Posted by: beansai | August 15, 2007

Dreams of Trespass by Fatima Mernissi

I had originally bought this book for a class last Fall and never actually read it. Then, for nearly a year, it sat in my pile of books in my apartment. Finally, about a week ago, I was sifting through my stash of literature, looking for something new to read amongst all the books I have collected. I came across Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood and remembered that some of the people in the class this book was intended for, had read it and said it was a good read. So, in my infinite boredom and desire to find something new, I decided to give this book a shot. Seeing that it is a collection of memories, therefore non-fiction, and about a culture that I had very little knowledge of (and any that I did have is likely biased from the misunderstanding by my own culture), I was skeptical at how well it would retain my interest.

Dreams of Trespass follows tales of Fatima Mernissi’s childhood in Morocco during the 1940’s. Mernissi seamlessly weaves in legends, daily life, and the dreams of her people. She elegantly conveys a sense of their culture and religion as well as the unrest and the changes that are bound to happen as different cultures collide with the improvement of transportation and long distance traveling. The entire tone of this book is one of understanding and a quiet desire to open the eyes of the reader to what she once did not understand and what people of very different cultures are not likely to understand as well. Overall the book is moving and enchanting through the eyes of an eight year old Fatima as she pokes and prods in order to understand her own culture and why they must follow the rules and laws that they do. Mernissi also provides an ample amount of footnotes (at the bottom of the page in my edition) that are necessary to read as you go along, because they provide you with a background to some of the stories she relates, in quick, matter-of-fact sentences.

One of the primary topics that often came to light in Mernissi’s retelling of her childhood was the issues of women being required to stay inside the harem and not being permitted to leave without explicit consent from a male authority in the household, and when they were allowed to vacate the premises, they were required to be completely covered, including a veil over their face.

During this time period, the Muslim world was encountering many changes, one of which included the beginning push of women’s rights. Within Fatima’s household there was a division amongst the women themselves: those opposed to deviating from traditional customs and those that pushed hard for the liberation of women and their rights.

Mernissi strings along the reader at a pleasant pace as her eight year old counterpart encounters and searches out the answers to the essential question of what a harem is exactly and why women are the ones that are required to inhabit them. Mernissi provides a simple definition of the types of harems that have occurred throughout history and then the rest of the book explores not just the defining lines of a harem, but the different emotional interpretations of a harem. Being surrounded by generations of women, each having lived in variegating degrees of a harem (or having lived to see some of the major changes that have occurred over time), Fatima Mernissi is able to provide the reader with a beautiful tapestry of feelings from the women regarding their situations in life. Throughout the book there is an obvious love and appreciation for the cherished memories, even when they were not perfect moments.

Fatima Mernissi’s memoir of her childhood vividly brings to life her experiences and her culture that is often misunderstood by cultures in the West. I think it is a thought provoking collection that reads smoothly and is relatable, despite the potential of vastly different backgrounds between the reader and author. In this book I found, that sometimes, we all feel trapped by our cultures or religions, and the women of Fatima Mernissi’s childhood found beautiful, innovative, and magical ways to stem their own frustrations and let their spirits find freedom in flying through imagination and hope for better times.

Mernissi also manages to maintain the innocence of an eight year old and convey the knowledge and understanding of a grown woman that has come to make something of herself in a culture that often preferred their women to be illiterate. This amazing memoir is compact and easy to follow and read. The graceful depiction of people, circumstances, and emotions lends a gentleness to topics that could easily become heated and disengage the reader from the telling of the story. Generally I stick to fiction, but I have no regrets that a class (one which I didn’t exactly enjoy) forced me to by this book and that I made the commitment to reading it. The experience was well worth the knowledge I gained of a culture I have understood very little about.

Published: 1994
Publisher: Basic Books
Language: English
Paperback: 242 pages
Style: Memoir



  1. […] for me. Since we have been focusing on memoirs, my initial thought was to do a paper on the memoir Dreams of Trespass by Fatima Mernissi. I had some basic ideas for that memoir, but I can’t say that my heart was […]

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