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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.
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.
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.
Among the writers I know, Lewis Hyde’s The Gift is almost always required reading. It is a treatise on the differences between gift-giving cultures (mostly tribal and now disappeared) and the commodity-driven cultures born of the Industrial Revolution (still predominant and thriving stunningly in the glut of digital information).
Tribal societies grew and prospered through giving gifts, which is a notion barely recognized in commodity-driven societies. The notion of the gift is that it is proffered freely and openly, and that the giver does not expect to have it returned exactly as it left him, if ever. Indeed, the ideal gift goes from the initial recipient to another and on to another, growing in emotional value for the givers and the recipients, if not in economic value.
With commodities, each item has a financial value, and without the agreement to exchange the item for something of equal value (money, for example) there is no exchange. The item remains the same as it has always been, hardly an acquirer of added feeling. Sitting on a shelf, it has no emotional value of any kind, and when sold, it is no gift, because it has not been given.
This is admittedly a crude explanation of Hyde’s fine essay. In its first 145 pages, he gives numerous examples of these two ways of running a society. There is even a chapter on the subject of usury that is the only piece of writing about the subject that I’ve found even remotely interesting (although, of course, there is Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which isn’t bad.)
The second half of Hyde’s book is an attempt to point out how the making of art is the greatest gift of all. He does this through a description of the lives and work of two poets: Walt Whitman, who was the ultimate spokesman for the gift, and Ezra Pound, who eschewed the gift finally, in favor of imposed governmental order.
Walt Whitman’s poetry, Hyde explains, is the very essence of the kind of gift that an artist receives at birth, and the artist’s adding to that gift his or her own acquired craft as a creative spirit. Hyde also shows how Whitman’s very life was an exercise in gift giving, especially in the quite moving descriptions of Whitman’s care for and love of severely wounded Union soldiers during the Civil War.
Ezra Pound recognizes the erratic and anarchistic ways in which art first emerges from the soul, something every artist experiences. But he feels that the work can only be perfected by a constant effort of what he calls “the will toward order.” The will that Pound so admired had much effect upon his life, especially when, smitten by Mussolini and the fascists, he broadcast diatribes in English on Italian radio against Jews, democracies and the American government. He was an American citizen, and this took place during the Second World War. So the troops, much less the American government, were not amused.
It is a curse upon every artist to have to deal with being ignored by the public, and most artists are indeed so disdained. I whine about it every day, at least to myself. Sometimes, when especially down, I let my friends know…loudly. I used to worry about this, and to think that I was most probably a fool for wanting to write. I write anyway because the process gives me such joy that I cannot bear to miss more than one day.
But in 1983, when I first read The Gift, I realized that being ignored made my writing flourish in an important way. “To convert an idea into a commodity,” Hyde wrote, “means, broadly speaking, to establish a boundary of some sort so that the idea cannot move from person to person without a toll or fee.” If this is so, the fee is a barrier to what the act of writing can actually produce. It stunts the writing. The fee is a fine.
I spent decades in business selling things, while at the same time writing at lunchtime and at night. Being paid for my services was thus so ingrained in my thinking that the idea of giving my written work away was laughable to me. As Samuel Johnson once said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”
But very little money ever came to me from all those words. Everyone I know who writes has labored in the desert of not being published. Some have perished in that dry landscape. Others continue wandering there, and I encounter them all the time. You become especially lost if you have bought traditional publishing’s idea that only through the marketplace does respectability as a writer become possible. So, corporatized publishing companies, a constant eye on sales figures, the literary agent’s assurances of no-possible-advance/no-publication, and all the attendant fees paid to all these entities come into play, leaving most writers to go on wandering.
Hyde writes about several authors and their perceptions of the gift they have been given, which they wish to pass along. One of them, the novelist and mariner Joseph Conrad, puts it this way in his famous preface to the novel The Nigger of The Narcissus:
The artist appeals…to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition — and, therefore, more permanently enduring. He speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation…
Hyde gives us a summation of this process in a wonderful paragraph from The Gift:
The artist’s gift refines the materials of perception or intuition that have been bestowed upon him; to put it another way, if the artist is gifted, the gift increases in its passage through the self. The artist makes something higher than what he has been given, and this, the finished work, is the third gift, the one offered to the world in general.
Incidentally, Hyde does feel that there can be an understanding between these two poles of activity, in which the gift and the commodity can accommodate one another. The chapter on usury interested me as much as it did because Hyde talks about how usury under certain circumstances can be the way in which a commodity can become a kind of gift.
For myself, re-reading this book after a 10 year hiatus from business, during which I’ve written three novels and three story collections for very little money, was a welcome gift that allowed me to justify to myself all those nights I spent dreaming things up and writing them down.
Terence Clarke’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro will be published later this year.