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Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Haremsby Fatema Mernissi
Chapter One: The Tale of the Lady with the Feather Dress
If by chance you were to meet me at the Casablanca airport or on a boat sailing from Tangiers, you would think me self-confident, but I am not. Even now, at my age, I am frightened when crossing borders because I am afraid of failing to understand strangers. "To travel is the best way to learn and empower yourself," said Yasmina, my grandmother, who was illiterate and lived in a harem, a traditional household with locked gates that women were not supposed to open. "You must focus on the strangers you meet and try to understand them. The more you understand a stranger and the greater is your knowledge of yourself, the more power you will have." For Yasmina, the harem was a prison, a place women were forbidden to leave. So she glorified travel and regarded the opportunity to cross boundaries as a sacred privilege, the best way to shed powerlessness. And, indeed, rumors ran wild in Fez, the medieval city of my childhood, about trained Sufi masters who got extraordinary "flashes" (lawami') and expanded their knowledge exponentially, simply because they were so focused on learning from the foreigners who passed through their lives.
A few years ago, I had to visit ten Western cities for the promotion of my book, Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood, which appeared in 1994 and was translated into twenty-two languages. During that tour, I was interviewed by more than a hundred Western journalists and I soon noticed that most of the men grinned when pronouncing the word "harem." I felt shocked by their grins. How can anyone smile when invoking a word synonymous with prison, I wondered. For my grandmother Yasmina, the harem was a cruel institution that sharply curtailed her rights, starting with the "right to travel and discover Allah's beautiful and complicated planet," as she put it. But according to Yasmina's philosophy, which I later discovered she had adopted from the Sufis, the mystics of Islam, I needed to transform my feelings of shock toward the Western journalists into an openness to learn from them. At first, I had great difficulty doing so and started wondering if perhaps, due to my age, I was losing my capacity to adapt to new situations. I felt terrified of becoming stiff and unable to digest the unexpected. No one noticed my anxiety during my book promotion tour, however, because I was wearing my huge Berber silver bracelet and my red Chanel lipstick.
To learn from travel, one must train oneself to capture messages. "You must cultivate isti'dad, the state of readiness," Yasmina used to whisper conspiratorially in my ear, so as to exclude those whom she regarded as unworthy of the Sufi tradition. "The most baggage carried by strangers is their difference. And if you focus on the divergent and the dissimilar, you get 'flashes.'" Then she would remind me to keep this lesson secret. "Teqiyeh, secrecy, is the name of the game," she would say. "Remember what happened to poor Hallaj!" Hallaj was a famous Sufi who was arrested by the Abbasid police in A.D. 915 for publicly proclaiming in the streets of Baghdad: "I am the Truth" (Ana l'haq). Since Truth is one of the names for God, Hallaj was declared a heretic. Islam insists on the unbridgeable distance between the divine and the human, but Hallaj believed that if you concentrate on loving God, without intermediaries, a blurring of the boundaries with the divine becomes possible. Arresting Hallaj disturbed the Abbasid police, because to arrest him — a man who declared himself made in the image of God — was to affront God himself. Nonetheless, Hallaj was burned alive in March 922, and since I have always believed that staying alive is preferable to self-immolation, I kept Yasmina's instructions regarding travel an absolute secret, and grew up so intent on realizing her dream that crossing borders still terrifies me.
Throughout my childhood, Yasmina often told me that it is normal for a woman to experience panic when crossing oceans and rivers. "When a woman decides to use her wings, she takes big risks," she would say, and then would add that, conversely, when a woman doesn't use her wings at all, it hurts her.
When Yasmina died, I was thirteen. I was supposed to cry, but I did not. "The best way to remember your grandmother," she told me on her deathbed, "is to keep alive the tradition of telling my favorite Scheherazade story — 'The Lady with the Feather Dress.' " And so, I learned that story — narrated by Scheherazade, the heroine of The Thousand and One Nights — by heart. Its main message is that a woman should lead her life as a nomad. She should stay alert and be ready to move, even if she is loved. For, as the tale teaches, love can engulf you and become a prison.
At age nineteen, when I took the train to register at Mohamed V University in Rabat, I crossed one of the most dangerous frontiers of all my life — that separating Fez, my medieval hometown, a labyrinth-like, ninth-century religious center, from Rabat, a modern, white metropolis with wide open city gates, situated on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. At first, I felt so terrified of Rabat, with its large avenues, that I could not even move about without Kemal, a fellow student who happened to be from my neighborhood in Fez. But Kemal kept repeating that he was confused about my feelings for him. "I wonder sometimes if you love me, or if you just need me as a buffer against the thousand other men who have flocked here from all over Morocco to register at this university," he would say. What I resented most about Kemal in those days was his incredible ability to read my mind. But one reason I became fond of him was that he knew Yasmina's tale by heart. However, his version was the official one, published in the book version of The Thousand and One Nights (better known to many English readers as The Arabian Nights). And he told me that illiterate women like Yasmina were more subversive than educated ones both because they introduced heretical distortions into the tales and because they used storytelling, that oral medium, to escape censorship. Throughout Muslim history, he said, the oral tradition has reduced even the most tyrannical of despots to powerlessness.
According to Kemal, the first distortion that Yasmina introduced into her favorite tale was to feminize its title. In the book version of The Thousand and One Nights, the story is called "The Tale of Hassan al Basri," Basra being a city in southern Iraq, at the crossroads between the Mediterranean and trade roads heading toward China. But the tale that I inherited from Yasmina was entitled "The Lady with the Feather Dress," and it opens in Baghdad, then the capital of the Muslim empire. From Baghdad, Hassan, a handsome but bankrupt youth who had squandered his entire fortune on wine and gallant company, sailed away to strange islands to seek his fortune. Gazing at the sea from a high terrace one night, he was struck by the graceful movements of a large bird who had alighted on the beach. Suddenly the bird shed what turned out to be a dress made of feathers, and out stepped a beautiful naked woman, who ran to swim in the waves. "She outdid in beauty all human beings. She had a mouth as magical as Solomon's seal and hair blacker than the night....She had lips like corals and teeth like strung pearls....Her middle was full of folds....She had thighs great and plump, like marble columns." But what captivated Hassan Basri the most was what lay between her thighs: "a goodly rounded dome on pillars borne, like a bowl of silver or crystal."
Smitten with love, Hassan stole the beauty's feather dress while she was swimming and buried it in a secret tomb. Deprived of her wings, the woman became his captive. Hassan married her, showered her with silks and precious stones, and when she bore him two sons, relaxed his attentive tenderness, believing that she would never again think about flying. He started traveling on long trips to increase his fortune, and was astonished to discover one day when he returned that his wife, who had never stopped looking for her feather dress, had finally found it and flown away. "Taking her sons in her bosom, she wrapped herself in the feather dress and became a bird, by the ordinance of Allah to whom belongs might and majesty. Then, she walked with a swaying and graceful gait and danced and sported and flapped her wings...," flying away over deep rivers and turbulent oceans to reach her native island of Wak Wak. Yet before leaving, she left a message for Hassan: He could join her if he had the courage to do so. But no one knew then, and still less knows now, where the mysterious "Wak Wak" — land of exoticism and faraway strangeness — is located. Arab historians such as Mas'udi, the ninth-century author of Golden Meadows, situated it in East Africa, beyond Zanzibar, while Marco Polo describes Wak Wak as the land of the Amazons, or the "female island" of Socotra. Others identify Wak Wak as being the Seychelles, Madagascar, or Malacca, and still others situate it in China or Indonesia (Java).
Yasmina's second subversive distortion, according to Kemal, was her unhappy ending. In my grandmother's story, Hassan keeps desperately searching for the mysterious Wak Wak, but is never able to locate it, or to win back his wife and children. But in the book version of The Thousand and One Nights, recorded by men, Hassan does manage to find his wife and sons, and brings them back to Baghdad to live happily ever after. Kemal told me that men are irresistibly attracted to independent women and fall deeply in love with them, but are always terrified of being abandoned — which was why he himself resented Yasmina's ending. "To end the story the way your rebellious grandmother did, by insisting on women's privilege to abandon husbands who go on long business trips, does not help Muslim families to become stable, does it?" he said. Attacking Yasmina and blaming her for Hassan's family problems became Kemal's favorite way of expressing his jealousy whenever I wanted to respond to an invitation as an unaccompanied woman or undertake a trip by myself. He kept telling me that he wished we were still living in medieval Baghdad, where men could imprison women in harems. "Why do you think our Muslim ancestors built walled palaces with internal gardens to imprison women?" he would ask me. "Only desperately fragile men who are convinced that women have wings could create such a drastic thing as the harem, a prison that presents itself as a palace."
Every time this conversation arose, as it did too often for my taste, I tried to calm down Kemal by reminding him that men in the Christian West did not lock up women in harems. But instead of soothing him, this argument only made him flare up even more. "I do not know what goes on in the minds of Western men," he would say. "All I can tell you is that they would have built harems, too, if they saw women as an uncontrollable force. Could it be that in their fantasies, Westerners imagine women without wings? Who knows?"
The passionate debates provoked by "The Lady with the Feather Dress" went on between Kemal and myself throughout our student years, and even continued after we had become adults and started teaching at that same university, Mohamed V. Although we specialized in different fields — Kemal in medieval Arab literature and I in sociology — understanding the power of the oral tradition became important to both of us — a strategic tool with which to understand the dynamics of the modern Arab world. We rediscovered the power of our mothers' storytelling while listening to our students, who in the 1970s came mostly from the shantytowns of Casablanca and Rabat — areas not equipped with either electricity or television. If the mothers of our middle- and upper-class students had lost their power to tell stories and saw their kids fall prey to Hollywood fantasies, this was not the case for the less fortunate majority. Encouraging my sociology students to gather oral tales from the remote Atlas mountains and the Sahara desert, and asking literature experts to help decode them, created new occasions for Kemal and myself to collaborate — i.e., constantly contradict each other. Until, that is, we stumbled on lawami', the intriguing Sufi "flashes" that so often turned up in our heated academic debates. And what puzzled both of us and our students the most was that in many oral tales, the cleverer sex is rarely the one that religious authorities would expect. If Muslim laws give men the right to dominate women, the opposite seems to be true in the oral tradition.
Never were Kemal and our passionate conversations so present in my mind as when I had to face the inquisitive stares of the Western journalists I met while on my memorable book promotion tour. What the journalists could not even begin to suspect was how fragile I felt behind my makeup and heavy silver jewelry. And one major reason that I felt so fragile, I soon discovered, was that I knew hardly anything about Westerners and even less so about their fantasies.
Copyright © 2001 by Fatema Mernissi
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