Dreams of Trespass – Fatima Mernissi

Dreams of Trespass - Fatima MernissiDreams of Trespass. Tales of a Harem Girlhood – Fatima Mernissi
4 out of 5 stars

Fatima Mernissi’s Dreams of Trespass is about her childhood growing up in a harem in Morocco. On the surface, this is an enjoyable read with stories of everyday life in Morocco, seen from the perspective of the women living in the harem of Mernissi’s father and uncle. However, if you look more closely, it offers a lot more than that. It seems to me an insider’s account of how the questions of Islam and women were experienced in Morocco in the advent of the countries’ independence from France.

The title, Dreams of Trespass, refers to the visible and invisible barriers in life. Barriers that have to do with Islam, with women, but also with the issue of borders: France’s occupation of what the Moroccans clearly feel is their country and the French’ creation of invisible lines between different groups of people in the country. Another central question is which barriers are involved in the concept of the harem. Fatima experiences all kinds of barriers during her life in the harem. The exploration of what these barriers mean to her and her family is what make this book such a fascinating read.

Having had quite a few classes on women and Islam in Morocco, I especially loved how many of the things I had learned played a part in this book as well. I respect Mernissi for pointing out both the limitations and the opportunities of women in Morocco. I also like how she shows how certain forms of “open display of weakness” might work in advantage of those concerned: for example the possession by djinn’s that might be constructed as a way of being permitted to dance or be openly cross for people who are in no position to do so if they weren’t classified as possessed.

I thought the concept of the harem made for another interesting theme. I might be a typical westerner in that I associated “harem” with one man that “owned” several wives living together in one building. However, It seems the word has different meaning in different cultures and periods (I feel so stupid for not realizing this before). The harem that Mernissi grew up in exists of her father’s family (one wife), his uncle’s family (also one wife), a grandmother and several of the spinsters or widows that are related to the family. Mernissi pays attention to the phenomenon of the harem by looking at the word through the eyes of the small girl she once was. Slowly Fatima finds out that both the harem she inhabits, but also the harem of her grandmother (who lives in the country and who isn’t closed in by walls that she may not leave without permission like Fatima is) involve barriers of what women can and cannot do and that visual barriers or walls might not mean that there’s less freedom involved.

Which brings me to the last two themes that stood out: First, there is the evident hope of most of the older women that Fatima might see a future in which she can make her own way in life, without any limitations. While she discusses this, Mernissi also pays attentions to the inevitable subject of tradition vs. modernity and the divided opinions of the women living in the harem on the subject. Second, stories, dreams and plays make up a huge part of the book. This is the escape for all the women in the harem. Through the telling of stories about famous women they can experience life outside of the walls surrounding them. These stories are fascinating in themselves, and I can’t help but feel I should read the 1001 nights sometime, as well as some of the other titles Mernissi refers to in her notes.

Dreams of Trespass makes for a fascinating read if you’re at all interested in women, Islam and life in Morocco. I’ll be looking forward to reading more by Mernissi, who has done sociological research on women and Islam.

Note: It seems Dreams of Trespass has been released under a different title as well: “The Harem Within: Tales of a Moroccan Girlhood.” Since I read the Dutch translation, I guess I could’ve chosen to review this book under either of those titles, but Dreams of Trespass held an instant appeal and is I feel the better title, because it refers to one of the most important themes in the book.

Also: This counts towards both the Women Unbound and the Orbis Terrarum Challenge.

26 responses to “Dreams of Trespass – Fatima Mernissi

  1. Pingback: Joining the Women Unbound Challenge « Iris on Books

  2. Pingback: Orbis Terrarum Reading Challenge « Iris on Books

  3. Ooh, I want to read that! I didn´t know about the different meanings of the harem either, thanks for educating me :) The concept of freedom and living through stories reminds strongly of Sheherazade, I´ve only read a couple of stories from 1001 Nights (mostly the Sindbad adventures) but I enjoyed them a lot.

    • If you happen to read Dutch I could send my copy to you. It is a bookcrossing copy, so I was going to ‘release’ it anyway. Not sure if you can read Dutch though.

      I’d like to try a few of the 1001 Night stories sometime.

      • Thanks for the offer, it´s really kind of you! :) I do read Dutch, actually. If you´re sure you want to release it I could mail you my address (I´m not on bookcrossing though).

        • I don’t really use bookcrossing, only to let the person who left it at the particular spot where I found it know that I picked it up. Apparently, it had been there for several years!

          Anyway, if you want to read it, I’ll send it to you. My email is: irisonbooks [at] gmail [dot] com.

  4. This looks really good. I’m ready for a story set in a foreign setting and Morocco would be new to me. Thank you.

    • Thank you for commenting Care. What I enjoyed most about the book is I think that it’s so simple, yet it has so many interesting themes within it? I can’t say the story has a real ending though, which I at first thought would bother me, but I hardly noticed when I finished the book.

  5. This sounds like a really great book. So many topics covered, and it sounds like she does a really great job. I will have to add it to my list!

  6. What an excellent review- it seems like the book really struck you with some of its themes and concepts, which is always great. It also seems like many more books about Islam and the experience of it are coming out now, which is also really great.

    • It does seem that there’s a growing market for the experience of Islam. I’m not sure if this book fits into that new trend, since it was published in 1995.

  7. This sounds so interesting in so many ways. Don’t feel stupid – you were NOT the only one not to realise that the term “harem” could have more than one meaning.

    • I know I’m probably not the only one, but when I read about it I felt I should’ve known since you’re practically raised to think about such things as a historian or religious studies student.

  8. I think I must be confused about harems, but who isn’t, right? I had the chance to visit the harem at the Topkapi palace in Istanbul, and it was a little eye opening. Let’s just say that I wouldn’t want to be there. Yes, they threw parties that looked over the Bosphorus, and enjoyed a life where they were completely taken care of, by they never got to leave. In fact, no man was supposed to come in contact with them (other than the sultan), so they took young boys, and castrated them so they would be the eunuch caretakers over the women. Fun job eh?

    Okay, so that’s my one experience with a harem. I really should read more about them before I let that one time make me believe I know what they are all like. Honestly, my interests lie in the treatment of women. From that perspective, I should learn more. Thanks for this!

    • I think that that is the kind of harem most people think of when they hear the word. I liked Mernissi’s book, because it shows several side of harem life in the fifties in Morocco.

  9. This couldn’t be further from a harem in Morocco, but I wanted to offer a contribution to the 30′s challenge. And the two works are not as far apart as they might seem, once you get into the trenches of women’s history. Someone ought to do a book cross-referencing the challenges across the globe of women growing older. I’d bet there would be linking threads

  10. This book sounds awesome. I don’t think you’re alone in your idea of what a harem meant — that was certainly my impression having not read much about it.

  11. This sounds like a book I would enjoy. The word “harem” conjures up all sorts of stereotypical ideas in Western minds, I think, reflecting the West’s construction of “The East”. Notions about the “Other” loom large in our fantasies about harems. This sounds like a book that would dispel the myths.

  12. Pingback: April Wrap-Up & May Reading Plans « Iris on Books

  13. It’s amazing how ingrained a word’s definition can become without you realising it. I have a lot of muslim friends, many of whom are women who are not afraid to discuss or question their religion, and knew about the meaning of ‘harem’ but I still associate it with the Western view. And I think they do discuss it a lot because it has such a direct impact on their lives. Great book choice and review.

    • Thank you. These Western ideas must have a lot of impact on the way your muslim friends are perceived by others, I think I’d discuss these sort of things a lot as well if I were them.

  14. Yes this is a wonderful review… thanks for sharing. We as Westerners are very ignorant of some of the subtitles of other cultures and this is an important example.

  15. Pingback: Look What Arrived This Week.. « Iris on Books

  16. This one sounds real good..and im pretty sure i will enjoy it.

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