Module Eleven, Activity Five

African Autobiography

The next selection in this module is a passage from an autobiography by an author from Tunisia. Click here to see where Tunisia is located. An autobiography is a book that describes the life of the author of the book. Unlike a novel or short story, an autobiography is not fiction, but it is based on the actual events that happened in the author's life. In this passage, the author, Fatima Mernissi, recounts a part of her childhood as a young girl growing up in Tunisia in a large household. Read the passage carefully.

Dreams of Trespass

The problem with entertainment, fun, and foolishness at our house was that they could easily be missed. They were never planned in advance unless Cousin Chama or Aunt Habiba were in charge, and even then, they were subject to serious space constraints. Aunt Habiba's story-telling and Chama's theatre plays had to take place upstairs. You could never really have fun for long in the courtyard; it was too public. Just as you were starting to have a good time, the men would come in with their own projects, which often involved a great deal of discussion, such as going over business matters, or listening to the radio and debating the news, or card playing, and then you would have to move elsewhere. Good entertainment needs concentration and silence in order for the masters of ceremony, the storytellers and the actors to create their magic. You could not create magic in the courtyard, where dozens of people were constantly crossing from one salon to the other, popping in and out of the corner staircases, or talking back and forth to one another from one floor to the next. And you certainly could not create magic when the men were talking politics, that is, listening to the radio on the loudspeakers, or reading the local and international press.

The men's political discussions were always highly emotionally charged. If you listened carefully to what they were saying, you had the impression that the world was coming to an end. (Mother said that if you believed the radio and the men's comments, the planet would have disappeared a long time ago.) They talked about the Allemane, or Germans, a new breed of Christians who were giving a beating to the French and the British, and they talked about a bomb that the Americans across the sea had dropped on Japan, which was one of the Asian nations near China, thousands of kilometers east of Mecca. Not only had the bomb killed thousands and thousands of people and melted their bodies, it had shaved entire forests off the face of the earth as well. The news about that bomb plunged Father, Uncle 'Ali, and my cousins into deep despair, for if the Christians had thrown that bomb on the Asians who lived so far away, it was only a matter of time before they attacked the Arabs. "Sooner or later," Father said, "they will be tempted to burn the Arabs too."

Samir and I loved the men's political discussions, because then we were allowed into the crowded men's salon, where Uncle and Father, each dressed comfortably in a white djellabas, sat surrounded by the chabab, or the youth - that is, the dozen adolescent and unmarried men who lived in the house. Father often joked with the chabab about their uncomfortable, tight, Western dress, and said that now they would have to sit on chairs. But of course everyone hated chairs; sofas were much more comfortable.

I would climb up into my father's lap and Samir would climb up into Uncle's. Uncle would be sitting cross-legged in the middle of the highest sofa, wearing his spotless white djellabas and a white turban, with his son Samir perched on his lap in Prince of Wales shorts. I would nestle in my father's lap, neatly dressed in one of my very short French white dresses with satin ribbons at the waist. Mother always insisted on dressing me in the latest Western fashions- short fluffy lace dresses with colored ribbons and shiny black shoes. The only problem was that she would fly into a flurry if I dirtied the dress, or disarranged the ribbons, and so I would often beg her to let me wear my comfortable little sarwal (harem pants), or any traditional outfit, which required less attention. But only on religious festival days, when father insisted, would she let me wear my caftan, so anxious was she to see me escape tradition. "Dress says so much about a woman's designs," she said. "If you plan to be modern, express it through what you wear, otherwise they will shove you behind the gates. Caftans may be of unparalleled beauty, but Western dress is about salaried work." I therefore grew to associate caftans with lavish holidays, religious festivals, and the splendors of our ancestral past, and Western dress with pragmatic calculations and stern, professional, daily chores.

Design from plaited prayer mat from Zanzibar, Tanzania.

Read the questions. Write your answers on a sheet of paper. You may need to go back and re-read the story to answer some of the questions.


  1. How do the women and the girls in the house entertain themselves? What do the men living in the house do during their free time?
  2. The men talk about Hitler's march across Europe that took place during World War II. They also talk about the US use of atomic bombs in Japan during the war. Why do the men worry about the bombs?
  3. Why does the young Fatima prefer to wear her Tunisian clothes to the Western dresses her mother likes her to wear? Why does her mother want her to wear Western clothes?

Making comparisons

Fatima Mernissi describes what it was like growing up in Tunisia. How are her experiences different from those of the little boy in the short story from the previous activity, "A Handful of Dates"?

Your Turn

  1. How do children and young people in your country entertain themselves? Are storytelling and theatre common forms of play for children in your country?
  2. Write a short paragraph describing an incident from your childhood. Use Mernissi's autobiography as an example and talk about the types of play you enjoyed or a friend with whom you spent time. You could also describe your interactions with the adults in your home.

Go on to Activity Six or select from the list of module activities.