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

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Seraglio

by Janet Wallach

Seraglio by Janet Wallach
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  • Published:
    Jan 2003, 336 pages

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"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.

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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