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.