When I decided to check out Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood by Fatima Mernissi from the public library, I didn’t expect to like it very much. In fact, I was positive I wouldn’t. The title of the book promised yet another story of a woman chained by her religion, culture, place of birth – because what good could come up from a word like harem? I won’t lie to you, I wasn’t looking forward to it very much! The only reason why I picked it off the shelf was that I was on a mission.
The mission was to increase my self-education about Islam, because I was sick and tired of crap in the media after Boston bombing. Yes, I understand that people are scared and angry after a tragedy like that. But what I don’t understand is why, when a mass shooting happens in Connecticut or California, it goes without saying that the shooter is a troubled individual, NOT a living proof that all people of California and Connecticut are screwed up; while when an equally troubled individual (okay, in this case two, but the point stands) happens to be a Muslim, it’s automatically assumed that he represents ALL Muslims in the whole world.
I have met way too many Muslims here in the United States to have any patience for the diarrhea of hate that has been oozing from the media ever since Boston. If you think that I’m exaggerating, I strongly suggest visiting http://www.loonwatch.com/, which is a website that serves as a watchdog of the anti-Muslim movement in the U.S. (and is absolutely hilarious while doing so). And I because I’m still naïve enough to believe that education is the key and that most folks out there are not mean, just ignorant, I decided that it was time to start educating myself more, so I knew what I was talking about when explaining to people why Islam was NOT evil.
And that’s how Fatima Mernissi entered my home. Her book happened to be on the top of the pile that I brought from the library that day and I reached for it at night when I wanted to read a couple of pages before going to sleep. Except that I didn’t get to go to sleep that night – or at least not at the time I was planning to.
Dreams of Trespass is a charming, delightful story of seeing the world through the eyes of a little girl born in 1940 in Morocco. And yes, she is born into a "harem", which in this context means a communal household, where members of the extended family live all together (i.e. NOT a prison for one thousand concubines).
Fatima’s father had, in fact, only one wife. Fatima’s parents enjoyed a loving, romantic relationship, at least for the most part, and Fatima’s father doted on his little girl, not once making her feel inadequate for not being born a boy.
Of course, that’s not to say that life in Morocco was all roses – the title of the book clearly indicates the desire of women to trespass, to escape through the iron gate that confided them inside the house. Fatima’s father might have been progressive in many ways, but he was still a product of a fiercely patriarchal society and there was a line he wasn’t willing to cross. And that’s why the women had to ask permission to leave the house, which was rarely granted; why only the men controlled the finances and made all the major decisions; why women had to create their own world within the harem’s walls.
Sad? In a way, yes. However, it’s very important to notice that the women in little Fatima’s life, who by the way never fully embraced their confinement and who spoke up fiercely against the inequality of sexes (founding a thousand little ways to rebel in the process) were never fighting against Islam itself. They were, in fact, convinced that the men of their culture acted AGAINST the Qu’ran when they insisted on keeping them isolated, illiterate, and dependent. It was male chauvinism, not Allah, treating them as unequal. And there was hope rising on the horizon: The Nationalists, Muslims fighting for their country’s independence from the French, promised to upheld women’s rights in the new, free Morocco (a promise that was clearly fulfilled in the future - at least to some point).
Fatima’s grandmother summarized her own dreams in assuring her granddaughter:
“Of course you will be happy! You will be a modern, educated lady. You will realize the nationalists’ dream. You will learn foreigner languages, have a passport, devour books, and speaks like a religious authority. At the very least, you will certainly be better off than your mother. Remember that even I, as illiterate and bound by tradition as I am, have managed to squeeze some happiness out of this damned life. That it why I don’t want you to focus on the frontiers and the barriers all the time. I want you to concentrate on fun and laughter and happiness. That is a good project for an ambitious young lady.”
Judged by the information I found on Internet about Dr. Fatima Mernissi, a noted Muslim feminist and a sociologist, Grandmother Yasmina’s prophecy seems to have come true. And we now have the privilege to enjoy the magical story of her childhood, which is written so engagingly that one cannot put it down. The tone of the book changes from chapter to chapter: Some parts are melancholic, some will make you giggle (my favorite is the chapter “The Harem Goes to the Movies”), and in the end, if you are anything like me, you are going to be disappointed that there are no more chapters to read. And maybe, just maybe, this book will serve as a step in understanding other culture – even the one that on the first sight seems so scary and different from ours.