Building Bridges Bookshelf: Muslim Journeys
Theme: Literary Reflections
Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood (1994)
Reviewed by Diana Hiles, Reference Librarian
My North American understanding of a harem has been conceived through movies, art and literature by western European and American artists and authors. Mernissi’s memoir of growing up in a twentieth century harem illustrates her own struggle to understand harem life and where the cultural boundaries exist between males and females, families and the community, tradition and modernity.
In a footnote, Mernissi identifies the “imperial harems” that have formulated my western understanding of harem life as “splendid palaces full of luxuriously dressed and lasciviously reclined indolent women, with slaves standing by and eunuchs watching the gates” (p. 34). The “domestic harem” of Mernissi’s childhood is more like “an extended family, with hardly any erotic dimension to speak of. . . [A] man and his sons and their wives lived in the same house, pooled their resources, and requested that the women refrain from stepping outside” (35).
Mernissi describes the physical structure of her home from the center out—the center is a square courtyard that frames a small square of the sky—her only view of the world outside the two story structure where she lives with her parents and two siblings, her uncle and his wife and 7 children, and her paternal grandmother (4-6). She contrasts her home’s domestic harem life with her maternal grandmother’s harem life on a farm—where the women ride horses, swim in a nearby stream, fish and climb trees (67).
When Mernissi questioned her maternal grandmother, Yasmina, about the farm harem without walls, Yasmina said the word harem is a “variation of the word haram, the forbidden, the proscribed. . . Mecca was a space where behavior was strictly codified. The moment you stepped inside, you were bound by many laws and regulations. . . The same thing applied to a harem when it was a house belonging to a man. No other men could enter it without the owner’s permission, and when they did, they had to obey his rules. A harem was about private space and the rules regulating it. In addition . . . it did not need walls. Once you knew what was forbidden, you carried the harem within (61).”
Mernissi’s memoir relates the stories of the women in her life, and how each in her own way struggled with the seclusion and lack of freedom of the domestic harem, while at the same time making peace with the situation and finding happiness. Although our worlds are extremely different, these Moroccan women struggle against the restrictions imposed on them by their patriarchal society, as do the women of yesterday and today in the United States, and around the world.