Article: Reina Lewis

Telling Tales: Harem Literature from East to West

No visit to Istanbul is complete without a tour of the Topkapı Palace in the old city of Sultanahmet. Guide books exhort travellers to set aside at least half a day to view the vast complex; while the queues are long, the experience is unmissable. They add that whilst there, the traveller ought to make a bee-line for a separate queue, the one selling tickets for a tour of the seraglio, or harem. The idea of the harem, of a world of sequestered women, remains central to ideas about Turkey in the Western imagination. Indeed, for modern Turks, living in one small part of the terrain that once made up the Ottoman Empire, the imperial harem is also a source of historical fascination – whether it is used to invoke the despotic evils of the ancien régime, as it did for decades in the early Turkish republic, or, more recently, reclaimed as inspiration for Ottoman nostalgia in everything from interior design to kitsch postmodern club chic.

For centuries little was known about the women who lived in the segregated dwellings of the palace and the homes of the imperial elite that surrounded it. The curious West had to make do with the imagined accounts of western men who claimed – falsely – to have breached the harem walls. Harem literature as a genre of travel writing can really be said to have started with the Embassy Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, whose accounts of her experiences in Constantinople, now Istanbul, whilst her husband was ambassador in 1717 were circulated privately during her lifetime and published posthumously in 1763. As a category of writing, harem literature privileged women writers – in that only women could access the segregated world of the harem. But until the last quarter of the nineteenth century the actual words of Ottoman women themselves were rarely to be found. Then, as social and political developments created conditions that made possible the emergence of Ottoman women’s writing, those voices were increasingly to be heard. And importantly for our purposes here, many of these women wrote and published in English.

Depicting the harem as a home rather than as a sexual prison, books written by women from the progressive elite of late Ottoman society challenged the prevailing stereotype of harem women as ignorant, indolent odalisques whiling away their days awaiting their lord and master. In contrast, the last generations of women to experience the grand segregated houses of the imperial elite produced books that were aimed at both a local and an international audience, contributing to movements for social change at home at the same time as wanting to challenge western misapprehensions. It was abundantly clear to these women, and to the progressive men around them, that the idea of the lustful Turk holding captive his many oppressed wives and concubines transfixed the west. Orientalist stereotypes coloured western imperial policy, and so a generation of Ottoman intellectuals of both sexes made many efforts on many fronts to intervene. The books I discuss here were part of that effort – a publishing venture made possible by the increased social opportunities for the upper strata of Ottoman society, and by the popularity of harem literature in the English-speaking world – which meant that publishers were eager to get their hands on their manuscripts.

The books published in English were not only directed at a Western audience: the literate elite in the Middle East could also read them. With female literacy only recently available, and then only to the upper classes, those women who were often literate, were literate only in the languages of Europe. They were barred from acquiring the literary Arabic or Ottoman that would have qualified them for unobtainable roles in the clergy or administration. With sources emanating from an internationally travelled progressive group based mostly in Istanbul and Cairo, the hybrid literary genre of harem literature provided publishing opportunities for Middle Eastern women, as it had done for previous generations of western women who visited them in their homes.

Those Western women had been travelling to the Middle East in increasing numbers since the mid century. A visit to a harem was fast becoming an essential component of the tourist itinerary. With the rapid expansion of visitor numbers made possible by developments in travel technology, demand increased to the point where, by 1871, Annie Jane Harvey declared that ‘every year it is more difficult for passing travellers to gain admittance to the harems’. This was not just down to sheer numbers – for, as she added, Ottoman women unsurprisingly ‘object[ed] to be made a show of’. In one of my favourite quotes, Musbah Haidar, writer and royal princess, rails against the parochialism of the wife of the American ambassador, whom diplomacy required her mother to entertain. Writing of how Mrs Bristol, exclaiming over their ‘exquisite Sèvres tea service’, admitted that ‘she had never been in such a cosmopolitan and elegant circle’, Haidar tirades:

In their abysmal ignorance these foreigners did not realise that many of the veiled ladies of the Harems were better born, better read, spoke several languages and dressed with a greater chic than some of their own most famous society women.

One visitor who was able to access Ottoman homes was the British feminist and Turkophile Grace Ellison, whose visits to Istanbul resulted in an account of a longer stay in 1912–13. First serialised in the Daily Telegraph, it was then published in 1915 as An Englishwoman in a Turkish Harem. Ellison, like other reformers, met the same circle of the great and the good of the Ottoman progressive elite. This included the famous Turkish feminist and nationalist Halide Edib, who wrote her memoirs in English in the 1920s in order to reach a wider audience with her corrective to Mustafa Kemal [Ataturk]’s official narrative of the Turkish nationalist movement. Ellison, a prolific travel writer and commentator herself, is of especial interest because she also helped into print the books of two Ottoman Muslim sisters. Publishing pseudonymously as Zeyneb Hanım and Melek Hanım (hanım, or hanoum, or hanum, like its masculine counterpartbey, is an honorific rather than a family name), the sisters rose to prominence as the inspiration for Pierre Loti’s bestselling novel Les Désenchantées. They had contacted the author when he was in Istanbul in 1904 and met with him secretly, furnishing him with letters detailing their segregated lives. Fleeing their parents’ home in 1906 before the book was published later that year, the sisters (daughters of a senior bureaucrat in the cabinet of Sultan Abdulhamit II), pitched up in France and became something of acause célèbre in Europe, exciting considerable curiosity wherever they went.

It is not surprising that the sisters (whose real names were Hadjidjé Zennour and Nouryé Neyr-el-Nissa) used their Lotiesque names as pseudonyms: not only did they fear imperial reprisal against them or their families, but they also would have known that their status as the heroines of Les Désenchantées would help sell books. Whilst this is a particularly stark form of commodification, to a greater or lesser extent all the Ottoman writers were aware of the fact that it was their exoticism that helped make their market. Harem literature as a rule uses claims to gender authenticity as a selling point. For Ottoman women, who relied on a classification as Oriental to get a contract, the premium on authenticity could be very problematic. They were caught in a double bind whereby they had simultaneously to commodify themselves as Oriental in terms recognisable to their consumers, at the same time as they sought to challenge the stereotypes of that discourse. Across the board, whether in painting or literature, fiction or non-fiction, their works were inevitably evaluated in relation to authenticity. The British press often had a fixed idea of what was authentic and preferred to keep it intact – despite evidence to the contrary. A newspaper editor returned Grace Ellison’s photographs of the harem in which she was staying because they had too much ‘modern’ furniture to look authentic. Furious, she retaliated by including one of the shots in Zeyneb Hanım’s book. The biting caption read:

This photograph was taken expressly for a London paper. It was returned with this comment: ‘The British public would not accept this as a picture of a Turkish Harem.’ As a matter of fact, in the smartest Turkish houses European furniture is much in evidence.

Although Zeyneb Hanım’s book is called A Turkish Woman’s European Impressions (1913), it contains many vignettes about their lives in Istanbul (where they ran a women’s salon until it was banned), as well as their observations about Europe. And, while she was certainly disenchanted with the restrictions of Ottoman society, Zeyneb Hanım’s incisive comments on the unequal gender relations of Europe serve as a riposte to Orientalist stereotypes. Zeyneb Hanım’s critical evaluation of European society is presented as a series of letters exchanged with Grace Ellison (who for some of the time is staying in an Ottoman harem). The Ottoman woman’s book features photographs of herself in veils of various descriptions that, as I argue elsewhere, function to anchor the exoticism necessary for book sales in the face of the often-acerbic criticisms of so-called Western liberation mounted by her written narrative.

Having expressed her frustration with segregated life, Zeyneb Hanım turns her attention to her Western sisters’ struggle for freedom. To one accustomed to the political support of Ottoman men, who saw the need for (limited) female emancipation as integral to their project of social reform, the lack of popular support for suffrage in Britain astounds her. She is aghast at the insults faced by suffragists at a street meeting in London, but worse still is the response of the British government:

I do not pretend to understand the suffragettes or their ‘window-smashing’ policy, but I must say, I am even more surprised at the attitude of your Government. However much these ill-advised women have over-stepped the boundaries of their sex privileges, however wrong they may be, surely the British Government could have found some other means of dealing with them, given their cause the attention they demanded, or used some diplomatic way of keeping them quiet. I cannot tell you the horrible impression it produces on the mind of a Turkish woman to learn that England not only imprisons but tortures women: to me it is the cataclysm of all my most cherished faiths. Ever since I can remember, England had been to me a kind of Paradise on earth, the land which welcomed to its big hospitable bosom all Europe’s political refugees. It was the land of all lands I longed to visit, and now I hear a Liberal Government is torturing women. Somehow my mind will not accept this statement.

Writing often provided essential income for Ottoman women, just as it had been doing for women in the west, and it could be a crucial component for the economic independence of migrant women. Demetra Vaka Brown (1877–1946), a Greek Ottoman who emigrated to the USA in 1895 to escape from the painfully narrow options available at home to a Greek girl with no dowry, was able to make a living selling her stories about growing up on the island of Büyükada (Prinkipo) in the sea of Marmara near to Istanbul. Although she was not Muslim, but a member of the Greek Orthodox millet (a minority population of the Ottoman Empire), the ravages of Western Orientalist stereotype impacted nonetheless on Vaka Brown’s sense of self. Returning to Istanbul after six years in the US she wrote:

I had returned to my native land with new ideas and a mind full of Occidental questioning, and I meant to find things out. Many of my childhood friends had been Turkish girls: them I now looked upon with new interest. Before I had lived among them, looking upon their custom and habits as quite as natural as my own. But in America I heard Turks spoken of with hatred and scorn, the Turks reviled as despicable, their women as miserable creatures, living in practical slavery for the base desires of men. I had stood bewildered at this talk. Could it possibly be as the Americans said, and I never have known it?

That Vaka Brown’s attitude to Muslim Ottomans, or Turks in the parlance of the day, is ambivalent is not surprising. Whilst she recounts the intense Greek nationalism of members of her family, her tales of childhood friendships with Turkish Muslim girls anchor her in a multi-ethnic and multi-faith society that was soon to unravel in the aftermath of the Balkan Wars and the First World War. Tellingly, when she returned to Istanbul in 1922, on the eve of the new Turkish Republic, when Halide Edib was serving in Ankara with Mustafa Kemal’s nationalist forces, Vaka Brown dedicated her book to the failed Ottomanist leader, Prince Sabbahedine. Yearning for the Ottoman dream of inclusivity over the more narrow nationalisms emerging with the distinctive successor states of the Ottoman Empire, Brown eulogises:

We met when the army of your race and that of mine were clashing on the battle-field; yet there was no prejudice, no antagonism, no hatred between us. You knew me to be a Greek by blood, and born in Turkey; yet you accepted me as Ottomans should accept each other – as children of the same empire… we came together, not as a Turk and a Greek, but as two Ottomans, loving the Ottoman Empire, our birthland, with the same kind of love, wishing for it progress and civilization.

Often dismissed as mere tales of domestic life, the vistas contained in Ottoman women’s writing are very clearly about the big picture. By opening up their world to outside eyes, the women also hoped to open up their world to new ideas and practices.

Never was the personal more political.

Further Reading

A Turkish Woman’s European Impressions by Zeyneb Hanoum. London 1913. New edition 2004, Gorgias Press.
‘An Englishwoman in a Turkish Harem by Grace Ellison. London, 1915. New edition 2007 Gorgias Press.
Arabesque by Musbah Haidar. Hutchinson & Co., 1944.
Memoirs of Halidé Edib. London, 1926. New edition, 2005, Gorgias Press.
The Unveiled Ladies of Istanbul by Demetra Vaka Brown. First published 1923. New edition 2006, Gorgias Press.

Author Note

Reina Lewis is Artscom Centenary Professor of Fashion Studies at the London College of Fashion. Many of the sources she refers to in ‘Telling Tales’ to are available in facsimile editions, in the series ‘Cultures in Dialogue’, available from She is author of Rethinking Orientalism: Women, Travel and the Ottoman Harem (IB Tauris, 2004).

%d bloggers like this: