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Scheherazade Goes West


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About the Author

Fatema Mernissi is a professor of sociology at the University of Mohammed V in Rabat, Morocco. She is the bestselling author of Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood, The Veil and the Male Elite, and Beyond the Veil.


When Moroccan sociologist Mernissi went on tour to promote her 1994 book, Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood, she was perplexed when Western audiences reacted to the word harem as though she had uttered something salacious. Eager to understand this phenomenon, she began to study European and American art, dance, and literature. Her queries revealed that the non-Arab world sees the harem as a "peaceful pleasure-garden where omnipotent men reign supreme over obedient...sexually available women." Western translations of The Thousand and One Nights further prove the point. Unlike Arabic renderings, the versions Mernissi uncovered depict women as brainless. This shocked her, since the stories she grew up with focused on Scheherazade as a woman whose passionate rhetoric swayed a king. "The Oriental Scheherazade is purely cerebral," she writes. "In the original tales, Scheherazade's body is hardly mentioned but her learning is repeatedly stressed." Mernissi's research exposes an array of misrepresentations and misunderstandings and reveals the ways misogyny both Eastern and Western limits human imagination and stifles communication. Brilliant and convincing, this is a provocative multicultural critique. Highly recommended for all libraries. Eleanor J. Bader, Brooklyn Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Library Journal Brilliant and convincing, this is a provocative multicultural critique.
Arlie Russell Hochschild author of The Second Shift and The Time Bind Exploring traditions east and west, Mernissi employs the power of gentle humor to expose the foibles of both....A funny, sweet, wise, magical read by one of the very best writers we have.

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) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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