As a result of Covid restrictions, confined, islanded in Edinburgh in Tier 3 – to the west Tier 4, to the south and east Tier 2, to the north the sea – I can't go anywhere else for now. So if I can't go forward, I might as well retreat into the past. I've agreed to deliver a talk about my near 40-year association with Morocco for the Franco-Scottish Society. So for the past few weeks I've been reviewing the early years of my acquaintance. I have diaries as well as memories to consult, but also books I bought to help me understand the very different culture I never expected to get to know so intimately.
One of the most vivid is The Harem Within: Tales of a Moroccan Girlhood
(also entitled Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood
) by the academic sociologist, Fatema Mernissi (1940-2015). Mernissi was born into a wealthy landowning family in Fez in 1940, during the French Protectorate. It was a time of considerable external turmoil with WW2 in Europe, and Moroccan nationalists desperate to throw off the yoke of both French and Spanish colonial rule. Bad things happened. There was a nasty episode in Fez in 1944, but Mernissi's early years were cocooned inside the secure walls of her grandfather's harem, behind windowless walls and a stout wooden door among the steeply winding streets of the old Arab medina. It felt, she says, like a fortress.
In another book, Scheherezade Goes West
, Mernissi examines diametrically opposed concepts of the harem between the Arab world and the West. While touring Europe, she was intrigued by the distinctly salacious impression of harems portrayed in the work of painters like Ingres, for example. For them, the harem was a place where oriental caliphs luxuriated in the company of scores of endlessly available, nubile, naked young women. In reality, the word derives from haram, meaning 'forbidden' and designates a protective, extended family haven for women and children.
The Mernissi harem contained three generations, at least three distinct households containing wives and co-wives, other single relatives who came and went, servants and former slaves, like Mina, kidnapped as a child in the Sudan. There was strict gender segregation. The men had their own private space and made all the decisions. Neither women nor children could go outside unless officially authorised, even to go shopping. They had to bypass Ahmed, the guardian, who sat on watch with his constantly replenished tray of mint tea at the entrance. Mernissi's mother, functionally illiterate, but clearly very intelligent, pined for a separate household of her own and freedom to go where she chose. Her husband had his work cut out placating both her and his more conservative mother.
In a memoir of a month in Morocco in 1917, the American novelist, Edith Wharton, had privileged access to various harems of the time and depicts an image of passive, pallid, incarcerated women without much conversation or vivacity. Perhaps they had no idea who she was or what to say to her, even if they could have spoken to her. They were simply on display for a visiting foreign dignitary.
Mernissi paints a contrasting picture of vibrant activity and camaraderie: a storytelling aunt, divorced and abandoned by her husband, who consoles herself by entertaining the children with Scheherezade's tales from One Thousand and One Nights
(the Arabian Nights
), of a cousin who creates and directs amateur plays based on these tales, of traditional beauty preparations concocted over charcoal fires in the tiled central courtyard prior to a group visit to the local hammam, of stealing and copying the men's key to the only wireless and dancing to the broadcast music while the men are out, of the lure of the local cinema, and when they hear of American soldiers arriving in Casablanca, of chewing-gum and cigarettes. The women are lively, resilient and imaginative, but struggle against the restrictions placed on them. There are too many 'frontiers' they are not allowed to cross, despite their occasional clandestine attempts to escape by jumping onto neighbouring rooftops. Frustration burns.
Mernissi's other grandfather has a farm in the countryside where they go on family holidays. It, too, is a harem, with wives and co-wives, mothers and mothers-in-law. But it feels different, much freer, more relaxed. The women have more scope to get out from inside confining walls. They go riding, climb trees and have large communal picnics by the nearby river, but her other, more liberal grandmother, Yasmina, has to share her husband with eight other wives.
It seems cruel to us, such enforced confinement. But the time was ripe for change. As the result of the nationalists' and the briefly exiled, much loved, king, Mohammed V's, espousal, in the teeth of objections by traditionalists, imams and even the French, of the reforms pioneered by Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, Mernissi herself was able to go to school and embark on the career that would take her to PhD study in the US and eventually a professorial post at the University of Rabat. Within a few years, the harems disappeared. Although it took time, girls now benefit from an education system that allows them access to university and professional careers. Mernissi was proud of how this developed and expanded during her adult life.
In Scheherezade Goes West
, she takes a potshot at what she perceives as a different sort of harem afflicting women in the West. Shopping for a skirt in an upmarket clothes shop in Los Angeles one day, she is told the shop has no skirts for someone her size. 'Size 4 and 6' she is told, 'are the norm', the size of her skinny 14-year-old niece. Her size, estimated at a 14 or 16, is considered 'deviant'. 'And who decides the norm?' she asks. She is told it is everywhere, as the saleswoman rattles off a list of top designers from Giorgio Armani to Mario Valentino.
Mernissi is horrified. In Morocco, she has her clothes made to her size from material she chooses. She doesn't even know her size. While Muslim men have traditionally excluded women from public spaces, Western men 'condemn the mature woman to invisibility... Thus the walls of the European harem separate youthful beauty from ugly maturity'.
Gillean Somerville-Arjat is a writer and critic based in Edinburgh