Haremlik: Lives of Turkish Women - Demetra Vaka

The Gift–wife from the Sultan's Palace

From what the Validé Hanoum had told me about Aishé Hanoum, Selim Pasha's third wife, it was natural I should take a special interest in this poor lady, who was wife and no wife, and mother only by proxy.

I had known before that, when the Sultan of Turkey particularly desired to honor one of his pashas, he presented him with one of the beautiful women who adorned his palace and who had not yet become his wife. I also knew that, according to Mussulman etiquette, the pasha had to free her and make her his wife. But I had never before met such a woman, and until I knew her history I had taken no particular interest in Aishé Hanoum, beyond noticing her beauty; for she was of a very retiring disposition. I had thought her one of those persons who are content to live their lives in a dream and let reality pass by.

But meeting her, after I knew her story, I asked her if she was not going to invite me to spend a day with her.

"Indeed I am," she replied, "only it is not my turn. I must find out when the second wife wishes to have you; for my turn must wait on hers."

"She told me that she was not well enough to see me."

"Oh! then will you spend to-morrow with me?"

The next morning, I had just finished my morning toilet when a slave came to conduct me to Aishé Hanoum, from whom she presented me with an indoor veil. I arranged it on my hair, to show my appreciation of the gift, and followed the slave to the floor below, where her mistress lived.

When I entered her apartments, I found her kneeling before an easel, deep in work. As the slave announced me, she rose from the ground and came to me with outstretched hand. It struck me as curious that she offered to shake hands, instead of using the temena, the Turkish form of salutation, since I knew her to be extremely punctilious in the customs of her nation. I suppose she did this to make me feel more at home.

"Welcome, young Hanoum," she said, after kissing me on both cheeks.

"Do you paint?" I asked, going toward the easel, disguising my surprise at meeting with such disregard of Mussulman customs in this orthodox household.

"No, not painting, just playing. It is only an impression, not a reproduction of one of Allah's realities." Good Mussulmans do not believe in "reproducing Allah's realities"; yet there stood on the easel a charming pastel. Even orthodox Moslems, I saw, were not above beating the devil round the stump.

"How very beautiful!" I exclaimed. "Aishé Hanoum, you are an artist."

"Pray! pray! young Hanoum," she protested, a little frightened I thought, "pray do not say such things. I am not an artist. I only play with the colors."

"Let me see some more of your playing," I persisted.

Rather reluctantly, though wishing to comply with her guest's desires, she brought out a large portfolio, containing several pastels and water-colors, and we sat down on a rug to examine them.

Whether they were well done or not I cannot tell; but they were full of life and happiness. The curious part was that, whenever she painted any outdoor life, she painted it from her window, and on the canvas first was the window, and then through it you saw the landscape as she saw it.

The more I looked at her work, the more enthusiastic I grew. "You must be very talented," I said, turning to her. "It is a pity that you cannot go abroad to study."

"But I have studied many years here."

"That is all very well," I said, still busy looking at the pictures; "just the same you ought to go to Paris to study."

"What for?" she asked.

"Because I think you have a great deal of talent which unfortunately is wasted in a harem." As I spoke, I raised my eyes.

Ordinarily I am not a coward, though I do run from a mouse; but when my eyes met her finely pencilled ones, there was a curious look of anger in them that made a shiver go down my back. "If I have said anything to offend you," I said, "I beg you to forgive me. Believe me it was my enthusiasm."

She smiled in a most charming way. If she had been angry it had gone quickly by.

"But why do you wish me to go to Paris?" she asked again.

"I don't know," I said, "except that Paris is nearer Turkey than any other great centre, and I feel that you ought to have the advantage of being where you could get all the help possible."

"What for?" she inquired.

I began to feel uncomfortable. I knew her very little, and this was the first time I ever visited a former Seraigli (one who has been an inmate of the Imperial palace).

"Because," I answered lamely, "when a person has talent she generally goes to Paris or to some other great artistic centre."

"What for?" again insisted the question.

If I had not been in a harem, and in the presence of a woman of whom I was somewhat afraid, my answer would have been, "Well, if you are foolish enough not to know, why, what is the use of telling you?" Instead, while that exquisite hand was lying on my arm and those big almond-shaped eyes were holding mine, I tried to find a way of explaining.

"If you were free to go, you could see masterpieces, you could study various methods of painting, and if it were in you, you might become great in turn."

"What for?" was the calm inquiry.

She was very beautiful; not of the Turkish type, but of the pure Circassian, with exquisite lines and a very low, musical voice, and of all things on this earth I am most susceptible to physical beauty. At that particular moment, however, I should have derived great pleasure if I could have smacked her pretty mouth.

"Well," I said calmly, though I was irritated, "if you had a great talent, and became very famous, you would not only have all the money you wanted, but glory and admiration."

"What for?" she repeated with inhuman monotony.

"For heaven's sake, Aishé Hanoum," I cried, "I don't know what for; but if I could, I should like to become famous and have glory and lots of money."

"What for?"

"Because then I could go all over the world, and see everything that is to be seen, and meet all sorts of interesting people."

"What for?"

"Hanoum doudou," I cried, lapsing into the Turkish I had spoken as a child. "Are you trying to make a fool of me, or—"

She put her palms forward on the floor, and then her head went down and she laughed immoderately. I laughed too, considerably relieved to have done with her "what for's."

She drew me to her as if I were a baby, and took me on her lap. "You would do all these things and travel about like a mail-bag because you think it would make you happy, don't you, yavroum?" she asked.

"Of course I should be happy."

"Is this why you ran away from home—to get famous and rich?"

She was speaking to me precisely as if I were a little bit of a thing, and was to be coaxed out of my foolishness.

"I have neither fame nor riches," I answered, "so we need not waste our breath."

"Sorry, yavroum, sorry," she said sympathetically. "I should have liked you to get both; then you would see that it would not have made you happy. Happiness is not acquired from satisfied desires."

"What is happiness, then?" I asked.

"Allah kerim [God only can explain it]. But it comes not from what we possess, but from what we let others possess; and no amount of fame would have made me leave my home and go among alien people to learn their ways of doing something which I take great pleasure in doing in my own way." She kissed me twice on the cheek and put me down by her. "You are a dear little one," she said as she began to prepare a cigarette.

"Aishé Hanoum," I asked, "don't you really sometimes wish you were a free European woman?"

She wet the tissue paper of her cigarette and gave it a careful twist. "I have never seen a European man to whom I should like to belong," she informed me.

"Goodness gracious, why should you belong to any man at all?"

"But I should not like to be one of those detached females that come to us from Ingle-terra and your America. They are repulsive to me. A human being is like a tree or a flower; it must be productive and useful. A woman must have a lord and children."

"But you have no children," I could not help saying.

"Have I not, though?" She clapped her hands, and to the slave who came in she said, "Bring in my son, please."

A few minutes later the young bey was brought in. He was a sturdy little fellow, full of health and good looks. No sooner was he in sight than mother and child were kissing and loving. When, after a few minutes, he was taken away, Aishé Hanoum informed me that till he was twelve years old she was to teach and instruct him herself. "We are always together except when I have guests. Then the child is out to play. You say I have no children! I wish you would stay here till the day I am to give my daughters away."

"Your daughters?" I repeated.

"Yes, I am liberating two of my young slaves. I bought them when they were ten years old. I instructed them myself; and now they are going to be freed and given into marriage, to be happy in the love they will give and take."

I thought that in her voice there was a sad note as she said the last words; but then I am a very imaginative person, and my imagination is apt to play tricks with me.

"I am going to stay," I said. "The Validé [the first wife] asked me to wait for the wedding, and also for the arrival of her son and his young wife."

"Oh! I am indeed very pleased. You know, yavroum, we all like you, and should be very glad to have you be happy in the love of a good man."

"Aishé Hanoum," I, asked, "are you happy?"

She looked at me for a minute or so while she inhaled and then exhaled the smoke of her dainty cigarette.

"Would you like to know?"

I nodded.

"I will tell you all about myself—but you must not make me forget that you are my guest, and that I must look after your comfort." She clapped her hands, and a young, pretty slave came in to take orders. I fancied that the slave had been crying.

"You are not the one I called for," said Aishé Hanoum; "and what is more, you must stop coming in when I call."

The tears began to trickle down the cheeks of the young girl. I was quite surprised. In all my experience with Turkish women, I never saw them stern with their slaves, and this young girl looked particularly miserable.

The official wife clapped her hands again, and this time another slave came in.

"Bring us in some sherbets and some cakes and cold water."

The slaves departed, and in a little while the one who had been crying returned. Aishé Hanoum looked at the girl, who, elaborately unconscious of the stern look, put her tray down, brought near us two low tables, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and disposed the eatables on them.

"Have I not told you not to wait on me?"

The girl crossed her arms on her breast and stood motionless. She was very pretty; rather tall, with glorious copper-colored hair, and luminous eyes.

"What will the young Hanoum here think of your disobedience to me?" the mistress asked.

The girl looked at me through her tears.

"I am sure that if the young Hanoum knew of the sorrow that is eating my poor heart, she would take my part," she said, with great pathos in her voice.

"I am inclined to think she would," said her mistress, "for I am afraid the young Hanoum is not very practical."

In an instant the young girl was prostrated before me, kissing my hands, kissing my feet, and imploring me in the name of all the flowers that grow on great Allah's land to hear her and intercede with her mistress.

I took the child's hand into mine and tried to comfort her; then turning to her mistress I begged to know the cause of her grief.

"I will tell you, though I am afraid you are the wrong person."

At a bound the slave was by her mistress. Her greenish eyes were dark blue and fiery. "If you present my case it is lost. Let me have the word; let me show her my heart; for it is my heart she is to judge, not yours. Be just, my mistress, since you give me this chance."

"Suppose we put it off. Suppose Hanoum Djimlah be the judge, and not this Hanoum here. She does not know our ways very much. She is not of our faith, and she is young in experience. She has not yet a lord to her heart," the mistress explained.

The slave drew herself up and fairly towered above us. Her little hands were clasped tightly on her bosom. She threw her head back and looked at her mistress. There was defiance in her whole attitude.

"You might just as well say that you want to cheat me out of the chance you offered to give me."

Aishé Hanoum sighed and gave in. "Serve us first with something, for we are thirsty."

The slave poured out some sherbet in the tall golden goblets—a present to Aishé Hanoum from the Palace—and ministered to our wants; then she took her place on the floor, crosslegged, and said to her mistress:—

"You are not to speak, beauty, at all, till I have done."

"Very well, foolish," said the mistress.

"Young Hanoum, my story is not very long, so I will not tire your kind ears with my miserable woes. I only want justice, and may Allah help you to help me. I was five years old when I was given to my mistress here. I have been faithful, good, patient, obedient, loving to her. I have never vexed her. When I was fourteen years old, she wanted to free me and give me as a wife to a man. Why should I be given to a man when I want to stay here? I pleaded and pleaded, and she said that I might stay two years more. The two years passed as a day, and I was again to be given as a wife. I pleaded and cried again, and my mistress said that I might have two years more. Young Hanoum, have you ever watched the clouds on Allah's blue rug? Those years granted to me, faded from my unhappy eyes as quickly as they, and for days now she will not speak to me because I will not go. But I stay outside this door and wait on her just the same. She says that this time it is to a very nice, young, wealthy man she is going to marry me. But what is a man to me? It is my mistress I want; it is her face that must gladden daily my miserable existence. It is here by her that I want to live and die. Oh! young Hanoum, give me justice; and may the cypress tree that grows by the grave of your dear ones defy all the winds!"

Thereupon the girl began to cry; and between her moans she continued: "This mistress is for me what to the trees are the leaves, what to the birds are the wings, what to the little babies is a mother. She says if I do not marry she will sell me to some one."

I can give here the words, but they cannot show the pathos, the passion that the girl put in them. It made my heart melt within me, not from pity for the slave, but from envy for the mistress. Think of owning such a faithful creature!

"I have heard your side," I said; "and now you would better go, and I will talk it over with your mistress."

The slave came to me, kissed my hand ever so tenderly, and left the room.

"Aishé Hanoum," I asked, "why do you want the child to be married and leave you, since her happiness is with you?"

"You do not understand all the circumstances, yavroum; that is why you ask me. You see she is mine, and I can free her and make a home for her. If I die to-morrow, what will become of her? She might be freed, and she might not. In the last case she would have to belong to some one else for seven years before being freed. Or she might be changing hands all the time. I love her; she is my little girl, for I brought her up; and I want to see her marry and have babies of her own. She can see me all she wishes to. But what she wants is to feel that she belongs to me. She is getting old. It is time for her to be wife and mother. She is so beautiful; her figure is so perfect. It would be a pity to waste all that beauty in life."

"But she will be unhappy if she goes away from you."

"No; she does not know. A woman is never so happy as in the love she bears to her little ones and to the giver of them."

"What will you do?" I asked. "Will you really sell her to somebody else?"

"No, indeed; but I was going to send her away for a while. Only she is of such a pas sionate nature she might do violence to herself. I have to act with great discretion."

"What manner of man is the one you want to marry her to? She probably does not fancy him."

"I have tried hard to have her see him from the window," said Aishé Hanoum laughingly; "but every time I take her to the window and bid her look, she closes her eyes. She will be very happy indeed, and will have a slave of her own, but she is obstinate."

"Why not let her wait for a while?" I suggested.

"I am afraid of losing this good chance. I want to see all of them that are of age well provided for."

"Suppose," I said, "that I decide that you are to let the girl alone?"

She laughed her merry little laugh, and looked so beautiful that I wondered how a woman with such a wonderful beauty as hers could be given to two men and still remain unloved by them.

"Yavroum, you would not really decide to do anything so foolish, and destine such a beautiful handiwork of Allah's to barrenness? Besides, while she was telling her woes to you, I found a way out of the difficulty. I am going to offer to let her live with me after her marriage. At the end of a year she will know that I was right."

She clapped her hands. The girl came in.

"Come here, Kioutchouk-Gul." (The slaves often are given fancy names by their mistresses. This one meant Little Rose.)

The slave came and made herself ever so little at the feet of her beloved mistress.

"I think Allah has shown me a way out of our troubles." She took the girl's hands into hers. "It is not marriage you object to so much as leaving me?"

The girl nodded.

"Then how would you like to marry and still live with me? We both should have our way."

In a second the girl was in the arms of Aishé Hanoum, calling her all sorts of endearing names, in which the Oriental language is so rich.

Thus the incident ended. The sight of the tremendous love she had inspired in her slave gave me an idea of the beautiful character Aishé Hanoum must have.

"Aishé Hanoum," I said when we were left alone, "you promised to tell me all about yourself. Will you do so now?"

"Yes, yavroum; but will you tell me all about yourself and your life in America afterwards ?"

I promised.

"I was born in Roumely, where my father was a nomadic chief," she began.

The mere word Roumely to those who are born in the East is full of suggestion of ballads of valorous deeds and supernatural doings. Aishé Hanoum became to my mind a more romantic figure than before.

"I remember quite well the way we lived. All we possessed was done up in bundles, for we moved from one place to the other constantly. At night, if it was rainy or cold, the men would pitch the tents; and while the women and children slept inside, the men would sleep outside, one always on guard. But generally we all slept under Allah's own eyes. Life was like a dream, and like a dream it quickly vanished. My father died, leaving my mother alone to care for six little hungry mouths. We left the mountains and walked for days to reach a town. When there my mother took to doing all kinds of work to support us. I was only six years old. All I remember of that time is like another dream, only this time a bad one and it lasted longer, though, as days and nights count, not as many as five hundred I think. My mother's life became a sad one, and there was no longer sunshine and music. We lived in a little house which to me was like a wooden box, and soon we all became ill, and were very miserable. I do not think Allah meant his people to live in houses. He made the world so beautiful, that we might live in it and be happy. To this minute I cannot accustom myself to live in one room. That is why I have this big space."

In fact she had taken three rooms, sixteen by twenty, and had them thrown together, slender columns supporting the ceiling. I was wondering what she would say if she saw a few of New York's apartments, where even Allah's sun is not potent enough to pierce high walls and enter.

"One day, however, my mother came to us with joy in her face and said to me: 'My children, your father must be having in his favor the ear of the Prophet. Here comes to us a miraculous help. A rich Hanoum wishes to buy six or seven little girl slaves. I am going to sell you three little girls, and with the money go back to the mountains to bring up your brothers as true Roumeliotes, not like mice in a city.'

"We were very happy. I did not know at the time what slavery was; but my mother explained it, and we were glad of the chance given to us."

I must explain here that slavery in Turkey is not what the word implies in Christendom. A slave in Turkey is like an adopted child, to whom is given every advantage according to her talents. If she is beautiful, she is brought up like a young lady and is given as a wife to a noble and rich man; if she is plain and clever, she becomes a teacher; if she is plain and not clever, she learns to do the manual work, sewing or domestic labor. According to the Koran, a slave must be freed after seven years of servitude and be given a dowry of no less than two hundred and fifty dollars.

Slaves always fare better than if they stayed at home. Generally they are drawn from the people who have been slaves themselves, or from orphans. To a Turk who is poor, selling his children into slavery means giving them advantages which he could not possibly give them himself.

"Were you sorry to leave your mother?" I asked.

"How could I be sorry," was her reply, "since I was giving her back to her mountains and her sunshine? My two little sisters and myself journeyed for days, sometimes on the backs of animals, and sometimes in what seemed to me then wooden boxes on wheels.

"In the house of my new mistress I remained with my sisters for seven years. She was lovely to us, and although we did not live out-of-doors all the time, we lived in a large house, in a very large garden, and by the water. It was in Smyrna. We had never seen anything before except mountains and trees. When we came to Smyrna we were afraid of everything, even of the commonest things. After we had learned that all the strange things would not hurt us, we were taken out on the water in a small boat, and after a time we were taught how to make it go ourselves. We also learned to read and write, and we were taught French, and to paint and play the guitar, and to dance. They were not as strict there as they are in my household here. When I was fourteen I was spoken of as a very beautiful person, and a Hanoum who came to see me once said I was only fit for the Sultan. My beauty travelled from Smyrna to the Palace, and some one came out to our house to see me. That is how I was given to the Sultan on his anniversary."

"Were you sorry to be sent to the Palace?" I asked.

She looked at me as if I had asked something that only people out of their minds could ask.

"I was so happy," said she, as if speaking to herself, "that for nights I could not go to sleep. At last the day came when I was to see the great ruler of the greatest nation of the living world." She crossed her hands on her lap with a far-away look on her face, as if gazing on her dead youth and its dreams.

As I looked at her I was wondering whether she had ever had any happiness, and unconsciously I found myself asking her, "Were you happy in the Palace?"

My question brought her back to the earth, and she laughed her gay little laugh, and patted my hand.

"You dear yavroum, you are such a little baby, why should I not be happy? To me was given the honor of being sent to the Caliph, which was no less an honor to my new mother than it was to me."

"Did you see the Sultan?" I asked.

"Y-e-s. When I reached the Palace I was taken to my rooms; and after a few days, when I was sufficiently rested, they dressed me ever so beautifully for the Pattissah to see me."

Again that far-away look came into her pretty face, but she went on with her story.

"It was in a large living-room, we were all assembled—such beautiful women and so many! I was by the chair of the Sultana when he, our ruler, came in. I was presented to him, and he smiled kindly at me, and said that he hoped I should be happy in the Palace. I was given by his order many gems and costly robes and slaves of my very own, but Allah never meant for me the honor of wifehood with the Master. Kismet, Ne apeym."

"Oh! Aishé Hanoum!" I cried when she stopped. "Do tell me more of palace life."

"No, no, yavroum, you cannot know that. It is not spoken out of the Palace; but you may see the little girl I am hoping some day to send there."

I gasped. "You don't mean to say that you are going to send somebody to the Palace?"

"Why, you dear little crest of the waves, why should I not, when I find a little girl who I think is going to be most gloriously beautiful."

She clapped her hands and Kioutchouk-Gul came in beaming with smiles. Her mistress returned the smiles as she said:—

"Bring me in Gul-Allen" (Rose of the World).

A few minutes later a little girl was marched in. She was tall and well shaped, and carried her head magnificently. She was four years old, but looked seven. If she grows up to be as beautiful as she looked then, she will make a stunner. The curious part was that she looked like her mistress. Her eyes were that almond shape, the color, as Rossetti expresses it, like the sea and the sky mixed together, only in theirs the landscape was mixed in too. Every feature in her face seemed to have been nature's great care. The color of her skin was clear white, and you could see the veins as if they were finely traced with a blue pencil, and her mouth was Cupid's bow.

"Alshé Hanoum," I begged, when the child left us, "please don't send her to the Palace. Suppose she never becomes his wife. She will be happier with a young man for a husband."

Aishé Hanoum looked puzzled at me.

"Suppose you had a great talent, and your mother never gave you a chance with it, would you think her just? You see, yavroum, I am giving you an example from your own standards to judge. Tell me, wouldn't you blame her all your life?"

I acquiesced.

"It would be the same with my little Gul-Allen."

"But suppose when she grows up she refuses to go, like the other?"

"Oh, she will not; for she will be brought up with this idea in mind. Her education is to be very careful. Besides, in the heart of every Mussulman woman, the highest honor on this side of the earth is to give a son to the Pattissah. You have to be a Turkish woman to understand this. And now you must see my palace robes and my gems."

Kioutchouk-Gul received her orders, and in a few minutes she came in, carrying on her head a bundle two feet thick and four long, and in that space carefully folded were twenty most gorgeous garments! Think of the space twenty of our stupid gowns would require!

Kioutchouk-Gul opened the Persian shawl, and as she unfolded each garment she paraded it on her slim shoulders. In my childhood I was put to sleep with Oriental tales, where the princesses wore magnificent clothes that only a fairy queen's wand could produce. Those garments belonged to that category. Bright silks represented sky and stars worked with silver and gold and fastened with precious stones. There was one of dark red on which were embroidered with silver thread white chrysanthemums, and the heart of each flower on the front border was a topaz!

Think of having all these clothes and the jewelry to go with them because the Sultan cast his eyes five minutes on you. No wonder that in the heart of every Mussulman woman the desire to go to the Palace is so great. Though it is religion that prompts them, where is the truly feminine heart that is indifferent to beautiful garments?

From Aishé Hanoum I went to my room rather bewildered. Orientalism was like a labyrinth: the more I advanced in it, the more entangled I became. One woman after another was confronting me with a new problem, a new phase of life; and I felt stupid and incapable of understanding them. It hurt my vanity, too, to find how small I was in comparison with them. I should have liked really to sell myself to them for a year, merely to be able to live with them continuously, to try to understand a little more of their lives. They interested and charmed me: they were so much worth understanding. There was so much of the sublime in them, which is lacking in our European civilization. I felt petty and trivial every time I found myself facing one of those conditions which they understood so well. It is true that in Europe and America there are, and have been, women who sacrifice their lives for big causes. But as a rule it is a cause to which glory is attached, or else some tremendous thing they half understand, and to which they give themselves blindly because of its appeal to that sentimentality which is so colossal in European women. With these Turkish women the sacrifices came in the small things of daily life, things for which they received no thanks, for which their names did not become immortal. And through their self-abnegation they were reaching heights unknown to us of the western world. I do not mean to say that our women do not sacrifice themselves in every-day life. They do; but it is not with the sublimity of soul with which these supposed soulless women do.