Janet Wallach


(Reviewed by Jenny Dressel JAN 29, 2003)

"She hesitated for a moment, as if there was something else she wanted to say, but then she seemed to change her mind. Instead, her jaw clenched and her voice grew louder. "They cannot make me a slave. I am a du Buc De Rivery." I shook my head as much in sadness as in anger. Had she not understood? It did not matter who she was. The past was gone. Only the present was important. And at present, and for the rest of her life, she was and would be a slave.

Seraglio by Janet Wallach

Janet Wallach's first novel is based on the true story of Aimee du Buc de Rivery, a 13-year-old girl, kidnapped on the high seas by Algerian pirates and presented as a gift to Abdul Hamid, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire in 1788. She was returning to her homeland, Martinique, after being educated in a French convent, when she was abducted and became a slave in the Sultan's harem.

Read excerptThe headstrong and precocious girl becomes one of the hundreds of female slaves, who is taught art, music, dancing, and how to "please a man," among other things. She is renamed Nakshidil, which means "embroidered on the heart."

The novel is narrated by Tulip, one of the harem's eunuchs. Tulip is put in charge of this somewhat spoiled 13-year-old, and becomes Nakshidil's confidante and best friend for life. Tulip is one of the few people in the Topkapi palace who can speak different languages; he becomes responsible for how she acts and what she learns.

"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 came from. You are in the harem now. You will learn Arabic and Turkish; you will study Islam, you will become a Muslim."

After Nakshidil comes to the realization that her family will not come to Turkey and rescue her, she makes great efforts to learn, and becomes very adept at all that is required of her. One of the interesting aspects of this book is the relationship between Nakshidil and Tulip. Their loyalty and friendship towards each other lasts a lifetime.

The novel follows Nakshidil through the next 30 years. It illustrates how Nakshidil rose through the ranks, becoming the confidante of sultans, and eventually the valide sultan - the queen mother and the most powerful woman in the Ottoman Empire - even more important than the sultan's wives, having complete control over the harem. In this role, Nakshidil was instrumental in opening up the western European culture to the Muslim world of Turkey. As legend would have it, she is also believed to be Josephine Bonaparte's long lost cousin.

Janet Wallach has effectively illustrated the Muslim religion, and also has given us an interesting glimpse into the "harem." The harem had a definite hierarchy, and protocol and rules that needed to be followed at all costs. If the rules were not followed, anyone in the palace was in extreme danger of being executed-- being shackled, put in a sack, weighed down, and thrown into the Bosphorus, a favorite execution for slaves of the harem. The book also shows the complete decadence that surrounded the women of the harem.

"A parade of peacocks, bejeweled princesses -- the four sisters and six daughters of the sultan -- followed by the five kadins, twenty-six concubines, and twenty mistresses -- arabesqued into the Entertainment Hall of the harem. The twelve dancers came next and we, the eunuchs, trailed behind like fancy horses' tails, sweeping into the vast salon, the most elaborate room in the private quarters of the sultan."

Wallach also reveals the inner-strife and conflict within the Topkapi palace walls, which eventually caused the demise of the Ottoman Empire. Once a sultan died or was murdered, the entire harem, including the eunuchs and the valide sultan, were sent to Eski Saray- The Palace of Tears. Tulip & Nakshidil spent some time within the walls of this palace.

It was when Sultan Mahmud came to power that Nakshidil became the valide sultan of the empire, as Nakshidil had become Mahmud's guardian when he was four. A former sultan had a quote inscribed in the valide's sultan's rooms of the palace, which describes what the queen mother stood for. "A sea of benevolence, a mine of constancy." Sultan Mahmud tried to add Western thought and culture to his empire. This was in large part due to his mother, who said things such as, "I tell you my son, if the Ottoman Empire is to survive, then we must look to the French." Sadly, these thoughts often resulted in revolts and fatwas from Muslim religious leaders.

This book is a terrific bit of history, and Wallach, a proclaimed Middle Eastern expert, has gone to great lengths to provide us with a marvelous interpretation in this novel.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 16 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Seraglio at MostlyFiction.com

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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)


Coauthored with John Wallach:


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About the 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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