Scheherazade Goes West

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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.
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  • Washington Square Press | 
  • 240 pages | 
  • ISBN 9780743422536 | 
  • September 2001
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: The Tale of the Lady with the Feather Dress

If by chance you were to meet me at the Casablanca airport or on a boat sailing from Tangiers, you would think me self-confident, but I am not. Even now, at my age, I am frightened when crossing borders because I am afraid of failing to understand strangers. "To travel is the best way to learn and empower yourself," said Yasmina, my grandmother, who was illiterate and lived in a harem, a traditional household with locked gates that women were not supposed to open. "You must focus on the strangers you meet and try to understand them. The more you understand a stranger and the greater... see more

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