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

Coming Home to Turkey

The mist was slowly lifting—so slowly that one could imagine an invisible hand to be reluctantly drawing aside veils from the face of nature. As the air became clearer, the slender minarets were seen first above the other buildings; and then, little by little, Constantinople, Queen of Cities, revealed herself to our hungry eyes. And as if Nature were but Constantinople's handmaiden, the last of the fog was suddenly transmuted to glorious sunshine, that we might the more surely be surprised and dazzled with the beauty of the Sultan's capital.

The steamer slowly puffed onward. On one side of us lay the seven-hilled city, where all races dwell peacefully together; on the other was Stamboul, the ancient capital of Byzantium, with the remnants of its old wall, and the ever famous Old Serai, dark and mysterious as the crimes committed within its walls.

To the other passengers all was new and thrilling, and they were rushing from one side of the steamer to the other, exclaiming, shouting, incapable, it seemed to me, of appreciating the splendors nature was lavishing before their eyes. The more beauty they saw, the more they shouted, as if by power of lung they could induce their souls to admiration.

I sat quietly in my steamer-chair, too much moved for any expression. To me it was all familiar, and dear as it could not be to casual tourists. I knew the lights and shadows of this land, and loved them as one loves one's native country; for Constantinople was my birthplace, as it had been that of all my ancestors for seven centuries. But I knew that the chorus of delight and admiration would become critical as soon as we should be landed. To me there was poetry in everything; but these others would see only the narrow, dirty streets; and the stray dogs—most vitally characteristic of Turkey—would be just so many snapping curs, howling and littering the streets.

Towards us there came a small tug, with the same smokestack as that of our steamer, and a conversation started between our captain and an inspector of the line. I heard the words that passed between them in Italian, and threw back my head and laughed.

"What is it, mademoiselle?" asked a French colonel sitting beside me.

"We cannot land," I explained. Though I had laughed, I was bitterly disappointed. I felt as a mother must when her baby misbehaves before her friends.

"Why can we not land?"

For a minute I doubted whether it would be wise for me to speak. Of the thirty-five passengers I was the only one who knew Italian, and therefore, in spite of the loud conversation, I was the only one who had understood what passed between the captain and the inspector.

"You wished to see the Bosphorus the first day," I said at length to the Frenchman. "Your wish will be granted: we are going now to the head of the Bosphorus."

"But why do we not land here?"

"Colonel, after I have answered you, let my words remain yours alone." I pointed to the city, every minute growing lovelier, and gave him the one horrid word—"Plague!"

The Frenchman turned pale. "Not really, mademoiselle?"

I nodded. "Just so! Only don't let it worry you in the least. I have lived through many plagues here; for it comes yearly, and its duration depends entirely on the amount of money needed to be extracted from the imperial treasury."

It was natural that the Frenchman should look at me as if I were losing my mind. It takes a lifetime to understand many things in Turkey: it takes generations to understand the political machinations. The press is not permitted to publish the news; and by the time plain facts have passed through the tenth mouth, they have borrowed such gorgeous hues of phantasy that it takes a seer to discover the original grain of truth. The Oriental—forbidden the truth—finds solace in the magnificence of his inventions.

"What do you mean?" the Frenchman asked again. For three years he had been in command of the smallest fortress in the world, which is on the island of Crete. He had flown the five flags of the powers over his tiny fortifications, and thought he knew Turkey and the Turks—as foreigners do, who have lived in the Sultan's dominion for a time. But I was a Turkish subject, and we had been Turkish subjects ever since there had been Turks in Europe.

"I mean this," I replied. "Money is needed by the officials. The public treasury is empty. The Sultan hugs his own—as usual overfilled. He can be made to give a little, if frightened, and the plague does frighten him: not the actual disease, but the quarantining, and the complaints of the foreign powers. So he will dole out money to clean the city. A little of this will be spent on cleaning—the rest will go to the interested officials. If the Sultan does not give enough at first, the plague will continue until he gives the necessary amount. I know a Greek gentleman into whose pocket a little of that money will go. He holds quite an exalted governmental position, but the government has forgotten to pay him for the last ten or fifteen years."

While we were talking, our boat was steaming on, and the marvellous Bosphorus began to show us its beauties. Its hills—those never-to-be-forgotten hills—appeared now green, now violet, then purple, and again blue. I have watched them for years, and they are never alike. They are small or large, straight-lined or full of curves, according to the light, and the hour, and the season. And the deep blue sky hangs low over them, loving them; and it gives to the waters of the Bosphorus its own blue tint, and makes of them living waters, as they hurry on to the Mediterranean.

At the very end of the Bosphorus, where there were no houses,—nothing but a barren rock,—the steamer stopped, and its little boats dumped us on shore. Then it went away, having escaped the quarantining in Russia, which would have been its fate had it touched at an infected port.

We waited here for several hours, all three classes of passengers mixed indiscriminately together. The others fumed and fretted, but I was quite content. In Turkey I forget the value of time. Every minute of living there is joy; why hurry it by?

It was late in the afternoon when a small steamer called for us, and we went down the Bosphorus. And now, in the waning light, the river had changed again, and in its new beauties even the other passengers forgot hunger, thirst, fatigue, and indignation. As we drew near Stamboul, Saint Sophia rose above the other mosques, and against the dark blue sky seemed to me more gigantic than when I saw it last. I thought of its mysterious, closed door, of which every Greek child learns in infancy. I had first seen that door with the believing eyes of childhood, for which no myth is unreal. Later, I had seen it with the eyes of the grown-up girl, whose soul begins to doubt the world, and whose mind Occidental education renders sceptical. But think as I might,—even now, after six years of work in practical America,—that little door to me, as to all Greeks, contained the hope of our race. No matter where we may have been born, nor where our ancestors may have been born, that closed little door means everything to all those in whose veins flows the blood which belongs to Greece, and which, when the time comes, must be shed for the freedom of the greater Greece, still under the yoke of Turkey—for Macedonia, for Albania, for Thrace, for Thessaly, for all the Greek islands, and, above all, for Constantinople.

Here is the myth, which has been repeated to every Greek child for nearly five hundred years: That door has not been opened since the fatal day the Turkish army entered Constantinople in 1453, when Constantinos Paleologos, the last Greek Emperor, fell defending his capital.

It was on an Easter Sunday, and the clergy were officiating in Saint Sophia. When the cry rang through the church that Mahomet II had taken the city, the clergy, grasping the bejewelled Bible, which had been in Saint Sophia since the Bible was put together, and the Communion Cup, rushed into the little side room, and closed the door behind them. It has never been opened since, in spite of all the efforts of the Turks; and we children of the Greeks are told that, before the door closed the Bishop of Constantinople said that he would come out and finish the Holy Liturgy on the day when a Greek army should march back into Constantinople again, and give it to its rightful ruler and its own religion.

This is the story of the little closed door. Told to us in our cradles, we implicitly believe it for years,—and, who knows, in spite of the scepticism of the age, perhaps we believe it until we die. All I know is that I never look at Saint Sophia without thinking of the little door and what it stands for, and never go into the magnificent building without going to look at it,—just as I always go to see the Venus of Milo in the Louvre. Deep in my heart is the belief that to be as beautiful as she is, and to have lived so many centuries commanding the admiration of the world, something immortal from the soul of Praxiteles must have passed into the statue. And because of that thought I cannot help feeling that the beautiful statue on its pedestal, in that cold, dark place, must be unhappy and homesick; and as soon as I am in Paris I go and stand by her railing. When we are left alone, she and I, I speak to her in Greek. I tell her of all the doings of the Greeks, and little by little, as if a ray of the Attic sun were falling on the white marble, the whiteness softens; it becomes mellower, yellower, and alive,—as the marble is in Greece,—until I can see her shiver. The immortal spark in her is awake. The beauty of the face becomes human, the lips move, and she speaks. But what she says is only for her and me—perhaps it is of the day when the little door in Saint Sophia will open, and the holy mass will be finished, and the Greeks, again leaders of the world, will gather up all our exiles and bring them back to live under the sky of Hellas.

I came out of my dreams when we approached the Galata Bridge landing, and disembarked, not into a Christian Constantinople, but a Mussulman. Yet I do not hate the Turks as many Greeks do. On the con trary, I love them; for I know all their good points and their virtues. Moreover, they conquered us fairly, because our race had decayed. It is our task to deserve to rule again for something besides the memories of our splendid past.

It was very natural, coming home to Turkey. I was born a Turkish subject, and as such I returned. I found nothing changed. Everything was as I had left it; and when I met my mother, we finished the argument I had so cavalierly interrupted six years before.

Yet, though nothing else had changed, I had. I returned to my native land with new ideas, and a mind full of Occidental questioning, and I meant to find out things. Many of my childhood friends had been Turkish girls: them I now looked upon with new interest. Before, I had taken them and their way of living as a matter of course. Generations of my ancestors had prepared me for them, and I had lived among them, looking upon their customs and habits as quite as natural as my own. But during my stay in America I heard Turkey spoken of with hatred and scorn, the Turks reviled as despicable, their women as miserable creatures, living in practical slavery for the base desires of men. I had stood bewildered at this talk. Could it possibly be as the Americans said, and I never have known it?

Now, I was to see for myself, and not only to see but to talk with the women, to ask them their thoughts about their lives and their customs.

When I went away from Turkey I was but a young girl, an idealist, believing implicitly in the goodness of the world. I was now six years older, and I knew the world as a girl has to learn it who is suddenly thrown on her own resources in a strange land. Out of that experience I was going to study the Turkish women who had been my friends in my girlhood. Naturally I was delighted, only a few days after my arrival, to receive the following letter:—

Beloved One, from a far-away country come:

Do you remember your young friends; or have books and knowledge within them made your formerly dear heart like a bookcase? If you still love us, come to see us.

Two loving hearts, and the little buds that have sprung from them.

Nassarah and , their buds, and their gardener.

This little letter, with its English words and Turkish phraseology, set me dreaming of the many hours they and I had spent happily together on the shores of the Bosphorus, before I came to America. And I was filled with curiosity to see how two girls whom I had known so intimately could dwell in such apparent happiness, while sharing the love of a husband between them. A few days later a male slave came for me and my trunk, to pay a visit to the two roses, their buds, and their gardener, who lived some distance away in Dolma Baktshe. I arrived at their house a little before lunch time. A French maid received me and helped me off with my wraps, and then a slave conducted me to the Turkish bath, that I might rid myself entirely of the dust and fatigue of the short journey. After I had been thoroughly scrubbed and put into clean clothes, another slave brought me a cup of black coffee; and only after these preliminaries did my hostesses burst into my room, as if I had just arrived. It is a blessed custom which permits guests to be cleaned and refreshed before meeting their hosts. I had lived so long in a civilized country that I had forgotten how much more civilized, in some respects, uncivilized Turkey is.

Nassarah and Tsakran, though married and the mothers of two children each, were as gay and full of life as when they and I rolled hoops along the Bosphorus and cast pebbles into it. They looked like sisters, and very loving ones. One was clad in a loose pink silk garment, the other in rich yellow, and both had their dark hair dressed with pale pink plumes. They seized me and nearly carried me into their living-room, made of glass and called yally kiosky, "glass pavilion." There we reclined on low divans and talked for a few minutes before luncheon was announced.

The dining-room was not different from a European dining-room. I gave a sigh for the good old times when the Turks used to sit with their feet curled under them and eat with the ten forks and spoons that nature had provided them with, maintaining that taste is first transmitted through the finger-tips. However, nothing of the delicious food itself was European, and I was delighted to see the courses brought on in brass trays carried on the heads of the slaves. When the meal was finished a slave came in carrying a brass wash-basin. Another followed with a graceful brass pitcher of water; and still a third followed with soap, perfumes, and towels—and we might just as well have eaten with our fingers after all. When we were again seated, or rather reclining, in the yally kiosky, I said:—

"Now talk to me."

Nassarah took some tobacco with her slender fingers and rolled a cigarette, which she passed to the second wife of her husband. Rolling one for herself, she coaxed the flame of a match between her palms and lighted them. Then she turned to me.

"What would you like me to tell you, Allah's beloved?" she asked.

"Tell me about your marriage and how you both happened to get the same husband," I said impertinently.

At that both began to giggle, and embrace each other, and make funny faces, like two children.

"Tell her, Nassarah," said Tsakran, "tell her!"

Most Turkish women are natural comedians, and Nassarah had been a capital one from her childhood. She looked about her, taking in her audience, which consisted, besides Tsakran and myself, of about ten young slaves, a sort of ladies in attendance. Then, as if she were a miradju about to tell a story, she began with their customary words:

"The beginning of the tale! Good evening, most honorable company!"

All giggled delightedly at this.

"When I married Hilmi Pasha I was so much in love with him I was nearly crazy. I could not go to sleep, but just lay there while he slept, and watched him, and—"

"Oh, you must see him," the second wife burst in. "He is an ideal lover! Blond, with blue eyes, and such a lovely mustache; and tall, with such a beautiful figure!" And thereupon she jumped up and began to walk up and down, to give me an idea of Hilmi Pasha's lordly gait.

Nassarah grabbed her, however, and pulled her back to her divan.

"Keep quiet!" she said. "I am telling the story."

Tsakran made a face at her suppression; and then gave a kiss to the other wife.

"I was telling you," Nassarah went on, "that I was so much in love I could not sleep. A year later my girl, my Zelma, was born, and I was more and more in love with my lord."

At this point she threw herself on her knees, laid her arms on the floor, bent her head down on them, and prayed aloud that Allah might never permit her to live to see sorrow fall on her master. Tsakran and the slaves did the same, and for a few minutes the room was filled with their wailing voices. But this did not last long, and then, as cheerfully as ever, Nassarah Hanoum continued:

"Then my other little girl came, and I suffered—oh! how I suffered! And the learned doctor was called in, and he said I should live, but no more children for me.

And I had no boy! No, no boy for my Hilmi Pasha! Just then Tsakran came to see me."

The mention of the auspicious visit was too much for the two wives, and again they fell upon each other's necks, giggling and kissing.

"It was then I thought of a plan, and told Tsakran of it. I was not going to let Hilmi Pasha die without a son. Here was Tsakran, young and beautiful, and ready to marry; for she knew what a good lord Hilmi is."

Tsakran nodded at me violently.

"That night, when Hilmi Pasha's most beautiful head was resting on a most white pillow, I put my arms around his neck and told him my plan, and talked and talked, so that next day it was arranged that Tsakran was to be made ready to marry my Hilmi."

She made an oratorical pause, and looked around her. "Allah rewarded us," she said. "Two boys have been born, the one within two years of the other."

At this point in the narrative a slave announced Hilmi Pasha. The ladies in attendance all rose, bowed, and went out.

I barely remembered Hilmi Pasha, although I had known him before I went away from Turkey. When he came in, he kissed his first wife first, then his second, and it seemed to me that there was a difference in his manner to the two, the first kiss being that of a lover, the second that of an older man to a pet child.

He talked with me concerning affairs in America. It was just after the assassination of President McKinley. All the papers printed in Turkey were only permitted to say that he had died of indigestion. The news of the murder of a ruler can never be printed in Turkey, because it is supposed to put ideas into the heads of the malcontents. However, every one in Turkey who counted at all knew the truth about McKinley and discussed it.

Hilmi Pasha expressed his astonishment at the inability of the American government to suppress the anarchists. "Isn't he the third one they have killed?" he asked.

I explained that Lincoln and Garfield were not killed by anarchists, but Hilmi Pasha only smiled as much as to say,—in our slang,—"What are you giving us?" In Turkey the truth about public matters is so often suppressed that he thought I had some reason for not telling it now.

Since his two wives could hardly follow a conversation on American politics, Hilmi Pasha turned to Nassarah and asked her if she had finished her French novel. From that the talk drifted to French literature compared to English and American. In the midst of our conversation a slave brought in two backgammon boards, handsomely inlaid with ivory, and placed them on low tables similarly inlaid. Then we played this game so universal in Turkey, Hilmi Pasha playing first with me, then with his first, and then with his second wife.

The children came in next and were all kissed by their father, beginning with the eldest, a beautiful girl with light hair and dark eyes, named Zelma after the heroine of a French novel.

I stayed visiting my friends for ten days. In the morning we would get up and spend a good part of the forenoon in the Turkish bath together. After luncheon we would lie about on couches, reading, and playing cards and backgammon, or listening to the dramatic or spicy tales of the miradjus, the professional women story-tellers. Then we would go for long walks, and sit on the hilltops to watch the sun set.

One day they proposed that I should accompany them on a visit to a friend of theirs some seven hours distant. I accepted, on condition that they would travel in the regular Turkish fashion and not in broughams. They joyously agreed, and the next morning two large, springless wagons, covered like prairie schooners, were waiting at the door. Their floors were covered with thick mattresses, and wives, slaves, and children all climbed in, and we were off.

Halfway on our journey we ate luncheon by a fountain in a little valley finely cultivated as a market garden. There were with us a eunuch and two slaves whose especial duty it was to sing and play to enliven the journey. I was dressed in Turkish fashion, to avoid causing remark from other travellers, and for comfort.

At the end of our journey we were received in a large bedroom, where slave women undressed us and took us to the bathing-house on the shore of the sea. After the bath, we were put in loose, clean garments lent us by the mistress of the house. Thus attired, we next came to the waiting-room, where the hostess received us. She was middle-aged, and from her deeply dyed finger-nails I knew that she was of the old school. She spoke nothing except Turkish, but that with a volubility to frighten a lawyer. Her waiting-room was very old-fashioned. A settle ran around two sides of the room, covered with hard cushions. There were no chairs. We all sat in a row, with our feet curled under us, and drank sherbet. Two copper-colored slaves came in, very lightly clothed, and danced a Circassian dance. Then an old miradju told us a story. The miradjus play an important part in old-fashioned harem life. Some of them have great imaginative power, invent their own stories, and attain to considerable fame, as a writer does with us. Others merely repeat what they have been taught, though they may embellish it by their personality in reciting, as an actor embellishes his part.

The story that day was the well-known one of Déré Véré, a rather Boccaccian tale, that pointed a strong moral, however. Our prose troubadour put marvellous facial expression into her rendering of it, and kept her audience of some twenty-five women deeply interested. When she finished we all exclaimed, "Mashalah! Mashalah!" in admiration and applause. When this was over, dinner was served in the garden, which was surrounded by a high wall. We sat on the grass, and ate from low tables.

I learned that night, from Nassarah and Tsakran, that our hostess was the fourth wife of a very rich pasha. She was reputed an extremely clever talker, which counts for a great deal in Turkey. She could not, however, get along with the other three wives,—it may be by reason of her gift,—and therefore she lived by herself with her retinue. She had two grown sons, both in the army, and was very anxious to make a marriage between her youngest son and Nassarah's eldest daughter. This proposed alliance kept the two families in close friendship, and although Zelma was still several years too young to marry, she called our hostess "mother," and treated her with great ceremony.

We stayed there three days, and I met several friends of the old Hanoum. Turkish women do not make our abominable abbreviated calls. When they call, they bring their work and spend the day. They are clever needle-workers, and some of them imitate flowers wonderfully in their embroidery. Naturally they were very curious about America, and I told them much of woman's position here. In their expressive faces I read their pity for them, and inwardly I smiled as I thought of the pity that American women feel for them.

We made the return trip on a beautiful moonlight night. When we came to start we found our wagons festooned with purple and yellow wistaria. To make the journey pleasanter, our hostess and her retinue accompanied us halfway, bringing also a wagon full of Armenian hanéndés, men musicians, to play and sing to us.

Thus in my first harem visit I saw nothing but pleasant relations existing between the various women dwelling under the same roof. It is true that both Nassarah and Tsakran were sweet, commonplace young women—not very different by nature from many commonplace American friends I have, whose lives are spent with dressmakers, manicures, masseuses, and in various frivolous pursuits. With these two young women and their friends I had a peaceful and pleasant time. Except for the absence of men I might almost have been visiting an American household. What difference existed was to the advantage of the Turkish girls. They were entirely natural and spontaneous. They did not pretend to be anything that they were not. They were as happy and merry as little brooks, whose usefulness was limited, but who at least had no aspirations to pass for rivers. They were good mothers, and made one man blissfully happy. They read a lot of French novels, without pretending that they did it for the sake of "culture." They took everything naturally, and enjoyed it naturally. There was no unwholesome introspection—that horrible attribute of the average half-educated European and American woman. They never dreamed of setting the world aright; and when I talked cant to them to see how they would take it, they looked at me in bewilderment, then laughed and exclaimed:—

"Why, little blossom! Allah meant women to be beautiful and good; to be true wives, and real mothers. Isn't that enough for a mere woman?"

I went away from them with the regret with which one leaves something good and wholesome, but also I was disappointed. I wanted to see something new and different; I wanted to discuss and vivisect—and Nassarah and Tsakran were too healthy and happy for that. My next visit, however, was of quite another character. In it I went beneath the surface as far as I could wish.

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