Haremlik: Lives of Turkish Women - Demetra Vaka

Houlmé Hanoum, the Discontented

While I was visiting Selim Pasha's household, Djimlah's youngest half-sister, Houlmé, was there, too. She had been brought up by her maternal grandfather far away from Constantinople, somewhere in Asia Minor, and I had never seen her until the present visit. She was very friendly to me from a distance, like a timid wood-goddess, who dared not approach. Now and then she would smile at me, and her large eyes seemed full of questioning. She did not look modern, and did not move like ordinary women. I always thought of her as Antigone.

One evening, unexpectedly, she came to my room, looking like a vestal, and carrying a basket full of flower-petals. She asked if she might give me my flower-bath. This was a great honor to a mortal like me, for her grandmother had been a sister of the Sultan. I anticipated that now, at last, she would talk to me; but she gave me my bath almost without a word. Then, when she asked permission to spend the night with me, and after the slaves had made her bed at the foot of mine, I again expected some conversation from her: again young Houlmé crept into her little bed, stretched her arms out, palms upward, and prayed that Allah, the only true God, should guard the living and help the dead, and quietly laid herself down to sleep.

For more than an hour I lay in bed, and sleep would not come. I wondered whether the young Turkish girl was asleep, and fell to thinking about her. My thoughts on Houlmé were interrupted pleasantly by a nightingale. I have heard nightingales all over Europe, but they do not sing as they do in the East. The reason perhaps is because all over the world they are mere birds, while in the East they are the mythical Bul-Buls, the souls starved for love. It is believed that once a Bul-Bul loved a rose, and the rose aroused by the song woke trembling on her stem. It was a white rose, as all roses at the time were—white, innocent, and virginal. It listened to the song, and something in its rose heart stirred. Then the Bul-Bul came ever so near the trembling rose and whispered words which the rose could not help hearing. "Ben severim sana Gul-Gul." At those words of love the little heart of the rose blushed, and in that instant pink roses were created. The Bul-Bul came nearer and nearer, and though Allah, when he created the world, meant that the rose alone should never know earthly love, it opened its petals and the Bul-Bul stole its virginity. In the morning the rose in its shame turned red, giving birth to red roses; and although ever since then the nightingale comes nightly to ask of the divine love, the rose refuses; for Allah never meant rose and bird to mate. Thus, although the rose trembles at the voice of the nightingale, its petals remain closed.

That night the memory of this story was particularly dear to me, because it brought back to me my childhood dreams. In order to enjoy better the nightingale I sat up. The little platform on which my bed was made creaked, and Houlmé spoke.

"Are you awake, too, young Hanoum?" "I have been unable to sleep," I said. "I have not been asleep either. There is no sleep to-night for mortals."

She got out of bed, went to a closet, and brought out two white silk burnooses.

"Come, young Hanoum," she said. "Come, let us no longer stay in our beds."

I threw over my shoulders the soft garment. Houlmé put hers on. She took my hand, and we went out on the little balcony.

It was one of those wonderful Oriental nights, when the beauty of nature is intoxicating, maddening. The sky was indigo-blue without the shadow of a cloud; the stars were brilliantly lighting the hills and the garden, and a half-grown moon was travelling fast toward the Bosphorus. Except for the singing of the nightingale all was still.

"That is why we cannot sleep." It was Houlmé speaking. "There is too much love on the earth to-night; and we being of the earth cry for our own. My poor heart has travelled over endless seas and is with him now, and my young life is crying for him."

It was a strange night, and that Mahometan girl standing next to me in her glorious beauty, and talking a language mysterious as the East, captivated my imagination. As I looked at her, at her large black eyes and arched eyebrows, her ivory complexion and her lovely mouth, I felt that she could do things that an ordinary woman could not. And the night had loosened her tongue, as it had the nightingale's.

"I sometimes think," she went on, "that it is wrong for women to think and to know much, for they kill nature with their thoughts. Men, great men, never think when it comes to love; they only love and taste life. It is as it should be, as Allah meant life and love to be. What has our poor woman's mind to do with the workings of the universe? If it were not for my foolish thinking, I should not be craving love now like the Bul-Bul."

Turkish women in some ways are very different from the women of other races. They may be more educated than our college girls, they may speak four or five languages, and read the masterpieces of each of these languages, but they remain children of nature, as we do not. If you spend a day with them and they love you, you will know their hearts and minds as they truly are. There is no false shame or prudery about them. They speak as they think and feel.

Houlmé apparently felt very much that lovely midsummer night, and her heart was breaking for something I could not well make out. She drew me to her and kissed me.

"Glorious one, do you suffer as I do?"

"I don't know how you suffer," I answered.

She clasped her hands to her bosom. "Oh! I suffer as if my poor heart were on fire. It is crying out for that other heart which, but for my foolishness, would be near me now.

I did not care to ask anything for fear of stopping her half-confession.

"Houlmé," I said instead, "you are very beautiful. I would give anything to be as beautiful as you are."

"Why should you like to have my beauty, beloved Hanoum? You said you did not wish to be married; beauty is only good to a woman to give to the man she loves; you ought not to have any, and Allah ought to have made you black."

I shuddered. On a night like this, everything seemed possible, and I looked around for the wicked ev-sahib who might change my color.

"Foreign Hanoum," said Houlme, "tell me a little about the women of England. Are they so beautiful that they can make men forget their vows to other women?"

"Some of them are very handsome," I answered, "but not as beautiful as you women of the East. To my mind you are the only kind of women that could make men forget their vows, and Mahomet knew what he was about when he made his laws."

"You are not right about our Prophet, beloved Hanoum, for he never meant women to be kept apart from men; but what you say gladdens my poor heart—or are you speaking thus because you have divined my sorrow and wish to comfort me?"

"I know nothing about you, Houlmé, except what little you have told me to-night."

"Oh! glorious Hanoum, sometimes I should like to feel as you women of other lands feel, though I know it to be wicked to wish to be different from what the great Allah made me. But I am sorry I have been brought up as a woman of the West."

"But you are not," I said. "You are less of the West than any Mussulman girl I have met. What makes you think that you are like us?"

"Because, young Hanoum, I was brought up by foreigners. I speak English, French, and German as well as I do my own language, and I know more of your literatures than I know of our own. The thoughts of your great writers have made a great change in my poor Eastern thoughts. You see, young Hanoum, I was brought up by my maternal grandfather, who is a Turk of the new school, which believes that women ought to be educated to be the companions of men. He brought me up with my cousin Murat, to whom I was betrothed as soon as I was born. He is only four years older than myself, but I shared his studies and his games till I reached womanhood and had to take tcharchaf. I was then fourteen. Of course from that moment I did not see my cousin, as I was living in the haremlik and he in the selamlik. When I was eighteen my respectable grandfather called me to him and said that the time had come for me to be the wife of Murat Bey. As I said before, my grand-father is of the new school and does not believe in forcing marriage upon women. He asked me if I were ready? I was ready—not to marry, but to ask a favor.

"I must tell you, young Hanoum, that from the day I took myself to the haremlik to be a woman and not a child, I gave my limited mind to the studies of your great writers. From them I understood that there was a greater love than the love based on affection, and I wanted to make sure that Murat preferred me to other women. I asked, therefore, my learned grandfather to send Murat for three years out in the world, in the different capitals of Europe, in some diplomatic post. If at the end of the three years Murat loved me still, and thought me worthy to be his wife, I would marry him. He has been for a year in Vienna, then for a year in Paris, and now he is in England. As was my wish then, Murat never writes me—but he sends me books and presents all the time. Since he has gone I take one daily paper from Paris, Vienna, Berlin, and London. I also take several monthly periodicals, so that my mind may be ready for my cousin when he comes back to me. From what I read in your papers, I do not like your world, and I am glad that I am a Mahometan girl. But I know also this, that it is wrong, wrong for women to think."

"It is a dangerous experiment," I said, "not for women to think, but to do what you have done. You sent the man you love away before he really knew you. If he had seen you as a woman, I doubt whether all the beauties of Europe could make him forget you. On the other hand, it is hardly fair to expect a youth to remember a child of fourteen. Why don't you write to each other, in order that at least he may know your mind?"

"Because I do not wish him to be reminded of me except by his own heart."

"Houlmé," I said, "are you not rather romantic? What in the name of all flowers made you do such idiotic things?"

"You don't understand me very much, young Hanoum; that is why you think me romantic. The day before I took tcharchaf, Murat Bey took me to his father's grave and there he promised me to remain faithful to me all his life after he became my husband. He vowed that I shall remain his only wife, unless Allah did not send us boys. He gave me then a dagger with a poisoned blade and asked me to stab his heart if he ever was untrue to me after our marriage. As I grew older, and read much about life, I knew that it was unfair to Murat Bey to tie him down to such a great promise, unless I gave him a chance to see the world and many women."

"Does he know why he was sent abroad?"

"Oh, yes! I wrote him a long letter and explained to him my thoughts. At first he did not like the idea, for he said he knew that he loved me and wanted to be married to me, but at last he consented."

"Suppose that he falls in love with another woman and marries her, what will you do?"

"I shall use the dagger for my own heart," she said simply.

To think that she would kill herself for an idea! For Murat could be no more than an idea to her, she never really having known him as a man. I looked at her and wondered what things she might be capable of doing when she should love a real man.

"Houlmé," I asked, "suppose your cousin came back and you married him, and after a few years of marriage he wanted another wife, as so many good Moslems do; would you use your dagger?"

Her beautiful black eyes were wonderful on that glorious Oriental night; they looked like big stars, and as they met mine I had no need of an answer.

At that moment a light breeze from the sea passed, and in the stillness of the night we heard the moving of the leaves and flowers.

"They are awakening," said Houlmé.

"The nightingale has reached their hearts. You can hear the rose tremble on its stem."

With the Eastern legend behind the notes I could fancy the Bul-Bul implore the awakening rose for a love that was never to be granted.

Houlmé was listening with all her heart in her eyes. One would say in watching her that she understood every syllable the lover bird sang. The song of the nightingale rose to a transcendent pathos and then abruptly stopped.

"Poor little feathered lover," the young Turkish girl murmured, "you have been denied a little love which would make your singing immortal, and we shall hear you no more."

Houlmé made allusion to the Oriental belief that on some such night as this the nightingale's song, at its tenderest, most passionate note, does reach the heart of the rose, and that if then the rose still denies him, he dies. As the little body is never found, it is believed that the other, silent nightingales make his grave at the foot of the rose-bush.

Whether this thought brought graves to the mind of my companion I don't know, but of a sudden she was on her feet and announced to me that she was going to the little cemetery to pray. There was no use arguing with her, as I saw her mind was made up; and in a few minutes, like two white phantoms, we were in the garden, where Houlmé filled her arms with roses. Then she opened a gate, ever so little, made in the thick wall, and we were out in the open fields. She walked along majestically, without the slightest misgiving of her misconduct, and in a short while we were in the little cemetery. Once there, she walked directly to one grave, covered it with her flowers, threw herself on it and prayed. To me, crouching under the cemetery wall and imagining each tombstone either a phantom or, worse yet, a human form advancing toward us, it seemed as if she prayed an eternity. At last she got up, turned her tear-stained face to me, and asked me to give a prayer for an unhappy woman.

On our way home I asked her if she knew whose grave it was. Not till we found ourselves again on our balcony did she speak.

"That grave, dear blossom, is Chakendé Hanoum's," she said.

"Who was Chakendé Hanoum?" I asked. Houlmé looked at me incredulously.

"You have been here so many days and no one has told you Chakendé Hanoum's story?"

"No one," I answered, "and I am glad, for I would rather that you tell me her story since you love her grave so."

The light sea-breeze became more audacious every moment, and brought to our balcony the perfumes of the thousands of flowers growing beneath us, as Houlmé began.

"Chakendé Hanoum was the daughter of Nazim Pasha. She was educated in the Western fashion. She was as beautiful as an houri and as good as Allah's own heart. She was given as a wife to Djamal Pasha, a young and dashing courtier. They were very much in love with each other, and he promised her that she should remain his first and only wife. Their marital life was blessed with two boys and one girl. Chakendé grew more beautiful as happiness became her daily portion.

"One day, when she was returning with her retinue from a visit she had made in Stamboul, on the bridge of Galata and in a closed carriage, she saw her husband in company with a foreign woman. That night when he came home, she questioned him, and he only answered that the lady was a foreigner. Chakendé Hanoum understood that her husband did not wish to be asked any more questions. Early in the morning, however, she sent for her brother, and from him she learned what was generally known.

"She took a few of her slaves and went to her country place. She stayed there for several days, giving the situation her whole thought; then she came back to her husband. She told him that she knew the truth, that she had thought the matter over, and had decided to give him back his word, as to her remaining his only wife. Thus he could marry the foreign lady. It was then that Djamal Pasha turned her from Allah. He laughed at her, and said that Mademoiselle Roboul of the French theatrical company was the kind of a woman that men loved but did not marry. Chakendé Hanoum said nothing, but that very same day went into her garden and plucked roses from a laurel tree. You know, young Hanoum, what you can do with those roses?"

A shiver ran down my back as I nodded.

"A few nights later, when Djamal Pasha was about to retire, Chakendé Hanoum prepared his sherbet for him. Her hand did not tremble, though her face was white as she handed it to him. It did not last long; Djamal Pasha died from an unexplained malady; but Chakendé Hanoum kept on plucking laurel roses daily. After a little while they put her in her little grave, too, five years ago."

We sat silent for a while. The moon had travelled fast and was now near the water, bridging the Bosphorus with her moonglade. The garden, the hills, and the water changed with the changing slant of the rays, and became more wondrously enchanting still, though that had not seemed possible before, and enthralled me with the fascination of the East—the East whose language and ways of dealing with right and wrong had been alien to me for six years.

"It is wrong for women to think—it is wrong, at least, for us women of the East." It was Houlmé Hanoum who spoke again. "They educate us and let us learn to think as you women of the West think, but the course of our lives is to be so different. Since they let us share your studies they ought to let us lead your lives, and if this cannot be done, then they ought not to let us study and know other ways but our own. If Chakendé Hanoum were an Eastern woman in her thoughts as she was in her heart, she would have been with us now a happy woman, making her motherless children happy, too."

"Houlmé," I said, "for some of you, Occidental education is like strong wine to unaccustomed people. It simply goes to your heads. Look at Djimlah, your sister; she certainly is as educated as you are, but she could never behave the way you or Chakendé Hanoum did.

"True," Houlmé assented. "My sister is educated as far as speaking European languages goes, but she has never been touched by Occidental thought. To her, her husband is her lord, the giver of her children. To me, and to those who think as I do, a man must be more. He must be to his wife what she is to him, all in all. Is not this what the Occidental love is? I did not use to think this way till I read your books. I wish I had never, never known. I do not like to hurt the feelings of my venerable grandfather, for I am the only child of his only daughter, as Murat is the only child of his only son, and I know that he did by me what he thought best. Sometimes, however, I should like him to know that with his new ideas he has made me miserable by allowing me to acquire thoughts not in accordance with our mode of living."

"Houlmé, if your cousin came back, and you became his wife and had any daughters, how would you bring them up?"

"I have thought of this very much indeed," was her answer, "and I should like to talk it over with Murat when he becomes my husband. I do not think Turkish parents have any right to experiment with their children. I should not like to give to my daughters this burden of unrest. I should like to bring them up as true Osmanli women."

"Then you disapprove of the modern system of education that is creeping into the harems? Were you to be free to see men and choose your husbands, would you still disapprove?"

"Yes. It took you many generations to come to where you are. Back of you there are hundreds of grandmothers who led your life and worked for what you have to-day. With us it is different: we shall be the first grandmothers of the new thought, and we ought to have it come to us slowly and through our own efforts. Mussulman women, with the help of Mahomet, ought to work out their own salvation, and borrow nothing from the West. We are a race apart, with different traditions and associations."

"Is this the thought of the educated women of the harems to-day?" I asked.

Houlmé's face saddened as she said:

"No, young Hanoum, I am alone in this thought as far as I can make out. The others say that we must immediately be given freedom and liberty to do as we like with ourselves. Indeed, they look upon me with mistrust as if I were a traitor."

"Have they any definite plans of what they want to do?"

"I doubt whether you would call them definite plans, but I should like very much to have you come with me to our next meeting, which will be in two days. There are forty of them now and I think that they will do more harm than good, as they are going about it in a very irrational way. Their motto is, 'Down with the Old Ideas.' Naturally they refuse to obey their parents and their husbands."

"How old are they, on the average?"

"The youngest of them all is seventeen and the oldest forty. They are all unmarried, with the exception of five who have left their husbands."

"You are not in sympathy with their movement though you belong to it?"

"No, young Hanoum, for I am afraid that it is more romanticism that guides them than thought for our beloved country. I call them to myself, 'Les Romanesques des Harems,' though they, call themselves 'Les Louises Michel.'"

"Goodness gracious!" I exclaimed, "Louise Michel was an anarchist!"

"So are they," said Houlmé; "and because I tell them that through anarchy we can do nothing, they will not hear me."

I told her that I should certainly be glad to go with her to the meeting of the reformers, and she promised to take me soon.

We did not go inside the house that night. Bringing some pillows and rugs out on the balcony, we slept there until the morning light drove us in.