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Alev Lytle Croutier’s Harem: The World Behind the Veil…25th anniversary edition

Had I not read Alev Lytle Croutier’s Harem: The World Behind the Veil when it was first published 25 years ago, I would have continued thinking that a harem in Turkey was basically a gathering of women sequestered–imprisoned–for the deviant sexual pleasure of the pasha, sultan or whomever else was in charge. Like that of most other people in the west, my understanding of the harem was a salacious one, and very inaccurate.

Croutier’s book was therefore a revelation, and in its re-publication in a new edition this year, it remains one.

Alev Lytle Croutier

Alev Lytle Croutier

I learned once more in the preface that Croutier’s paternal grandmother and that woman’s sisters had actually been members of a harem: “Which really means a separate part of a house where women lived in isolation, having no contact with men other than their blood relatives. The term does not necessarily imply the practice of polygamy.” Those sentences begin Croutier’s sophisticated and fascinating education of the reader about what a harem actually was for her grandmother as well as for countless other women, at various levels of Turkish society, over the previous centuries.

We learn about the Grand Harem of the sultan, and what activities the women could engage in…the poetry of the harem, the shadow puppets plays they mounted, the secrets of flowers and birds, the riddles they shared, the stories they told, their outings, games, and many other activities.

“Women of the harem were renowned for their luminous complexions and satin skin,” Croutier writes, and therewith begins a tour of the grand harem baths.

“To wash and purify oneself was a religious obligation. This may perhaps explain the existence of so many baths in the Seraglio. The sultan, the Valide, and the wives all had private baths, while the other women of the harem shared a large bathhouse, which sometimes welcomed the sultan as well–the stuff of Orientalist fantasy…For harem women, deprived of so many freedoms, the hamam (i.e. Turkish bath) became an all-consuming passion and a most luxurious pastime.”

We learn every detail about the baths: the water used, the henna floral designs for special occasions, perspiration preventatives, the powders, the brushes, the spices, the depilatory called ada, which was a paste made of sugar and lemon (for which Croutier provides the recipe and the method for using the concoction)…everything.

We also learn who the sultanas were, the princesses and the relationships between them all, the organization of the harem, the social relationships between the various levels of harem hierarchy, pregnancy and accouchement within the harem, and the handling of childbirth.

The Grand Harem in the Topkapi Palace was one thing, in which many, many women lived in luxurious surroundings. These were the kinds of harems so much written about by western commentators, whose descriptions Croutier uses very often and quite colorfully. But one of the most interesting chapters in the book for me (because it was the least expected) is titled “Ordinary Harems”. A Turkish Muslim man of modest means could still marry four women legally, and they were his harem. The situation for these women was far more workaday and closely familial than for those in the royal seraglio, and Croutier’s description of the customs involved are very special…and even personal.

“Romance or not, families decided who married whom. My grandmother was promised to her father’s best friend when she was merely a child. When they eventually got married, she was fourteen and my grandfather was forty.

In this chapter, we see how a proper husband should treat his wives (for example, “Good husbands were diplomatic. They abided by the Qur’an and gave the impression of treating all their women equally…The husband alternated nights in the bedrooms, spending Friday nights exclusively with their first wives.”). She describes what the relationships among the wives could be like, what was required for household upkeep, the treatment of odalisques (i.e. house servants), and even the various preparations of the bodies of deceased wives for burial.

This chapter on ordinary harems was unusual for me because I had not realized that a harem was a reality in almost every level of the society that Croutier describes, and not intended solely for the sultan and others of the upper-class. The chapter is a view of everyday life in this society that may have gone unnoticed by western readers had it not been for Croutier’s study of it.

John Singer Sargent: Fumée d'Ambre Gris, 1880, oil on canvas. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. Used with permission.

John Singer Sargent: Fumée d’Ambre Gris, 1880, oil on canvas. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. Used with permission.

Harem is quite lavishly illustrated with photos of various harem women (including some from Croutier’s own family in Turkey). Many of the illustrations come from Turkish artists of the historical period being covered, and there is as well a number of breath-taking paintings done by such Europeans as Eugéne Delacrox, Leon Bakst, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and others, all influenced by the popular European Orientalist movements of the period. I first saw one of my very favorite paintings in this book: John Singer Sargent’s Fumée d’Ambre Gris, in which an extraordinary woman, in contemplation of the essential perfume of amber coming up to her from a harem censer, is lost in lush, joyful contemplation. The setting–an alcove in some corner of a harem chamber–is severe, of bone-like white, while the carpets, the glorious censer, the woman’s clothing and jewelry and, especially, her hands and face, exude the sensitivity of private, sensuous dreaming.

In the 25 years since the first publication of Harem, the situation for women in Muslim societies has changed profoundly. Croutier has studied this, and writes in this new edition:

“The Internet has created a dynamic exchange in which a Moslem woman can be a traditionalist or an iconoclast, a housewife or an entrepreneur. The neutral ground of cyberspace allows women to learn about their rights within the religion, without the usual cultural or traditional barriers.”

This is all to the good, of course, and turning back is not an option. But Croutier herself misses one aspect of the old way.

“It never ceases to amaze me that all my research for this book was done without the Internet. Those old fashioned forms of research–long hours in the library, the manuscripts, the dust and bookish enjoyment of the search for knowledge–certainly had more of a romantic edge for me.”

The idea of a harem has always been of interest to the west, although the truth of the harem is often sacrificed to over-wrought sensualist fantasy. The reality of the harem, as presented in this fine book, brings the idea to lovely–and accurate–fruition.

Terence Clarke is the director of publishing of Astor & Lenox. His new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro will be published in early 2015. This piece appeared originally in Huffington Post.

The Soul of Juan de Pareja

The portrait of Juan de Pareja by Velázquez that hangs in a gallery of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan is surrounded by other estimable works, even a few of genius. But this work compels the viewer to look. It is a portrait of personal disappointment and anguish, and its great beauty deepens that anguish profoundly.

I felt this the moment I first saw the painting, and I go back to visit it every time I’m in New York. I’ve always sympathized with Juan de Pareja and worried why he was suffering so deeply in such seeming silence.

Velázquez, Portrait of Juan de Pareja. Used courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Velázquez, Portrait of Juan de Pareja.                              Used courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

In Rome in 1650, the Spaniard Velázquez was on a royal mission to obtain paintings, sculptures and other Italian artwork to decorate new rooms in the Alcázar. He spent two and a half years on this assignment, in search of the best the Italians could offer. Among his retinue was a man named Juan de Pareja, who was the mixed-race son of a female slave and, until 1654, a slave to Velázquez himself.

Juan had been born in Antequera, Spain, around 1610. As a young man, he had been consigned to work in Velázquez’s studio, most probably as some sort of shop assistant. Velázquez’s biographer Antonio Palomino writes that Velázaquez would not allow Juan himself to paint because, he believed, art of the sort that Velázquez did was too great for a slave to undertake. He believed that such art should be reserved for free men. Juan apparently painted anyway, in secret, without the master’s knowledge.

By the time they got to Rome, Juan was one of the painter’s principal assistants, and there Velázquez undertook to paint the portrait of him. In Sister Wendy’s American Masterpieces, the art critic Wendy Beckett writes this:

Amazingly, this man was technically a slave; we still have the document of manumission with which Velázquez formally set him free. However, we can see from Velázquez’s painting that the two were undeniably equals. That steady look of self-controlled power can even make us wonder which of the two held a higher opinion of himself.

Sister Wendy sees “self-controlled power” in Juan’s look, but I’m not sure that that’s all there is. Juan de Pareja is a slave, and the circumstances of his servitude are clear in his face. He’s looking at us and, of course, at his master, with a gaze of quite genuine sadness, of the knowledge of having been betrayed by an accident of birth and victimized for it all his life…perhaps especially by his master.

I assume from the deep passion that is so evident in Velázquez’s depiction that, despite his treatment of his slave, he understands him. Somehow Velázquez sees into Juan’s anger, so much so that, in part, this is a painting about anger itself. Juan looks like he would prefer taking Velázquez by the lapels of his coat and shaking him violently for all that’s been done to him. But of course he cannot do that. So instead he looks on with dignity, intensity, and silent disdain. There is more than a hint of rage in his look. The irony is that the great painter Velázquez has taken the time to display the depth of his slave’s pain, yet has done nothing — at least to this moment — to relieve the basis of that pain.

Antonio Palomino said that the portrait of Juan de Pareja “was generally applauded by all the painters from different countries, who said that the other pictures in the show were art but this one alone was ‘truth’.”

It is truth. I cannot imagine that Velázquez himself did not understand the depth of the story he was telling. The painting is too good, the anguish in Juan’s face too profoundly expressed, for it to be anything but an accurate appraisal of the man’s rage. The irony is that it was Velázqez’s ownership of Juan’s fate that surely was the cause of that rage. Conveying truth is a struggle for artists, as it should be. It should also be the goal for artists of whatever medium, and there are some, like Velázquez, who have achieved it. This stunning painting is an example.

Legend has it that the king of Spain was to visit Velázquez’s studio one day, and that Juan de Pareja secured a place there where the king would inevitably come across one of Juan’s own paintings. The king and his procession arrived, all dominion, pomp and authority. When he approached Juan’s piece, the artist prostrated himself before His Majesty and explained that he was a slave, yet a member of Velázquez’s studio, and had taught himself to paint. He asked for help, for recognition as an artist. The king replied that “any man who has this skill cannot be a slave,” at which point Velázquez had little option but to grant Juan his freedom.

Juan de Pareja. The Calling of Saint Matthew.

Juan de Pareja. The Calling of Saint Matthew.

This story may be true, and Juan did have talent. His painting “The Calling of Saint Matthew” at The Prado in Madrid shows his technical mastery. But — at least in this painting — he shied from the kind of emotional profundity that Velázquez himself had found in him. Juan puts himself in the painting, to the far left, looking out at us. The character is of mild interest, a bit-player in the scene, and appears to be of indifferent importance to Juan himself.

Sadly, it took the cynical slave-owner Velázquez to convey the truth of Juan de Pareja’s situation to us. What an irony that Velázquez understood his slave’s heart so well, and showed it to us so clearly, yet thumbed his nose at the possibility that such a man could have artistic talent himself.

Sister Wendy continues:

Nearly thirty years ago, when a British earl offered the family’s Velázquez (i.e. the portrait of Juan de Pareja) for sale, protestors marched from many parts of England and Scotland, pleading with the government to save the piece for Britain, but governments, as we know, are penny-pinching creatures, and so this portrait of a man of North African descent, painted by a Spaniard while residing in Italy, finally came to rest in New York.

Of all the paintings I’ve ever seen, this one takes my heart the most.

(Terence Clarke’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro, about an artist in San Francisco, will be published later this year.)