Two Books About Life in the Harem

Today’s book review is going to give us a look at life in the harem in Turkey and Egypt.

Whether we want to admit it or not, a lot of belly dance imagery, especially for those of us who go for a vintage fusion style, is inspired by Orientalist images of the harem. So we owe it to ourselves to learn about what life was really like for the women who lived in a harem. Luckily we have some books to help us out.

Life in the Harem: Turkey

Much of our image of the harem comes from the writings and paintings of men who never actually had access to the places they claimed to portray. There are a few accounts from European women who were invited to visit the harem, which can be considered a little more reliable, if filtered through a Western gaze. Still better though, to see things through the eyes of a Turkish woman.

Alev Lytle Croutier grew up in Turkey, and some of her older female family members actually lived in the harem when they were growing up. In her book, Harem: The World Behind the Veil the author speaks from a place of some authority, having not first-hand lived experience, but cultural knowledge and access to those who had the lived experience.

Harem is divided into three sections. The first is about the Topkapi Palace harem, the second is about the harems of the every day people, and the third is “west meets east” and discusses Orientalist art, because I guess every book about MENAT has to talk about that.

The first section is the most thorough and interesting. Through research, the author recreates the picture of every aspect of life in the palace. From how women came to be in the harem to the heirarchy of sultanas and odalisques and everyone in between, to what they ate, how they dressed, bathing, outings… And more than you ever wanted to know about eunuchs (I suspect male readers will be rather squeamish about that chapter).

The second section felt a little more scant. I would have liked more about what it was like for the average women to live in the harem, how she felt about it, and how she felt when the practice was abolished in Turkey.

The third section was, well, basically rehashing what I’ve already read in other books, about Western writers and artists coming to the East and being enthralled by it and painting imaginary harem scenes.

The book ends with a conclusion that gets a little weird, talking about the harem as a womb, and about Mormon polygamy as being like a form of modern harem… except it’s not, because fundamentalist Mormon cults don’t hide their women away in a separate part of the house.

Over all I think this book is worth reading for the in-depth look at the history of the harem in Turkey, although readers may want to follow up with other books to get a picture of its implementation in the Arab world.

Life in the Harem: Egypt

Speaking of other books and the Arab world… Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist, 1879-1924 tells the story of an Egyptian woman who was born in the harem and grew up to fight for equality. Huda Shaarawi was an influential Egyptian feminist and nationalist, who fought for Egyptian independence from the British, as well as for equal rights for Egyptian women.

Where the previous book was scant on personal accounts, this book is very personal. It’s translated from the memoirs Shaarawi wrote down before her death. It doesn’t get as detailed into harem life as Harem: The World Behind the Veil does in its historic chapter, but it does get into Shaarawi’s feelings about life in the harem.

Because she had a brother who was close in age to her, Shaarawi really got to see the difference in how girls and boys were treated in her culture, and it rankled her from an early age. Being forced into an unwanted marriage to her guardian/cousin, who was older than her, previously married, and had children on a concubine as well, rather solidified her opinion about a woman’s lot in life in Egypt at the time.

Harem Years can be a real heartbreaking read at times. The author suffered a lot of loss and frustration in her life. I think it’s easy for us to forget sometimes how easily people used to die, how you could take ill with something we could easily cure now, and never recover and go to an early grave.

While this book won’t give you a lot of details about the nitty gritty of harem life, I think it’s a great portrait of a specific time in Egyptian history, a real slice of life of someone who saw things were wrong and did her part to make them better. Oftentimes, if you read historical fiction, you’ll come across these heroines who have very modern ideas, and they can feel unrealistic. I think this book is a good example of the actual thoughts of someone who was agitating for change.

Final Thoughts

As dancers performing a dance with roots in the MENAT region (even if some of us perform a really Americanized version), we owe it to ourselves to be educated. Do not rely on Orientalist depictions of the harem. Take some time to read the real experiences of women who grew up in the harem. Learn the nuance of the situation. And learn what it took to change the situation. I think both of these books deserve to be in your library — and luckily they are easily available as either physical books or ebooks!

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