Calling all female sybarites: Imagine spending your days taking luxurious baths and lounging on cashmere-covered divans; indulging in nectar, sweets and tobacco; and gossiping with a group of attractive and cultured women of many races. Such was the image of the pampered life in a Turkish harem.
For many Europeans, the East arrived with the Arabian Nights, a work first written by a French Arabic scholar named Antoine Gallard as a diversion, based loosely on oral tales that circulated throughout the Middle East and India. Published in the first decade of the 18th century, the Arabian Nights immediately became popular, and spread the image of the seraglio, or royal harem, as a place of unleashed sensuality and violence. In the “frame story” which sets the tales in motion, the King Shahrayar finds his wife bedding one of his black slaves and kills her. Convinced of woman’s essential lechery and deceit, he resolves to marry and deflower a virgin every night and then kill her in the morning. An intended victim, Sheherazade tells the tales to captivate the king and avoid meeting her fate. In 1841 Edward Lane, who wrote an early ethnography of Egyptian life, published a family-friendly version of the tales, excising much of the sex and taming some of the violence. Later in the century, Richard Burton produced another version, which he published privately for a circle of friends that included several reputed “libertines.” Burton embellished the sex and the violence, appending his own thoughts about perverse Arab erotics. In all of these versions, Kabbani notes, the women characters are mostly “demonesses, procuresses, sorceresses, witches. They are fickle, faithless and lewd. They are irrepressibly malignant, and plot to achieve their base desires in the most merciless manner imaginable.”
Thus were Arab women created. . . for literate European tastes.
In 1997 the travel writer Carla Coco published Secrets of the Harem, a large-format coffee-table style book which opens the harems of 19th century Ottoman Turkish rulers, “penetrating” the “complex organization.” Lavishly illustrated with paintings by European artists, the author sets out to describe “the welter of needs, desires, hopes and dreams of oriental women,” as seen in “the most voluptuous place in the empire.”
We learn about the Turks’ origin on the steppes of Central Asia: “The pleasures of galloping on horses, raping girls, getting drunk, shedding blood and other acts of violence were mingled with feeling of tolerance and brotherhood.”
Somehow, though, “women enjoyed both consideration and freedom,” which Islam greatly curtailed, giving them in its place the luxury and sensuality of harem life. The hookah-smoking concubine depicted in Bridgman’s Odalisque thus shows how “The soft Levantine lovemaking replaced the rough love games of the steppes.” The topless African and European dancers in Marinelli’s 1862 Dance of the Bee in the Harem illustrate a diplomat’s report that they wore “garments so thin that they allowed ‘all the secret parts’ to be revealed,” but only to a few eyes. Gerome’s 1859 Guardian of the Harem showed one of the “Ugly, deformed and fierce-looking black eunuchs from Africa,” among whom “homosexual love flourished.”
Inside the harem, “Lesbianism was rampant,” and women enjoyed “happy hours of oblivion” brought on by coffee, tobacco, and opium, which Nouy’s 1888 The White Slave illustrates as the nude woman exhales wisps of smoke.
Yet danger always lurked: a double-page spread of Cormon’s 1874 Jealousy in the Seraglio shows a naked dark-skinned woman peering with tensed joy at the bloody body of a white-skinned woman that an African eunuch has just knifed. The caption explains that, “The harem, a wonderland of delights and pleasures, could become a treacherous place for the unfaithful concubine who displeased her master.” Two intoxicated women reclining together in Giraud’s Interior of a Harem somehow illustrate that in the 16th century the reins of government “passed into the hands of the women and the palace slaves, who used their power recklessly and with great cruelty.” And somehow Delacroix’s 1834 Algerian Women, which depicts three rather glassy-eyed hookah-smoking women attended by a black servant, illustrates how in the 19th century, “new sentiments were stirring, and the women, despite their poor education, were quite capable of thinking in addition to loving and procreating. . .” The book ends with “the elegant, ethereal princesses” wandering about the Imperial Palace “like ghosts, dressed in the best of French fashions,” as an unnamed “new leader” transforms the empire into a republic and passes laws which “formally establish equality between men and women.”
Illustrated by documents of the period, old and new photographs, and masterpieces by Renoir, Delacroix, Matisse, and Ingres among others is a beautifully illustrated book filled with false and misleading information about the 'wonderful life' in the Turkish harem.
The harem remains a mystical place of pleasure, an enticing institution of Islamic culture, perceived to represent family and sexual traditions far different from those of the Western world.