Seraglio
By Janet Wallach
Published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday 
January 2003; 0-385-49046-1; 275 pages

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Searglio by Janet Wallach1

I first met Nakshidil on the day she arrived at Topkapi, in the summer of 1788, nearly thirty years ago. Several of us had been ordered to go to the seraglio pier: a corsairs' ship belonging to the bey of Algiers had docked and word had been sent they had a gift on board for Sultan Abdul Hamid. We learned that three weeks before, the Algerian's pirates had captured a boat and presented the bey with the booty: along with gold, silver, and cargo, there were a dozen Christian men and a bud about to blossom. The bey scooped up the gold and silver, sold the goods, and enslaved the men. But when the Algerian saw the budding flower, he resisted the temptation to keep her for himself. Instead, he ordered her to be sent to Istanbul. The clever bey knew about the sultan's lust for young girls. She would be his oblation: the lecherous old Turk could do with her as he wished.

We took her gladly. She had an ethereal air, like a piece of fluff that dances in the sky. Or a delicate lily; though I suspected she had a steely gird. Looking her over, my colleagues made their round of predictable comments: "She's too thin to be of any use," said one. Another asked, "Why didn't God give me blond hair and blue eyes?" A third one murmured, "Maybe she will learn to give me pleasure."

 

You look surprised, my friend. Of course we eunuchs lack the private organs of a man, but we are not all as you may think: some of us have the urges of a normal male; others prefer to be pleasured by men. I do not wish to speak of my own sexual needs; it was survival inside the palace that concerned me.

In any case, I promised myself I would wait to see what the girl was like before I made any judgments on how to treat her. One always has to be cautious in the palace: everyone there is either an accomplice or an enemy; accomplices are few; enemies are in abundance.

I could see she had been through an ordeal, and that the pirates had treated her badly. She was numb and too confused to speak, but she held herself proudly and would not budge; we had to drag her to the chief black eunuch.

The kislar aghasi was waiting in the entry hall to the harem, that sacred world of females, forbidden to all men except the sultan and his black eunuchs. He was drenched in attar of roses, his face scowling, his giant figure cloaked in green silk and thick sable, his cone-shaped turban towering over us all. Satisfaction does not come easily to him, and we eunuchs lived in fear of his discontent, demonstrated in his wretched temper. Although silence reigns supreme in the seraglio, I could see by the gleam in his black eyes and the twisted smile that appeared on his mouth that he was pleased by the bey's gift. A blond addition to the harem might win him praise from the sultan. But as always with a new odalisque, his first step was to examine her.

He brandished his leather whip and we followed his order, removing her torn dress and tattered petticoats that bore the shredded labels of a French maker. She stood with her head held high, but her eyes were dazed, shocked at the sight of the puissant eunuch and by her own nakedness.

The kislar aghasi studied her, moving his eyes slowly downward from her tangled hair, past her high forehead, her blue eyes, her slightly pointed, upturned nose, her cupid's lips. He pointed at me and ordered me to yank open her mouth and hold it wide so that he could check her teeth. At first I was afraid she might bite, but then I realized she was too frightened to move or make a sound. He ran his finger inside her mouth, counted her teeth and checked her gums, appraising her as he would a camel or a horse. When he had assured himself of her oral condition, he returned to inspect her flesh.

He ordered my colleague to lift her hair and his eyes grazed along her neck; he stopped for a moment, thinking he had spotted a mark, but it was only a tiny spider, and he continued, resting his eyes on her milky white breasts. He tweaked her nipples to make sure they held no liquid, and she flinched, but he ignored her and ran his jeweled fingers several times across her soft bosom. He glanced at her navel, then continued his journey downwards, focusing on her triangle. He noticed the lack of pubic hair and smiled; she was prepubescent.

He seemed pleased as he shifted his eyes to her well-shaped legs and ankles and checked her toes to see if they were straight. He cracked his whip again, made a circle in the air with his finger to indicate that we should turn her around, and started the whole procedure one more time. He took another look at her long neck, stopped at what might have been a mole on her back, and ordered one of us to inspect it. It was a piece of dirt. He scrutinized the rest of her back, followed her figure downwards until he reached her buttocks and came to a halt. Then, cradling her round bottom in one hand, he ran his other fingers over her smooth pink flesh and pinched it slightly. He eyed her thighs and legs and well-formed calves, and when he reached her feet, he nodded, and I knew what was coming next.

We turned the girl around so that she was facing him. He curved his hand around her knee and then inched it slowly up her inner leg and northwards on her thigh until he reached the place where the opening was and plunged two fingers inside. The startled girl cried out, and I thought he would slap her, but he didn't. Instead, he twisted his fingers inside her, pulled them out and licked them. I saw her shudder and then her head dropped, and she wrapped her arms around herself to cover her shame. Knowing she would be worthless if she were not a virgin, we waited to see if the kislar aghasi would give us a sign to keep her. Slowly he tilted his head up and down, nodding in approval.

"Tulip, take charge of her," the chief black eunuch commanded. Pleased that he had confidence in me, though fearful if things went awry, I wrapped her dress around her, put my finger to my lips to let her know she could not speak, and took her to the baths, where I stayed with her in the dense heat until she was clean. It had been weeks since she had bathed, and she submitted readily when the slaves sat her on a marble slab, poured water over her from a silver ewer, and rubbed her hair and scalp. I could see the envy in other girls' eyes; they did not like her yellow hair or her azure eyes or the patrician way she held herself; she was not a peasant from Russia or the Caucasus like most of them, and they did not take her strangeness well.

When she had adjusted to the swirling sulfurous vapors, she looked around with her saddened eyes: half a dozen young women lay langurously about, manes of black hair trailing down their backs, jet-black eyes glistening against their luminous white skin. Standing behind them were others, some white, some black, bare-breasted and thinly clad below the waist, grooming the girls like loving cats caring for their kittens. In a corner, two voluptuous figures were locked in an embrace. The girl did not say a word, but later she confided:

"I was humiliated and frightened; nothing seemed familiar. I did not know where I was or even when it was. After the pirates seized our ship I lost all sense of time; clocks and calendars are meaningless conceptions when they have no use. And as for place, in that first thick fog of the baths I watched the women fondling each other and thought I had entered Lesbos or the Limbo of Vanity."

When the bath was finished. She motioned for her old frock and took something from the lining, but the dress was no longer hers to wear. Instead they wrapped her in a linen towel and slipped tortoise pattens around her feet. We use the wooden clogs to keep from falling on the slippery marble and to protect us from the heat steaming up from the floor, but though she moved with grace, she found the high heels too treacherous to walk in, and they had to help her into the cooling room of the baths where she seemed grateful for a cold sherbet. She drank the orange ices thirstily, hardly pausing to catch her breath.

In the dressing room next door, they gave her fresh clothes: she stepped into the thin shalwar, hesitant in the pantaloons gathered at her ankles; and then a gauzy blouse that let her breasts show, but she seemed glad for any kind of cover. Over that they slipped an entari, the long, tight-sleeved, silk dress scooped out to plump her bosom and buttoned only at her waist; and a simple linen girdle, without jewels, which she sashed at an angle around her hips. She sighed with relief when she realized she did not have to wear the tortoise pattens outside the bath; like all the others she was given embroidered slippers. Then I led her down the hallway to the mistress chamberlain.

Ordinarily, the queen mother rules the harem, but Sultan Abdul Hamid had bid farewell to his mother long ago, and it was the kahya kadin who ruled us all. An aged virgin appointed by the sultan, who called her "Mother" now, the mistress chamberlain was privileged to carry a silver scepter and to have use of the imperial seal; the only others permitted to do so were the sultan and the grand vezir.

Charged with training hundreds of female slaves, it was her job to make certain that life in the harem ran smoothly: there was a staff of forty just for the padishah, to see to it that everything from his clothes and his jewels, his ablutions and his bath, his syrups and his coffee, his table and his laundry, his musicians and his storytellers were always ready and in perfect order. There was also a staff for the chief black eunuch, and staffs for each of the wives, the favorites--the concubines--and for the mistresses themselves.

Under the mistress chamberlain was a mistress for each area, all of them long past the age that could turn an eye: mistress of the Koran, the coffee service, the treasury, the sherbets, the pantry, the pitcher service, the scribes, the laundry, the wardrobe, the jewels, the embroidery, the coiffures, the ceremonies, the music, and the sick. Those mistresses, in turn, trained the younger women in their service. Lucky were the pretty girls chosen for the sultan's staffs; unlike their superiors who had never slept with a man, they had a good chance of being summoned by the sultan for an intimate rendezvous. If not, the fortunate ones might be chosen as wives for some important man outside the palace, a provincial governor, a pasha, or a military officer. Or if duty called, they might become palace mistresses themselves someday, enriched by material goods if not by matters of the heart.

I indicated to the girl that she should stand still and wait while I approached the silver chair; I bowed deeply and kissed the kahya kadin's sleeve. When I raised my head and saw the hint of a smile upon her face, I knew that she was pleased by the fair-haired virgin; the girl was young, but it was clear she was skilled in social graces and worth twice as much as any peasant we received.

Knowing I had a way with languages, she looked at me to translate; from the label on the dress, I assumed the girl spoke French.

"What is your name, how old are you, and where are you from?" I asked.

"My name is Aimee du Buc de Rivery," she answered in a quiet voice, making me strain to hear her. "I am thirteen, and I am French from Martinique."

"And how is it that you are here?"

"My father is the owner of a great sugar plantation. He sent me to school in Nantes. I had been there for three years when he ordered me home. But I never reached my destination. My ship was seized by pirates, I was taken to Algiers, and then brought here." Her voice was a little stronger now and I began to hear the melodic rhythm of the Creole. "My father is a rich man. He will pay you whatever you want to have me sent home." The head mistress ignored the offer.

"Have you any talents? Can you dance or sew? All the girls here must sew," I added.

She smiled a tiny smile and pulled a small embroidered cloth from inside her entari. "Here is something I hid when the pirates came on board my ship." She raised her head and I could see defiance in her eyes. "It is my favorite handkerchief and I keep it for luck. I sewed it myself at school."

She held it out but the mistress refused to touch it. Standing closer, I could see the stitches and knew the girl was able. "What about music? Do you play an instrument?"

"But, of course," she answered. Using her slender hands to show how she held a violin and a bow, she pretended to play. "Bach, Mozart," she said.

A few more words from the head mistress and the girl was dismissed, brushed off like a bothersome fly. Once again she was put in my charge, and I took her through a hallway, down a narrow flight of stairs, and into the dank basement where the novices slept. I opened the door of the windowless room, and when she saw the divans lining the walls, I could tell she wanted to sit, but I threw my head back, raised my eyebrows, and clucked my tongue to tell her no.

She grabbed my arm. Her voice was as sweet as a nightingale's. "I cannot tell you how pleased I was to hear you speak my language," she said. "It has been a long time since I have conversed with anyone, and my heart twinges at the thought."

"You are not to speak French any longer," I ordered. "You are to forget the name Aimee, and who your family is and where you come from. You are in the harem now. You will learn Arabic and Turkish; you will study Islam; you will become a Muslim."


Excerpted from Seraglio by Janet Wallach Copyrightę 2003 by Janet Wallach. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Synopsis

Transporting readers to the menacing yet majestic world of eighteenth-century Turkey, biographer and Middle East expert Janet Wallach brilliantly re-imagines the life of Aimee Dubucq, cousin of Empress Josephine, in her first novel Seraglio.

At the age of thirteen, when en route from France to her home in Martinique, Aimee Dubucq is kidnapped by Algerian pirates. Blonde and blue-eyed, the genteel young girl is a valuable commodity, and she is soon placed in service in the Seraglio - the Ottoman Sultan’s private world - in Topkapi Palace. As Dubucq, renamed Nakshidil ("embroidered on the heart") discovers the erotic secrets that win favor of kings and deftly learns the affairs of the empire, she struggles to retain her former identity, including her Catholic faith. Overtime Nakshidil becomes the intimate of several powerful sultans: wife to one, lover and confidante to another, and adoptive mother to a third. Her life often treads the tenuous line between sumptuous pleasures and mere survival until her final years when she is awarded control of the harem as the valide, mother of the Sultan.

With phenomenal research and a mesmerizing voice, Janet Wallach provides a powerful and passionate glimpse of East-West history through one woman’s distinctly European eyes.

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Author

Janet WallachJanet Wallach is the former fashion director of Garfinckel's in Washington, D.C., and a fashion director in New York City and has also written two books on fashion. She is also a biographer and has published books on the life of Gertrude Bell and Coco Chanel.

Janet, an expert on the Middle East, coauthored three books on the subject. She is a frequent contributor to publications such as The Washington Post Magazine. Seraglio is her first novel.

Janet is also a founder of Seeds of Peace, a non-profit organization created by her husband, the late John Wallach, that brings teenagers from countries in conflict to a summer program in the United States.

She divides her time between New York City and Connecticut.

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