Reviewed: “Harem: The World Behind the Veil” by Alev Lytle Croutier

50.jpgI think everybody is a little bit fascinated by harems. Hollywood and the arts have made it so.

That’s why I wanted to read Alev Lytle Croutier’s HAREM: THE WORLD BEHIND THE VEIL. I wanted to know some truth about it and Croutier’s work was advertised to tell me just that. Not being well-versed in Turkish history and Islam, the key points of the book, I have no choice but to take Croutier at her word until I find more information on the subject. And it is fairly easy to do since her own grandmother had been part of a harem and there is really no better first source than the oral traditions of generations.

That being said, HAREM is a fascinating look at the minutiae of life in Turkish harems between the 1500s and the 1900s, primarily the harems of the Sultans at Topkapi Palace and the Seraglio. Croutier seems as knowledgeable about the fabrics used to keep the harem women protected from the eyes of men to the methods by which their guards, servants, and staff became eunuchs. The research she does for the book shows on every page. I can’t count the number of times I put the book down to go and tell someone a fact I learned that I should have known before or to Google some topic (the most interesting being the Skoptsy cult in Tsarist Russia) for more information. That, for me, is the sign of an excellent non-fiction book.

I want to read biographies of Roxalena, Nakshidil, Kosem, and all the other harem women Croutier sites as women who stepped out of the harem, at least figuratively, and asserted themselves to the point even of ruling Turkey with the sultans. I want to read more about the slave women, known as odalisques, who served in the harem and sometimes rose to great favor with sultans. This book, HAREM, has made me want more.

The only fault I find with the book is that Croutier sometimes spends paragraphs explaining what some artist did to portray the harem and then a different picture by a different artist is shown. It was a little confusing and vaguely disappointing, though I do realize it would be hard to get permission for the most famous things to be reprinted in the book. But really, I want a fully illustrated version of this book. What’s there is fine, I’m greedy enough to want more.

(I received a copy of HAREM: THE WORLD BEHIND THE VEIL through NetGalley and Abbeville Press in exchange for an honest and original review.)

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