Ructions in the Seraglio

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

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

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.

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