“Scheherazade Goes West” by Fatema Mernissi

This article is also available in: Italiano

Scheherazade Goes West is one of the most interesting books on women, a real meeting point between western and eastern imagery. Fatema Mernissi’s work dispels all the ideas you have had to date of the harem and its inhabitants with strength and effectiveness.

Scheherazade Goes West

Wherever they live, men, whether oriental or western, fantasize about the harem. If you pause to contemplate the many works painted by the artists on this theme, you will find yourself faced with an enigma: while the Westerners have portrayed harem beauties as harmless and static creatures, the Orientals have shown them as female fighters. What is hidden behind the different representations of these ephemeral beauties, creatures of the male dream? What do they tell us about the mysterious connections that link sex and fear? Fatima Mernissi has proposed to solve the problem, even if her curiosity, rather than the answers, has given her new intriguing questions.

The continuation of “Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood”

The book was born from the Parisian presentation of “Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood”, a text in which the author told of her childhood spent in a harem in Fes. Precisely because of the strange reactions of the public, the Moroccan writer will begin to investigate the figure of the harem in the “West” and how it is, to her surprise, diametrically opposed to what the “Orientals” themselves had in mind.

In European culture, in fact, this place is associated with sex and perdition, an area of the house aimed exclusively at pleasure and lust, a very different concept from that of a gynaeceum, probably its closest ancestor. Thanks to this discovery, Fatema Mernissi will have the opportunity to investigate more deeply into the culture of the Old Continent, using mostly artistic and philosophical examples.

A confrontation with blows of art and culture

In fact, the writer will go on to explore all the culture in the North of the Mediterranean, with an eye to France in particular. Here, in fact, “Thousand and One Nights” was translated for the first time, thanks to which the conception of “harems” was born for the first time in the West. It is no coincidence, therefore, that both Delacroix and Ingres were French and it is no coincidence, in particular, that the most sensual works are of the latter which, however, never visited any place in the “Islamic world”.

“The Turkish bath” by Ingres

The real reason for the mistake, however, would be to be identified in the different conception that Europeans have of the “beautiful woman”, much closer to that of a medieval lady, rather than that of a Turkish or Persian warrior. Per dar forza alle sue tesi, Fatema ci mostrerà delle citazioni di Kant, Moliere e altri grandi pensatori occidentali, purtroppo, convinti che la “bella donna” non debba esser intelligente; molto interessante se confrontata con la Shirin di Nizami Ganjavi (uno dei poeti persiani più grandi di sempre) o alla sultana Nur Jahan, che cacciava tigri in India.

Sweep away stereotypes

“Scheherazade Goes West” was without a shadow of a doubt one of the most interesting books ever read last year, something that prompts you to reflect even once you have closed the book, enchanted by the words it brings. Through his reading, it will finally be possible to put aside the exoticism linked with the Islamic world, discovering instead the often hidden sides.


Anyone who imagines the “Arab / Muslim woman” as a soul ready to suffer, will totally change his mind, realizing that, after all, there are no incredible differences compared, for example, to Neapolitan women. A pearl to have absolutely and that will undoubtedly return in the future, if we can, even as an event.

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The video version of the article (in Italian)

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