6. Dreams of Trespass by Fatima Mernissi
Fatima Mernissi is one of the most widely known and well respected women writing about Morocco today. She was a pioneer in the field of women’s sociological writing in the Middle East and she broke many stereotypes of Moroccan women. I read Dreams of Trespass in an effort to read some of the classic works in the field, to see where today’s scholarship and writing comes from.
Mernissi grew up in Fez in the 1940s and 50s, a completely different time. Women’s rights movements in Morocco were just beginning, and Morocco was still under French occupation. Women, especially upper class women, were expected to remain in the home – it was unseemly and below their status to leave the house. For these women, they lived in what Mernissi calls a harem, but what most would now call a large riad. These riads usually housed many branches of the same family – cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents, and each part of the family occupied a different area of the home, depending on status within the family and other internal politics.
Mernissi has previously written broader books about women in Islam, in Morocco, throughout history in the Middle East, but Dreams of Trespass focuses on her early childhood in Fes. Not arranged in any particular order, each chapter is a short story about a different adventure, or a random memory from her early life – most stories seem to take place before she turns 10 or 11. As it is often her research focus, Mernissi writes a lot about gender dynamics and the woman’s place in ‘harem life’, this time through the lens of a young girl. There were several interesting insights into Mernissi’s early childhood, and the sections in which she described an early fascination with witchcraft and light magic were enjoyable. However, she has an agenda: to differentiate between men’s and women’s experiences and I think the narrative suffers for it.
Interesting stories about life on the farm and the differences in a woman’s status and freedom on a rural farm versus the restrictions placed on urban women are marred by unnecessary introspective questions. The incessant side remarks often feel like unwanted voiceovers in a movie that doesn’t need it – hammering home obvious points.
I wanted to like this book a lot more than I actually did. Mernissi has written some truly great works, and grew up during an interesting period in Moroccan history. However, I think her professor instincts were too strong when writing this book, and what could have been an enjoyable set of coming of age stories turns into more of a lecture. For someone who isn’t familiar with Morocco or with women’s experiences here, it could be an interesting book – but I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone who doesn’t have a good background in the area, lest they come away with the impression that Mernissi’s experiences are universal throughout Morocco, the region, or even among upper class Fessis during the 1940s.