Excerpt from Seraglio by Janet Wallach, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Seraglio

By Janet Wallach

Seraglio
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2003,
    336 pages.

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From the 
Journal de France,
July 10, 1867

Sultan Abdul Aziz arrived in Paris this week for a state visit. As the first Ottoman emperor to visit France, he was given a warm welcome by the government, which provided him with a huge suite at the Elysée Palace and a staff to assist his own vast retinue of servants. Among the sultan’s wishes were hardboiled eggs at breakfast, napoleon pastries at lunch, chocolates in the evening, and private performances in his suite by the girls from the Folies Bergères. When asked why he had invited Sultan Abdul Azis to Paris, Emperor Louis Napoleon replied he was most curious to meet Sultan Abdul Azis because “we are related through our grandmothers.”

CHAPTER ONE

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.

Excerpted from Seraglio by Janet Wallach Copyright© 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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