The Harem Within, otherwise known as Dreams of Trespass, is a character-focused deep-dive into life inside a harem.
Set in Morocco during the 1940s and 50s, Mernissi does well to depict enclosed life as claustrophobic and unsustainable, while also providing two sides to the story through its rich character cast.
Bathing is communal and meal times are strictly shared. There is little time one can spend alone in a harem. Some inhabitants feel wholly negatively about this. However, some feel there are positive aspects too. Some see it as safe haven, a place where one can enjoy the support of their family. Ultimately, the novel leaves the final judgement of whether harems are wrong or evil to the reader.
Leaving the final decision to the reader works brilliantly. It creates a dualism between the readers and the characters: the readers, for example, have a choice whether they want to speak up, the characters, who are trapped inside this book, are fundamentally voiceless.
The annotations and poems within this read work well too. I never felt taken out of the book when I read them, if anything I felt more immersed, as if I was being taken by the hand into this culture and not being blamed for being ignorant to what a harem even was before picking it up. However, this is not a plot-driven story, which can make it feel slow at times.
Overall, as a character study and an insight into what life in harem was like, this is a masterpiece. It provides a fantastic snapshot into an alien lifestyle and promotes female empowerment. It is not always gripping, but well worth a read. I would recommend it to anyone.