Gateway to the Classics: Haremlik—Lives of Turkish Women by Demetra Vaka
Haremlik—Lives of Turkish Women by  Demetra Vaka

Djimlah, the Thinker, Selim Pasha's Fourth Wife

I looked forward to my third visit with even greater anticipation than to the other two: and, indeed, it promised to be all a student of Turkish customs could ask for. The friend I was to visit was a girl I had known better than any other Osmanli girl. I was to find her the mother of three children, and the fourth wife of one of the most powerful pashas in the Sultan's entourage,—a man much older than herself, to whom her family had given her in marriage without a by-your-leave. I was tremendously interested to see how she had accepted the situation.

Djimlah, moreover, had a vigorous and original mind, which had attracted me in our youth—although as she grew up and began to think of love, her thoughts were frightful. Once she said to me: "Love has nothing to do with one's thoughts or one's aspirations. It is merely a manifestation of the senses. The intensity of one's love depends on one's physical condition. When a man loves a woman he does not care whether she is good or bad, whether she will be a friend and companion to him or not. He simply wants that woman, and will do all he can to get her. As for the woman, she obeys her instincts as blindly as an animal."

"How about her soul?" I asked.

She laughed scornfully. "You little petal of a flower, woman has no soul."

"Yes, that is what you Turks say," I cried. "But we do not believe in that doctrine. Woman has a soul."

"No, she hasn't," Djimlah contradicted; "she is all emotions and senses."

If an ugly girl had spoken as Djimlah spoke, it would have been very repulsive; but the radiant loveliness of the girl could not fail to modify the impression made by her words. While speaking, she would clasp her hands above her head, the sleeves falling away from her white arms; she would half close her eyes, in a way that made the light shining through them softer; and her lips forming her words were fresh and crimson, like a rose with the dew on it. The Greek in me, looking at her, forgave her words—one of the judges who liberated the accused Phryne, because she was so beautiful, may have been an ancestor of mine. And she prefaced all her blighting remarks with such endearments as "little crest of the wave," "little mountait brook," or "flower of the almond tree." It was as if I were being taken to a slaughter-house through a rose-conservatory.

Foreigners she hated intensely, and to be the wife of a foreigner was to her the most miserable existence imaginable.

One day, when she was telling me that "love was a necessity of the body, like food and air, and that when the senses awoke and asked their due, they ought to get it," I asked:—

"Djimlah, since love is nothing but the rightful demand of sense, and since you believe in its gratification, while at the same time you hate foreigners so tremendously, what should you do if you fell in love with a foreigner?"

"Oh! I should let him love me for a while, and then have him killed."

She said this without the slightest tremor in her voice, without the faintest added pink mounting her cheeks. What a sinner she would have made, had she been a European woman! How many souls of men she would have sent to eternal damnation with a slight shrug of her superb shoulders!

When she had written to me in her faultless French, asking me to visit her, I was both pleased and surprised; for I knew her husband's household to be one of the very orthodox, into which foreigners were almost never allowed to penetrate. During my girlhood, although I had been in many haremliks, I had never happened to be in one where more than one wife was living, and they had all been somewhat Europeanized. Selim Pasha's was the first old-fashioned harem which was opening its doors to me.

It was Djimlah herself who called for me in her brougham. A tall, powerful eunuch opened the door of her carriage, and when I was in it, jumped up to his seat beside the coachman, and we were off. Inside was Djimlah, with two slaves. When she took me in her arms ma kissed me, I was enveloped in an atmosphere of subtle perfume and rich luxury. I thought how a French writer would have loved to describe her. Her immaculate yashmak, transparently gauzy, let me see her beauty, resplendent, yet somehow softer than I remembered it. She had always been of the tall, self-reliant type: now she looked still more sure of herself, invested as she was with the name of a powerful pasha.

In our girlhood we had been on the same social footing; but with the turning of the wheel of fortune I had gone under and had become a breadwinner—she had been carried up to the top. The present meeting was the first for six years.

It is difficult to talk in a carriage anywhere, but in Constantinople it is impossible. Rolling over the miserable pavement makes a noise worthy of the dogs. Djimlah and I, after our first embrace, lay back against the cushions and closed our eyes, she holding my hand in hers. Once, when the carriage stopped for a minute, she opened her eyes and looking long and earnestly at me, said, with delightful Oriental frankness:—

"You have changed, little flower. America has robbed you of your youth. I must keep you here and help you to get it back."

When we arrived at her palace, she took me directly to my room, where a pretty slave was waiting for me.

"This is your room," she said, and, pointing to the slave, "she is yours also." She opened a large cupboard whose shelves were filled with clothes: "And here is all you will need while you stay with us." To the slave she added:—

"Kondjé, this is your mistress. If she does not look any better when she leaves than she does now, let me never see your face again. If she improves, you can ask me anything you like." Drawing the slave to her and petting her, she went on, pointing to me as if I were an inanimate object: "Kondjé, she used to be very pretty—look at her now! Could you believe that she is younger than I?"

The slave shook her head, and looked me up and down compassionately.

I burst out laughing. "Really, Djimlah, you must learn to spare my feelings I have just come from America, where we don't tell the truth like that."

"Nasty country, anyhow!" she observed. The slave came to me and threw her arms around me. "Young Hanoum, is it a disappointment in love?" she asked sympathetically.

"Nonsense!" Djimlah interjected, "Foolishness! that's the reason. Instead of letting a good strong man take care of her, she is doing it for herself—disgracing Allah and his sons. Now good-by, and rest all you can."

Kondjé took her task to heart. She bathed and massaged me, as if I were to be made over. Then she brought out several garments, and after discarding them all as not befitting my beauty,—or to be more accurate, my lack of it,—she at last satisfied herself from a fresh armful from the closet.

After I had rested, I went down to the garden, where Djimlah presented me to the other three wives of Selim Pasha, their ladies-in-waiting, and a few guests. We were twenty-seven in all, and we reclined under a canopy of flowers, and waited for the coming sunset. A high wall hid us from the outside world, and a pergola, covered with pink and purple wistaria, protected us from any masculine eyes which might chance to look over from the side of the palace reserved for men. I took my seat by Djimlah, on a lot of cushions.

Presently one of the women reached up a bare arm, plucked a bunch of wistaria, and threw it at another woman. Simultaneously several bare arms want up, and pink and purple wistaria went flying right and left, so that in a few minutes the ground and the Turkish rugs on which we were reclining were covered with flowers.

"Give us some music, beautiful ones," said the first wife, who was the head of the household, and who was addressed as Validé Hanoum.

Some of the young slaves picked up their zithers, and the music of the East charmed our ears for a few minutes.

"See now, see how fast he is travelling!" exclaimed Djimlah, pointing to the sun. "He is getting impatient to reach his home and throw his arms around his women-folk and rest from the day's labor."

She turned to me. "Do you remember, little bride of the river, how you and I used to run to catch the sun when we were small? And do you remember how once we were so engrossed with him that we fell into the Propontis?"

"Yes, I do remember," I answered; "how very happy we were then, Djimlah!"

"Why 'then?'" inquired the young woman. "Are we not happy now? Are you not, Allah's little ray?"

"Are you?" I questioned.

"Of course I am," the young wife answered, clasping her youngest child to her bosom. "I am even more happy now with my babies and my lord." Then she added, as if the thought had just come to her, "You have not taken a master to your heart, dear one—why? You remember how we used to plan about our husbands, and you always said you would marry a prince ever so great and powerful. I have my husband; where is yours, little blossom?"

"I have searched all Europe," I replied, "and in despair I have crossed the ocean and gone to America. He is quite elusive; he evades me everywhere."

"Does it make you sad, Allah's little cloud?" said the Validé Hanoum, leaning over and running her fingers over my hair.

"Look! look at him now!" cried another, pointing to the sun. "He is kissing the hills good-by. Look, how he makes them blush; how pink they grow in their love for him! In their joy now they will sing in colors."

"Mashallah! mashallah!" exclaimed several women, kissing their fingers to the departing sun. From outside the walls a shepherd was singing the sunset song as he walked behind his sheep. The slaves, this time of their own accord, were softly singing, "Happy, happy we, dwellers of this beautiful land!"

These women were all intoxicated with the beauty of nature before them. Nowhere have I seen such pure enjoyment of life. Nothing was bothering them. They had no other career except that of being beautiful and happy.

The color of the sky was spreading, taking in the Byzantine wall, the Golden Horn, and the slender minarets silhouetted from afar; and the East little by little crept again into my blood, and I let myself go and be happy in mere existence.

After sunset the Validé Hanoum gave the signal of departure, and at once wives, children, guests, and slaves rose to their feet. Two eunuchs carried the rugs and pillows, while the others carried the young children. There were eight of these black cerberi—two for each wife. As we descended from the hill the dwelling presented itself in full view. It was a huge, ugly wooden structure of ninety rooms, looking more like a factory than a rich residence. Of the ninety rooms only twenty were given over to the master and his retinue; the rest belonged to the women.

The Validé Hanoum, in her position as first wife, occupied the first floor, and had more rooms assigned to her than any other wife. Djimlah, my friend, as fourth wife, was destined to see the world from the top of the house; and she had only fourteen rooms for herself. There was but one bath-house, and that belonged to the Validé Hanoum; but all the ladies took their hour-long ablutions there. On each floor there was a connecting passage to the other side of the house, through which the master could visit each wife without being seen by the others.

As I said before, this household was a very strict one, and the women of the house obeyed all the laws of their creed, and followed the prescribed customs rigorously. Their nails were profusely dyed, and their indoor robes were one-piece garments of very costly materials. Their hair was done up in braids, while gauzy pieces of silk, cut bias, were arranged round their heads. Saluting with the graceful temena—touching the floor, the knees, the heart, the lips, and the forehead—was customary, on every occasion; and strict attention was given to precedence.

The Validé Hanoum sat at the head of the table, the second wife sitting at the foot. The third wife sat at the right of the first, and the fourth at the right of the second. On no occasion were these places changed. The first wife was served first, and it was she who gave the signal for conversation. Also permission for inviting guests or going out to pay visits was granted or refused by the Validé.

As far as I could judge, there was no jealousy between the wives. The others looked upon the Validé as a mother, though she was little older than the second and third wife. I was given to understand that the harmony of the household depended absolutely on the character of the first wife. As the household was very Oriental, the only chairs to be seen were in the dining-room There were several reception rooms, one of which was supposed to be furnished in European fashion. It was as European as the Oriental rooms in America are Oriental.

In the sixty-five rooms assigned to women there was not a room that could be called a bedroom, that is, that had the appearance of being given over to that use. Instead, there were many rooms bare of furniture except for rugs and pillows and one or two low tables inlaid with mother-of-pearl. These rooms had beautiful damask hangings at the windows, and a low platform with two steps leading up to it, on one side of the room. On this platform was a silken rug, and baskets or vases of flowers. Had one had the curiosity to open the large cupboards in these rooms, one would have found all the bed-clothes neatly folded away. The Turks never use hard mattresses, like ours, but several well-kept soft ones, made of cotton. From the closets the bedclothes were taken at night and arranged on the low platforms. This mode of living, I suppose, is a remnant of their former nomadic habits.

On the first night of my arrival, while I was lying on my platform, thinking over my day's experience, the door of my room opened softly to let Djimlah pass. I was certain that while she sat in my room a eunuch was crouching at my door. She was ready for the night—her hair done up in that queer Oriental fashion becoming only to Eastern women. It was divided in two and parted in the middle; each division again subdivided in two, and each braided loosely. Then the ends of the two front braids were tied up by a wide, soft piece of silk, which hung loose in the back and formed a kind of background for the face. Djimlah's headdress was of pale blue, which brought out the color of her deep blue eyes. As she sat at the foot of my platform a lovely perfume of roses emanated from her.

"Sun-ray," I said to her, "your approach signals roses."

"Yes, blossom of the almond tree," was her reply. "I have had my rose-bath. You shall have yours presently. But before Kondjé comes, let us make use of the flying time—not so?" Djimlah always spoke Turkish, to the consternation of my poor ears, which had been out of training for years. Though she spoke French and English perfectly, she seldom made use of them. She abhorred anything foreign to Mahometanism, her strong affection for me being her only exception.

"Little river," she said bluntly, as is the Turkish custom, "I hate to think of you living away in that half-civilized country of America. You really must stay here and be married."

"Do you think, Djimlah, my dear," I asked, matching her own frankness, "that I should be happy with a quarter of a husband?"

She laughed till the tears came to her eyes.

"I have just been paying a visit to Nassarah and Tsakran," I went on; "but Tsakran is a little kitten, and I don't think it matters to her whether she is the first or second wife; and Nassarah, for the sake of the boys, does not mind sharing her husband."

"There is where you make a mistake, my little one," Djimlah said. "You never share your husband. What a man gives to one woman he never gives to another. What he is to his first wife he never is to his second or third. It always amuses me how slow you European women are to understand men. You put up with the greatest outrages in order to remain the only wives. A man is not like a woman, who is essentially a mother. A man by nature is polygamous. His nature must expand: sometimes it is more than one woman that he must love; sometimes he gives himself over to state matters; sometimes it is a career or a profession that he needs. But whatever he does, the love of one woman is not and cannot be enough to occupy him. When a man has a nature to love more than one woman, what happens? According to our sacred laws he may marry them. They are loved and honored by him, and the children of this second or third love are his children, and share his name as they share his property. But what happens in your countries and with your habits? A man repudiates his first wife, generally with a great deal of scandal, for a second. He gives her little money, and her children lose their father's companionship. If the man cannot divorce his wife, he leads her the life of a dog, and lives a libertine himself. Or if he loves another woman, and she loves him, and they live together, the woman carries a burden of shame, and the children born out of their great love are outcasts."

As Djimlah spoke of our system her blue eyes widened, her long earrings shook, and disgust was painted on her beautiful features. I chuckled inwardly, remembering some lectures I had heard in America in which the women of the harem were spoken of as most miserable beings, and in which our duty was pointed out to us to work toward their deliverance.

"Djimlah," I said, "you speak of course from your experience, as perhaps the most loved of the wives. Suppose to-morrow your husband were to cast you aside and bring into the household a younger and possibly a handsomer wife—what then?"

Djimlah's pretty face lighted up with a smile. "You dear, dear yavroum, you will never understand. If my husband has ten more wives, it does not alter my position. I shall be his Djimlah then as always. He will still love me for myself, for the love I have for him, and for the children I have given him."

"But, Djimlah, wouldn't that love be greater if he loved only you, and shared tit with no one else? If you were the only affection in his life?"

Djimlah caressed my hand. "My little one, don't make this mistake in life. If you were the most intelligent woman in the world, the most entertaining, the most brilliant, the most beautiful, you could never be everything to your husband. That is the way Allah has made them; that is the way all of them are—and those that are not are good for nothing."

"Djimlah," I said at last, perceiving that she would never see my point of view, "how about the women? Don't they, too, need more than one in their lives?"

Djimlah smiled her wise smile again. "Yavroum, women are not like men. Women, good women, natural women, are mothers above all. Their hearts are filled the moment they become mothers. All their effort, their ambition, their love, settles on the head of the child."

Just then Kondjé came in, carrying a small basket full of rose-petals. She spoke in low tones to the young wife, who blushed furiously, and shyly bade me good-night.

"Honored Hanoum," the young girl said to me, "may I be so blessed as to have the pleasure of giving you your bath of roses?"

"You may," I answered, "if you will call me anything else except 'Honored Hanoum.' I can stand being the bride of the brook and the cloud of the sky, but I draw the line at being 'Honored.' It makes me feel old and venerable. And, besides, you know I have not yet a husband, so I can't be 'Honored,' anyway."

Kondjé, giggling, took down my hair, filled it with rose-petals, and rubbed them into the hair and scalp. Afterwards she did the same to my body, so that in half an hour I and the room were filled with the odor of roses, and I went to sleep dreaming of flowers.

The following days revealed to me a Djimlah so foreign to her former self as to be an entirely new person. Even her beauty had changed. It was no longer the audacious allurement of a handsome animal: there was calm and repose in it. She was still a woman for men to love desperately, but with a higher love, if one less maddening than the one she would have inspired six years ago.

One night, as we were sitting on the foot of my bed and talking of the past, I said to her:

"Djimlah, you have changed morally and mentally much more than I have physically, though your change has been for the better. What has done it?"

She laughed, and there was a little scorn in her rippling young laugh. "You dear little crest of the wave, because you have been studying and running around the world, 'improving' and 'enlarging' your mind, you think that you know something. Why, you are ignorant as my baby. You may think you are ahead of me, but really you are very far behind. The mysteries of the world, which you do not even dream of, are mine. You will never know them until you love a man and are his. Then—" She clasped her hands over her breast, and her face changed its expression. It was lovely with a loveliness mystic and holy. She leaned towards me, and in a voice tremulous and full of melody, spoke of her motherhood. "To be a mother! To see the pink rosy mouth of your baby seeking life from your very body!" She raised her hands. "O Allah! how good you are to women! No, little mountain-spring, books will never teach you life as a man and a child will. Books may feed your mind, but your heart will be starved—and human beings must live through the heart."

She had moved me; I believed her; but habit was stronger than momentary emotion. I was living through my mind, and the next minute I asked her:—

"You used to say that love was nothing but a matter of the senses. Did you find it so?"

"At first, yes—then all at once it changed. You become a new person—a good woman—when Allah gives you a child. Something restful comes over the senses, and they retire to the background; they no longer dominate love."

"And thus a woman acquires a soul?" I inquired flippantly.

She replied soberly:—

"A woman has no soul. It may be that if she had she would spend her life cultivating it, and forget that she had to devote herself to those to whom she must give a soul. A woman is a one-thought creature. Besides, she stands for abnegation: to know life, she must give, always give, and never ask for anything in return. Through giving she grows—never through receiving, for then she shrinks."

This was my Djimlah of six years ago! She had travelled far and fast on the road which leads to the divine throne, through her love and her mother-love. She was right: books do not teach life.

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