Harem: The World Behind the Veil

HAREM: The World Behind the Veil by Alev Lytle Croutier

 
Diaphanous veils, steamy wading pools and chaise lounge all occupied by beautiful women just waiting to be called upon by their sultan.  This is the image that most people conjure when the word “Harem” is uttered.  This 25th Anniversary re-release of Ms. Croutier’s book quite honestly does not do much to dispel this fantasy.
 
Yes, Ms. Croutier describes some of the eroticism involved with living in a harem as well as the elaborate dress and grooming rituals ... the women always being "ready" for their "master".  But she also gives the details about the different types of Harems, the term widely used for any group of women occupying the same home and bound in one way or another to the “master of the house”, some harems being only a separate space cordoned off by a simple curtain.  Most of the book concerns itself with the day-to-day lives of its inhabitants; the caste system present within the harem, the children and of course, the essential eunuchs.  Then Ms. Croutier moves on from titillating her readers with descriptions of the baths and women lovers to describe how, despite being quite literally locked behind closed doors, these women were able to wield considerable power over the Sultans and influence the politics of the time.
 
Ms. Croutier does explain in her forward that “Physical and spiritual isolation of women and polygamy were not unique to Turkey.  Harems existed throughout history in different parts of the Asian world … cloistered women protected and guarded by eunuchs”.  Her book focuses on one Imperial harem (Seraglio) because it has history for her family.  It is very difficult to obtain factual information about harems because they were so cloistered but Ms. Croutier’s grandmother lived in a harem until 1909, at which time they were abolished, giving her some letters, photographs and other information to use as a starting point for her research.  Some of her personal photos are included in this book as well as paintings and sketches depicting “typical” conceptions of life in a harem.
 
“Harem” always invokes some sense of mystery so when I saw this book offered I thought I would like to know a little more “behind the curtain” information about harems.  This was an interesting book although personally I could have done with a little less information about the various castration procedures.  I did notice that the parts of the book describing the people living in and around the harem were written with a sense of feeling and emotion, quite likely due to the author’s familial history while the sections about the politics read a little bit like a high school history report; dates, names and statistics.  Overall, I would recommend it to anyone looking to learn a little bit more about the world of harems, but be warned, although the narrative sometimes speaks in generalities, this book does focus on one specific harem.
 
*I received this ebook at no charge from Abbeville Press
via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review *
 
ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from Amazon)
 
Alev Lytle Croutier is the most widely published woman novelist of Turkish origin whose books have been translated into 23 languages. 
Croutier was born in Izmir, Turkey, studied Literature at Robert College in Istanbul, Art History at Oberlin College,and film Studies at NYU. She has written and directed films in Japan, Turkey, Europe, and the US and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship (the first ever for a screenplay)for "Tell Me a Riddle," based on Tillie Olsen's acclaimed novel. Croutier also founded Mercury House publishing company in San Francisco and served as the executive editor for almost a decade--editing numerous books, and actively supporting writers in diverse cultures, including Nobel recepients, in getting published. Croutier has been in numerous radio shows and TV documentaries.
 

She has also taught at Dartmouth, Goddard, and San Francisco State Universities and lectures frequently at academic institutions, museums, libraries, and conferences on Orientalism, Middle Eastern women, harems, and Turkish culture.