Monday, January 15, 2007

dreams of trespass

I just finished reading the book Dreams of Trespass by Fatima Mernissi. Mernissi is well-known Moroccan feminist and sociologist, as well as a lecturer at University Mohammed V in Rabat, Morocco. Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood details her beginning years growing up in a domestic harem in Fez, Morocco. This book was just so fantastic and soooo much of it touched me very deeply. So... I want to share some excerpts.

This first excerpt is making an attempt to define the term harem; the young Fatima is having a discussion with her maternal grandmother Yasmina.


Yasmina said that I needed to relax about this right-and-wrong business. She said that there were things which could be both, and things which could be neither. "Words are like onions," she said, "The more skin you peel off, the more meanings you encounter. And when you start discovering multiplicities of meanings, then right and wrong becomes irrelevant. All these questions about harems that you and Samir have been asking are all fine and good, but there will always be more to be discovered." And then she added, "I am going to peel one more skin for you now. But remember, it is only one among others."

The word "harem," she said, was a slight variation of the word haram, the forbidden, the proscribed. It was the opposite of halal, the permissible. Harem was the place where a man sheltered his family, his wife or wives, and children and relatives. It could be a house or a tent, and it referred both to the space and to the people who lived within it. One said "Sidi So-and-So's harem," referring both to his family members and to his physical home. One thing that helped me see this more clearly was when Yasmina explained that Mecca, the holy city, was also called Haram. Mecca was a space where behavior was strictly codified. The moment you stepped inside, you were bound by many laws and regulations. People who entered Mecca had to be pure: they had to perform purification rituals, and refrain from lying, cheating, and doing harmful deeds. The city belonged to Allah and you had to obey his shari'a, or sacred law, if you entered his territory. 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, Yasmina said, it did not need walls. Once you knew what was forbidden, you carried the harem within. You had it in your head, "inscribed under your forehead and under your skin."

(p. 61)


The next excerpt comes from a chapter in which Mernissi is discussing her childhood understanding of World War II and the Jews. I found this to be particularly fascinating, considering the current animosity between Arabs and Jews. Just a warning, this particular excerpt is kind of long, but it is completely worth reading in its entirety.


The mysterious Allemane (Germans) were not only after the French, however; they had also declared war on the Jews. The Allemane forced the Jews to wear something yellow whenever they stepped out into the streets, just as the Muslim men asked the women to wear a veil, so they could be spotted immediately. Why the Allemane were after the Jews, no one in the courtyard was really able to say. Samir and I kept asking questions, running around from one embroidery team to another on quiet afternoons, but all we got was speculation. "It could be the same thing as with women here," said Mother. "No one really knows why men force us to wear veils. Something to do with the difference maybe. Fear of the difference makes people behave in strange ways. The Allemane must feel safer when they are by themselves, just like the men in the Medina who get nervous whenever women appear. If the Jews insist on their difference, that could unsettle the Allemane. Crazy world."

In Fez, the Jews had their own district, called the Mellah. It took exactly half an hour to get there from our house, and the Jews looked just like everyone else, dressing in long robes similar to our djellabas. They wore hats instead of turbans, that's all. They minded their own business and kept to their Mellah, making beautiful jewelry and pickling their vegetables in a most delicious way. Mother had tried to pickle zucchinis, small cucumbers, and tiny eggplants the Mellah way, but she had never succeeded. "They must say some magic words," she concluded.

Like us, the Jews had their own prayers, loved their God, and taught His book to their children. They had built a synagogue for Him, which was like our mosque, and we shared the same prophets, with the exception of our beloved Mohammed, Allah's Prayer and Peace Upon Him. (I never went too far in listing the prophets, because it got too complicated and I was afraid of making a mistake. My teacher Lalla Tam said that making mistakes in religious matters could send a person to hell. It was called tashif, or blasphemy, and as I already had decided that I was going to paradise, I tried to stay away from mistakes.) One thing was for sure, the Jews had always lived with Arabs, since the beginning of time, and the Prophet Mohammed had liked them when he first started preaching Islam. But then they did something nasty, and he decided, that if the two religious were to co-exist in the same city, they would have to live in separate quarters. Jews were well organized and had a strong sense of community, much stronger than ours. In the Mellah, the poor were always taken care of and all the children went to highly disciplined Alliance Israélite schools.

What I could not understand was, what were the Jews doing in the country of the Allemane? How did they get there, into Snowland? I thought that Jews, like Arabs, preferred warm climates and steered away from snow. They had lived in the city of Medina, in the middle of the Arabian Desert, during the Prophet's time, fourteen centuries ago, right? And before that, they had lived in Egypt, not that far from Mecca, and in Syria. At any rate, the Jews had always hung around with the Arabs.

[Footnote: This idea of Jews and Muslims belonging together may seem strange today, but the events in this book took place before the creation of the State of Israel in May 1948. At that time, this vision of a strong cultural and historical bond between Jews and Muslims was very prevalent, especially in Morocco, where both communities still had a fresh memory of the Spanish Inquisition, which had led to their expulsion from Spain in 1492. Bernard Lewis wrote an interesting chapter about this pre-1948 vision, in which he explains that many Europeans then believed that the Jews and Muslims had conspired together against Christian interests in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Bernard Lewis, "Les Juifs pro-Islamiques," in Le retour de l'Islam, french translation; Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1984, p. 315). The radical shift in perception regarding the alliances between the three religions around the Mediterranean has happened in an incredibly short time. In fact, even at the end of the 1940s, the Moroccan Jewish community was impressive in numbers and one of the pillars of tradition in North Africa, with deep roots reaching far back into the local Berber pre-Islamic culture. Since then, most Jews have left Morocco, migrating to Israel and other countries such as France and, later, Canada. Today, the Fez Mellah is entirely populated by Muslims, and the Jews left in the country number only in the hundreds. Therefore, many Moroccan Jewish intellectuals have been trying as fast as they can to document the cultural characteristics of the Moroccan Jewish community, one of the most ancient of the world, which has vanished in less than a decade.


So the Arabs and the Jews lounged around there in Andalusia for seven hundred years, enjoying themselves as they recited poetry and looked up at the stars from the middle of their lovely jasmine and orange gardens, which they watered through an innovative and complicated irrigation system. We forgot all about them down here in Fez until one day, the city woke up to see hundreds of them streaming down into Morocco, screaming with fright, their house keys in their hands. A ferocious Christian queen named Isabella the Catholic had emerged from the snow and was after them. She had given them one hell of a beating and said, "Either you pray like us or we'll throw you into the sea." But in fact, she never gave them time to answer, and her soldiers pushed everyone into the Mediterranean. Muslims and Jews together swam to Tangier and Ceuta (unless they were among the lucky ones who found boats) and then ran to Fez to hide. That had happened five hundred years ago, and that was why we had a huge Andalusian community right in the heart of the Medina, near the Qaraouiyine Mosque, and the big Mellah, or Jewish quarter, a few hundred meters away.

But that still does not explain how the Jews ended up in the land of the Allemane, does it? Samir and I talked about this and decided that maybe, when Isabella the Catholic started screaming, some of the Jews walked the wrong way, heading north instead of south, and found themselves in the heart of Snowland. Then, since the Allemane were Christians, like Isabella the Catholic, they chased the Jews away because they did not pray alike. But Aunt Habiba said that this explanation did not sound right, because the Allemane were also fighting the French, who were Christians too and worshipped the same God. So that put an end to that theory. Religion could not explain the war going on in Christendom.

I was about to suggest to Samir that we let the mysterious Jewish questions sit until the following year, when we would be much older and wiser, when Cousin Malika came up with a sensible but terrifying explanation. The war had to do with hair color! The blond-haired tribes were fighting the brown-haired peope! Crazy! The Allemane, in this case, were the blonds, tall and pale, while the French were the brunettes, smaller and darker. The poor Jews, who had simply gone the wrong way when Isabella chased everyone from Spain, were trapped between the two. They just happened to be in the war zone, and they just happened to have brown hair. They were not part of any camp!

So, the might Allemane were after anyone with dark hair and dark eyes. Samir and I were terrified. We checked what Malika had said with Cousin Zin, and he said that she was absolutely right. Hi-Hitler -- that was the name of the king of the Allemane -- hated dark hair and dark eyes and was throwing bombs from planes wherever a dark-haired population was spotted. Jumping into the water would not do any good either, because he would send submarines to fish you out. Looking up at his older brother, Samir put his hands over his sleek jet-black hair, as if to hide it, and said, "But do you think that once the Allemane have knocked out the French and the Jews, they'll push south and come down to Fez?" Zin's answer was vague; he said that the newspapers did not mention anything about the Allemane's long-term plans.

That night, Samir begged his mother to promise to put henna in his hair, in order to redden it, the next time we went to the hammam (public baths), and I ran around with one of my mother's scarves securely tied around my head, until she noticed it and forced me to take it off. "Don't you ever cover your head!" Mother shouted. "Do you understand me? Never! I am fighting against the veil, and you are putting one on?! What is this nonsense?" I explained to her abut the Jews and the Allemane, the bombs and the submarines, but she was not impressed. "Even if Hi-Hitler, the Almighty King of the Allemane, is after you," she said, "you ought to face him with your hair uncovered. Covering your head and hiding will not help. Hiding does not solve a woman's problems. It just identifies her as an easy victim. Your Grandmother and I have suffered enough of this head-covering business. We know it does not work. I want my daughters to stand with their heads erect, and walk on Allah's planet with their eyes on the stars."

(pp. 94-96 and 98-100)


What I love the most about this passage is the childlike understanding of the situation. It was so fascinating to see this familiar situation through the eyes of child living in the Muslim world. There are just so many things to be said about all of it ... the Muslim/Jewish alliance, the Christian "reconquest" of Spain... I might devote an entry in the very near future to this latter subject because I find it particularly interesting. I also love the end, where Fatima's mother speaks about the veiling of women. If you read the book, you will see that she was surrounded by several very strong feminist women who obviously played a large role in shaping who she is today.

So this next passage pertains to the Americans, whose arrival in Casablanca in 1942 apparently confused the Moroccans. This excerpt, however, deals with the issue of race in America.


The other intriguing thing about the Americans was that they had blacks among them. There were blue-eyed Americans, and there were black Americans, and this surprised everyone. America was so far from the Sudan, the heart of Africa, and it was only in the heart of Africa that blacks were found. Mina was certain of that [My note: Mina was a servant in the Mernissi harem, kidnapped from the Sudan as a child and brought to Northern Africa], and everyone else agreed with her. Allah had given all the blacks one big land with thick forests, gushing rivers and beautiful lakes, just below the desert. So where had these black Americans come from? Did Americans have slaves, like the Arabs in the past? Believe it or not, when we asked Father that question, he said yes, the Americans had had slaves, and those black Americans were definitely Mina's cousins. Their ancestors had been captured long ago, and taken in boats all the way to America to work on big plantations. Things were different now, though, Father said. Now, the Americans used machines to do the work and slavery was most decidedly banned.

However, we could not figure out why, unlike the Arabs, white and black Americans did not mix and become just brown skinned, which was what usually happened when populations of whites and blacks lived together. "Why are the American whites still so white," asked Mina, "and the blacks still so black? Do they not intermarry?" When finally Cousin Zin gathered enough information to answer her question, it turned out that indeed, Americans did not intermarry. Instead, they kept their races separate. Their cities were divided into two medinas, one for the blacks and one for the whites, like we had in Fez for the Muslims and the Jews. We had a good laugh about that up there on the terrace, because anyone who wanted to separate people according to their skin color in Morocco was going to run into severe difficulties. People had mixed together so much that they came in hues of honey, almond, café au lait, and so many, many shades of chocolate. In fact, there often were both blue-eyed and dark-skinned brothers and sisters in the same family. Mina was really stunned at the idea of separating cities according to race. "We know that Allah separated men from women so as to control the population," she said, "and we know that Allah separated the religions, so that each group could conduct its own prayer, and invoke its own prophet. But what is the purpose of separating blacks from whites?" No one could answer that one question. It was one more mystery to be added to the rest.

(pp. 184-185)


There's not much to be said about that excerpt: I think it speaks for itself. Too bad it's still pretty much the same situation.

Ok, this next excerpt is on Morocco and modernity


Moroccan women, thirsty for liberation and change, had to export their feminists from the East, for their were no local ones as yet famous enough to become public figures and nurture their dreams. "No wonder Morocco is so far behind," Chama would remark from time to time. "Squeezed between the silence of the Sahara Desert in the South, the furious waves of the Atlantic Ocean in the West, and the Christian invaders' aggression from the North, Moroccans recoiled in defensive attitudes, while all the other Muslim nations have sailed away into modernity. Women have advanced everywhere except here. We are a museum. We should make tourists pay a fee at the gates of Tangier!"

(p. 128)


The reason why this passage struck a chord with me is mostly because it shows how radically things can change. Today, Morocco can be considered one of the more progressive Islamic nations, although up through the 1990s (known as the "Years of Lead") things were quite different. However, recently, Morocco passed one of the most progressive laws on women's rights in the Arab world. Speaking from my own personal experience as a tourist in Morocco, I would not equate it with the strict Muslim nations such as Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, etc.

The following two excerpts both pertain to female liberation.


Once I asked Mina why she danced so smoothly while most of the other women made abrupt, jerky movements, and she said that many of the women confused liberation with agitation. "Some ladies are angry with their lives," she said "and so even their dance becomes an expression of that." Angry women are hostages of their anger. They cannot escape it and set themselves free, which is indeed a sad fate. The worst of prisons is the self-created one.

(p. 162)

"Aunt Habiba says that skin is important," I began, but Samir interrupted me. "I think that men have a different skin," he said. I just stared at him. There was nothing I could say because I realized that for the first time in our children's games, all that Samir had said was right, and that whatever I said did not matter that much. Suddenly, it all seemed so strange and complicated, and beyond my grasp. I could feel that I was crossing a frontier, stepping over a threshold, but I could not figure out what kind of new space I was stepping into.

Suddenly I felt sad for no reason, and I went up to Mina on the terrace and sat by her said. She stroked my hair. "Why are we so quiet today?" she asked. I told her about my conversation with Samir, and also about what had happened in the hammam. She listened with her back to the western wall, her yellow headdress as elegant as ever, and when I had finished, she told me that life was going to be tougher from now on for both me and Samir. "Childhood is when the difference does not matter," she said. "From now on, you won't be able to escape it. You'll be ruled by the difference. The world is going to turn ruthless."

"But why?" I asked her, "and why can't we escape the rule of the difference? Why can't men and women keep on playing together even when they are older? Why the separation?" Mina replied not by answering my questions but by saying that both men and women live miserable lives because of the separation. Separation creates an enormous gap in understanding. "Men do not understand women," she said, "and women do not understand men, and it all starts when little girls are separated from little boys in the hammam. Then a cosmic frontier splits the planet in two halves. The frontier indicates the line of power because wherever their is a frontier, there are two kinds of creatures walking on Allah's earth, the powerful on one side, and the powerless on the other."

I asked Mina how would I know on which side I stood. Her answer was quick, short, and very clear: "If you can't get out, you are on the powerless side."

(pp. 241-242)

All excerpts taken from:
Mernissi, Fatima. Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

Other books by Fatima Mernissi: (note: first name seems to be spelled as both Fatima and Fatema)

Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society. Indiana: Indiana University Press, Revised Edition, 1987.

The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam. New York: Perseus Books Group, 1992.

The Forgotten Queens of Islam. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World. New York: Perseus Books Group, revised edition, 2002.

Women's Rebellion & Islamic Memory. England: Zed Books, 1996.

Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems. Washington Square Press, 2001.

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