For the reader uninformed about Arab cultures, Fatima Mernissi's charming memoir "Dreams of Trespass" has a rather shocking subtitle: "Tales of a Harem Girlhood."
The word "harem" has a connotation in the West, Ms. Mernissi writes, of "splendid palaces full of luxuriously dressed and lasciviously reclined indolent women," awaiting the emperor's bidding. While such imperial harems have their place in history, the more common one is what Ms. Mernissi writes about. She grew up in a domestic harem, in which a man might have more than one wife but was often monogamous and "carried on the tradition of women's seclusion."
These secluded women have their own culture in their households, where several families may live under one roof. They don't leave the house without permission, or veils, and they dream of trespass -- of stepping into forbidden realms or shedding the harem life altogether.
Ms. Mernissi's childhood in Morocco was peopled with strong and imaginative women, many of whom strained to be free and found outlets in the most unlikely places -- in elaborate dramas staged on the terraces, in exhilarating runs on a horse, or, most powerfully, in storytelling. Their greatest inspiration was Scheherazade, who, in "A Thousand and One Nights," literally kept her head by entertaining the murderous king with her stories.
Ms. Mernissi, a sociologist at a Moroccan university, tells some -- wonderful stories herself. One is of Tamou, who belonged to her grandfather's harem:
Tamou came in 1926, after the defeat of Abdelkrim by the combined Spanish and French armies. She appeared early one morning over the horizon of the flat Gharb Plain, riding a Spanish saddled horse, and dressed in a man's white cape and a woman's headdress so that the soldiers would not shoot at her. . . . She had appeared that morning wearing heavy silver Berber bracelets with points sticking out, the kind of bracelets that you could use to defend yourself if necessary. She also had a khandjar, or dagger, dangling from her right hip and a real Spanish rifle that she kept hidden in her saddle, beneath her cape.
She was a war heroine, one of the Rif people, who "kept on fighting the foreigners long after the rest of the country had given up." First she asked Ms. Mernissi's grandfather for aid for ,, her people, then returned with the bodies of her father, husband and children. She collapsed and was nursed back to health, and agreed to join the harem. The "co-wives grew to admire her for, among other things, the many skills she had that women did not normally have. . . . She could shoot a gun, speak Spanish fluently, leap high in the air, somersault many times without getting dizzy, and even swear in many languages."
Ms. Mernissi tells her tales through a child's eyes. A little girl could see much and hear much and was sometimes able to trespass where the women could not. During World War II, she could listen to the men's political discussions of "the Allemane, or Germans, a new breed of Christians who were giving a beating to the French and the British."
The author drolly explains the Germans' predilection for war: "Allah did not favor the Christians: their climate was harsh and cold, and that made them moody and, when the sun did not show up for months, nasty. To warm themselves up, they had to drink wine and other strong beverages, and then they got aggressive and started looking for trouble."
Fearful because "the Allemane were after anyone with dark hair and dark eyes," young Fatima's friend, Samir, begged for henna to dye his hair so that the dreaded "Hi-Hitler" wouldn't bomb him on sight, and Fatima put on a scarf until her mother scolded her: "I am fighting against the veil, and you are putting one on?!"
Fatima's mother made her wear Western clothes and taught her to long for autonomy. While we don't see the child's final leap into adult independence and scholarship, the groundwork is always there, in the lessons the harem women taught her amid great social upheaval.
Ms. Mernissi writes of the chasm that widened between her and Samir as they grew into adolescence, and how Mina, a former slave who became a beloved member of the household, explained the sad change: " 'Childhood is when the difference does not matter,' she said. 'From now on, you won't be able to escape it. You'll be ruled by the difference. The world is going to turn ruthless.' "
Ms. Mernissi sees the ruthless division between men and women, and the high walls that enforce it, but her enchanting remembrance gives these sequestered women wings.
Molly Dunham Glassman is on vacation. Her children's books column will resume next Friday.
Title: "Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood"
Author: Fatima Mernissi
-! Length, price: 242 pages, $23