Haremlik: Lives of Turkish Women - Demetra Vaka

A Day's Entertainment in the Harem

The next to the last day of my visit to Djimlah Hanoum was to be devoted to a bath-party in my honor. This had been promised me before Nor-Sembah arrived, and the Validé would not give it up even after she saw how really ill her daughter-in-law was. The Orientals have a sense of hospitality far greater than ours. No sorrow or trouble of their own must interfere with the discharge of their duties as hosts. And although we all felt the approach of the great unavoidable one, who comes at the predestined time to take our dear ones to a better world, still they never considered relinquishing the party they had promised to give me.

It was to be an all-day affair, and the inmates of several of the harems in the vicinity had been invited. That morning the plaintive sound of the Albanian flute woke me up very early. From the platform on which my bed was made I could see the shepherd in his quaint clothes mounting the hill, behind his flock. It was so early that the light was grayish, and the hills half lost in a violet haze. So quiet was the world that the prat! prat! prat! of the sheep's feet, advancing to the tune of the flute, was quite audible.

I left my platform and went to the window. How different life seemed to me through this latticed window from what it had seemed only a short time before in New York! As I watched the day creeping across the Bosphorus from Asia, I thought of the course of my life during the past six years. I had worked with the Americans, studied with them, and learned to think their ways. And after six years of hurrying, of striving as if life counted only by the amount of work done, of knowledge acquired, I was back again in the calm leisure of Turkey, where eternity reigned, and no one hurried. Not to stay, for I fear that he who tastes of American bustle can never again live for long without it. Yet as I stood at my window I was happy—happy to have nothing to do—happy merely to live for the pleasure of living.

Everything around me breathed peace and contentment. Among the Orientals I am always overwhelmed by a curious feeling of resigned happiness, such as the West can hardly conceive of. I was talking about the Turks, lately, with some very intelligent American men, and it was only then I fully realized the impossibility for the Occidental mind, and especially for the active and restless American mind, to comprehend the Turkish temperament.

"You cannot convince me," said one of my American interlocutors, "that human nature is different in Turkey from what it is in America."

But that is exactly what is, in a measure, the fact. And to be able to judge the Orientals one has, like me, to be born among them, to live their life for a time, and to breathe the air of contentment that fills their homes.

Nowhere is the idea of the greatness of the Deity felt as among the Orientals. When they tell you that God is great, and that God alone knows what is good for you, you believe it. We, on the other hand, believe that it is for us to choose our course, to take the initiative. God with us is only a coadjutor: "God helps those who help themselves," as our proverb teaches us from infancy.

A breeze shook the graceful mimosa trees beneath my window. The soft, penetrating perfume of that essentially Oriental flower rose, and brought to my mind the remembrance of my first meeting with Djimlah, before either of us was in her teens. It was on the Bay of the Bairam. I had gone with my father to pay a series of calls on Turkish dignitaries. In one place we were received in an immense garden, where we were refreshed with sherbet and given little baskets of sweets to take home with us. My father and our host became engaged in a political discussion; and I, feeling myself unobserved, trotted off exploring. Presently I came upon a grove of mimosa trees. I wanted some of the flowers. They were just out of reach. I could have climbed the tree, but I had been told that I should have to be careful of my frock, if Papa were to take me with him. As I stood there, longing, a little girl spoke to me in Turkish:—

"Would you like to have some of those flowers?"

"Yes, but I cannot reach them. Can you?" I asked. She was taller than I.

"I cannot reach them either." She scrutinized me, and added: "You are a Frank child, aren't you?"

I drew myself up, my blood boiling. One has to be born in Constantinople to understand what the word means to us. By it we designate the mongrels who are neither of the Greek nor Turkish faith, and whom one of our poets characterized as the bastards of the Orient.

"I am no Frank," I cried. "I am a Greek, which is a greater race than yours."

In Turkey we learn early to defend our nationality. Perhaps that is the reason why the good Greek stock comes from there.

In a friendly tone the little girl responded: "It is nice to be a Greek, and not a Frank. But your race is not so great as mine. This is my country, not yours."

I was only eight years old, but I had been brought up on the wonders of Greece, and knew all the glorious deeds of the heroes of '21. I glared at the little girl. She was a Turk, taller and stronger than I, but I was not afraid of her.

"You have only had this country a few hundred years," I shouted. "It was mine before it was yours. My forefathers ruled here when yours were savages. Constanti nople is mine, by rights, not yours—and what is more I can lick you."

I took a step towards her, full of militant design.

She shook her head. "This is my grandfather's garden; you are under our roof: it would not be polite to fight you." Oriental children learn the holiness of hospitality as early as Greek children learn of their past glories. "I saw you come in with your father, and when you came this way, I came, too, to make friends. You can have some mimosa—all you like."

"I cannot reach it," I said, still sullen. "You can climb upon my back and get it." She leaned over against the trunk. I scrambled up on her back, and picked many of the flowers. I offered her a few.

"You may keep them all," she said; "they are yours."

I was relenting, but not very rapidly. I should have liked to be friends, had she not reminded me that her race had defeated mine. We, from the still enslaved parts of old Greece, are born with that sore spot in our hearts. When it is touched it hurts.

"I will give you my basket," she went on, holding out her little hand. "It came from our Patissah's palace. The candy in it is lovely."

I took her hand, and soberly we walked about the garden together.

"My name is Djimlah," she volunteered presently, "and yours?"

I told her.

"I like you very much," she went on. "And you?"

Before we reached the place where my father was still deep in politics, we had forgotten the differences with which our friendship had begun. She climbed up on her grandfather's knees, and begged him to persuade my father to let me stay with her for a few days.

The old pasha was an influential man: my father was a Turkish subject. I stayed.

That night Djimlah and I slept in the same little bed, on the floor of her grandmother's room. It was my first introduction to a harem. After that I often stayed with her, and came to know other Turkish girls, and visited other Turkish harems. Notwithstanding our different nationality and faith, Djimlah and I became fast friends. Neither time nor separation made us forget each other.

While I was lost in my reminiscences, shepherd and sheep had disappeared over the purple hills; and gradually I became aware that other sounds were replacing the melody of the flute that had passed beyond my hearing. Outside my door there was the soft padding of bare feet, now approaching, now receding, as if in suppressed excitement. I clapped my hands, and Kondjé rushed into the room.

"What is happening, child?" I asked. Kondjé smacked her lips, and salaamed profoundly. "They are preparing for the bath-party, glorious Hanoum, which they are to give to-day in your honor." Another salaam. "Houri of Paradise, if you will let me dress you now, and bring you your coffee, you may be ready to see the guests arrive," she said in coaxing tones.

"Kondjé, my dear, I am just as anxious to see their arrival as you are, so make haste."

While I was drinking my coffee, Kondjé again whirled into my room, like a leaf in a hurricane, and cried:—

"Most glorious one! my heart's own little one! [She was at least six years younger than I.] Light of my pupils! I have just seen a speck of dust over the hilltops. That can only be the arriving guests."

She flashed before my eyes a yellow silk gown. "See! I brought this for you. It will make your beauty look as tender as the bloom of a ripe peach."

Without more ceremony Kondjé started dressing me. When I was ready, she inspected me critically and decided that with some red beads around my throat and hair I should be as attractive as a beautiful pomegranate—disregarding the fact that a moment before I was to be a peach. She rushed from the room and returned in a minute with the desired ornaments.

"Where did you find them, Kondjé?" I asked.

She made a face at me, gave me two kisses on each cheek, and ordered me to keep still. Only one thing troubled her.

"Baby mine, Allah's little flower, won't you let me put a little black on your eye-brows and lids, and throw a little gold dust on your hair? Ah! but you would be wonderfully beautiful then."

"Kondjé, you may do anything else you like with me; but you are not to put any black about my eyes."

She rushed over and gave me an imploring hug. "Dear one, don't you know that Allah wants people to look their prettiest? You know that at the entrance to Paradise

Her face took on a droll expression. She batted her eyes mischievously, and brought her mouth close to my ear. " I am going to have one when the leaves fall," she whispered, husbands asked first of all whether they have kept their wives provided with the proper number of black pencils for their eyebrows!"

"As I have not a husband to be bothered about it at the gate of Paradise, I think that I will get along without them," I parried. "But you may dye my finger-nails red, after the bath."

Kondjé fell to the floor, grabbed her bare toes, and rocked back and forth, laughing till the tears flowed from her eyes. "Oh I do love the way you say things," she gasped. "You said I might chop your fingers off, when you really meant that I might put color on them."

Having failed in the matter of putting black about my eyes, Kondjé—when her amusement over my Turkish was exhausted—contented herself with the golden powder for my hair, and then stood off and studied me from every point of view, to see if she had not overlooked some hidden charm, which might be brought out. I do not know how long she would have kept this up, had not the sound of music come to our ears. At this she bounced into the air like a rubber ball, and before I knew what was about to happen, she picked me up and threw me on her back like a sack of meal, and ran through the halls with me as if my weight were nothing. She deposited me on the little indoor balcony of the vestibule, dropped to the floor, and panted at her leisure.

"Kondjé!" I remonstrated, "you must not treat me as if I were a baby."

She rose up till her fiery black eyes were on a level with mine. "You are a great deal more of a baby than I am!" she declared, " though I am not yet sixteen,—and besides, you haven't a husband."

"Neither have you," I snubbed back.

Her face took on a droll expression. She batted her eyes mischievously, and brought her mouth close to my ear. "I am going to have one when the leaves fall," she whispered.

"Who is he, Kondjé?"

"You dined with Selim Pasha—yes?" I nodded.

"You saw a big handsome man there, standing by the door, seeing that everything was right— yes?"

I nodded again.

"Most beautiful—hey?" She smacked her lips and half closed her eyes.

"I think he is, Kondje."

"I shall be his. He has even seen my face and touched my hand. I am to live in the little cottage on the hill, so as not to be far from my mistress."

Before Kondje's confidences had come to an end, the other members of our household, dressed in gala costume and preceded by the Validé, came down the stairs and filled one side of the hall. The wives with their children were in the first row, and the slaves behind. Two dancing-girls, holding baskets full of flowers, on their bare shoulders, stood by the door, and several African eunuch boys were near them with brass trays filled with the petals of roses.

As the guests entered the hall the flower-petals were thrown over them. One by one the newcomers ranged themselves on the opposite side of the hall. When all were in place, the salutations began. Down to the floor went all the heads, to be raised gracefully, and to go down twice more. Then music burst forth, and the ladies of the different harems embraced one another. Their wraps were taken off, and they were conducted to the sitting-room to drink coffee. There I was presented to them.

"Here is our little one," said the Validé. "She is leaving us to-morrow to flutter farther on her way. She has not yet found her golden cage." She put her hand on my head. "My little one, there is no happiness except in a prison where the jailer is the lover and the life-giver."

The guests applauded these words, and some came over and kissed me. I was espe- cially attracted by a certain woman, whose type I had never met in flesh and blood before. To say that she looked like a Rossetti painting would be doing her scant justice, yet it was of the Blessed Damosel I thought when I saw her.

I crossed the room and went to her. "You speak French?" I asked.

She took my hand in both of hers, leaned forward and kissed me several times on the eyes. "So I do, little one."

Our talk was trivial, but the woman became more and more interesting to me. Abruptly she said at length:—

"You will come and spend a day or two with me."

"I am sorry, but I can't," I answered. "I am going to Russia in a few days, and have things that I must attend to."

She put her arm around my waist. "Never mind, you must come to me for a night, at least. I came here to-day especially to arrange about it. I had heard so much about you, and I am in trouble and need your help."

The entreaty in her voice, and the hint in her words carried away my imagination, and regardless of all duties I found myself pledged to go to her on the following night.

A bevy of slaves, attired in the lightest of diaphanous garments, now entered the room, and salaaming with forehead to floor announced: "If the honorable company is ready, so is the bath-house." And to the sound of music they accompanied us to it.

It was a coquettish little building, fairy like in its arrangement, and was a monument to the love of Selim Pasha for his first wife. I was told that he had seen to every detail of it himself, and that only when it was completely finished had he conducted his bride to it. Though a separate building, it was connected with the main house by a glass corridor, heavily curtained. We entered a large marble hall, with a big fireplace, wherein the coffee was always made. The walls of the hall were composed of small pieces of marble, of different colors, in various patterns, so that at first sight they looked as if covered with pale Oriental rugs. The hall was three stories high, to the roof, and the ceiling was decorated with a row of dancing cupids. Ten marble steps, running the whole width of the room, led up to a raised landing, whence windows looked into the garden. From this landing, slender marble columns supported a balcony, from which the dressing-rooms opened, on the second floor. Rich rugs, and brocade hangings, and mirrors on doors and ceilings, made the bath-house stunning. In the dressing-rooms the colors were reds and browns, giving a curiously autumnal effect.

When we went to our dressing-rooms my little Kondjé took possession of me, and after making me ready for the bath, threw over my shoulders a lovely pestemal, a big soft white towel with yellow stripes of thick silk running through it.

"This, most honored Hanoum, is for your greatness, from the Validé, honored and beloved first wife of Selim Pasha, the Magnificent. As you are the guest of the party," she explained, "all the ladies will give you presents."

She took down my hair, braided it in two braids, and arranged it on top of my head, fastening it tightly in a head-kerchief of pale yellow silk, the edge of which was trimmed with silver thread.

"This, honored Hanoum," Kondjé announced again, "is for your greatness, from the second wife of Selim Pasha, the Magnanimous."

She took from a little box a chain with two coral pendants, and placed it around my forehead. "This, honored Hanoum, is for your greatness. It comes from Aishé Hanoum, third wife of Selim Pasha, the Wonderful."

She stepped back a few steps to survey me, her head on one side; smacked her lips with satisfaction, and salaamed. "Now, honored Hanoum, you may proceed, and I, the humble one, will follow."

As I came out of my room several other pestimal-covered ladies, barefooted and barearmed, emerged from theirs, and we salaamed most profoundly, as if attired in the most formal manner, before we went downstairs. There, Djimlah—as Kondje would have put it, fourth beloved wife of Selim Pasha, the Generous—greeted me and presented me with a pair of takouns. They were of carved oak, and the leather straps which fastened them to my feet had my monogram on them in silver.

The heads of the other households also gave me various trinkets, mostly charms against the evil eye; and amid the singing of slaves we went into the bathing-room. The sight that greeted us when the door was opened was beautiful in the extreme. The marble rooms were decorated from floor to ceiling with laurel, and the marble settees, in the middle of the rooms, were masses of color, being covered with flowers, in pots.

We passed in through a human lane of slaves, who relieved us of our pestemals; and thus, chauséees, coiffées, mais pas habillées, we entered, leaving outside all self-consciousness; and soon the splashing of the water, the singing of the slaves, and the laughter of all filled the huge resounding rooms with the gayest of noise.

Each lady was in the hands of her slave, and my little Kondjé was droller than ever. In her flowery Oriental language she invested me with all the beauties of the world. The Venus of Milo was nothing in comparison with me, whose size is that of a Jap. While she was bathing me she kept on repeating, "Mashallah! mashallah!" lest some djinn or ev-sahib, seeing my beauty, might be tempted to cast an evil eye on me.

The temperature of these rooms was 170?, yet we stayed in them for hours, oblivious of the heat. After an hour, the flowers withered, and were removed; the settees were washed, and light refreshments brought in. Near the end of our stay a regular cold luncheon was served, and I may say here that the cold dishes prepared for "haman" are worthy of poetry for their description. We sat on the settees as we ate, with a slave on each side: one to pass us the new dishes, the other to take away those we were through with.

Luncheon over, our pestemals were thrown over us and we passed out of the hot rooms into the cooling-rooms, where, as we lay on the couches, the slaves covered us with heavy burnouses. A new pleasure was awaiting us here. While we had been bathing, the reclining-room had been decorated with leaves and flowers, in the form of numerous arches. Under these we lay on snowy sheets and pillows, wrapped in our silk coverlets, while our hair was taken down and rubbed with rose-petals, before being tied up in soft, absorbent towels. Next came the dyeing of eyebrows, and lashes black, and of finger nails crimson; and, last of all, the flower-bath.

The heavy hangings were now lowered over the windows, till the light was dim, and then to the sound of a low, murmuring song we fell asleep and rested till late in the afternoon. Immensely refreshed we woke up, dressed, and went out on a hill to watch the setting sun. The Turks are not sun-worshippers, but to miss a sunset with them is almost as great a misdemeanor as to omit praying when the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer from the top of the minaret.

That night, after dinner, we had our third pleasant surprise when the Validé presented to us the world-famed story-teller, Massaljhé-Hiran. She salaamed to us with as much dignity as does Paderewski before he takes his seat at the piano. She was dressed in dark red silk, embroidered with green leaves. Her hair was braided, arranged on top of her head, and surrounded with a green silk head-kerchief, on which patterns were worked in garnets. Her face, long, thin, and sallow, was very pale, accentuating a pair of large black eyes, which were made to look larger yet by black pencilling. Her lips were dyed brick-red. A pair of earrings, so long as to touch her shoulders, gave a barbaric aspect to her Eastern face. Her sleeves were of fleecy material and quite loose, her arms being covered with ancient bracelets. Her hands, interesting-looking rather than pretty, were literally covered with rings,—presents, mostly, from the powerful of the land.

She took her place in the middle of the floor, removed a pair of embroidered red slippers from her feet, and sat down cross-legged on a cushion. All the ladies and slaves sat around her in the form of a semicircle. A few among those present had heard her before, but most of us knew her only by reputation. In the attitude of that small audience there was a worshipfulness that strongly affected me. I felt that I was in the presence of genius.

"Good-evening, honorable company," she said, touching the floor with her fingers, and then kissing them to us. Her voice had something of the same quality as Sarah Bernhardt's, only it was on a much lower key.

She began her story with a description of a stormy night. Presently the woman next me shivered, and unconsciously I drew a scarf around me, before I realized with a smile that we were in a warm room. The story she told was her own; it was on the same theme as that of Francesca da Rimini, or Tristan and Isolde, but with Oriental accessories, and a different ending. It related the fate of a young and beautiful Persian princess, who, while on her way to become the bride of a king, fell in love with the courtier who had come to take her to her lord. Princess Yamina, on discovering that the man who was conveying her to be the bride of the king had become master of her spirit, had her tent put up, retired into it, and placed around her couch twelve of her young maidens, making thus of chastity and purity an insurmountable barrier. She lay there, praying to Allah for strength, and taking only enough nourishment to keep the breath of life in her frail body. When, once a day, it was necessary for her to receive the King's envoy, she sat erect, fortified by her maidenly pride, while Love's tyrannical hand was tearing at her bleeding heart. In two days she was strong enough to continue her journey. When she arrived at the castle and was received by the King, an elderly benevolent man, she prostrated herself before him and told him the truth.

"'Kill me, my master,' she moaned, 'since I was not capable of bringing to you intact the heart of your future wife. Pierce with cold steel the body that is not worthy of your love, but do not touch it even as you might that of a slave; for it is polluted by thoughts of love for another.'

"She lay there waiting to be slain. A side-door opened without noise, and the young courtier entered—he who had stolen the heart and the thoughts of the prostrate princess. He advanced into the middle of the room and stood there with his arms crossed on his noble breast. The princess raised her head, saw him, and rose to her feet, no longer trembling. She was the woman, now, protecting her heart's lord."

The narrator paused and glared at us. She was for the moment the woman animated by more than the instinct of self-preservation—by the savagery of the woman defending the man she loved. Her voice, when she spoke, sounded thick: I felt as if I were in a thunder-storm.

"'Do not strike him, my master, he is innocent! It is I who must pay the price—I the guilty one. It is not his fault that Allah made him so beautiful and noble that no woman could help loving him. Kill me!' she cried. 'Give me the most cruel death, but spare him!'"

Massaljhé-Hiran was kneeling on one knee. She begged and implored, and we saw the princess herself passionately trying to save the life of her lover.

In the end it turned out that the young courtier was the King, and all ended happily. Such was the nervous pitch to which Massaljhé-Hiran had wound us up, however, that many were sobbing when she ended, and I suddenly became conscious that the tears were trickling down my own cheeks. Moreover, my muscles had become so rigid, in the intensity with which I had followed her story, that they actually pained me when they became relaxed. Only on one other occasion have I had the same feeling, and that was when Henry Irving, as Robespierre, faced the ghosts.

However, the Orientals seldom allow one set of artificially produced emotions to dominate them, and after the story-telling was at an end, dancing-girls glided into the room, and, to the sound of gay music, completed the day's entertainment.

Thus ended my visit to Selim Pasha's hospitable household, though not my experiences with Turkish women. In my last visit I was to hear a story, and to play a part in it, which I know must seem almost incredible to those who do not understand Turkey.

Djimlah, Houlmé, and Aishé Hanoums, with a retinue of slaves, came down to the shore of the Bosphorus, where my unknown lady's little caique was awaiting me, to see me off. I was sorry to leave them, and said so.

"Why not stay with us," suggested Djimlah hopefully; "marry one of our men, and know happiness?"

I shook my head. Why I might not, I did not know; except that, although the Greeks may love and respect the Turks, may live side by side with them, there must always exist that antipathy of the blood to remind us that they are our conquerors, and that sometime we must drive them from our land in order that the priests may finish the holy litourghia, and our statues may no longer be cold in exile.

Yet I bade my Turkish friends farewell with a full heart and silent tears. I jumped into the waiting caique, the caiksti, in his silky bembazar, pulled at his oars, and we were gone.