The Harem Within: Tales of a Moroccan Girlhood 
by Fatima Mernissi.
Doubleday, 254 pp., £16.99, September 1994, 0 385 40542 1
Show More
by Out el Kouloub, translated by Nayra Atiya.
Syracuse, 201 pp., £13.50, July 1994, 0 8156 0280 4
Show More
Show More

In a little-known film of 1985 called Harem, a yuppie female stockbroker (Natassja Kinski) is drugged and kidnapped on the streets of New York, only to wake up in the harem of an enigmatic oil tycoon (Ben Kingsley) in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. Given its wildly implausible plot and clumsy editing – not to mention Kinski’s permanently drugged performance – the movie more than deserves its present obscurity. But as a testament to the shifting status of the harem in the Western imagination, this particular work of fantasy has much to recommend it. Harem begins with a shameless exploitation of all the old clichés of the menacing and lustful East, from the smoothly sinister black eunuch who welcomes the heroine to captivity to the impassive and vaguely threatening faces of the other women, their exotic caged birds serving as familiar symbols of their confinement. Yet even as Kinski wanders the maze-like corridors and anticipates her rape by the unknown despot who has abducted her, both heroine and audience come to realise that this place has little in common with the erotic prison they have anticipated.

It is not just that modernity has entered the harem in the form of tapedecks and VCRs, but that an alien idea of romantic love has disrupted the traditional relations of the sexes. Inspired, presumably, by Kingsley’s performance as the saintly Gandhi a few years earlier, the filmmakers have cast him in the unlikely role of the virginal master of a harem, a man who cannot bring himself to consummate any of his ‘marriages’ because the partners have not freely chosen one another. Having fallen in love with Kinski when he spotted her on the floor of the Stock Exchange during a business trip to New York (in the mid-Eighties, apparently, nothing seemed sexier than Wall Street), he appears to have reverted to his customary role just long enough to arrange for her abduction.

Predictably, the heroine’s initial resistance gradually gives way to love and they consummate their romance; almost as predictably, the lovers are parted in the end by a lethal gesture that stands for all the other fatalities that divide them. More noteworthy is the way in which an erotic fantasy of the harem is transformed into a nostalgic dream of the extended family. Promiscuous sex, it turns out, is the province of the New York singles scene rather than the mysterious East: the opening sequences give us just enough of the heroine’s pre-abduction life to make it clear that what she lacks is not lovers but a settled home and any genuine connection with her mother.

In the harem, by contrast, instead of distrust and jealousy, she finds collective intimacy – a process captured most vividly when her stony face dissolves in laughter, as she joins with the other women in girlish hilarity at a bit of soft pornography, Rudolph Valentino-style, they have been watching on video. Only when this rootless modern woman is fantastically transported to the harem does she locate her family – both in the sense that she finds among its inmates the experience of kinship that has hitherto eluded her and in the sense that it enables her for the first time, apparently, to contemplate her origins.

The forbidden spaces of the harem have long served as a template for Western fantasies, and if Kinski’s celluloid adventures suggest that some of us are now more inclined to look Eastward for the family than for sex, that hardly counts as evidence that we have come any closer to understanding the harem itself. As Fatima Mernissi makes clear, ‘the’ harem is pretty much an imaginary construct in any case, there having always been harems and harems. Though her subtle memoir of growing up in Morocco in the Forties dwells more on the constraints than on the satisfactions of the extended family, Mernissi is not without nostalgia for the world of her childhood, nor is she without her own history of confusion about the social arrangements into which she was born. ‘What exactly is a harem?’ she recalls herself worrying as a child. Harems may depend on a critical distinction between inside and out, but it proves far from easy, as Mernissi discovers, to know just when one has crossed the line.

In The Harem Within Mernissi describes how she and her young cousins used to retreat to the ‘forbidden’ terrace (its dangerous height made it officially off-limits to children), in order to debate the meaning of the mysterious institution that governed their lives. Cousin Malika begins with a simple question: ‘Is a harem a house in which a man lives with many wives?’ The answer turns out to be yes, no or it depends, according to which child is speaking:

Malika said the answer was yes, since that was the case with her own family. Her father, Uncle Karim, had two wives – her mother Biba and the co-wife Knata. Samir said the answer was no, because you could have a harem without co-wives, like that of his own father, Uncle ’Ali, or my father ...

    My answer to Malika’s question was more complicated. I said that it depended. If I thought about Grandmother Yasmina, the answer was yes. If I thought about Mother, the answer was no. But complicated answers make others resentful, because they make the confusion worse, and so both Samir and Malika ignored my contribution and kept arguing between themselves, while I drifted off and watched the clouds overhead, which seemed to be coming closer and closer.

After agreeing that the case of Ahmed, the family doorkeeper, proves that marriage alone doesn’t define a harem, the children try to decide whether wealth or sexual prowess makes the difference. (‘Maybe a man needs a big thing under his djellaba to create a harem, and Ahmed has only a small one?’ Malika asks, and is sternly silenced by the older, more authoritative Samir.) Subsequent efforts prove equally unsatisfactory. By the time the young Fatima speculates silently that ‘maybe the harem itself was just a game’, she has reached a moment of characteristic scepticism:

Sulta, authority, games. These were key words which kept popping up, and it struck me that maybe the harem itself was just a game. A game between men and women who were afraid of each other, and therefore always trying to prove how strong they were, just like we kids always did. But I could not share that thought that afternoon with Malika and Samir, for it sounded too crazy. It meant that grown ups were no different than children.

As an adult, the author has devoted her career to following the logic of such insights. A prolific writer, Mernissi has achieved a considerable reputation for her studies of gender relations in Islam and for her serious attempts to reconcile the Prophet’s doctrine with the imperatives of modern feminism. Though she was trained as a political scientist and a sociologist, there is a sense in which she, too, is continuing a game she invented as a child – a game which consists, in her words, ‘in contemplating familiar grounds as if they were alien to you’. Of course, it is Mernissi’s very refusal to take anything for granted that makes her such an instructive guide for the Western reader: to adopt a defamiliarising perspective is, after all, to see with the eyes of a stranger.

To judge by her recollections in The Harem Within, Mernissi’s sociological imagination was nourished by the circumstances in which she came to maturity. She distinguishes between the extended family of the ‘domestic’ harem and the ‘imperial’ harems of the Ottomans, with their aura of sensuality and luxury so fascinating to the West, but her own youthful perplexity about the institution is clearly a result of the changing conditions in 20th-century Morocco. While Mernissi grew up in an urban harem consisting of two monogamous couples, their children, assorted relatives and servants, her maternal grandmother was still living on a farm, where she shared both housework and husband with eight co-wives. But history, in the grandmother’s view, was evidently moving in the right direction.

Though she lamented having to wait eight nights for her husband, she consoled herself by recalling the conjugal patience demanded by the eighth-century Caliph of Baghdad, Harun al-Rashid, whose wives were said to number 999: ‘That is almost three years! So things are getting better. Soon, we will have one man, one wife.’ As it happened, her own daughter had already become such a wife, having married a man who sympathised with the nationalist campaign against polygamy. Yet Mernissi’s mother, too, chafed against the restrictions of the harem, which in her case meant not only the seclusion of the women but the collective rituals of the extended family. (While the nationalists favoured monogamy, they had said nothing about a separate household for the nuclear couple.)

Mernissi’s mother hated the demands of communal life – the lack of privacy, the fixed meal-times, even the perpetual negotiations over what to eat. ‘Whoever heard of ten birds living together squashed into a single nest?’ she would argue, while her husband attempted to compromise by supplying a privately stocked cupboardful of food and occasionally joining her for solitary ‘picnics’ on the terrace. In this respect, too, the harem was changing; but the fact that several brothers had already departed with their wives only increased the pressure on those who remained.

Nor did modernity always bring with it a relaxation of constraint. Though Mernissi grew up in a household where the radio transmitted news of the war in both Arabic and French, the young men affected the mannerisms of Rudolph Valentino and even the women sometimes ventured collectively to the movies (taking care to buy up tickets for four rows, while occupying two), the walls of the urban harem often seemed more confining than the polygamous arrangements of Yasmina’s farm. In the country the women could wander freely through the fields, their faces unveiled, confounding the children’s initial assumption that a harem had something to do with ‘a house, walls and the streets’. Only when her grandmother explained that ‘harem’ derived from the word haram, ‘forbidden’, and that ‘once you knew what was forbidden, you carried the harem within,’ did the author begin to recognise the family resemblance between the households of her mother and her grandmother.

Despite her sensitivity to cultural difference, Mernissi sees in the harem something of a cosmopolitan metaphor – or rather, a metaphor for the impulses that render cosmopolitanism impossible. Having grown up in a French colony at a time when the Christian invaders were themselves fighting other Christians, who in their turn were persecuting the Jews, the future sociologist seems to have developed an acute consciousness of how arbitrary – and dangerous – are the frontiers that divide people from one another. Of her father’s lament that ‘the problems with the Christians start ... as with women, when the hudud, or sacred frontier, is not respected,’ she remarks that ‘I was born in the midst of chaos, since neither Christians nor women accepted the frontiers.’ Following the logic of her grandmother’s observation, Mernissi suggests that you needn’t even be a woman to carry a ‘harem’ within you. Despite the evident strength of the French forces who occupied her city, she recalls their terror of crossing the line that divided them from the natives: ‘The Ville Nouvelle was like their harem; just like women, they could not walk freely in the Medina. So you could be powerful and still be the prisoner of a frontier.’

Elsewhere, she remembers her mother responding to her curiosity about the war and the persecution of the Jews by comparing the yellow star to the veil: ‘No one really knows why men force us to wear veils. Something to do with the difference maybe. Fear of the difference makes people behave in very strange ways.’

As if in tacit recognition of another cultural difference, the American edition of Mernissi’s memoir is entitled not The Harem Within but Dreams of Trespass – American readers presumably being less attracted by inner restraint than their British counterparts and more drawn to the promise of rebellion. ‘Women dreamed of trespassing all the time,’ Mernissi declares, and her book evokes many gestures of rebellion in the harem, both trivial and less trivial, from the collective theft of the radio key, so that the women might dance to the love songs of a Lebanese princess when the men were away, to her mother’s successful petition that her daughter be educated at a ‘real’ school rather than the traditional Koranic one.

Under either title, history refuses to present itself as a straightforward narrative of liberation. Despite the nationalist campaigns against polygamy, Mernissi observes, it was never officially abolished in Morocco – a fact which she attributes less to the popularity of multiple wives than to fundamentalist attacks on the legal status of women and their right to participate in the state. ‘Indeed, when it comes to the status of women,’ she announces, ‘one could say that the Muslim world has regressed since Grandmother’s time.’ The harem as Mernissi understands it is hardly a thing of the past.

Superficially, at least, Ramza appears more confident about the direction of history. Originally written in French by the Egyptian novelist who called herself Out el Kouloub (1892-1968), Ramza was first published in France in 1958 and has been freely translated into English for the present edition by Nayra Atiya. Though it reads like autobiography, Ramza is a fiction, whose all-too-symbolically named heroine (‘Ramza’ means ‘symbol’) engages in a thwarted but prophetic struggle against the restrictions of the harem. Set in late 19th-century Egypt but told in retrospect by the ageing Ramza half a century later, the novel frames its history in a narrative present, in which the liberty that eluded its youthful heroine has apparently been achieved by a later generation. In a Prologue, the 70-year-old Ramza sits on a terrace at a hotel in Aswan, wistfully observing a group of young men and women, unveiled, and freely courting one another in the open air. ‘That’s the first generation to enjoy the fruits of our labours,’ she announces to the unnamed woman who in turn recounts her story. ‘Their freedom is our work, my work!’

As those idyllic couples suggest, ‘freedom’ in Ramza’s terms is largely the freedom to love and marry as she pleases. Like many European novels of a century or two earlier, Ramza sets a heroine determined to marry according to the impulses of her ‘heart’ against the rules of courtship dictated by her family and her class. The daughter of a slave woman who was purchased as a second wife when the first one proved barren, Ramza fights a harem defined less by literal slavery or by the practice of polygamy than by the custom of arranged marriage and the primacy of the family. By the time the narrative reaches its crisis, her chief opponent is her Paris-educated father, who has provided her with an eclectic education but insisted on a son-in-law of his choice. When Ramza first learns that she has been promised to an unknown suitor, she resorts, characteristically, to her father’s library, where she consults Molière’s L’Ecole des femmes for information on marriage and concludes with renewed vehemence ‘that I would only marry a man I liked.’

Spared at the last moment by the opportune death of her fiancé, Ramza falls in love with the handsome brother of a lower-class friend, only to learn that she is still bound to the family of the dead: the fact that the wedding presents were never returned means that the family wish to keep her for another son. In a climactic confrontation with her adoptive ‘aunt’ (another wife who was purchased together with Ramza’s mother), the outraged heroine articulates her creed (rather flatly in this English version):

‘I don’t want to be looked over, bartered for, bought, sold, or locked up in a harem. The era of slavery is over, Narguiss!’ ...

‘I was a slave, and I’m not the worse for it,’ Narguiss snapped back. ‘In fact I’m a happy woman,’ she said with complete sincerity, I think.

‘Well, I don’t want to be one! And I don’t want that kind of happiness! I will marry a man I want and have chosen for myself!’

Perhaps because Out el Kouloub invented her fiction at a more innocent moment in the history of feminism – or because she partly shaped its plot according to the conventions of the literature, both English and French, that the heroine reads – Ramza scarcely seems to question its implicit identification of women’s liberation with the liberty to choose a husband. Yet an undertow of scepticism persistently drags at the narrative. It is not merely that women like Narguiss testify to their satisfaction with slavery, but that Ramza’s own quest for ‘happiness’ proves so disastrously misguided.

Indeed, it would not take much effort to read the novel as a cautionary tale designed to vindicate the wisdom of the fathers, or at least to demonstrate the futility of attempting to arrange one’s life in defiance of tradition. For the heroine falls in love with a man in every way unworthy of her choice. Timid and conventional, acutely sensitive to the class difference between them, he acquiesces in their marriage and just as passively capitulates when his father-in-law sues for annulment. Ramza is the one who initially insists on their marriage; it is she who hires a lawyer to plead their case in court, and she who refuses to accept the verdict when the judge rules against them. Only after she has pursued her lover to his army encampment in the desert does she finally accept the hopelessness of her cause, and even then it is she who forces the man she still regards as her husband to pronounce the words of ritual divorce.

Though all the conventions of romantic fiction require that we scorn the heroine’s father when he refuses to surrender his only child to this ‘son of a shopkeeper ... a boy without an education, an insignificant officer without a future’, by the end of this novel it is difficult not to feel that he had a point. Ramza’s last words are ‘Oh, that impossible happiness!’

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences