Harem Fantasy and Reality


Harem Histories: Envisioning Places and Living Spaces

Edited by Marilyn Booth

Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010, 416 pp., $24.95, paperback

Reviewed by M. Lynx Qualey


Harem Histories, a collection of essays edited by the esteemed translator and scholar Marilyn Booth, examines the idea of the harem in western (European and American) and eastern (generally Turkish and Arab) literatures, images, and historical records. The explorations begin with the first Muslims and end in the 1920s: in her own essay, the last in the collection, Booth refers to the harem as a “disappearing” space during that decade in Egypt. Thus, the book stands at an eighty-year remove from its material, with only a few gestures toward contemporary narratives and counternarratives about women’s spaces. Even so, Harem Histories provides both theory and concrete imagery for focusing and complicating our understanding of the harem—then and now.

The book’s thirteen contributors don’t agree on a single meaning of “harem.” The term gets varying definitions throughout, and contributors often ask, Is the harem primarily an actual place or a web of relationships? Other essays discuss the word’s etymology and its ties to other inviolable spaces, such as the “harems” of the sacred cities, Mecca and Medina, which are only for the larger Muslim family and forbidden to outsiders.

In Booth’s anchoring essay, “Between Harem and Houseboat,” she defines a harem as “that enclosed space in which lived the women and children of households wealthy enough to afford this division of space, and the seclusion of family members within.” Although this definition emphasizes a particular location, her essay also refers to an enclosed carriage as a “moving harem,” and notes the relationship between ihtijab (seclusion) and the hijab.

Harem Histories looks at different aspects of many different harems, thus working against the grain of American and European stereotype. None of the essays promises to provide a “true” insider’s view of the harem. Instead, they examine how various insiders and outsiders (who are to varying degrees “inside” and “outside”) might have understood the harem over time, and how these definitions may have interacted with lived experience.

One of the most delightful moments of hybridity comes in Nancy Micklewright’s “Harem / House / Set.” Here, she reproduces both “harem” photographs that were cooked up and sold to foreigners in the late 1800s and a set of pictures, taken around 1890, wherein a Turkish family gathers before the camera. The middle-class Turkish family dresses up and poses in apparent mockery of the harem-photo genre. The women wear what seem to be “lightweight bedcovers or tablecloths,” and both men and women arrange themselves in poses stereotypical of “the harem scene.”

Other essays examine hybrid portrayals of the harem in Arabic literature. Orit Bashkin’s “Harems, Women, and Political Tyranny in the Works of Jurji Zaydan” looks at Zaydan’s popular historical works. Here, the idea of the “harem” is informed by both Islamic sources and western Orientalists. Zaydan, a Syrian-Christian author who lived in Egypt and whose books were widely read in Arabic, pulled and pushed in many directions. As Bashkin notes, “The novels of Zaydan point to the impossibility of regarding East and West as separate entities since they merge together in each novel and, in a sense, in each harem.”



In fact, Harem Histories rarely opposes a “false, Western” portrayal of the harem with some local “reality.” Instead, contributors discuss the many ways in which meaning is shaped. In the opening essay, Asma Afsaruddin discusses how local sources misread the history of women’s spaces for their own purposes. Indeed, the earliest portraits of Muslim women, Afsaruddin writes in “Early Women Exemplars and the Construction of Gendered Space,” already show creative editing at work. Afsaruddin demonstrates how portrayals of early Muslim women change from a text by historian Ibn Sa’d (who died in 844 or 845 by the Gregorian calendar) to a later one by historian Ibn Hajar (d. 1449). In the first, women are helpmeets and warriors, whereas in the second, the same women’s roles are diminished. Afsaruddin acknowledges that it isn’t possible to excavate early Muslim women’s “real” lives. But we can see how historians changed their accounts over time, to promote certain ideals.

The collection isn’t strictly chronological, but it has an overall historical thrust, moving from these early portraits through places like Caliphal Baghdad, Ottoman Turkey, nineteenth-century Tunisia, and twentieth-century Egypt.

The portraits show a great variety in the harem space, from small, middle class “harem” spaces to the royal Topkapi Palace, the Ottoman harem around which many Western stereotypes have been formed. But the Topkapi Palace, too, receives a complicating portrait in Jateen Lad’s “Panoptic Bodies.” Here, Lad examines eunuchs’ roles in mediating the harem space. The reader is taken through the ordinary eunuchs’ quarters, which—in contrast to their typical portrayal in Western narratives—were

overcrowded and cold, heated by a single fire, while the row of latrines was too close and inadequately separated from the living quarters. Such living conditions seem monastic or even squalid and suggest the modest power enjoyed by the rank-and-file eunuchs.


The collection largely focuses on detailed analyses of particular texts, images, and buildings. But a few authors also try to move the theoretical boundaries, such as Yaseen Noorani, in her essay “Normative Notions of Public and Private in Early Islamic Culture.” Here, Noorani argues that the modern “public/private” distinction is not useful in understanding the harem, which is more about class and social status and men’s control over women and children.

Throughout, the word “harem” has a core meaning of “protected” and “controlled.” Beyond this, however, the collection shows a great variety in women’s lives: women of different eras, social classes, legal systems, and nation-states experienced the harem in widely divergent ways. Nadia Maria El Cheikh shows, in “Caliphal Harems, Household Harems,” that the harem of Baghdadi Caliph al-Muqtadir (908-32), with its complex polygamous structure and powerful mother, was very different from the house of a tailor who lived at roughly the same time. In the tailor’s house, according to an account by tenth-century historian al-Tanukhi, the tailor “gave the guest’s clothes to his wife…to wash while he conversed with him.” This and other anecdotes shade in pictures of much smaller households and less formal relationships.

The harem continues to be an area of great narrative interest. Westerners continue to construct their own harem stories, as in the popular 2011 graphic novel Habibi, by Craig Thompson. Muslim women’s stories about space and choice continue to be popular as well: Egyptian author Ghada Abdel Aal’s Ayza Atgowaz (I Want to Get Married) was a best-selling book and a popular TV series in Egypt.

Harem Histories doesn’t examine this contemporary material. But it nonetheless makes a useful lens for understanding current narratives about Muslim women as well as earlier histories, and stories and the people who wrote them.


M. Lynx Qualey is based in Cairo, Egypt. She blogs about translation issues and Arabic literature at http://arablit.wordpress.com.

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