“Aunt Habiba said that anyone could develop wings. It was only a matter of concentration…[but] she became impatient and warned me that some wonderful things could not be taught.
‘You just keep alert, so as to capture the sizzling silk of the winged dream,’ she said. But she also indicated that there were two prerequisites to growing wings:
‘The first is to feel encircled and the second is to believe that you can break the circle.'”
Walking the streets of Fez, battling after a long, hot, crowded flight, I looked up. Sparrows spun maniacally around our heads as we found our way to the hostel.
That first night, my friend J and I spent behind the tiled walls of a ‘western friendly’ hotel before we were able to find our way to a hostel in the old medina. Watching the hushed feet scurry from task to task, we realized that this now open tourist spot had once been the barrier keeping eyes inside – sheltered from everything outside the gate.
Reading Fatima Mernissi’s book, one of the last generations raised in a Fez harem, I was transported back to fantastical, magical, incredible Morocco. Mernissi tells her tale honestly and beautifully from her eyes as an investigative eight-year-old – questioning, discovering, confusing the meanings of harem that surrounded her.
Mernissi does not allow her academic perspective or a post-modern drive to ‘truth’ to determine her writing. Instead, she mines her memory, her thoughts, her honest experience of growing up in a separated, mandated environment of a harem and the change she witnessed.
As Mernissi explores, she begins to question her role as a woman – and her place in the world.
From one aunt she hears: “The essential thing was to have a role, to contribute to a common goal.”
Mernissi poetically and simply delves into that deepest of feminist concerns: the desire and corresponding in/ability to break free of expectation: “Liberation starts with images dancing in your little head, and you can translate those images in words. And words cost nothing!”
As women, and indeed people, throughout the world have done, Mernissi seeks advice on how to live a fulfilled life. At a young age she felt and understood the disquiet and anger her mother and others felt at their circumscribed life. Held in stark contrast with the rural, somewhat open harem of her grandfather, she tries to understand what is real.
“Hem was a strange suffering, quite different from a mushkil, or a problem. The woman who had a mushkil knew the reason for her pain. If she suffered from hem, however, she did not know what was wrong with her. Whatever was making her suffer had no name. Aunt Habiba said that you were lucky if you knew what hurt, because then you could do something about it.”
“…only quiet and beauty could cure women affected by hem, they were often taken to sanctuaries on the tops of high mountains…or one of the many retreats lying near the ocean.”
Yet, despite enclosure: “If you’re having troubles, you just swim in the water, stretch out in a field, or look up at the stars. That’s how a woman cures her fears.”
“You have to develop a talent, Aunt Habiba said, so that you could give something, share, and shine. And you developed a talent by working very hard at becoming good at something. It could be anything – singing, dancing, cooking, embroidering, listening, looking, smiling, waiting, accepting, dreaming, rebelling, leaping. ‘Anything you can do well can change your life,’ said Aunt Habiba.”
Through her transition between child and woman, Morocco’s change from isolated to exposed, Mernissi’s tale lightly and openly allows the reader to make their own conclusions and compare their own experience to hers. The relatability is powerful, because who hasn’t sought:
“Happiness…when a person felt good, light, creative, content, loving and loved, and free.”