Throughout my childhood, my grandmother Yasmina, who was illiterate and grew up in a harem, repeated that to travel is the best way to learn and to empower yourself. "When a woman decides to use her wings, she takes big risks," she would tell me, but she was convinced that if you didn't use them, it hurt.... So recalls Fatema Mernissi at the outset of her mesmerizing new book. Of all the lessons she learned from her grandmother -- whose home was, after all, a type of prison -- the most central was that the opportunity to cross boundaries was a sacred privilege. Indeed, in journeys both physical and mental, Mernissi has spent virtually all of her life traveling -- determined to "use her wings" and to renounce her gender's alleged legacy of powerlessness. Bursting with the vitality of Mernissi's personality and of her rich heritage, Scheherazade Goes West reveals the author's unique experiences as a liberated, independent Moroccan woman faced with the peculiarities and unexpected encroachments of Western culture. Her often surprising discoveries about the conditions of and attitudes toward women around the world -- and the exquisitely embroidered amalgam of clear-eyed autobiography and dazzling meta-fiction by which she relates those assorted discoveries -- add up to a deliciously wry, engagingly cosmopolitan, and deeply penetrating narrative. In her previous bestselling works, Mernissi -- widely recognized as the world's greatest living Koranic scholar and Islamic sociologist -- has shed unprecedented light on the lives of women in the Middle East. Now, as a writer and scholarly veteran of the high-wire act of straddling disparate societies, she trains her eyes on the female culture of the West. For her book's inspired central metaphor, Mernissi turns to the ancient Islamic tradition of oral storytelling, illuminating her grandmother's feminized, subversive, and highly erotic take on Scheherazade's wife-preserving tales from The Arabian Nights -- and then ingeniously applying them to her own lyrically embellished personal narrative. Interwoven with vivid ruminations on her childhood, her education, and her various international travels are the author's piquant musings on a range of deeply embedded societal conditions that add up, Mernissi argues, to a veritable "Western harem." A provocative and lively challenge to the common assumption that women have it so much better in the West than anywhere else in the world, Mernissi's book is an entrancing and timely look at the way we live here and now. By inspiring us to reconsider even the most commonplace aspects of our culture with fresh eyes and a healthy dose of suspicion, Scheherazade Goes West offers an invigorating, candid, and entertaining new perspective on the themes and ideas to which Betty Friedan first turned us on nearly forty years ago.read more
If Mernissi is, as her publisher claims, the greatest living Moslem sociologist, there can not be much competition. She recounts going to a store in New York where the clerk told her that size 4 and 6 are the only normal sizes. Acute observor that she is, she fails to notice that the average American woman, such as the ones presumably walking down the sidewalk with her, is size 12 or 14. As a 3X, I am apparently considerably larger than Mernissi, and I can attest that while it was easier to shop when I was a size nine, I don't have any real trouble finding clothes. Since Mernissi tells us that she was teased as a young woman for being too thin, it's hard to buy her claim that the issue of physical beauty is a burden peculiar to American or Western women. This is only the worst of her naive gaffs. She complains that Diaghlev's ballet reduces Scheherezade to a dancer; I dare say that if she had watched closely, she would have noticed that all the other characters were dancing also. She complains that a painting focuses on Scheherezade's looks rather than her intelligence. Well, it IS a painting, and the one on the cover of the book shows her telling her stories, so what's her point? She complains about Western paintings of odalisques, and then tells us that one of the common themes among Moslem painters is a certain heroine bathing in the wilderness. Not so different, then? It might have helped if she had talked to any women other than her French editor and the salesclerk, but she spends vastly more time with men. This isn't impressive for an intelligent adult, let alone a professional scholar and sociologist. One can understand a certain dismay on Mernissi's part. She tells us that she was interviewed by a number of male reporters, none of whom had read "Dreams of Trespass." (If they had read her book, they would have known what a harem is.) Mernissi, guided by her editor Christiane and friends, embarks on a tendentious search for Western harems; she wanted harems, and by golly they found them for her. Reading, or not reading, Kant, Naomi Wolfe, Edgar Allen Poe, Mernissi is confident that she has grasped the whole of western thought. The only reason that I gave this book two stars is that I did finish it and it had lots of interesting little tidbits about some Moslem cultures. Fascinating though Haroun al-Rashid was, I am skeptical that the lives of his harem slaves had much to say about the life of the typical Moslem woman even of his own day, let alone the far-flung and diverse cultures of Islam today. I was also appalled at Mernissi's brutal indifference to these slave girls. She describes most woman as feeling imprisoned and resentful of the harem, but makes Haroun's harem sound glamorous and fulfilling. One can just imagine little girls all over Africa, Asia and Europe praying that their villages would be sacked, their male kith and kin slaughtered, and that they would endure the horrors of the slave coffle for the chance to join it. She never considers how if might feel to be the discarded favorite, or the woman who was never a favorite. According to Mernissi, Moslem men fear women, imprison them, but fantasize about active assertive women. Western men don't fear woman, give them much more freedom, but fantasize about passive women. She sometimes seems to be saying that Moslem women are therefore better off, but I'm not convinced. It seems to me that there is a pattern of wanting what one doesn't have, common not only to men but to people in general. Not much insight about Western women, and I am very skeptical of her insights about Moslem women. Only for readers wanting to read exhaustively about woman and Islam.read more
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For Western men, the very word harem typically provokes voluptuous sexual fantasies in which men have their way with vulnerable women who are happy to satisfy their needs, observes Mernissi, feminist sociologist and Koranic scholar. In Islamic culture, by contrast, the harem is seen as the site of a dangerous, sexual power struggle in which powerful women resist male domination. The mythical Scheherazade, who recounted enough tales to fill One Thousand and One Nights, models this female power, Mernissi (Beyond the Veil) argues. In a cerebral rather than physical seduction, Scheherazade recounted complex tales to her king, using her nutq her ability to penetrate a man's brain by using the right words. So subversive was that power that her stories were published in Arabic only a century after appearing in French, and they remain a target of Muslim censorship. Using a wide range of Islamic sources etymology, art, religious law, cultural history Mernissi develops a nuanced analysis of the sexual power of Islamic women. By probing Western representations of Scheherazade in ballet, Hollywood movies, painting she also reveals the West's tendency to misconstrue the harem. Unfortunately, Mernissi's navet, about the West mars the book. After a few casual chats, some skimming of peculiar or derivative sources and a trip to a designer's shop in New York, she concludes that Western women are as tyrannized by the pressure to be a size 6 as Islamic women are by the veil. Additionally, Mernissi's stream-of-consciousness style of storytelling can be irritating. More troubling, she never returns to her initial mission to understand the Western image of the harem. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved