Monday, 11 April 2016

Review: 'Harem: Behind the Lifted Veil' by Alev Lytle Croutier

When I saw that in celebration of its 25th birthday Harem was available on Netgalley I knew I wanted to dip into it right away. One of the first books written on the topic, Croutier invites the reader into one of the world's most secretive and mysterious secrets: the harem. Combining personal childhood memory with intense research, I'm very glad I got my hands on Harem. Thanks to Abbeville Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 30/09/2014
Publisher: Abbeville Press
A fascinating illustrated history of one of the strangest, and cruelest, cultural institutions ever devised. A worldwide best seller, translated into twenty-five languages.
I was born in a konak (old house), which once was the harem of a pasha,” writes Alev Lytle Croutier. People around me often whispered things about harems; my own grandmother and her sister had been brought up in one.”
Drawing on a host of first-hand accounts and memoirs, as well as her own family history, Croutier explores life in the world’s harems, from the Middle Ages to the early twentieth century, focusing on the fabled Seraglio of Topkapi Palace as a paradigm for them all. We enter the slave markets and the lavish boudoirs of the sultanas; we witness the daily routines of the odalisques, and of the eunuchs who guarded the harem. Here, too, we learn of the labyrinthine political scheming among the sultan’s wives, his favorites, and the valide sultana, the sultan’s mother, whose power could eclipse that of the sultan himself. 
There were the harems of the sultans and the pashas, but there were also middle-class” harems, the households in which ordinary men and women lived out ordinary, albeit polygamous, lives. Croutier reveals their marital customs, child-rearing practices, and superstitions. Finally, she shows how this Eastern institution invaded the European imagination in the form of decoration, costume, and art and how Western ideas, in turn, finally eroded a system that had seemed eternal. Juxtaposing a rich array of illustrations Western paintings, Turkish and Persian miniatures, family photographs, and even film stills Croutier demystifies the Western erotic fantasy of the world behind the veil.” This revised and updated 25th anniversary edition of Harem includes a new introduction by the author, revisiting her subject in light of recent events in Turkey, and the world.
The idea of the harem is one that has intrigued me and Western culture for a very long time. Orientalism, that complete and utter appropriation of Eastern culture by the West, definitely took the image of the harem and ran with it, imprinting its own repressed sexuality on it. Even though everyone has a picture of what a harem is, most people actually hardly know anything about it. In that sense Croutier's book was a gift 25 years and still is. Croutier discusses almost everything that one would wish to know about the harems throughout the Middle-East but especially focuses on the harem in the palace of Topkapi in Istanbul. The text, as such, jumps about quite a lot, occasionally seeming to move randomly from one topic to the other but Croutier manages to make all them somehow fit together.

Croutier, as I mentioned above, combines both memories of her childhood in Turkey with the research she did for this book. As such, Harem reads very personal at times. However one gets to know not only Croutier, but also the women that form the subject matter of her book. It feels as if Croutier isn't necessarily writing about the women, gazing at the from a distance, but rather trying to write with them, trying to include the small snippets that remain from centuries ago and describing the experiences of her own family members. The many illustrations throughout the book are also really helpful in helping Croutier make her points, especially in how harems and its inmates were represented. Overall Harem has only whetted my interest in the topic more and I will probably be digging into my University library to find more books about it.

For me the most interesting part of Harem was the way in which Croutier described, towards, the end, the way in which the West picked up on the idea of the harem and of what happened in it. The absolute fascination which grew in Europe about anything "Oriental", anything from the East is something I've been trying to find an explanation for for a while. On the one hand Europe used, and still arguable does, the East as a place for all its extravangances, with the male elite imagining the harem as their own private brothel where nothing was too much and everything was available. The fact that orgies and the like went completely against Islam was happily ignored. On the other hand the barbarity and primitiveness of the whole culture was also highlighted at the same time, so as not to let Western culture be overwhelmed by the beauty coming from the East. Also fascinating is how Croutier addresses the various polygamous Christian sects popping up in America of late as a modern continuation of the harem.

I really enjoyed reading Harem, Croutier absolutely caught my attention and I feel much more informed, and chastised, in my opinion about harems. I'd recommend this to anyone who is interested in History and Gender.

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