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In Turkey - Türkiye'de
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Books for a Turkish-themed library
by Alev Lytle Croutier
Omigod! This time our peregrinating reviewer wanders behind the curtain of one of our all-time favorite dreams (No, not
"The European mind has become so imbued with ideas of Oriental
mysteriousness, mysticism and magnificence, and it has been so long
accustomed to pillow its faith on the marvels and metaphors of tourists,
that it is to be doubted whether it will willingly cast off its old
associations and suffer itself to be undeceived."
This book absolutely fascinated me. Most women, at some time in their lives, have had images of slave markets and captive odalisques -- images that play with their imagination and fantasies as they dream dreams of Nancy Drew, and Wonder Woman, and Scheherazade.
With puberty, fantasies morphed and 'rock star' and 'movie star' elbowed in... But sometimes, in spite of woman's lib (or maybe because of it) the captive-fantasy remained.
The author of Harem is a woman born in Izmir, Turkey -- with childhood memories of servants and odalisques who lived with her family. Her Grandmother and Great Aunt were both among the last to live in harems before they were legally abolished. The author's personal memories of stories told by the women of her extended family are wonderful.
There is a lot of excellent research that went into the writing of this book. Included are poems and letters and diary entries from women who lived in harems in the 17th through the 20th century. There are travel accounts from merchants and sailors going back to 1545, as well as accounts from people like Lady Montague (1717) and Florence Nightingale (1850), who each spent time visiting harems.
There were some literate women in the Harem who never mastered the language of their captors. Some of the women practiced witchcraft. Some rebelled and were killed. The average age in the Harem was 17. Most female children were married off at 5 to much older men who couldn't see them alone, until they were 13 and had reached puberty.
Harems must have been boring places for the most part -- and there are many similarities to the Convents in the Middle Ages (except of course for sex with the the Sultan once in a blue moon, and the raising of children...) There really wasn't that much to do. You could sew, eat, go to the baths, shop, sleep, take care of a child if you had one -- and pray... That was about it.
You could not, however, leave, see or talk to any male (other than the Sultan) who was not a eunuch -- and they were rather strange folks... The author devotes an entire section to history, and types, of eunuchs -- and the procedures of castration, its effects on sexual desire, and the marriage of eunuchs. It is interesting that men often have fantasies of harems as well, but the reality was just as nasty as it was for women. There was only one Sultan -- the rest got turned into eunuchs or killed!
So the women of the Harem channeled their energy into vanities, and vied for positions of most-favor -- while trying to maintain their status in a group of 200 to 300 women. It was a fiercely political environment where women fought each other for every tiny scrap of power, or what was perceived as power. From 1541 to 1687 women ruled the Ottoman Empire through the power they created for themselves using the tools forged in the Harem.
The use of drugs was fairly common -- mostly opium, and hashish to forget... And it was also a fairly violent life where women died quite regularly. Not just of childbirth and old age, but of strangling, drowning and poisoning, too. But doing drugs only worked if you hadn't caught the fancy of the Sultan and had abandoned all claims to the power of the politics. Otherwise, life swung between bored to death and death.
The Baths really seemed to be the high point of their lives. It was their only social outlet -- the first "women's club" as it were. The Sultanas had private baths. But everyone usually got together anyway -- for the social enjoyment of it all.
When I got to Turkey, I myself wondered what a Turkish bath would be like. And, after some fits and starts, I got up the courage and had one at a five star hotel in Istanbul.
Ladies Turkish Bath???
Start to finish it lasted an hour. Certainly there is a difference in going to a five star hotel and to a regular public bath. (And bathing a la Turque is probably not for everyone.)
But it was a wonderful experience that did
more than simply fire the imagination. It would seem that the women in
the Harem did have a trade-off, if they got to spend part of each day in
the baths. Hmmm...Maybe I'll decide to stay in Turkey -- just for the Turkish bath. It's such an addictive luxury -- and in western countries, it just isn't the same...
In Turkey - Türkiye'de
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