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

The Love of Nor-Sembah and Hakif Bey

On the day of their arrival we rose earlier than usual to help decorate the house. Roses and lilacs in great quantities were sent in by numerous households of the vicinity. The old family brocades were thrown over the chairs. Silk rugs were gracing the balustrades and bannisters. Big branches of leaves decorated the walls of the vestibule, while pots of gay flowers placed on either side of the staircase added to the generally festive appearance of the house. Also, all the members of the household, from the Validé to the most insignificant slave, were dressed in gala costume.

Immediately after the midday meal, and in spite of the heat, while Selim Pasha's other two wives and I, with their slaves, were drinking cooling drinks, dressed in the thinnest of garments, the Validé and Djimlah and several of their slaves took their seats in the large springless carriage, made comfortable with soft cushions, and went to meet the expected members of the family.

A few hours later the young wife was brought to the house, not in the springless wagon, nor yet in a brougham, but in a sedan chair. The surprise I felt at this was greatly increased by the sight of the young man whom I rightly took to be her husband, walking in the heat by the side of her chair, bare-headed, his fez in his hand, almost as if he were following the dead. I had known that the young wife was ill, but the festive air of the household had deceived me, even though I knew the Turkish custom of putting on their gayest attire at the death of their dear ones. Yet on the countenance of this fezless youth there could be no dissimulation of his sorrow.

Though we were all quite anxious to see the young wife, whose beauty was renowned, we had to be content with the announcement that she would see some of us on the morrow.

That evening, when I went into Djimlah's apartment, I found her nursing the young baby of Nor-Sembah Hanoum, and heard her murmuring these words: "You poor little fading blossom, you dear bedraggled lamb, they even forget you, do they? I will be mother to you, little blossom of Allah."

I sat quietly waiting till the slave should come to take away the baby, after it should be fed, knowing the superstition Turkish women have about being distracted when they are performing this duty of motherhood.

"Djimlah," I asked, when she was at liberty to talk to me, "why were you nursing that baby? Is the mother very ill indeed?"

"Ill!" Djimlah cried; "she is dying. He is killing her."

"Who is killing her?" I asked.

Djimlah's big blue eyes looked at me in surprise and wonder. "Did not the Valide tell you?"


"Then I must tell you everything from the beginning so that you may understand it right. Hakif Bey—that is the Validé's son—met Nor-Sembah when she was visiting the Validé, who is a distant relative of her mother's. At that time, although she was fourteen and had already taken tcharchaf, which made her a woman, she was so frail and childlike that one was apt to regard her as not grown up. Besides, Hakif Bey had always been absolutely indifferent to women, and no one thought any harm could happen if he came into his mother's apartments, as he had always been in the habit of doing. He was devoted to the Validé, and his greatest pleasure was to spend an hour reading to her or talking with her. In these meetings he met Nor-Sembah and fell so violently in love with her that the Validé had to keep the child day and night by her side, for fear of his stealing her and making her his own. It was a very difficult task, since Nor-Sembah was also in love with Hakif and quite hard to manage."

"But why didn't they marry?" I asked. "Was Hakif too young?"

"No, indeed; he was seventeen. The objection was Nor-Sembah's delicate health. She had inherited weak lungs from her family, and her mother and the Validé did not think it wise to let her marry so young. They managed to send Hakif away to Asia Minor in an important position,—for Hakif is very clever and very learned,—and promised him that at the end of a year he could have his bride. I think what kept him quiet for the year was not so much that his position demanded all his attention,—though he acquitted himself brilliantly and the Sultan praised him very much,—as the feverish preparations he made to have a home for his bride. He had a lovely mansion built, with a bath-house as pretty as that of his mother's. He not only furnished the house, but sent to Circassia and bought beautiful slaves and dancing girls. Being the first son, Selim Pasha gave him a handsome allowance, besides what he made as governor. So fervently did he work that at the end of the year everything was ready. Meanwhile the Validé and Nor-Sembah's mother did all they could to make the girl strong. But she was always the same, and the doctor said that, in addition to her illness, the child was lovesick; so when, at the end of the year, Hakif was here claiming her, they married them. You ought to have seen him when he arrived. He was like a hungry wolf. They could hardly keep him out of the haremlik.

"Many months passed after they married and went to Asia Minor, but not a word was heard from them; and finally Selim Pasha himself went there to find out what was happening. When he came back, he said—though he does not give his opinions often—that 'the children were loving each other too much to think of Allah or parents.' You know, yavroum, it is not right that mortals should love so fiercely. Evil spirits get jealous and cast the evil eye." Thus said Djimlah, educated in Western literature, yet in her heart as Eastern as any. "If he had loved her less she might have found strength in his love, instead of death. When word came that Nor-Sembah was blessed with Allah's greetings and was about to be a mother, there were tears and cries in two households; for the doctor had said that a child would mean death to the frail mother. Nor-Sembah's father was wild, because she was his only daughter, and he loved her as one loves the blood of one's veins. He stormed and raged and insisted that Nor-Sembah be brought right back to him. But that was impossible, since Nor-Sembah could not be moved; and besides, for nothing in the world would Hakif allow any one to be near her. Zafar Pasha—that is her father—took the doctors that Hakif had sent to Constantinople for and went with them to Asia, and insisted that after the child was born she should be brought here.

"Young people are crazy!" Djimlah, of twenty-four years' experience, interrupted her story to exclaim with scornful emphasis. "Do you know that both Nor-Sembah and Hakif grudge every minute they give to any one except each other? She does not even look at her child. One would say that the glorious sun rises and sets in Hakif Bey."

"But would it not have been better for the girl to have stayed at home, since she had good medical treatment?" I asked.

"It might, if they could have been trusted," Djimlah answered; "but they were brought here because they are going to be separated."

"What?" I almost screamed.

"Yes," Dijmlah said quietly, "they are going to separate them, and I am going to take care of the child and nurse it with my little one."

"To separate them simply because they love each other," I repeated, horrified; "why, it is inhuman."

For the first time during my sojourn in the harems I had to face Oriental barbarism. I almost hated them, and the laws that gave to parents such power over their children.

"It may seem inhuman to you, but it is the only human thing to do, under the circumstances," Djimlah went on, unruffled. "When a man does not know how to love his wife, then the parents have to come in and teach him. Anyway, Nor-Sembah was born to be a fairy, a lily, not a wife. She is a woman's breath, not a real woman. Allah, one spring day, must have made a beautiful dream, and out of that vision must have come Nor-Sembah; but she was never created for the earth. She is so wonderful that you want to pray before her. Wait till you see her, you who worship beauty, and who think that Aishé Hanoum and I are beautiful."

"But, Djimlah, dear, will he consent to the separation?"

"He will have to. They are going to make him marry a widow slave of about thirty-five. Word has been sent out already to the various harems, and by to-morrow pretty slaves will be coming in."

"But it might kill Nor-Sembah to have him take another wife, since she, too, is so much in love with him."

"No, indeed, because she knows that it is only a temporary marriage. At the end of a year Hakif will be separated from the slave, giving her a stipulated sum of money, and then he will again be given back his wife—stronger by that time, let us hope. That is why they give him a woman of about thirty-five, so that there will be no children to make the marriage binding."

"And will he consent to this most Oriental of arrangements?" I could not help asking.

"He will have to," was the decisive reply. "Everything is arranged. He will either have to do this, or his marriage will be annulled. The old people have seen to everything."

I was so much disgusted that I could hardly keep from telling Djimlah what I thought of the whole arrangement.

"Don't be a sentimental fool, little blossom," she adjured me. "What the old people want to do is to save her and him, if they can. Besides, he must learn to love his wife for her—not for himself alone, as he is doing now."

That night I had the most distressing nightmares. Now I dreamed that I was Nor-Sembah, and again that I was the slave, and sometimes I was both in one. I never welcomed the daylight with more pleasure than I did the next morning. At the same time, I felt for the first time in my relations with the Turks that I was glad not to be one of them.

I was very impatient to see the girl about whose happiness I was so much concerned. After I had had my bath and breakfast, Kondjé told me in a semi-whisper that the Validé invited me to go to her sitting-room.

"Is Hanoum Nor-Sembah there?" I asked.

Kondjé put her brownish hands to her breast and exclaimed: "Oh! honored Hanoum, how you will love her! you, who, like us, love beautiful people so much." She opened her eyes wide, as if to accentuate what she was going to say next, and extended her hands upwards as she did when in prayer. "She is a white jasmine! She is the morning dew on the roses! She is Allah's own prayer!" Kondje was really so moved at the thought of Nor-Sembah's beauty that she was trembling.

I went down to the garden and carefully chose the prettiest rose I could find, and with my little offering went into the sitting-room.

The Validé rose from her seat near the girl and came over to greet me. First she presented me to the girl's mother, then to the girl herself, lying on her couch, and then to Hakif Bey, who was sitting by the side of his wife, holding her hand.

I went to the couch, took one of the young woman's hands, and kissed it, giving her my rose. She smiled at me, without saying a word. I took a seat near her, and do what I could, it was impossible for me not to stare at her. Djimlah had said the truth, the child seemed to be of divine origin. Her beauty was quite unearthly. I could see how one could become mad for love of her, though she was not really a woman even now, being undeveloped, like a child. Standing up she would probably have been taller than the average, but lying on her couch she looked so fairy-like, so frail! Her skin was so transparent that her veins showed in fine blue lines. Her eyes were very large and almond-shaped, and shaded by jet black lashes. Her nose and mouth were of pure Greek modelling—indeed, there was not one flaw to be found in her appearance. She was dressed in a soft brocade of cream color, embroidered in pale blue flowers.

Though I knew that she was quite ill there was nothing of the sick person about her. Her gown was cut low at the neck in V-form, displaying her delicate throat, which was like the stem of a flower, as the Validé put it. Her wavy, blue-black hair, in two long braids, lay on her breast.

The longer I looked at her the more I realized that what really made her so beautiful was neither her wonderful skin nor the exquisite modelling of her face, but a flower-like candor, and an indescribable purity that emanated from her whole personality.

It has always been a mystery to me that the Turks, who can produce such types of purity as we can hardly conceive of in our Western civilization, should be supposed by us to be voluptuous and sensual. Quite often, in looking at certain children of the Latin and Anglo-Saxon races, I find myself wondering what kind of love could have given them birth, so animal-like are they in expression and deportment. With the ordinary Turkish child it is quite different. Often on meeting a group of them, and especially of little girls, I have stopped and watched them with pleasure, because they looked so pure, so simple, above all so childlike.

One day when I was wondering on this subject, I asked the Validé, with whom I happened to be, whether the children reflected the fathers or the mothers more.

"A child is neither its father nor its mother," she answered me. "Children are either the products of the highest type of love—a divine conception almost—or of an intellectual love almost as high; or else they are mere animal creations, or, lower yet, the results of evil and voluptuous desires."

The Latin races will talk of the sexual relation of men and women in a way to take from it all sanctity, all poetry, all romance. The Anglo-Saxons seldom touch on the subject, for it is something not to be mentioned. The high-minded Oriental, differing from both, will speak of it freely, either with reverence, as one does of religion, or with poetic feeling, as one does of the coming of the spring or the babbling of the brook. It is to him either big and overwhelming, as one's faith toward one's God, or lighter, but very exquisite.

The Validé, that day, while we sat amid the pine trees, spoke about human love with a mysticism and reverence as if she were in the presence of the great Allah in whom she believed so fervently. Whether her ideas were taken from some Eastern book or belief of which I had never heard, or whether they were her own, I do not know.

"When two human beings come together, yavroum, some motive brings them together. Generally the motive is love; but love, like every other thing in life, has its degrees. The highest of all is the unconscious offering of one's heart, not to the man or the woman as an individual, but to the man or woman as the earthly incarnation of the deity of love. This is the highest love, and the children that spring from that love must be perfect. This must have been the way we were first created, and the mortal sin which our ancestors committed, I believe, was when they forgot this conception of love and degraded what was once a divine conception into a mere physical relation. However, I believe that we still retain the divine spark within us, and that it may be rekindled, and that the children born from such a perfect love are our perfect human beings. Such a birth must have had our prophet, and your prophet, and all the prophets that have lived in the history of the world.

"But the majority of people marry from motives other than the highest love. If these motives be social or mercenary, the children born from such unions are the indifferent human beings one sees. There are motives even baser, and from these we have the moral and physical cripples. Perhaps this thought may have been in the minds of the ancient Greeks when they condemned the physically crippled children to death. The moral cripples they could not know ti'1 they grew up."

This conversation with the Validé came back to me as I was looking in speechless admiration at the exquisite beauty of Nor-Sembah. From my revery the sick girl's voice awakened me. It was the voice one might have expected from such a perfect creature.

"The Validé tells me that if I ask you, you will read me a little of the French poetry."

From under her pillow she drew a volume of Victor Hugo's "Feuilles d'Automne," and thus, thanks to French poetry, I saw a little more of the girl than I otherwise should. While I was reading to her, the young husband sat watching his wife. It might have been my imagination, but I had the feeling that the intensity of his gaze tired her, that had he gone out she would have rested better.

The next day I went to read to Nor-Sembah again, as I had promised. In the sitting-room, on this day, there were the two fathers, in addition to the two mothers and the young husband. I started to leave the room, when I saw them all there, but the Validé and the young wife asked me to stay, and though, afterwards, I would have given a good deal not to have been there, it was my fate to be present at the only disagreeable scene I witnessed during my stay among the harems, and one which seemed to me quite at variance with their great ideas of love.

A buxom, good-looking slave came into the room, magnificently dressed, and offered us some sweets from a tray she was carrying. With the exception of Hakif Bey we all took some, and Nor-Sembah raised her head a little and followed with her eyes the movements of the slave. Hakif Bey not only did not take any sweets, but while the slave was in the room kept his eyes fixed on the garden. Nor did he turn his head once, while slave after slave came into the room on various pretexts. At last, when all had come and gone, like dress models in a Parisian shop, Selim Pasha came up to his son and taking his chin in his hand looked into his eyes.

"As you like, my son, as you like," he said. "If you do not choose for yourself, we shall be compelled to choose for you. As you like, I say again."

Hakif Bey's face was dark with resentment. "Why do you expect me to want another wife, when my heart is filled with one only? I shall do what you want me to: I shall go away—but let me at least go alone. Why must I have another woman?"

"Because her womanly sympathy may make the year of waiting easier for you," the older man said, very kindly indeed. "There is no need, my boy, for your ever seeing her. But the human heart is weak and craves for sympathy. We want to provide against that."

Hakif Bey was about to reply angrily. One could see that from his face, and from the way he drew his head away from his father's hand. But here Nor-Sembah interfered. With a quick movement she laid her head on his shoulder and took one of his hands in hers, while with the other she grasped the older man's robe.

"Father," she implored, "let little Nor-Sembah choose for her lord. It will make her so very happy to find him a good woman who will be near him while she is getting stronger. I will take some days about it, and I will make sure that it is a good woman—but I will do it, father; trust little Nor-Sembah!"

She smiled so sweetly and so bravely that I knew her cause was won. The older man kissed her and left the room.

That afternoon I went with the Validé to a shrine where she was going to pray. With us was only one other slave besides the eunuch. After the prayer was over we went to a little brook to have our luncheon, while the horses were resting. After luncheon the slave lay down under a big tree and went to sleep, and the eunuch drew off a little way, yet keeping us under his protecting eye. The Validé and I took off our shoes and stockings and put our feet in the brook, and then took our work from our bags and began to sew. Thus do the Turkish women often sit for hours at a time.

"What do you think of my boy, Hakif Bey?" she asked, after she had taken a few stitches on her embroidery,

"I think he is a splendid fellow," I answered sincerely.

"Does he look to you as if he could stand his earthly sorrow like a man?"

"Do you mean the cruel separation you are all preparing for him?" I asked, hotly.

"There! there! little one, don't get excited. We are doing our best."

"Suppose," I cried, indignantly, "suppose the girl dies while he is away—what then?"

The Validé laid her work down in her lap, clasped her hands together, and said, ever so quietly : "Nor-Sembah is going to die, little one; the great doctor said so two days ago."

I was choking. "You mean to say that, knowing this, you are trying to send him away with another wife, and not let them be together during her last hours?"

"Though the great doctor said she was going to die, we still cling to the hope of saving her. Sometimes even great doctors can be mistaken. There is gusel vereni in the family, and hers developed three years ago.

She was so happy when she first married that for a time the disease seemed to be checked. But the gusel vereni came back to her worse than before."

Gusel vereni is a disease that I have only heard of among the Turks. It is akin to our consumption, except that the patient loses nothing of her looks, and quite often seems to grow more beautiful as the end approaches, whence the name, which means "beautiful decline."

Notwithstanding the Valide's reasoning, I still pleaded with her. "Do not send him away, Validé; it might kill him, too."

"But we want to send him away to save him. If he stays here and she dies, he will kill himself. If he goes away, she might get well; and if she does not, we will not tell him for a year. We will take his child to him, and he may learn to love it, and for its sake care for life a little." ''

"But it is so cruel for her," I still persisted.

"No, no, yavroum, she does not suffer. She is earnestly looking for a good woman. She never thinks for an instant that she is going to die. If the end comes, she will not even know it; for it comes very beautifully and quietly, almost always when the patient is asleep. All her family died like this. She has been very happy since her marriage, and all her life has been a sweet-scented spring."

When the day came for me to leave the harem, I was sorry. I wanted to stay and see the outcome of that little tragedy. I only knew Nor-Sembah slightly, but sometimes I wondered if she had not assumed the task of finding a wife for her husband only in order to gain time; or whether it was with the idea that little by little he would get accustomed to the thought and choose one for himself. At any rate, when I left the household to go to Russia, a week or ten days later, the question was not yet settled, although she had seen a number of slaves and had had short talks with them.

My journey to Russia was very absorbing. I saw many strange scenes and met many interesting people; yet the Turkish lovers were constantly in my mind. Neither did I forget them on my return to Constantinople in the rush of getting off to America. I wrote a note to the Validé, and sent it by a messenger, who was to wait for an answer. The answer came from Aishé Hanoum, the third wife of Selim Pasha, who told me that both the Validé and Djimlah were in the Stamboul home, where I could go to see them.

I broke a day's engagement, and set out for Stamboul. When I reached the house, the Validé's eunuch opened the door for me and ushered me in. I found the Validé in her room, but what a difference there was in her countenance! As soon as I saw her I knew that the girl was dead. I threw my arms around her and began to cry.

"Don't! don't, my child! Don't go against Allah's wishes. Maybe they are happier than we know. Kismet!"

"They!" I cried.

"Sit down there, and I will tell you." In a voice which was dry from pain, and absolutely colorless, the Validé told me the end of the lovers.

"She only lived two weeks after you went away. Allah took her to him very gently, and Hakif was at her side. He was very quiet and dutiful. He went about the place and chose a grave for her. She was fond of the sea and the pine trees, and he bought a piece of land with pines overlooking the Bosphorus. There they put her to sleep, and Hakif came quietly home. That night it rained hard and there was a summer storm. Hakif, in the middle of that stormy dark night, and while every one was in his own room, perhaps thought of the lonely little grave at the foot of the pine trees overlooking the Bosphorus. Perhaps her spirit came for him and called him to her. He saddled his horse himself, and went to sit with his wife in her new home.

"Early in the morning the gardener found the horse, without rider, outside his door. We hunted for Hakif everywhere. Then his father and I went to the little grave by the sea. There, lying on her grave, was Hakif, quite, quite dead."

"He killed himself?" I whispered.

"No! no! yavroum. The doctor said that after he was drenched by the rain, he probably fell asleep on the grave, and a chill killed him—but I know. Allah, in his supreme clemency, took him to his heart, and gave him back his bride, now cured from all earthly ills. And now by the foot of the pines, overlooking the Bosphorus, there is no longer a solitary little grave; for there is another that keeps it company."

This was the end of the two lovers, whose love was the cause of their death. Often I find myself dreaming of them, when heaven's lamp burns low, and when the imagination roams into the realm of the world beyond. Is she an houri now? and has he become pure as the first man whom God created? and are they walking together in the Garden of Eden, if that is now above? It is unfortunate that some one will always come in to light the lamp, when one's thoughts have gone farther and farther away, until almost one has reached the river over which the soul alone may go. But in the dusk the lights must be lighted, and the wandering thoughts are brought back from the boundary which divides this world from that which is to come. The little boat with Charon waiting in the stern resolves itself into a morris chair; and the angel who was ready to divest my soul of my body emerges from the gloom as a bookcase, while the angel's flaming copper-colored hair is only the back of some brilliantly bound book. And of all the musings there only remains the thought that some day I shall cross the river which the lovers have crossed, and that then I shall meet again my beautiful Nor-Sembah, and know the fate of the lovers.

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