|About the Book|
Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley.If you go to most art museums in the Western world, you can find at least one, if not more, paintings that depict a European man’s view of the Eastern harem. While beautiful, these paintings will depict various women in various states of undress, usually lying around doing nothing besides looking pretty. Sometimes, there might be a painting that depicts a man alongside them, usually suggestive of post-coital glow or tied to 1001 Arabian Nights.And that’s not even touching the movies.Alev Lytle Croutier’s book about harems is far more interesting than those man fancy pieces. In part, this is because the author is able to draw on her family’s interactions with various people who were connected to harems. Croutier goes into, briefly, the beginnings of the harem tradition, and divide her book up into royal harem life, ordinary harem life, as well as looking at how art and film, in particular in the West, viewed the harem. Perhaps the books major flaw is the focus on Turkish harem, but considering the writer’s background this is not surprising.The personal stories, for instance her meeting a eunuch, add a layer to the book as well as serving as a reminder that this lifestyle is not far removed from the present day. This is balanced though the use of historical harem women and the battles they fought, whether between themselves or with the men who control them.It isn’t only the dispelling of myths that surround harem women that Croutier attends to- she also dispels myths about the eunuchs. Of particular interest is the division of eunuch jobs based on skin color (and I wish there had been some analysis of why there was such a division) but also what a eunuch’s life could be like. It is here that Croutier does bring in Chinese harem life in addition to Turkish.There is also a wonderful bit about Lady Mary Montagu.This is a wonderful history read.