"I Must Read, Read, and Read. It is my Vocation." - Thomas Merton
This is where I chronicle my reading life. I also blog about writing at Lacey's Late-night Editing.
This book intrigued me for a long time -- who isn't intrigued by the idea of a harem? As such, I'm glad that the book exists. Through it, Westerners can dispel the salacious or exotic associations that the word "harem" brings up -- opulent rooms full of beautiful women who are all sexually bound to one man. Fatema shares her experience of growing up in a harem, which she freely admits is a term that doesn't hold the same meaning for everyone. For her, it meant growing up in a segregated household. The "harem" was the part of the home where the women lived -- wives, widowed or divorced aunts, and children. The only excitement was the excitement the women could invent for themselves, whether it was putting on plays for one another or dividing themselves along political lines. The book has a very claustrophobic feel for this reason -- information comes to the women secondhand or third hand or not at all, and the men who they are related to seem only to occupy the periphery of their lives. Men have the whole world and occasionally stop into the harem to see wives or children; women have only the harem, and the rare, overly orchestrated and protective supervised emergence beyond its walls.
This book was more academic than I expected, which is probably appropriate considering how little Westerners understand about Arab cultures. Fatema amends it with footnotes and citations and gives as much context as possible for Arab life in the 1940s, in a place on the fringes of world war II both geographically and chronologically. It's interesting to see how the women within the harem must make up their own conclusions about why things happen as they do in the outside world -- why there is so little interracial marriage among Americans, or why the Germans were at war with the rest of Europe -- since they are never given full information. Even as an introvert who loves privacy and seclusion, the thought of such an existence is stifling. How would an extroverted woman survive spending her life in a harem?
Fatema does mention her experience of a couple harems besides the one she grew up in to show that there is some diversity of interpretation and implementation. Still, although this book was very educational, I felt disappointed by the lack of a clear narrative arc -- it's mainly just a collection of stories about childhood without a really clear "through-line" tying them together. That's why I gave it only three stars, despite it being an important and well-written book.