Harems

From Domestic Life In Palestine
By Mary Eliza Rogers

A harem scene

Harem Scene by Fabio Fabbi From Outpost Art

Yassîn Agha, one of our most frequent guests, invited me to visit his family. I went with my brother. We were first received in a large vaulted room by the Agha and his sons and a few Moslem gentlemen, then the eldest son was desired to conduct me to the harem, that part of the house especially occupied by women.

He led me across a court, and up an open stairway, into a large, handsome room paved with marble, where a group of women waited to welcome me. He introduced me to his grandmother, an aged-looking woman, almost blind, and to his own mother, and then he left me. They wore jackets and full trowsers made of common print. They led me into an inner apartment, where a younger wife of the Agha, gayly decked with embroidery, jewelry, and flowers, was seated with a number of children, slaves, and servants. The latter seemed to occupy almost the same position in the establishment as their mistresses, but some of them were very dirty, untidy, and ragged. In an open brazier in the middle of this room a charcoal fire was burning, and a little child sick with fever was on a mattress in the corner. The air was dry and hot, and I found it difficult to breathe, especially when they all crowded round me. My dress was examined with curiosity, and if I had not gently but firmly resisted, I think I should have been disrobed, so eager were they to see how my clothes were made and fastened. They patted me, stroked my hair, and called me all sorts of pet names. They asked me if I were betrothed, and whether my brother had a harem, and if he were fair and handsome. When I took off my light kid gloves, one of the children began to cry, saying, "Behold, see, the stranger is skinning her hands." Lemonade and sweetmeats were handed to me, and coffee was prepared by a black slave, who crouched down by the charcoal fire. Narghiles and long pipes were passed from one to another. The one which I smoked had a very beautiful jeweled mouthpiece, sent up by the Agha for my use. I explained to them that I had learned to smoke in their country, and that in England ladies do not smoke. They took me into a room well stocked with lehaffs and mattresses, some of which were covered with silk. They asked if I could work, and were surprised when I answered that I could make all my clothes. They told me that nearly all their dresses were made by tailors, and that their mattresses, lehaffs, and divans, were covered and made by upholsterers, so that they did very little needle-work themselves. The eldest son, who had been my guide, came to fetch me, and took me into a small but lofty room, with palm fronds at least twelve feet long in each corner, and dates hanging up in rich clusters from the rafters.

I called afterward on Mohammed Bek. He had only one wife, a pleasant young woman, who, with her infant daughter, were under the especial duennaship of the Bek's mother, one of the most dignified-looking Arab women I ever saw.

The young wife, Miriam, was dressed in a dark cloth jacket and pink cotton trowsers. She was very much tattooed. A row of blue dots encircled her large thick lips, a star appeared on her forehead, and a little crescent on her chin. Her eyebrows were strongly marked, and her lashes very long. At her side, in her girdle, she had a gold crescent-shaped box or case, embossed and chased. It contained an inscription in Arabic characters, and she regarded it as a potent charm.

Her little child had on a green silk skull-cap, to which were fastened coins, strings of pearls, and a blue bead to avert the effect of the glance of an "evil eye." Broad bands of silver, with tinkling bells attached to them, were fastened round her ankles, and she pattered about on the matted floor with her little naked feet to make them ring. She had on a tight green silk jacket, and short full Turkish trowsers, and a small red shawl for a girdle.

I liked these people very much, and often went to see them. One day when I called, about two years after my first visit, Miriam told me that she feared her husband was looking out for another wife. Some Moslem ladies, who had heard the rumor at the Turkish baths, had told her. She said, "I have lived for four years with the Bek and his mother, and I have been very happy, but I shall be happy no longer if he brings home a new bride. She will take his soul from me. Speak to him, my sister, that he may not take another wife. He will listen to you, for your words are pearls and diamonds."

I ascertained afterward that the report was true, for Mohammed was negotiating a marriage with a girl of a tribe of the Metwalis; this was, however, soon afterward broken off, for the family or clan to which the Bek belonged became involved in a feud with the Metwalis, consequently the marriage could not take place. Mohammed had never seen the lady, so he was easily consoled, and Miriam rejoiced exceedingly.

In a third harem which I visited, I found four wives, who seemed to live very contentedly together. They were kindly treated and very much indulged, and were often allowed to go — well guarded — to the Turkish baths, and to visit other harems.

Their husband. Sheikh Abdallah, always had in his establishment the full allowance of four wives, and when one died the vacancy was soon filled. Though still in the prime of life, he had already had seven wives. I ascertained from them, by degrees, that they held supremacy in turn, for the space of a few days or a week. The honored one is said to be "holder of the keys," for during her temporary sway she is always in full dress — the mistress of the reception-room — and the favored one of the lord of the harem, while the rest attend to the cooking and household matters. This family seemed to be very well regulated, and I never saw any signs of ill-feeling between the wives, although the youngest and prettiest had no children, while the eldest, a lady of Nablûs, had three sons, and the two others, who came respectively from Saida and Damascus, had each a son and daughter.

The sheikh always sought for wives in various and far distant towns. After marriage the women rarely, if ever, came in contact with their relatives; thus, having no connections in Hâifa, they naturally sympathized with each other as strangers in a strange place. There were no old quarrels or jealousies to revive; on the contrary, there must have been subjects of novelty and interest to communicate. Perhaps this was one of the reasons why Abdallah's harem was more homelike and harmonious than any other which I visited.

The chief room is long and narrow, with unglazed, wooden, latticed windows on three sides of it. A raised divan at the end of the room is regarded as the seat of honor, where the sheikh always sits. Narrow mattresses, carpeted and cushioned, are arranged on the floor close to the walls. I had known this family about three years, when, one day, as I sat in that room, surrounded by the four wives, their children and slaves, the sheikh himself was suddenly announced. All rose up at his coming. He took his seat by my side on the divan. None of the women ventured to sit in his presence till he had invited them to do so.

They all vied with each other to serve him. One placed a pillow for him cozily, another handed him sherbet, and the favored one had the especial privilege of preparing and lighting his pipe. He spoke very gently and kindly to them all, and fondled his children lovingly. He was dressed in in-door costume, and wore a long gown, called a ktimbaz, made of white goat's-hair, striped with white spun silk, and over it a bright-blue cloth pelisse, edged with fur, a very large white muslin turban, and yellow pointed slippers, without stockings.

I asked him if he had any books. He dispatched one of his little sons, with orders to bring to me all that were in the house. A slave soon appeared with a pile of dusty folios, consisting of manuscript copies of the. Koran, illuminated profusely, and books of medicine and magic; but the favorite volume was brought by one of the wives. It was a thick, clumsy-looking quarto, and consisted of careful and detailed interpretations of dreams and omens of all kinds; in fact, it was a manuscript divination dictionary. The subjects were arranged in alphabetical order, beautifully written in large red letters, and the explanations were in black ink. The paper was so thick, yellow, and glossy that I at first mistook it for vellum. As the sheikh turned over the leaves of this book he said, "Lady, what was the dream of your last sleep?" I reflected an instant, and answered, "I was walking by the sea-shore, near the River Kishon, and was very tired, when suddenly a white horse, ready saddled, rose and stood before me, as if offering his services; so I mounted and rode on, as if I were flying, till I awoke. "The women cried out, "It is a good dream I" And the sheikh looked in the dictionary for the words "white horse" and "sea-shore." After some consideration he assured me that my dream was a very good one, and that, though great dangers surrounded me, I should certainly escape from them. None of the women could read a single letter; but if any thing could induce them to learn, I think it would be their desire to read that book, every line of which they listened to most eagerly,

A tray of sweetmeats, nuts, fruit, and other dishes was brought in. The sheikh ate with me, and then retired; for none of the women would eat in his presence. I never saw an instance of an Arab woman eating with men except in families which had been strongly influenced by European society. These ladies were all very clever in making preserves, marmalade, and sweetmeats, and in preparing meat dishes, and seemed to be very devoted mothers. The children looked happy, and the elder sons were fine, intelligent youths.

In spite of the good-natured cheerfulness of the women, I felt that there was something wanting. Only the material part of their nature was developed, and developed so disproportionately, that the Moslems were right when they said that in their present state they are unfit for general society. In some of the harems the women live very unhappily, and are only like spies on each other. In some cases men who have two wives are obliged also to have two homes, that peace may be insured. The majority of Moslems do not practice polygamy.