works by Mernissi.
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