Lessons for Travel from a Harem Slave

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In reading Scheherazade Goes West, we accompany author Fatema Mernissi on her quest to try to figure out the “Western harem.” While traveling to promote her books which discuss her childhood growing up in a harem in Morocco, she is met with astonishment, embarrassment, and amusement by Western male reporters. When Mernissi decides to question these Western men on how they perceive the harem, she realizes that there is a very stark difference between the Western man’s harem fantasies and the traditional Eastern harem that she is familiar with. Growing up in a harem in Morocco, Mernissi builds the perspective of the harem as a “prison, a place women were forbidden to leave” (Mernissi, 1). Mernissi’s childhood harem was a large blended family, in which there was very little privacy, for sex or anything else. Instead of the “orgiastic feast” of nonstop, unresisted sexual pleasure that the Western men imagine (Mernissi, 14), in actuality harem wives are filled with sexual frustration, even to the point of creating elaborate vengeful schemes to win favor with their husband.

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Early on in the book, we are introduced to snippets of wisdom from Mernissi’s grandmother Yasmina. An illiterate woman who spent her life locked in a traditional harem, Yasmina “regarded the opportunity to cross boundaries as a sacred privilege, the best way to shed powerlessness” (Mernissi, 1). What do we, free educated Westerners, have to learn about power from an illiterate harem slave? Are we Westerners perhaps locked in our own prison, a prison of comfort and ignorance that we build up around ourselves?

As we head off to spend three weeks experiencing cultures very different from our own, I think it is interesting to look at the lessons for travel relayed to us by Mernissi, inspired by her grandmother Yasmina. Sure, we know that travel is a privilege, an amazing opportunity, but by looking at it through the eyes of a woman literally locked in her house, we get a new perspective on the opportunity for the gaining of knowledge, understanding, and thereby power. To gain the power of enlightenment, we must work on increasing our capacity to listen (Mernissi, 24). Of course it is always easy to listen to those whose opinions we agree with, but Mernissi also emphasizes the need to confront and dialogue with the “different other” and to “savor situations where the outcome of battle is not rigidly fixed, where winners and losers are not predetermined” (Mernissi, 52).

And one of the most relevant lessons (at least for me, on the eve of our trip) is that fear in the face of adventure is normal, but must be faced; Yasmina says that “when a woman decides to use her wings, she takes big risks,” but “when a woman doesn’t use her wings at all, it hurts her” (Mernissi, 3).

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