In The Harem

Many people have an idea that Turkish women absolutely do nothing that is either useful or ornamental aside from the decoration of their own persons, but that is not altogether true, as my residence of over a year in their country taught me, for they are really dextrous with the needle and do work which is as fine as that done by the sisters in the convents, or that of the wives of the feudal noblemen of olden times.

The favorite pastime of the Turkish women is the bath, which brings together the wives and slaves of all the well-to-do Turks, and it is like a picnic of school children.

These wives, most of them very young—some, indeed, not over twelve or fourteen years old—take their lunch along, and they eat and steam, plunge and splash, and play pranks upon each other in the wildest glee the whole day long. No fear of an angry husband haunts their minds, for they are not expected to do anything, and their husbands very rarely enter the harems before six o’clock. By this time they are all back, rosy and sweet from their bath.

At the baths there is often an old woman who has the faculty of relating stories, and she is eagerly listened to by the grown-up children; the stories are generally of the Arabian nights order, full of genii, beautiful ladies, and charming youths and jealous husbands. Many a lesson is given as how to outwit the most jealous of men through these stories—a lesson they are neither slow to learn nor practise.

The way they are watched and confined always made me think of the woman who cautioned her innocent children not to put blue beans in their noses while she was out. The magic lantern entertainments amuse these ignorant caged birds. Dancing girls, singing and playing the lute, playing with the babies and occasionally quarrelling with each other take up some of their time; a weekly tour of the bazaars and once in a while a visit to the harem of some other Turk, still leave much time on their hands that the rare calls of their husbands, the eating of sweetmeats or smoking of cigarettes cannot fill, and so they give their poor little minds to fancy work. They very seldom learn how to read, or perhaps books would help them through, and they never make their own clothes, though they do sometimes decorate them very elaborately after others have made them.

They have frames made on which their embroidery is worked, and on velvet, satin or that beautiful and durable Broussa gauze they embroider with exquisite fineness and taste. The most of their embroidery is done in durable and admirably-arranged colors, in subdued tones, which seem to me remarkable in women who are so fond of brilliant primary colors and ill-assorted contrasts. They have no patterns, but work out graceful and beautiful fantasies, and all done with the most extreme care and fineness, requiring patience and extra good eyesight.

We might suppose that these women would take pleasure in making and embroidering their babies’ clothes as do other women, but as babies are simply swathed in endless rollers, like a mummy, until they are six months old, ornament is unnecessary. At the end of six months boy babies are put into pantaloons and girls into loose trousers, both being usually made of large flowered chintz.

About the only thing I ever noticed the Turkish women do for their little children was to make toys for them, and they make the most grotesque-looking dogs, lions, cows, rabbits, elephants, camels and doll babies out of rags for their amusement. They never nurse their babies for fear of spoiling the shape of the bust. They are very poor mothers, as they are too ignorant themselves to understand their responsibilities or to teach their children. They alternately slap them or caress and indulge them just as their own humor happens to be good or bad.

The little girls are taught to sew and embroider, how to walk gracefully, and recline in the most negligent manner upon the divans, how to play by ear a little on the lute, and to sing their interminable love songs. Their songs are like Barbara Allen, Lovely Young Caroline of Edinboro Town, the Brown Girl, or Gipsy Dave—all long, and telling a whole romance to a plaintive chant.

I never learned to speak Turkish, but I got so that I could seize upon the meaning of these songs. The singer always puts all the life and sentiment she can into her music, and often sheds tears as she sings, as do her listeners. I have even seen one or two of them faint away at the most pathetic part. This is a very common trait among Turkish women, and I have not yet been able to decide whether it is the result of a weak will or extreme sensibility, but they faint on every possible occasion.

The Turkish women love music passionately, and nearly all of them can play some instrument with taste and feeling, though almost always by ear. Their native music is always sad and plaintive, and often full of such a piercing sorrow that it is no wonder it brings tears. They love flowers, too, and you rarely see one without a flower in her hand when it is possible to get them, and they are fond of birds, and raise a great many themselves. Many of the Turkish women show considerable talent in drawing and painting, though the poor things never have any chance to learn. They simply “pick it up.”

As I found the Turkish women—and I happened to have obtained, by a fortunate circumstance, a chance to know them in their homes accorded to very few foreign women, and to absolutely no foreign man—they are gentle, submissive, loving, and with many natural gifts in addition to their beauty. If they were educated they would be the equal of any women in Europe.

It does not seem to me that they are unhappy in their peculiar marriage relations. They reminded me of a lot of irresponsible young girls in a boarding-school, and the only jealousy such as might be felt of the “teacher’s pet.” Instead of the poisoned and vindictive murder I supposed always ready to be inflicted upon each other, the worst they ever do is to pull each other’s hair occasionally or box each other’s ears.

Girls reach their majority at nine and are frequently married a year later, though not usually until fifteen. By that time all the education they get is acquired. Instead of being taught all the abstruse sciences she is taught all the caressing words and gestures possible to imagine—how to walk, sit, look and speak so as to appear the most seductive in the eyes of the husband who gets her.

No Turkish wife of the better class is ever expected to do any domestic labor whatever, nor to make any of the household linen, nor any garments for herself or members of the household, nor to sew any buttons on, nor, above all, to make her husband’s shirts; therefore it can be seen at once that almost every source of domestic disagreement is done away with, and the Turkish husband never expects his wife to get on her knees to hunt for his collar button, nor scold her if the dinner is badly cooked; so that in many respects life in a harem is not so very bad after all, and one-tenth of a good husband is better than the whole of a bad one.


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