Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood by Fatima Mernissi is an enchanting memoir that gives us an insightful look at a growing up in a harem. Born in 1940 in Fez, Morocco, Fatima takes us on a spectacular journey of her girlhood. Dreams of Trespass gracefully flows between childhood memories, Middle Eastern folk tales, and her family’s stories from the past. Fatima was a founder of Islamic feminism and here she recounts the roles of the women in her life.
I sought out this book because I have an upcoming solo trip to Morocco. I like to interweave my adventures with books that will enlighten me on the history and culture of the area. Learning about domestic harem life through the eyes of a curious girl was delightful. I’d like to give a special thank you to the photographer Ruth Viktoria Ward for providing me with images, and a thank you to Fatima Mernissi’s literary agent, Edite Kroll, for being my point of contact.
Dreams of Trespass
From the beginning, we are introduced to the overarching theme of trespassing. On one end of the spectrum, she is taught that groups are made to be separated. Men from women, Muslims from Christians. That when those boundaries are not respected, it leads to sorrow and unhappiness. But on the other end, she is also taught to stand up for herself with words and to choose those words carefully. To never veil herself and to live a life happier than the women who came before her.
The courtyard level of Fatima’s home was strict and proper, however, the upper levels were the opposite. Relatives and their children would often come to stay. The harem was a true refuge for the women of the family; a steadfast safe haven to retreat to when their relationships were in conflict. Life in the upper levels was full of tenderness and unconditional love. Fatima’s descriptions of the upstairs of the harem evokes a similarity to the maternal realm depicted in the novel The Red Tent.
Tales of a Harem Girlhood
The upstairs was also the place to hear tales of heroines and fantasy. Often the storytelling would continue late into the night and Fatima would stay with her Aunt. Her eloquent depictions come to life on the page.
“So, on these graceful nights, we would fall asleep listening to our aunt’s voice opening up magic glass doors, leading to moonlit meadows. And when we awoke in the morning, the whole city lay at our feet. Aunt Habiba had a small room, but a large window with a view that reached as far as the Northern mountains.
She knew how to talk in the night. With words alone, she could put us onto a large ship sailing from Aden to the Maldives, or takes us to an island where the birds spoke like human beings. Riding on her words, we traveled past Sind and Hind (India), leaving Muslim territories behind, living dangerously, making friends with Christians and Jews, who shared their bizarre foods with us and watched us do our prayers, while we watched them do theirs.”
As a girl, Fatima observes the imbalance between the genders within her household. The male members of her family tell her that because women can’t defend themselves, travel is too dangerous. Only men can come and go freely. It was Fatima’s mother who insisted that her daughter receive the same celebration rituals upon her birth that were usually reserved for boys. Fatima’s maternal grandmother, Yasmina, taught her that she should never accept inequality.
What is a Harem?
The harems referred to in this book are known as a domestic harem and serves as a place for extended family. A man, his sons, and their wives would live under the same roof. Together they would pool their resources to maintain an extended household. Polygamy is not what defines a harem but rather the men’s wish to seclude their wives. Yasmina explained to Fatima what being stuck in a harem meant.
“Sometimes, she said that to be stuck in a harem simply meant that a woman had lost her freedom of movement. Other times, she said that a harem meant misfortune because a woman had to share her husband with may others.”
Yasmina’s harem was different, she lived on a farm filled with flowers, cows, and sheep with no walls. In comparison, the one that Fatima grew up in felt like a fortress to her. Her mother couldn’t walk outside the gates of her home without permission but her grandmother’s harem was freer. Fatima couldn’t understand why with the situations being so different, why both use the same word…harem. Yasima explained to her that a harem did not need walls.
“Once you knew what was forbidden, you carried the harem within. You had it in your head.”
The Wives at the Farm Harem
Tamou came to Yasmina’s harem in 1926. She was wearing a man’s cape and a woman’s headdress, riding on a horse. Tamou was a war heroine and a Riffan. Throughout Morocco, the Rif people were admired for being the warriors who fought off foreign invaders when the rest of the country had given up. Haunted by her past, Tamou would scream in her sleep. She knew how to shoot a gun, how to speak Spanish, she had tattoos, a dagger, and was constantly horseback riding. Tamou had lived a life so different to that of the harem women that Yasima and the other co-wives came to admire her. While staying on the farm, Fatima’s grandfather fell in love with Tamou and asked her to stay to become another co-wife.
Yaya, the quietest of the co-wives, was quite fragile. She was prone to illness and the other co-wives decided to help her out by doing her share of the housework. In harems, the household tasks were taken care of on a strict rotation system. So, grateful for their help, Yaya would tell them about her village in Sudan in exchange. Gathered in her room, sipping on hot tea, the co-wives would listen to her stories into the night. She was the official storyteller of the harem.
Tradition vs Happiness
Fatima’s mother dreamed of life outside the harem where she could live as a single family with just her immediate family. Fatima’s father was sympathetic and torn between his duty to tradition and wanting to make her happy. Several of uncles in the harem did leave with their families but still, her father wouldn’t give up the tradition while his own mother was living in the home. Being in the harem and communal living was a constant source of unhappiness for Fatima’s mother. She wanted her daughter to take revenge for her by living an exciting life filled with happiness and freedom.
“Times are going to get better for women now, my daughter. You and your sister will get a good education, and you’ll walk freely in the streets and discover the world.”
The women in Fatima’s life had a profound impact on her beliefs, her interests, and on her outlook on the world. Throughout the book, we get to know each of those women. My favorite parts are the moments of carefree joy that the women in the harem occasionally steal, they remind me of the girls in Little Women. Like members of a secret society, they took their freedoms when they could.
Dreams of Trespass is a beautiful mix of fantastic storytelling, childhood intrique, and Moroccan history. Through the eyes of Fatima Mernissi as a young girl, we join her as she explores her mysterious and complex world. I thoroughly enjoyed discovering the culture and customs of mid-century Morocco. I was surprised to find such an extraordinary range of personalities and viewpoints all living together within the harem. Because Dreams of Trespass takes place in Fatima’s childhood, this book leaves me wanting to learn more about her life as she grew into adulthood. I highly recommend this book, it is beautifully written and thought-provoking.If you’d like to receive more travel tips, you can subscribe to the mailing list below or follow me on Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, or Twitter.