Sometimes I wonder if I would have been able to write "Dreams of Trespass" (its first title was "The Harem Within") if Ruth Ward had refused to accompany me, both as a friend and an artist, to Fez, my home town, and, as a photographer, to help me recapture some images of my childhood. I wonder because the first trips I made to Fez, when I decided to go back and travel in my past with my sister Ratiba and my cousin Zineb, to learn more about my childhood, turned out to be a catastrophe! Each one of us had a different image of our common childhood, and we started fighting because the people I liked turned out to be the people Ratiba and Zineb disliked.
Actually, Zineb decided to help me by taking pictures of the images I was describing when we visited the old house. Her pictures were atrocious as far as I was concerned. They had nothing to do with the images I kept fixed in my memory. That was when I had the fantastic idea of introducing a stranger, like the Sufis (the mystics of Islam) do, to help me travel in my past. There were a lot of stories in Fez about medieval Sufis who solved their problems by trusting a stranger and inviting him to share his vision of things, because he enriches your grasp of reality, be it past or present. This is why Sufis recommend safar (travel) as the best way to know oneself, because when you travel and meet foreigners, you see yourself differently in their eyes. According to Ibn Manzur's 14th Century dictionary (Lissan al 'arab) a trip is called safar because it unveils the real self of the musafir (the traveler). During the safar the suppressed side becomes visible "and it unveils the hidden face of the traveler." That is when I decided to approach Ruth, whose paintings and photographs I had seen in exhibits she organized with another woman artist, to ask if she would be interested in accompanying me to Fez on my next trip to recapture my lost childhood.
A wife who spends more time traveling for her work than assisting her diplomat husband.
The first time I heard about Ruth was in the early 1980s when her American husband came to Rabat as a diplomat. He visited my Mohamed V University to discuss with the Dean and the head of my sociology department an academic exchange program between Moroccan and American scholars. At the end of the faculty meeting, Mark Ward mentioned that his wife was an artist who used photography as part of her creative work which mixed painting with all kinds of other elements. When I asked him to explain more about his wife's paintings and creative work, he said that I had to wait until Ruth came to Morocco and ask her. When I asked him when she would be in Morocco, he said he didn't know. That surprised me and of course my male colleagues.
"My wife is German-born and she is a feminist. An explosive combination." He added: "She needs to travel between Germany and the United States for her career as an artist and I need to be in Morocco for mine. So sometimes our paths cross. Sometimes not."
That was some surprise for us. Of course I was intrigued by this German wife who insisted on working hard instead of enjoying the luxurious life of a diplomat. But more so were my male university colleagues. When Mark left the University and we went back to the staff room Professor Benkiki, who was a rigid conservative, said with a nasty smile: "Here is a diplomat who cannot count on his wife to be by his side when representing his country abroad!" After a pause, and looking me in the eye, Professor Benkiki added: "Feminism is going to ruin diplomacy!"
But, believe it or not, apart from Mr. Benkiki, who showed no interest in meeting Ruth, so worried was he that she might influence his wife, all the other younger men of my sociology department were intrigued by her. Everyone wanted to meet this artist who sought to advance her career at the risk of neglecting a wonderful husband. The Moroccans found Mark's dry sense of humor attractive. I promised everyone that I would prepare a couscous and invite all the nice guys of my University when Ruth showed up in Morocco - and that is how our friendship started.
Without Ruth's help, when she agreed to accompany me to Fez and as a photographer help me put on film the scenes of my childhood, neither the book "Dreams of Trespass" nor the extraordinary black and white photos of "The Harem Within" exhibition, which toured German cities and the United States as well, would have become a reality. She saved my dreams from destruction by my sister Ratiba and my cousin Zineb. So, my advice: Enlarge your family circle by inviting foreigners, because if you stay with your kin, you may be eaten up by quarrels. A foreigner brings new insights, a new vision, a new point of view and helps you see yourself differently.
A foreigner can help you re-invent yourself, the Sufis say. Your sister cannot always do so.
When I decided in 1987 at the age of 47 to write a book inspired by my childhood in the medieval city of Fez in the 1950s, I was embarking on one of the most dangerous trips I had ever undertaken - a trip in time. I did not know that I was embarking on endless fights within my own family about childhood memories, because I realized that nothing is more emotionally dangerous and therefore destabilizing than trying to discuss the past with your relatives. And that is when I took a series of decisions: the first was that the book had to be fiction. Because whatever you remember of your past is pure fiction, in the sense that you invent yourself. And you might as well disconnect yourself from your sister and cousin and create whatever childhood suits you, as a sovereign adult.
I am a staunch believer in the Sufi concept of safar, where a stranger can help you better than your sister or cousin to figure out who you are. By inviting Ruth to enter my childhood and take photographs of my old house, I forced myself to travel and take a distance from my own reality, by including someone else's point of view. This is why, for the Sufis, such as Iman Qushairi (he died in Nishapur in 456 A.H. (11th Century A.D.), trips are not for fun, they are a painful experience of self-knowledge: "Safar is to discover one's inner ethical values" by confronting them with those of the strangers you encounter.
To go back to your childhood city is to track down illusions!
And if you travel with your sister in the past, things get worse, because each one has her own illusions of what childhood was about. Since each person keeps a distinct childhood in her memory, why not go back with a real stranger to visit your past? What I need is a friend, but from a foreign land, born in a cold, snowy town in Germany and who can take the train with me to the city of my memories, and help me recreate it by taking some pictures of the old house, the tiles on the walls and the marble columns, and the endless stairs going up to the terrace. Since going back into the past is traveling into an unknown territory, a stranger will quarrel less with you because everything for him is a discovery.
And through his discovery, you might recapture some of your illusions we call memories. Because who are we really, if not illusions we invent daily?
So I take this opportunity to thank Mark for having introduced me and my University friends to his adventurous artist wife. And I congratulate him for being the fantastic loving husband he was to make her decide to stay longer and longer in Morocco.
And believe it or not, now that they are in Washington and I am 8000 kilometers away in Rabat, we are more in contact than ever thanks to e-mail and the Internet. Because of this friendship, I am more informed on what is going on in people's minds in the United States. Mark and Ruth never forget to send me articles and books I need to read to figure out what is going on in this time of trouble and violence and threats. And I do my best, sending back clippings and articles to enlighten them on what Arabs think. Love to both of you Ruth and Mark, from Rabat.
Fatema Mernissi, Rabat, 4 November 2002
Past and Present:
The harem within
Les femmes derrière les tapis
The women behind the carpets
The Digital Revolution:
The Civil Revolution:
Typical work of Ruth
and much more ...