There are few pleasures greater than the freedom to wander amongst the historic cultures of yesteryear, marvelling at how the other half lived, well before modernity and good fortune caught up with them. A couple of years back I was in Istanbul, where I spent many happy hours (mainly queuing) exploring one Suleiman or the other’s wondrous palaces, complete with their wives’ quarters, affectionately known (if you’re a man) as the Harem. Old Suleiman certainly knew how to enjoy his untold wealth, at least in his own rooms. There was no expense spared on the acres of opulence, which were painstakingly modelled on the palace of Versailles. That was until, full of anticipation I found myself at the entrance of the famed Harem. This is where the Sultan’s many wives and concubines, forever excluded from the society of men, supposedly idled away their days in pursuit of the Sultan’s happiness, on endless boudoir duties.
What a disappointment.
Forget the marble colonnades of the public rooms and the exquisite frescos that adorned every wall and ceiling, such visual wizardry obviously was not considered necessary for the girls, despite the amount of time they spent lying on their backs. No master artists ferried over from Paris or Venice for their titillation, just a few tired licks of paint to suffice. Don’t even bother imagining azure eruptions of geometric tiles colonising the walls in that time-honoured Islamic tradition; what I shuddered at would have looked more at home in the saloon of an outback pub. Surely these were not the famed halls, groaning with every manner of beautiful maiden that most of Christendom had drooled over, at least in their private imaginings?
The world could look on and be amazed by the splendour of his palace, whilst Suleiman the Shagificant was safe in the knowledge that his women were as good as under lock and key and no one knew that they were forced to live in slum conditions. Now you might think that I’m exaggerating, but I am the graduate of a British boarding school, so I know a thing or two about how many females can use the same bathroom facilities at a time before every plug hole and drain becomes clogged with unmentionables. One lucky Sultan hosted 280 wives at a time. You get my drift.
Sadly, the harem dream was not all it was cracked up to be, at least for the women. As for the men who couldn’t afford the delights of such female bounty, at least they could dream of it in the next life, not perhaps as many as 280, but realistically 72.
The fact that the Sultan was a cheapskate was a bit of an eye opener. After all, if you had to spend your life looking fabulous as you discarded that seventh veil for the seven hundredth time; it should have been in luxury. One man to one woman now makes complete economic sense.
It was a few days before I got over my chagrin and continued my flirtation with the wonders that had been Constantinople, that jewel of the Eastern Empire, founded twelve hundred years before the first Sultan was able to set up shop. Today, downtown Istanbul is a magnet for Middle Eastern tourism. It was sitting at a table transfixed by a glorious sunset overlooking the Bosporus that I became aware of a young family congregating around a neighbouring table. Well, I say young because the woman swathed in the black burka was surrounded by half a dozen small children whom I assumed were hers.
Clutched firmly in her hands was an iPad and she was using it to photograph the kids. I was fascinated. I’d never seen anyone carry an iPad in lieu of a camera. Surely an iPhone is the photographer’s best friend? Certainly lighter and a lot easier to operate when you have a dozen little hands trying to grab hold of you. I tried to catch her eye. Silly. She couldn’t see me – how could she when her entire face was lost in a sea of fabric? I was surprised she could even see the children, but then again, all she had to do was point the iPad in their general direction.
The woman suddenly thrust the iPad at her husband and from her gesturing I gleaned that she wanted to be in the shots too. Time suddenly stood still. In commemorating the moment, she wanted like everyone else to take home a record of her family holiday to share with her friends for prosperity – I was here. Would she, I wondered, remove the face covering? The husband was clicking away, oblivious. The kids pulled silly faces, grinned, laughed, smiled shyly, left their indelible mark on the pixels. Unlike their mother, who in that moment confirmed that she must for all time remain invisible, a non-person, a lumpy black shape unfit to be acknowledged.
A photo of a mother with her children, without the mother. In her world, apparently not so different from the Harem, it was a photo worth having. A pale imitation of life indeed.
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