Harem: The World Behind the Veil

Alev Lytle Croutier, Author
Alev Lytle Croutier, Author Abbeville Press $35 (224p) ISBN 978-0-89659-903-1
Reviewed on: 06/01/1989
Release date: 06/01/1989
For almost 400 years, until 1909, the Grand Harem in Istanbul's Topkapi Palace was home to as many as 2000 odalisques bought at slave markets for a price lower than the going rate for a good horse. The Turkish author relates the day-to-day experiences of the women who inhabited these chambers: what they ate, wore, the games they played together, the opium-induced reveries in which they passed long hours. Croutier also considers the harem in larger contexts: as the ``unbelievably repressive'' Moslem equivalent of purdah; as ``a unique archetype of the collective unconscious--matriarchy incubating in the cradle of patriarchy.'' But ``harem'' is Turkish for ``forbidden, protected,'' and the Grand Harem guarded its secrets from the world successfully. Partly because Croutier doesn't always evoke harem life well in her own words, we wish for--but don't hear--the voices of the women themselves. Ultimately, the text is a choppy amalgam of history, reminiscence, conjecture and intermittently overblown writing (``The walls seemed to whisper secrets pleading to be heard''). Much more evocative are the 125 photographs and reproductions of art works included here. Author tour. (June)
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