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

Validé Hanoum, the Resigned First Wife

Three days after my arrival in this Turkish household, as I was coming out of the bathing-house, I was presented with a small basket trimmed with gauze and flowers. Examining it, I found that it contained an embroidered scarf, and a note from the Validé requesting me, if willing, to spend the day with her. I was delighted—as was Djimlah—at this mark of consideration from the Validé.

The older Hanoum received me at the threshold of her apartment with great ceremony. We both salaamed to the ground in the proper salutation, the temena, the Validé, as the older, beginning first.

This day I spent with her was one of the most interesting of my stay. Very rarely have I been so fortunate as to meet a woman who had so little of the common feminine pettiness in her nature. The Validé Hanoum was easily queen of her household. She was in her thirty-eighth year, but retained much of what must once have been her chief claim to beauty, her splendid figure. I do not think her face could ever have been considered beautiful in the East, for their standard is very high. In America she would have been called a very handsome woman. She was of the brunette type, with wonderful brown hair, clear complexion, and large gray eyes. But her great charm was her personality. She directed the conversation in French, as she had heard me say the day of my arrival that Turkish was bothering me. According to Turkish standards she was highly educated. She knew Arabic and Persian literature well, and, through translations, Greek. Though she spoke French fluently, she was little acquainted with French writers; and in speaking the language she used Oriental idioms entirely. She was a great admirer of the Greek tragedians, and thought Sophocles understood women well—"as well as a man can," she added with a whimsical smile.

Her breadth of character struck me as so unusual that I told her, after I had spent half the day with her, that were I to spend a few years with her I should become a nice person. She liked the compliment very much, and said so. Turkish women do not make our pretence of disparaging compliments to themselves. After a second thought she said earnestly:—

"You would not like our life after a while."

"Why?" I asked.

She considered for a few minutes. "For many reasons; but uppermost for your blood. There is no use going against nature. For generations you have led a different life, and you could not accept ours."

"Do you think that it would be impossible for European women to come and live with you?"

"No, my child, not impossible, for many European women have married our men and lived happily; but it would be impossible for you. By the way,"—"she was smiling now, and I knew that it was coming,—"I shall be very happy to see you marry, yavroum, to see you happy, for you have become dear to me, the little I have seen of you."

I have learned to expect this refrain of "you must marry"; for the Turkish women consider marriage the acme of human happiness. I have come since to think like them, but at the time it did annoy me.

The Validé was very unlike my friend Djimlah. What she knew of our life she did not condemn. She even considered certain ways of ours superior to theirs. The keynote of her character was tolerance and kindness. In the course of the conversation I told her of what I had asked Djimlah on my first night in the household, and of Djimlah's ways of looking at things.

"Do you agree with her, Validé Hanoum?" I asked, burning with the desire to hear her views on the subject.

She looked before her for a few minutes, as if she were considering either Djimlah's words, or whether she should really take the trouble to enlighten my poor brain. After a while she drew from her embroidered bag some tobacco, took a sheet of tissue paper out of a book three inches long by one wide, and made herself a cigarette. A slave presented her the flame of a match between her palms. The Validé lighted her cigarette and took two or three puffs, holding it with a pair of gold tongs, which hung by a golden chain from her waist.

"When I married my husband," she said, "I was only fifteen and he was seventeen. Within four years two big boys were born to us." She raised her eyes to the ceiling and thanked Allah. "I was very happy—terribly happy." She lost herself for a few minutes in that happiness. "When my husband told me that he wished to take another wife to his bosom, my heart was knifed to the middle. I cried for days and days. I walked about like one in a dream; but all the while I knew that he was right, that the thing had to be done. After a while I fought myself down, but I could not live with the second wife. I told him so. He bought me a beautiful house at Scutari, and I moved there with my retinue and slaves. Of course my husband was to come and see us whenever he liked. This arrangement pained him very much; and in a few months he came to tell me that he had given up the idea of second marriage. We lived for another year, when I found out that the other woman was dying for love of my husband, and that he still longed for her. I knew also that my life was no longer the same. I made them marry, and I went back again to my house at Scutari. I was young, I was proud, I was hurt. I did not see why my husband should want another wife. Women when young don't understand their husbands very well. Two years passed, a little girl was born to them, and they named her after me. My husband came to see me very often, but I could not feel the same toward him. He understood it, and never asked for more than I could give him. My child, can you believe it, but I was glad, glad that he suffered for me—that if I could not make him love me, at least I could make him suffer.

"At the end of two years the mother and child came to see me. The child was very delicate; the mother looked dying. She stayed with me for a few days; and when it was time to go, she could not go—I could not let her. I understood many things then. When I told my husband that I was to keep them, he fell to my knees and cried like a boy."

She leaned over and took my hand. "You never know, yavroum, in what way Allah is going to help you to come out of your mean self. But he is always watching and waiting to give us our chance. He gave me mine and I took it, and with it came back the love of my husband, a newer and younger love, a love that was tried.

"After that Allah marked me for his own, and I travelled the road of sorrow. It is a long, long road, and you follow it bleeding. But at the end Allah shows you his face, and peace descends upon you. You understand many things that you never understood before, and the people become your brothers. The way I was to know sorrow was of the hardest; my first-born boy was killed before my eyes. A few months later a baby girl came to me in this world. When I learned to love her and she to put her arms around me, Allah took her from me. In my motherly grief I forgot my husband and my duties towards him. That is the way always with women. I made his home sad and unlivable. It was at that time that the Sultan gave to my pasha a beautiful young woman from the palace. As our ways are, he had to free her and marry her. Though he did so, he has never made her his wife, as he did not raise her veil after the wedding ceremony. She was confided to me to take care of and to protect. Her life was not very happy, and I did all I could to make it so. After our master married Djimlah, she dared even speak to him about Aishé; but he was quite stern in the old creed, and he did not believe in gift-wives. Djimlah, however, gave her her second-born boy to love and bring up as her very own, and in this way to learn the joy of motherhood. The child was taken to her immediately after its birth. Djimlah had an idea that should our master chance to see the beauty from the palace with his child, he could not but love her. It hurts us all to have a young and beautiful woman among us who may never know a good man's love. But it was no use. Our pasha went to her and saw the boy, but the adopted mother still remains an official wife only. She is very happy, however, with her little gift-son, and he loves her more than he does his own mother. Of course he does not know that Djimlah really is his mother. Ever since that arrangement, though, I think there is more happiness all round in the house, for Allah has sent his blessing for a good act."

I could not help asking how Djimlah crept into the household.

"I gave her to my husband," was the quick reply, "and it was the happiest deed of my life. You see, yavroum, when I gave myself to the luxury of sorrow I could not easily come back to the life's joys. The second wife was sickly, and the third only official. And one night, when it was cold and the wind blew, I thought of my master all alone,"—she spoke as if she were describing one perishing on a desert island,—"and I thought of my wickedness and cast about in my mind for a happier inmate to come to our home. Our Djimlah has proved to be Allah's gift to us all. My little girl, who was born after Djimlah's three sons, and named after her, is the joy of my old age." (She was thirty-eight, remember.) "This little girl is Allah's new proof that he has forgiven me my selfish grief."

"Validé Hanoum, in your heart you do not approve of men being allowed to have more than one wife, do you?" I asked.

"But I do, yavroum," she said vehemently; "that is why I told you my life, so that you could see how much happier we all are if things are done as Allah ordained them."

"But, Validé Hanoum," I persisted, "you do not really think that God meant men to have more than one wife?"

"I think that he must, my little one, otherwise I do not see why he has created them different from us—why they do not have the same maternal instincts as we have."

"Just the same, Validé Hanoum," I said with some warmth, "I do not think that God meant it; and if so many privileges were not allowed to men they would content themselves with one wife."

Here the Validé showed her tact and her sense of humor, for she leaned over, took me to her, kissed me tenderly, and said that after all Allah might have meant it while God did not. "You see, yavroum, things are different, perhaps, with you than they are with us."

That the Validé did not mind my heterodoxy she manifested by inviting me to spend another day with her, when she took me on a long drive, on her way to a shrine to pray. When she left the mosque she told me gayly that she had prayed to Allah for me only that day, and that she knew I could not go on now without God's blessing, and that a husband sooner or later was coming to me. On our way back she told me that she was expecting her little daughter-in-law, who was not very strong, and who needed the care and advice of the old. "She is coming with her mother and baby. My son, too, will be with them. You must see them," she said proudly, "for there are not two lilies more beautiful in this world than my boy and his bride."

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