Book review: Dreams of trespass, Tales of a Harem Girlhood

I discovered this book thanks to my lovely Moroccan bookclub. It’s my first book from this Moroccan author. Its a bestseller, translated in more than 26 languages and a must read for women worldwide.

This is a difficult book to review for me, I postponed it for the last 3 months. Maybe because I am Moroccan and this one hits close to home.

Thank you Samah for the gorgeous picture of the book and thank you Book club ladies for the inspiring conversation and for making me discover this author and book, I love you all <3


« I was born in a harem in 1940 in Fez, Morocco . . . « 
So begins Fatima Mernissi in this illuminating narrative of a childhood behind the iron gates of a domestic harem. In Dreams of Trespass, Mernissi weaves her own memories with the dreams and memories of the women who surrounded her in the courtyard of her youth — women who, without access to the world outside, recreated it from sheer imagination.

A beautifully written account of a girl confronting the mysteries of time and place, gender and sex, Dreams of Trespass illuminates what it was like to be a modern Muslim woman in a place steeped in tradition.

My opinion:

Our Bookclub discussion around this book lasted 3 hours. A testament to how good this book is and how rich and enlightening it is. It sparked a lot of conversations!

Dreams of trespass is a fiction based on the real life of the author, Fatema Mernissi. She was born in a monogamous family but living in the harem of her grandfather in the 1940s. Her uncles were married to multiple women as well as her grandfather. The book shows all strategies women apply to get what they want, but their freedom from this place. It’s set between modern and traditional Morocco and at the time where French protectorate was omnipresent but declining. It’s a study of the French Colonial Morocco and the society of that time.

The author explains how it is to live in a harem and to be allowed rare occurrences to visit the outside world, guarded of course and with a guaranteed return back home ticket. She explains how life in the harem was close to nature as women were chilling in the rooftop organizing « soirées » or discovering the nature and surrounding landscape by horse riding or just walking around. She also got challenged early on by her mother on traditions and the harem life as her dad never remarried or took another woman and was happy being married to her mom. Which was a frowned upon decision within the harem that his mom and elders kept on reminding him of.

Frederick Arthur Bridgman, Dans Une Ville de Campagne Alger (500-700k) 965k  USD

Dreams of trespass gave a voice to each of the women in this harem. We get a glimpse of their life before ending up in the harem and how they came to it:

  • « Tamou », the wife of the grand-father that arrived on a horse. She was a warrior from the Atlas Mountains whose family were killed while combatting Spanish occupation
  • « Mina » the slave that escaped and crossed to Morocco through the desert, hidden in an olive jar. Her story inspired Fatem Mernissi a lot
  • « Yaya » is a sudanewe woman that the grandfather of Fatema mernissi married. Women in the harem planted a banana tree for her to feel at home
  • « Lalla Thor » is the first wife and she is separating herself from the other woman as she comes from a wealthy and « royal » family
  • « Chama » with her books of charms and sorcery
  • « Aunt Habiba » illiterate, divorced, but very wise and sensitive and caring/loving

Fatema Mernissi is narrating her story from her inner child point of view and in a simple language that is easy to understand. The storytelling is superbly mastered and executed. the artistic narration within this book is a testament to her love for Morocco, the culture and her spirit of freedom and fighting for women rights.

I love how complex situations appear so easy to fix and to avoid through the eye of an innocent child without an agenda. I love how she lives the change of dynamic with her cousin and how she split « girly stuff » from « boy stuff » and how she didn’t understood limits and restrictions. Especially when he told her that boys read journal and women do make up. It’s fascinating to see that choosing to take care of yourself and appearance exclude you from any intellectual conversation and categorize you as shallow.

Dreams of a trespass is a book that details the life in a harem in an honest manner. As we have details on the life of each of these women forming the harem, as well as their broken dreams and the omnipresent repression and stressful limitation they live in. The harem is more than the European colonized version that includes orgies and women painted as sexual slaves always eager to please the men passing by. The harem is a social ecosystem with rules: Food is served according to the wife/woman rank. Beauty is a very important part of the harem life, as days are dedicated to the body rituals like hammam and waxing. Living arrangements are defined following the ranking of wives and importance of the males. The grandfather has the best and highest room and the oldest son the chambers below him and so it goes.

As a Moroccan woman born in the late 80s, I am grateful to not live in this era even though this story was set in 1940s-1950s, so it was not long ago. I am grateful for the rights I have to chose my path and live as freely as I can. Yet I noticed that we are still living in an international and invisible harem. Men are still stating laws on female bodies, with abortion laws, virginity certificates, rape condemnations, rape victim condemnations, excision, segregation and gender disparity in the professional environment, promotions linked to the marital status… We can even say that current royals are living in a harem and surrounded by protocol, guards and are caged birds. It’s still a long way to go to to eradicate the harem stereotypes and jokes that people still make as well as the polygamy idea that is intertwined with the society dynamics worldwide…


Dreams of trespass is a is an inspirational book that stresses the importance of being free in your mind and soul and having dreams and objectives. I urge you to read it, men and women. To understand why you have to stop glamourizing harems and joking about polygamy.

Origin of the word « Harem »

During the Ottoman Empire , the role of the harem was that of the royal upbringing of the future wives of noble and royal men. These women were specifically educated in order to appear in public as royal wives.

Outside Islamic culture, Egyptian pharaohs used to make a demand on provincial governors for many beautiful servant girls. Montezuma the Second, the Aztec ruler from Mexico, had 4000 concubines. In the Aztec society, every member of the nobility had to have as many consorts as he could afford.

King Kashyapa of Sigirya in Sri Lanka had 500 women in his harem. At that time, it was considered a great honor to be part of the king’s harem. An institution similar to the harem existed in the Edo Period of Japanese history among the Ooku as well.

The harem was not a place only for women. Children were also born and grew up inside the harem. Harems also had markets, bazaars, playgrounds, kitchens, laundries, baths, and schools. Harems had their hierarchies too. They were led by the wives and female relatives of the sultan and the concubines were below them in status. Apart from wives and concubines, harems included the sultan’s mother, step mothers, aunts, grandmothers, sisters, step sisters, daughters, other female relatives, ladies in waiting, maids, servants, cooks, guards, and other women officials.