""And vulnerability is what this book is about. And I guess this is why it has been translated into 30 languages: vulnerability is our universal bond. The universal bond, which will bring us all, hopefully, to engineer a more secure globalized planet than the one we live on now""
""However, I have to confess that I did introduce one major change in my childhood reality to create a more enchanting fiction in this book: my mother is very nice in "Dreams of Trespass"! I decided to delete her ferocious dimension. In real life, my mother insulted me often and spent her time criticizing me. Exactly like your mother did in Shanghai or wherever you happen to be born. And I think that my decision to tamper with reality and forget about violence to focus solely on the nurturing dimension of the mother is the source of all enchantments: it highlights our vulnerable side. ""
Introduction to the Chinese Edition of Dreams of Trespass
© Fatema Mernissi, 2007
About Dreams of Trespass J.Berman says "In her autobiography, Fatima Mernissi retells events from her childhood as part of a Moroccan family harem. The novel exposes the multiplicity of experiences faced by women living and harems. Mernissi talks about the confusion she experiences as a young girl in a harem against the backdrop of Moroccan nationalism, Westernization, and the nascent women's rights movements."
Judy Berman, Resident Scholar
Dreams of Trespass: Defining the Frontier
In Fatima Mernissi’s widely acclaimed book Dreams of Trespass, the storyline weaves around the tale of a young girls’
life in a traditional Moroccan harem that is as much enchanting as it is disparaging. As we follow the young girl from
day to day and experience all the little trivialities of her life, we notice that she is quite a precocious little child. She is
constantly questioning, in fact, her mother and aunts constantly tell her that she should stop asking questions all the
time. At first glance, it seems as if her questions are of little or no importance and that they are merely things any
young child would ask as they are stepping out into the real world. But upon closer examination, we can see that it is
really the life in the harem that she is questioning. The truth is that the frontier is one of the main entities that shape her
life and being:
No one answered her questions. In a harem, you don’t necessarily ask questions to get answers. You ask questions
just to understand what is happening to you (Mernissi,22 ).She goes on further to give her father's idea of how hudud
is significant: "Harmony exists when each group respects the prescribed limits of the other.
It is because she sees how the frontier seems to be changing everything about her and her surroundings that Mernissi
decides that she must figure out exactly how it works, before everything she knows slips under her feet. We will also
see how the young Mernissi has an almost paradoxical relationship with the different frontiers. For her, it is both a
source of happiness and a source of pain; it is mysterious to her but at the same time, she can feel how it smothers
her and the other women. At the beginning, it is very obvious that she feels very overwhelmed by the frontier:
My childhood was happy because the frontiers were crystal
clear. The first frontier was the threshold separating our fam-
ily's salon from the main courtyard p3
But since then, looking for the frontier has become my life’s occupation. Anxiety eats at me whenever I cannot situate
the geometric line organizing my powerlessness (Mernissi, 3).
Eventually, she will discover the hard way, that the frontier is not so cut and dry and that there is an equilibrium that has
lasted for generations, trying to define the frontier will make her journey of self-discovery one of tumultuous means.
The most obvious frontier for Mernissi is that of the harem, this is the same for most of the women in the novel too:
Our house gate was a definite hudud, or frontier, because you needed permission to step in or out. Every move had to
be justified and even getting to the gate was a procedure (Mernissi, 21).
She slowly realizes that while she is off having fun with her cousins and Samir, the women of the harem are slowly
choking in the stale air. Mernissi’s mother is probably one of the most powerful women in the novel, who is constantly
standing up to her father. One example of a way in which the harem is a restrictive frontier and thorn in Mernissi’s
mother’s side is the fact that all these families have to live together, all struggling to gain their own individuality while
constantly being suffocated by one another:
Mother dreamed of living alone with Father and us kids. “Whoever heard of ten birds living together squashed into a
single nest?” she would say. “It is not natural to live in a large group, unless your objective is to make people feel
miserable.” (Mernissi, 77).
Another aspect of how the harem dictates how one lives is the eating ritual that exist within the walls:
For one of the problems in the communal house was that you could not just open a refrigerator when you were hungry
and grab something to eat. In the first place, there were no refrigerators back then. More importantly, the entire idea
behind the harem was that you lived according to the group’s rhythm. You could not just eat when you felt like it
There are a multitude of other frontiers that exist in and outside of the harem, all entertaining their own respective
areas. "The sea between Christians and Muslims" (Mernissi,ch 1), the rules for women when it comes to dressing
(Mernissi, 85), the frontier between children (Mernissi, 241) and finally there is even a frontier for listening to the radio
And I remember quite clearly the first time the
grownups used the word khain (traitors) to describe Samir and
myself: when we told Father, who had asked us what we had
done while he was away, that we had listened to Radio Cairo.
Our answer indicated that there was an unlawful key going
Even Yasmina who lives a relatively liberal and comfortable life experiences unhappiness and has her own definition
of what it means to exist in a frontier:
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 many others.
Yasmina herself had to share Grandfather with eight co-wives, which meant that she had to sleep alone for eight nights
before she could hug and snuggle with for one. “And hugging and snuggling your husband is wonderful,” she said. “I
am so happy your generation will not have to share husbands anymore.” (Mernissi, 34).
Yasmina is one of the best examples in the novel of how every person has a different frontier, all depending on the
individual and what is important, sacred to that person. She also tries to explain to Mernissi what a harem really is and
how those who live in it uphold it:
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…The 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.” (Mernissi, 61-62).
The problem this presents however is that the harem can be stretched to give more freedom, but it can also take it
away. And there is never a definitive answer to who actually runs and sets the boundaries of the frontier:
The world, Yasmina said, was not concerned about being fair to women. Rules were made in such a manner as to
deprive them in some way or another. For example, she said, both men and women worked from dawn until very late
at night. But men made money and women did not. That was one of the invisible rules. And when a woman worked
hard, and was not making money, she was stuck in a harem, even though she could not see its walls. “Maybe their
rules are ruthless because they are not made by women,” was Yasmina’s final comment. “But why aren’t they made by
women?” I asked. “The moment women get smart and start asking that very question,” she replied, “instead of dutifully
cooking and washing dishes all the time, they will find a way to change the rules and turn the whole planet upside
down.” “How long will that take?” I asked, and Yasmina said, “A long time.” (Mernissi, 63).
An interesting aspect of the novel is how Mernissi and the women also see harems being created in the Western
world. The basic implication here was that the “powerful” countries had a desire to create harems in order to secure
Christians, just like Muslims, fight each other all the time, and the Spanish and the French almost killed one another when they crossed our frontier. Then, when neither was able to exterminate the other, the decided to cut Morocco in half. They put soldiers near ‘Arbaoua and said from now on, to go North, you needed a pass because you were crossing into Spanish Morocco. To go South, you needed another pass, because you were crossing into French Morocco. If you did not go along with what they said, you got stuck at ‘Arbaoua, an arbitrary spot where they had built a huge gate and said it was a frontier…No one ever had heard to a frontier splitting the land in two before. The frontier was an invisible line in the mind of warriors…All you need is soldiers to force others to believe in it. In the landscape itself, nothing changes. The frontier is in the mind of the powerful (Mernissi, 2-3).
However, it would be wrong to say that only the powerful control the harem and frontiers. The truth is that often mothers will instruct children to follow the rules, even if they don’t agree with it:
Hanan was hard to come by downstairs
, especially among the mothers, who were too busy teaching you to respect the frontier to bother with tenderness (Mernissi, 17).
As one can see, there are different individuals and entities that create and uphold the frontiers.
One of the characters in the novel that uphold the harem with all her energy is Lalla Mani. Ultimately, she represents traditionalism in the novel and almost always sides with the men. When she is watching out for her loved ones, it is always under the pretense of making sure that they do not violate the hudud. There are many instances where she shows her disapproval for behavior that “violates” traditionalism:
Then, she would preach repentance from sin, and predict hell for everyone forgetful of Allah’s commands in general, and for women who wanted to discard the veil, dance, sing, and have fun in particular (Mernissi128)
There are several points in the novel where Lalla Mani specifically berates an individual for some sort of blasphemous act. Two of these examples are regarding Chama’s dramatic plays and Mina’s improper dancing:
“Theater is a sinful activity to begin with,” she said. “It is not mentioned in the Koran, and no one ever heard about it in either Mecca or Medina. Now, if careless women still insist on indulging in theater, so be it. Allah will make everyone pay for their sins on judgment day.”…Only bad or half crazy, possessed men and women danced in public, said Lalla Mani, a statement which always amazing Mother (Mernissi, 109, 157).
Both Chama and young Mernissi’s mother fervently protest against Lalla Mani’s preaching. Staging coups against the gatekeeper demanding to be let out on different occasions and embroidering a colorful tapestry with birds (signaling freedom) as opposed to traditional tapestries.
Almost every woman in the novel also has their own way of dealing with their boundaries, just as each of their own boundaries are defined by themselves. Chama frequently puts on plays that challenge the harem and mock traditionalism but often performs it in such a way that it is some what acceptable:
“Asmahan wanted to go to chic restaurants, dance like the French, and hold her Prince in her arms,” she would say. “She wanted to waltz away with him all night, instead of standing on the sidelines behind curtains, watching him deliberate in endless, exclusively male tribal counsels. She hated the whole clan and its senseless, cruel law. All she wanted was to drift away into bubble-like moments of happiness and sensual bliss. The lady was no criminal; she meant no harm.” (Mernissi, 110).
Not only is Chama given a platform to voice her feminist thoughts, it was also a medium in which was she able to “let off steam.” We do however see that this is note enough because every now and then, the restrictive forces of the frontier cause her to breakdown in fits of helplessness.
In our harem, we were lucky, because only Cousin Chama was sometimes affected by hem, and even she was not completely under its spell. Usually, she was stricken only when she listened to a special program on Radio Cairo about Huda Sha’raoui and the progress of women’s rights in Egypt and Turkey. Then, hem would seize her. “My generation is being sacrificed!” she would cry. “Revolution is liberating women in Turkey and Egypt, and we are left out here, up in the air. Neither part of the tradition, nor fully benefiting from modernity. Up hanging in the middle, like neglected butterflies.” (Mernissi, 148).
Chama is one of the characters that are probably endowed with the most freedom. Her affinity for dramatic performances allows her to talk about the taboo of topics and is tolerated by the men of the harem.
Aunt Habiba is another female in the novel who enjoys her little moments of freedom in her own precious ways. She must be discrete in her actions because of her low status in the household (having been divorced). Ultimately, she relies on the power of dreams ;Her ability to tell stories is indeed a blessing both for the children that are allowed
allowed to enjoy the countless stories of a world they will probably never know and to herself. There is one aspect of traditionalism that she does respect and agrees with. That is the one that has allowed her to move into this harem away from her husband:
Aunt Habiba, who had been cast off and sent away suddenly for no reason by a husband she loved dearly, said that Allah had sent the Northern armies to Morocco to punish the men for violating the hudud protecting women. When you hurt a woman, you are violating Allah’s sacred frontier. It is unlawful to hurt the weak. She cried for years (Mernissi, 3).
Karen Henry is an Arab-American free-lance writer and lecturer from Michigan says that the The power of the oral tradition, a tradition very important to the Arabs, is manifested in this book as it opens worlds, creates variety, provides sensuality and inspiration. Fatima's Aunt Habiba, who could take her listeners all over the world, says: When you happen to be trapped powerless behind walls, stuck in a dead-end harem, you dream of escape. And magic flourishes when you spell out that dream and make the frontiers vanish. Dreams can change your life, and eventually the world. Liberation starts with images dancing in your little head, and you can translate those images into words. And words cost nothing. (page 113.)
We also have Yasmina whom we have already briefly looked at. Though the farm does not necessarily have physical boundaries, Yasmina considers it a harem nonetheless with all the same hardships and oppressive rules. The most painful aspect of her life for her is the arrival of Lalla Thor and the animosity that is created between them. However, Yasmina is probably the most optimistic of most of the female characters in the novel and makes the best of all things. For example, to help her contention against Lalla Thor, she names her the “fat white duck”:
But Lalla Thor on the farm, just like Lalla Mani in Fez, never laughed. She was always very serious, proper, and correct. As the first wife of Grandfather Tazi, she had a very important position in the family. She also had no housekeeping duties, and was very rich, two privileges that Yasmina could not abide. “I could not care how rich this woman is,” she would say, “she ought to be working like all the rest of us. Are we Muslims or not? If we are, everyone is equal. Allah said so. His prophet preached them same.” Yasmina said that I should never accept inequality, for it was not logical. That was why she named her fat white duck Lalla Thor (Mernissi, 26).
Yasmina’s situation poses a very perplexing question to young Mernissi. To Mernissi, Yasmina seems to enjoy much freedom, at least much more than most of the women she knows. And yet Yasmina still considers her life a harem:
If Yasmina’s farm was a harem, in spite of the fact that there were no walls to be seen, then what did hurriya, or freedom, mean? (Mernissi, 63).
The main male character of the novel is Mernissi’s father who supports the hudud and traditional frontier not so much because he is power hungry or wishes to oppress women, in fact, he is often quite happy to listen and accommodate to their needs:
Although father said that he was not really sure how the birds lived, he still sympathized with Mother, and felt torn between his duty towards the traditional family and his desire to make her happy. He felt guilty about breaking up the family solidarity, knowing only too well that big families in general, and harem life in particular, were fast becoming relics of the past. (Mernissi, 76).
Most of his reasons for upholding the frontier are mainly for practical reasons and to tryMost of his reasons for upholding the frontier are mainly for practical reasons and to try to keep his household together. He also views harems as a sanctuary for women who have no place to go, like Aunt Habiba:
But other relatives came to stay for good, after a divorce or some other serious problem, and this was one of the traditions father always worried about whenever someone attacked the institution of harem life. “Where will the troubled women go?” he would say. (Mernissi, 16).
He also feels that the frontier protects the cultural identity of Morocco:
She stepped too easily out of one culture and into another, without any regard for the hudud, the sacred boundary. “And what’s so wrong with that?” asked Chama. Father replied that the frontier protected cultural identity, and that if Arab women started imitating European ones by dressing provocatively, smoking cigarettes, and running around with their hair uncovered, there would be only one culture left. Ours would be dead. (Mernissi, 181).
So in fact, Mr. Mernissi is not as traditional as his mother Lalla Mani. His reasons for upholding the frontiers are by the women’s standards acceptable and reasonable.
It is surprising to mention however, that throughout the book, the young Mernissi does not take a strong stance as to whether she agrees or disagrees to the frontiers and instead takes on the role as an intermediary or investigative reporter. She in essence, enjoys all that it means to be a child and that is to wander aimlessly through the day, regarding herself only to trivial and childless matters. On the rare occasions that she does have an outburst, it is normally under the supervision of an adult and often times, she is just regurgitating something that she hears them discuss:
I would make them cry over wasted opportunities, senseless captivities, smashed visions. And then, once they were on the same wavelength as I, I would, like Asmahan and Chama, sing of the wonders of self-exploration and the thrills of adventurous leaps into the unknown. (Mernissi, 110).
Even when she does resort back to her child like inquisitiveness, it is because an obstacle has jumped up and barred her from doing something she wants to do. The adults often tell her that she should not bother to try and solve problems that were never meant to be solved:
I then asked her if what Chama had said was true or false, and 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 skins 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.” (Mernissi, 61).
It is not until the end of the book that Mernissi asks the right questions, which really is the climax of the book. It is here that she questions why all of a sudden she has to be separate from her lifelong playmate Samir, why all of a sudden, all of the adults have a problem with them being together, doing everything together:
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… “From now on, you won’t be able to escape it. You’ll be ruled by indifference. The world is going to turn ruthless.” (Mernissi, 241, 242).
It is here that our young protagonist finally feels and understands what for years she has only experienced listening to the stories of the women in the harem. That day, she experienced her first feeling of prejudice.
In the end, all the questions and misunderstandings that Mernissi was trying to understand, was wrapped up in one day when Samir and her were forced to grow apart. As we have seen, the frontier is indeed made up from different circumstances, identified by different individuals and administered by different powerhouses, but the main thread that runs through all of them is the distinctive oppression that divides everyone into strictly regulated categories. The definition that Mernissi had been longing to discover, in the end, was nothing but prejudice. Pre-packaged into the physical boundaries of the harem.
am waiting for any comments . thanks