1. The part of a palace or house reserved for the residence of women. 2 .The women of a (Muslim) household, including the mother, sisters, wives, concubines, daughters, entertainers and servants.
Note: Definitions retain to gender distinction. The feminine is defined in relation to otherness, that is, separate from male. Harem therefore becomes reliant on the presence of males in order to create and make distinct this otherness.
According to definition, without the presence of a man, a harem cannot possibly hope to exist.
This is a Harem
Helema. Age 64. Stringy curly hair, dyed with henna, brown eyes. Robust. Aunt to: Mena. Age 48. Dark black hair, dark brown eyes. Tanned, leather skin. Aunt to: Mejda. Age 24. Dark black hair, brown eyes. Thin, striking. Residence: 10 Ziad, Old Medina, Fez, Morocco.
This Harem Reunited
It is October. Outside, the towering walls of the Medina cast shadows over spindled walkways, motorbikes rumble by. Eid Al-Adha is just around the corner, and the braying of confined sheep echoes through the neighborhood.
The door to 10 Ziad thuds open with an extra shove from the shoulder of a green kaftan. Mejda is exhausted from another twelve-hour day at work under the incriminating eye of the head midwife, that crank. It is only seventeen stone stairs to the metal door of her apartment, but each step is heavy, each leg lift more difficult than the previous. She pauses at the door and rests her clothed head on the wall, thinks about the rumor she had heard from the young girl at work about the midwife position in Ghana that her cousin had written to her about. Savannah sunsets dance before her eyes, a dream escapes the grasps of her fingers, which she instead plunges into the depths of her bag before finding her keys and entering her home.
--Salaam, my darling!
Mejda squeals as she looks across the living room. Mena, her favorite aunt, long and spindly, rushes from her seat on the couch and the two of them hug. Mejda wraps her under her arm and kisses her forehead, her cheek, the dimple in her chin and they laugh and laugh and laugh. It’s been weeks since they’ve seen each other. Mena lives six hours away by bus and can’t afford the long trip. Mejda removes her glasses and rubs the moisture forming in the corner of her eye.
--We didn’t expect you until Thursday!
--I didn’t expect to miss you so much.
Behind Mena and Mejda, there is a hiccup from the couch where Helema, Mejda’s adopted mother wakes up from her light slumber. She takes a moment to roll into an upright position, the pounds accumulated over the years slowing her down. She squints her eyes, opens her mouth and begins to roll her head, clearing enjoying the lovely spectacle in front of her.
--You two. Beautiful and crazy.
Mena and Mejda laugh and plop down next to her, and the three of them form a puddle of happy meshed flesh on the couch, which welcomes the weight with a heaving sigh. This morning, only Helema and the television, now, a family.
This Harem After Dinner
The noise from the television drowns conversation, and eventually Mejda, Mena and Helema sit in silence and watch the flickering glow. On television is a special on car crash victims, bandaged in hospital beds. Limbs are missing. Blood is prevalent. Mena tries to lighten the mood.
--It’s a documentary about our life!
They all chuckle, but it’s forced. Mena cradles her elbow and glances to Mejda. There is a flash of memory, a girl Mejda’s age sits on the couch next to her niece, a flash of reality and an empty cushion. For a moment, Mena cannot separate the images on the television from the images from her past. The knock on the door, the small cradled body of her daughter. On television, a mangled motorbike wrapped around a post, in memory, a mangled motorbike wrapped around a post. So much blood. Is it from the victims on TV, the dying child in her arms, or from her own cheeks, battered and bruised from a once-loving partner, driven to violence, distraught, devastated, drunk. Death driving an irreparable wedge in an already-failing marriage, a fist driving an irreparable scar under her eye. Sirens for her daughter or for her?
--I can’t watch right now.
She crosses past her aunt into the kitchen. Helema too has memories. For her, it is a husband, loving, dashing, far from the one of Mena’s memory. Mangled in the wreckage of a car thirty years past. Helema is stoic. She has no reason to pine for the past when the present is struggle enough. She cannot go to the fridge without the reminder, insulin sits next to butter, a piece of a daily routine. Her stomach aches constantly. The scalpels that broke her skin have long been sterilized, but the scars remain. The man – he only exists in a painting in the side hall. The acrylic is all that is left.
Mejda has no memory of her tragedy reflected in the screen. Just a small, cooing bundle when she stumbled into the life of her great aunt, the word “parent” has no meaning beyond a gravesite outside the Ville Nouvelle. Helema is her mother now, her uncles are her brothers. Only when her phone vibrates on the table does her heart beat faster.
--Omar, she smiles shyly.
An Amazirgh boyfriend, sent to work in a fish restaurant in Belgium by a family that disapproves of Mejda’s Arab ethnicity. Her heart aches as she reads the text message.
--I miss you, too, she types. Someday, maybe. Someday.
For now, though, Mejda is content to just be with the girls. Mena returns to from the kitchen and switches the television to a live concert in Rabat. Strings jump, flutes twittle. It’s just nice to sit and watch TV as a family, to be together. She smiles. This moment is nice.
This Harem Goes To Bed
Eventually, Mejda gets up to get tea. Water boils, leaves are added. A few sprigs grace three glasses and the steam hisses. Warm liquid sunshine is poured from the kettle spout and is returned to the living room on a silver tray. The television set has since been turned off, and Mena has started to spread blankets along a small portion of the couch. Helema has fallen asleep sitting up, her snore echoes around the room, her red headscarf slipping over her brow.
Mejda and Mena drink the tea and whisper back and forth.
--I’m so happy you’re here.
--I’m so happy you’re here.
--What do you mean?
Mena pushes Mejda’s hair behind her ear, watches the reflection of the moon in her neice’s eyes. She is so thankful that Mejda had family to turn to after her parents’ untimely death. Mejda is so blessed, she thinks. She does not live like those beggar orphans on the street. She is thiriving, she has a prestigious job.
--Lahamduallah. Praise God. You are so smart, my darling. So successful.
--Only because Mother helped me start college.
--Maybe. But only you had the brains to finish it.
Praise Helema for opening her door to her, for giving this bright, beautiful girl a chance.
Mejda splits the remaining tea between two glasses. She studies Mena’s worn face. The wrinkles are premature for her age, but Mejda knows of Mena’s strength.
--Why did you come early? Really?
--You know why, I suppose.
Mejda does. Here, Mena is free from the stares and spits that come her way so frequently back home. A divorcee who dared to speak out in her own defense. Some say she should have settled. Some say it wasn’t so violent. Some say she is dramatic. None actually know the pain. But Mejda sees it in her aunt’s dark eyes. Hate pushed outside with the need to survive.
--It doesn’t matter. You are here.
Helema snores on the couch, far from the gas bill, electric bill, bank statement on the table. Mejda’s job is just enough to get by, but there is always fear that one day the insulin will not be enough, that soon a hospital bill will be added to the pile. There is another letter on the table, from a school nearby. Two boys need a place to stay for the coming spring semester. It pays quite well, Helema has an extra room. There hasn’t been a male in this house in years. The idea has overwhelmed her, but the letter still sits on the table, an open option for another day.
--The tea is cold.
Mena swirls the few remaining leaves around in her glass, and nods in confirmation. Mejda carries the silver tray back to the kitchen, lets the faucet drip. She returns to the living room and curls between her aunt and her mother, their breath mingling and dangling together in the cool night air that breezes through the open window. Somewhere down the street, a sheep brays, its call echoing over the rooftops, satellite dishes, taut clotheslines and into the room where the three women slumber, but they refuse to wake to the invasion. That is a harem, after all, and that harem is strong.
A harem may not thrive, but at least it can live. Breathe. Survive alone and stand alone.
Add that to your definition.