Thursday, July 19, 2007

Learning to land

I've just finished reading a wonderful little book but I'm a little reluctant to write about it because the title sounds like it belongs on a sexy potboiler with a picture of Fabio on the cover. Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood by Fatima Mernissi is a fascinating and beautifully written memoir of the author's childhood in Morocco in the 1940s and 50s. The prose is stately and elegant, the stories fragmentary and meandering but always circling around a cluster of images related to security, captivity, and escape.

Mernissi recalls her childhood attempts to understand the limits on women's freedom and locate the door that crosses the threshold between the realm of women and the realm of men. "[L]ooking for the frontier has become my life's occupation," she explains. "Anxiety eats at me whenever I cannot situate the geometric line organizing my powerlessness." She describes the various methods the women of her household used to trespass those boundaries, including a dangerous route over the rooftops:

The terrace exit route was seldom watched, for the simple reason that getting from it to the street was a difficult undertaking. You needed to be quite good at three skills: climbing, jumping, and agile landing. Most of the women could climb up and jump fairly well, but not many could land gracefully. So, from time to time, someone would come in with a bandaged ankle, and everyone would know what she'd been up to. The first time I came down from the terrace with bleeding knees, Mother explained to me that a women's chief problem in life was figuring out how to land. 'Whenever you are about to embark on and adventure,' she said, 'you have to think about the landing. Not about the takeoff. So whenever you feel like flying, think about how and where you'll end up.'

Later, several of the more rebellious women try to take flight by embroidering elaborate birds on their robes, a departure from traditional embroidery patterns. However, since they are not permitted to shop for their own silks and threads, they have to describe their needs to a male cousin whose idea of "blue" or "red" does not always agree with theirs: "So each woman described her dream-embroidery--the kind of flowers she wanted and their colors, the hues of the buds, and sometimes whole trees and delicate branches. Others described entire islands surrounded with boats. Paralyzed by the frontier, women gave birth to whole landscapes and worlds. "

In Dreams of Trespass, Fatima Mernissi gives birth to whole landscapes and worlds that seem exotic but also familiar. Frontiers come in all shapes and sizes; this book is required reading for anyone who has ever tried to cross the invisible kind.

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