Harem dreams

Westerners have fantasised about Oriental sensuality for centuries - but have its modern critics left reality behind too? By Robert Irwin

Robert Irwin
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:10

The Erotic Margin

by Irvin C Schick

Verso, pounds 20, 315pp

Sexual Encounters

in the Middle East

by Derek Hopwood

Ithaca Press, pounds 35, 332pp

Inside the Seraglio: private lives of the Sultans

by John Freely

Viking, pounds 20, 345pp

On the jacket of , there is a reproduction of what looks like an old postcard photo of a young Algerian Arab woman. She is naked except for a headcloth and some bracelets and anklets. The use of such images to sell books on Orientalist discourse has become something of an academic tradition. The first edition of Edward Said's Orientalism (1979) showed a naked boy displaying a serpent to some elders in a mosque. The dust-jacket of Rana Kabbani's Europe's Myths of the Orient (1986) featured a sensuously sprawling odalisque with fan. The American edition of Maxim Rodinson's Europe and the Mystique of Islam (1987) featured an Orientalist painting of an Arab woman leaning seductively against a wall.

After Malek Alloula published The Colonial Harem, a compilation of mostly erotic photographs of Algerian women together with an anti-colonialist, anti-Orientalist commentary, he was taken to task by a feminist theorist, Marnia Larzeg, who quite reasonably accused him of having violated Algerian women once more "by making titillating pictures available to a wider audience than before". Alloula's book was "a work of inverted colonial nostalgia" and an illegitimate "appropriation of women's moral outrage".

Writing about Orientalism is an enterprise fraught with ambiguity. Those who publish on the subject are likely to be accused of bad faith at one level or another. But this has not deterred hundreds of academics, mostly from departments of English or cultural studies, from this field. Bored with teaching Chaucer or Jane Austen, they have found a more politicised, grandly theoretical role as the critics of Orientalism and imperialist discourse.

The whole thing is a bit of an intellectual doddle. One finds some 18th- or 19th-century travellers, novelists or painters and identifies their outdated racist or sexist opinions (about harems, slave markets, foot- binding or whatever). One then twits them for those old-fashioned prejudices. There are 690 entries in the bibliography of , a lot of them titles like Children of Empire: Victorian Imperialism and sexual politics in Dickens and Kipling. Such a bibliography is over the top for a book whose main text is only 236 pages. Novels, paintings, films and postcards are shown to be the key to understanding the way British and French empires operated and (for that matter) the way the post-colonial hegemony of the West still operates.

This treatment of empires as entities crucially sustained by discourse has replaced the old-fashioned way of doing imperial history, which tended to concentrate on things like guns, gold, steamships, cotton and copra. George Eliot and Gustave Flaubert now take precedence over Stamford Raffles and General Bugeaud. Even Jane Austen becomes more interesting if one reads a novel like Mansfield Park to discover how it "sublimates the agonies of Caribbean existence". Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism (1994) is a good guide to this kind of reading.

Irvin Schick's book is an intellectual marvel. He juggles concepts derived from Michel Foucault, Gaston Bachelard, Helene Cixous, Homi Bhabha and so on with mesmerising ease. I am less happy with the way he treats his primary sources. No one who reads s would guess that Sir Paul Rycaut's The Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) was anything more than a work of titillation about Turkish sexual affairs. But Rycaut studied the realities of Turkish power and his work systematically covered government, religion and morality and the armed forces. Though he did not dwell at length on the Ottoman harem, his account is still one of the most sober treatments of that institution we have.

I do not think Schick has read Thomas Moore's Lallah Rookh either. Published in 1817, this interminable set of oriental stories in verse is presented as a representative of a class of "romances and erotica which titillated their Western readers with juicy fantasies about oriental women and accounts of clandestine exploits in well-guarded harems". Excited by the prospect of some high-class titillation, I went back to Lallah Rookh, but the most erotic lines I could find were these: "Light lovely limbs, to which the spirit's play/ Gave motion, airy as the dancing spray."

I dare say my erotic sensitivity has been blunted by films and television. When he comes to the Thousand and One Nights, Schick appears to suspect that two taste-less tales of bestiality in Burton's translation, "Wardan the Butcher and the Woman and the Bear" and "The King's Daughter and the Ape", are not authentically oriental. But both are in the standard Arabic editions of the Nights printed in Cairo and Calcutta.

Schick's book ranges widely over a mass of popular and highbrow literature, some of which is offensive and racist, but some not. As he challengingly announces early on, he will conclude "with the observation that the immense variability of narratives of space suggests the possibility of an emancipatory process that could potentially lead to the construction of non-hegemonic discourses and practices".

After so much excitement, one turns to Derek Hopwood's more soothing Sexual Encounters in the Middle East, which is less tightly focused and not so obviously ideologically driven. The book meanders, as Hopwood often stumbles on topics he finds to be more interesting to explore than sex. He includes digressions on the building of the Suez Canal, the social programme of the Saint Simonians, and the (not at all sexy) careers of Mark Sykes and Orde Wingate.

Like Schick, he seems to think Moore's "picture of sensuous delights" in Lallah Rookh is hot stuff. Hopwood has no big thing to say about hegemonic or non-hegemonic discourse. He has read Said, Kabbani and other labourers in this field. Sometimes he corrects their misreadings, sometimes he quotes them as authorities, and at other times, he records their disagreements without expressing an opinion.

Hopwood writes well about the Middle East as a theatre of European fantasy and he has fine material on which to draw. Here, for example, is the Master of Bellhaven: "the attraction, the spell of Arabia, as it is frequently called, is a sickness of the imagination. It was not until I had left Arabia and her doors were closed to me, that while tasting the bitter- sweets of memory, I began to muse unhappily on how such a barren mistress... can enslave the heart and mind with so deep an intermingling of yearning and abomination".

Since Schick seems to regard the Ottoman harem - with its hundreds of women trained to serve the sexual appetites of the Sultan - as a Western fantasy, it is pretty certain he would not like John Freely's Inside the Seraglio. This deals with the real existence over hundreds of years of exactly that institution in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. At first I was not sure I was going to like Freely's book, as the early pages chronicle a dull succession of Balkan battles, murdered viziers, and occasional references to concubines.

Sometimes we know the name of the concubine, sometimes we do not even know that. The truth is we do not know much about the sex life of, say, the 16th-century sultan, Selim the Grim. Contemporary Turks would not have dared to write on such a subject while Western observers, who did, really had no reliable sources of information.

Nevertheless, Freely's narrative does acquire passion and pathos as it approaches modern times. The sources become richer and a number of denizens of the harem wrote insider accounts. We get rounded portraits of sultans like Osman III, who used to wear noisy hobnailed boots so that his concubines could be forewarned and keep out of his way. And there is the paranoid sultan, Abd al-Hamid II, who had a passion for operas with happy endings and for Sherlock Holmes.

Freely's has an evocative account of the harem's physical decay: "The windows were shuttered and the rooms in almost total darkness; an old brass bedstead under a towering canopy was shrouded in cobwebs, its rotting mattress giving off an odour of sepulchral decay.

"Through the gathering shadows the mirror of a baroque dressing-table reflected the dark image of a deserted room. And when night fell the presence of ghosts could be felt, returning along the Gathering Place of the Jinns to his haunted palace, once the House of Felicity".

Robert Irwin's anthology of Arabic literature, `Night and Horses and the Desert', is published by The Penguin Press next month

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