Summary: A poet sneaks into a harem to get an exclusive story and unexpectedly ends up being made a permanent member of it.
In the early and happier years of the reign of our late Sultan Abdul Hamid, may his sick and troubled soul rest in peace, it suddenly became fashionable among the more idle and wealthy Infidels to visit our glorious capital. Overnight, great trains, real caravanserais on wheels with bedrooms, bathrooms, and restaurants installed in their carriages, began to unload almost daily, on the platforms of Sirkeji Station, the oddest crowds of monocled and side-whiskered gentlemen accompanied by their unveiled womenfolk, who wore dead birds on their heads and had the voices of petulant screech owls. All of them were intent, in a frenzy of indecent curiosity, on violating what they believed to be the lascivious mysteries of our enigmatic Orient.
News of this relatively peaceful invasion soon permeated the harems of the more elegant yalis, or waterfront villas, inhabited, along the shores of the Bosphorus, by the great Ottoman families. In the absence of their husbands, most of whom now played poker all day in the lounges of the Pera Palace Hotel in the new Boyoglu quarter of Istanbul, some idle and frivolous Turkish ladies began to organize tea parties, known in the French they had learned from the nuns of Notre Dame de Sion as “le five o’clock”, in the course of which they entertained, with such outlandish delicacies as ham sandwiches and cerises a l’eau de vie, chattering groups of enthusiastic foreign ladies who wore monstrous artificial horse-hair buttocks that could fool the eye of no reasonable man. Recruited by tourist agencies which promised to arrange that they be admitted as guests to the most inaccessible of our aristocratic harems, these impudent unveiled hoydens paid substantial fees, shared by the touts of the tourist industry with their equally impudent hostesses, for the privilege of then swapping clothes all afternoon with their new Turkish friends. The latter were fascinated when they were able to preen themselves in front of a mirror while trying on a Paris hat that looked like a Dutch still life painting of fruit, flowers, vegetables, and dead birds — why never a fish? — or a Viennese corset brutal from the world-famous Kartnerstrasse atelier of the firm of Geschwister Zwieback und Gebruder Krafft-Ebbing, while their foreign guests likewise enjoyed seeing themselves wearing veils instead of lorgnettes and feather boas, and ample harem robes instead of wasp-waisted corsets and the absurd prosthetic bottoms known in those days as bustles.
Up to a point, all this masquerading was still innocent fun, though it heralded worse to come, I mean the excesses of the present age, when a Turkish gentleman who responds patriotically to his country’s call and presents himself for a medical examination before joining our glorious armed forces may suddenly find himself as naked as Adam, our common ancestor, in the Earthly Paradise, but in the presence of a bevy of shameless women who claim to have medical degrees from foreign universities with unpronounceable names, while male film stars run around our streets mysteriously veiled in order to protect their heavily insured complexions from the rays of our relatively mild sun.
Be all that as it may, it came one day to pass, in those innocent days of the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid, that a French poet reached Istanbul with an assignment, from the editors of La Vie Parisienne, to penetrate one of our harems under false pretenses in order to reveal in ribald prose, to his lascivious Parisian readers, the secrets of our traditionally modest family life. Sacrificing his waxed moustache and goatee beard to the cause of what is now know, in our topsy-turvy “unisex” world, as “the free flow of information”, this poet dolled himself up, in the privacy of his Pera Palace Hotel apartment, as a rather athletic-looking English maiden lady, all tweeds and tobacco-stained finger tips, and then arranged through the touts who swarm around the offices of the Thomas Cook and Sons travel agency to be included in one of their organized harem parties. This particular group included, in addition to our transvestite poet, among others the wives of two Jewish bankers from Berlin, a Muscovite princess, the late Mrs. Potter Palmer from Chicago, a French cocotte traveling as the Comtesse de Mirabelle with an American millionaire from the Barbary coast, wherever that may be, but who spent all his time in a drunken stupor in his hotel room, and a tight-lipped English suffragette who already planned to distribute, specially printed in Turkish by an Armenian refugee printer in Manchester, among her unfortunate Moslem sisters, I mean her ignominiously secluded and veiled hostesses.
The French cocotte, like many ladies of her profession in that culturally enlightened age, happened to be a patroness of the arts and letters, in fact a close friend of Pierre Loti and the original recipient of those “Lettres a une Sphynge” for which Remy de Gourmont has become justly immortal, and the original model too of the famous representation of the sphinx, half woman and half panther, that earned the Belgian painter Ferdinand Khnopff such immediate celebrity among the readers of The Yellow Book when he exhibited his masterpiece in London’s Grosvenor Gallery. She thus recognized our distinguished French poet at a first glance, in spite of his hairless chin and upper lip and his odd disguise. But she was a woman of some wit, endowed with a curious mind. Smiling enigmatically in the manner that won her the name and reputation of a sphinx, she decided to say nothing and to wait and see.
It thus came to pass that our party of ladies proceeded, in an assortment of arabahs, victorias, barouches, landaus, and other carriages, all the way from the Pera Palace Hotel to a yali situated on the shore of the Bosphorus just beyond the Jewish suburb, or Ortakoy, where they were all expected that afternoon as paying guests in one of the more conservative harems of our Ottoman aristocracy. The Turkish ladies of this very proper household had decided but recently, under pressure of their lord and master’s heavy gambling debts, to violate their cherished privacy by entertaining, for a considerable fee, only the most carefully selected groups of foreign women.
It was a warm day and the drive was longer than our poet expected. The carriage where he sat was crowded and flea-infested; besides, he as ill at ease in the tight corset to which he was unaccustomed. When the party reached the yali of its hostesses, he was already suffering from brief dizzy spells. Later, as the mood of the party became more relaxed, informal, and intimate, the ladies began to swap clothes with delighted squeals. Terrified of being unmasked, our poet remained fully dressed and seated bolt upright on a divan while the beads of sweat trickled down his face and smeared his carefully contrived make-up. The Comtesse de Mirabelle watched him with malicious glee as she performed before his eyes what actually amounted to a strip-tease. Suddenly, he swooned.
When he came to, the next day, he was surprised by the obsolete pitch of his own voice that rang in his ears like a memory of his almost forgotten and innocent boyhood triumphs as solo singer in a Jesuit College choir. With a shock, our poet realized that he was already an integrated, permanent inmate of this harem into which he had so unwisely ventured. His hostesses, he learned, had kindly rushed to his rescue, when they saw him swoon, and promptly unlaced his corset, revealing a hairy chest beneath the padding that concealed it. To their horror, they then discovered that a man was in their midst. Only one thing could now be done to save their honor. The Chief Eunuch was hastily summoned and instructed to make our poet immediately acceptable as a harem guest.
When he finally recovered from his operation a few weeks later, our poet was entrusted, as a kind of French mademoiselle, with the education of the young ladies of the harem, teaching them to recite par coeur the poems of Lamartine and of Eugene Manuel. To his editor of La Vie Parisienne he explained, in a somewhat evasive letter, that he had fallen in love with the Turkish way of life and would probably never return to this old haunts on the Paris boulevards.
Far from ever violating, for ribald French readers, the secrets of our mysterious Orient, he remained content, in the years that followed, with writing every once and a while a book describing Turkish family life in the most glowing but decorous terms. Several such manuscripts went the round of the Paris publishing houses before finding one that was courageous enough to risk marketing such unusually decent accounts of the secluded life of our harems. Unfortunately, our poet died relatively young, but the few published works of his mature Turkish period are now cherished in France as veritable classics of a rare kind of exoticism that concentrates on the virtues rather than the vices of an alien civilization.