Tuesday, January 12, 2016

On reading Dreams of Trespass : Tales of a Harem Girlhood.

Last night I fell asleep willing my subconscious to weave a dream about Fatima's mom's and Chama's embroidery,blue stitches falling defiantly yet gracefully one after the other on a brilliant red cloth, a bird and its dreams of flight coming together on cloth. No winged birds came to my dreams, at least none i can recollect. The only image that surfaced from memory is that of sunshine slanting through the high windows of my childhood home, brilliant sunshine in which countless tiny circles danced.
The book is Mernissi's memoir of growing up in a harem in the northern city of Fez in Morocco. Before reading this book the image conjured up by the word harem was that of a sultan in his royals garbs reclining majestically while exotic dancers and servants revolved around him. My ignorance of an entire culture. A harem is just a home, and little Fatima had a happy childhood within it in early 1940s when Morocco was under the French.The French soldiers had set up a frontier in the city, they simply built a gate there and called it a frontier. The natives who had never known a frontier to be there were baffled, they now needed permission to cross their own land. "To create a frontier all you need is soldiers to force others to believe in it. The landscape doesn't change".
There was another frontier established long ago in Fatima's house -the house gate. The Marnissi family lived together in the harem, grandmother, two sons, their families, widowed or divorced aunts and women who were formerly kept as slaves by the family.The harem was surrounded by walls and an iron gate guarded by their gate keeper. The children could step out with permission from their parents. Not the women. Allah has made frontiers to keep peace, Fatima's father said, and to trespass was to bring sorrow. Some women agreed, a harem protects they said.Some others dreamed of trespassing all the time. At her maternal grandfather's farm in the countryside Fatima experienced a harem with no walls and gate surrounding it.The open fields startled her, how can one be safe in the open fields without frontiers? There is no need for walls, her grandmother explained to her frontiers are within, a law tattooed in the mind. This invisible frontier tattooed within oneself ruffled her even further, she would rather have visible walls and gatekeepers than inner boundaries.
Reading Fatima's uneasiness and fear of the open fields brought to my mind the image of my son's pet parrot who keeps gnawing at the cage's bars even when the doors are left wide open. An image which gnaws at me. Theorists say the oppressed often internalize their inferiority or otherness, women internalize patriarchal values and contribute towards continuing the system. The book has pushed me out of my stupefying comfort - the harem within and without, the caged bird reluctant to step out, images i am sure i will carry within for long.
In the beginning of the story we see Fatima as a young girl sitting on the threshold of her mother's salon gazing at her house as if she had never seen it before: its square rigid courtyard surrounded by an arched colonnade supported by four columns on each side each with symmetrical tile work, heavy brocades and velvet draping the windows, colored glass arches. Everything was ruled by symmetry in the architecture of the house. Even the marble fountain and its waterfall seemed contained and tamed. The square man made frame however could not tame the sky which dazzled her on early mornings with pink and purple shades and movement of its stars. Slowly it dawned on me that the harem architecture indicates not just the physical structure around her, but all the controlling structures including religion and culture which attempts to guide and tame the lives of all within. There is so much more to say about this book, so much more of layers yet to unravel. The architecture is not without cracks, Fatima's gaze found the staircases to the terraces under open skies. in this way to me the book suggests that any imposing and long standing structure when gazed at as if for the first time, when studied closely will show cracks or flaws which could then be rewritten. As Yasmina, her grandmother tells her the rules are not fair for the women because they were not written by the women, one needs to learn the structure and learn to speak with authority to rewrite the rules. I think this is exactly what muslim feminists like Fatima Mernissi and Amina Wadud did and continue to do, re-reading, re-writing. The book has so much more layers for me to read, so much more to see. Much Love to the brave women who dared.