For years now, I've been thinking about, reading about, and on this blog analyzing the problem of Western myopia to the problem of Islam. Sometimes my focus is smaller, sometimes I step back to take the long view, as in my essays Western Amnesia and Islamnesia, and Montaigne: Godfather of PC MC?
One piece of this very complex puzzle involves the West's fascination with the Orient (often meaning the Near East and its historical and cultural contiguity with the Mediterranean littorals). This goes back at least to the 17th century; and as it has become inflected (or distorted) through the warp of PC MC, it has raised the pseudo-problem of "Orientalism" given undeserved impetus and cachet by the Emeritus Hack Edward Said (see my essay He Said, Ed Said).
A good way to get the reader's foot wet in this subject is to dip into a comment Hugh Fitzgerald penned at Jihad Watch many years ago, riffing off of the specious concept of Orientalism:
“Contrary to Edward Said, much of the literature (see Washington Irving, see Chateaubriand, see Sir Walter Scott) and art (see Delacroix, see Eugene Fromentin, see a thousand Frenchmen setting up their easels from Cairo to Marrakech) of the Western world, from the time of Napoleon’s entry into Egypt in 1798 and the almost immediate fashion, in furniture, for Egyptian motifs, the popular response of the West to the Ottoman and Arab East was not one of hostility (whipped-up by the “stereotypes” of the so-called “Orientalists”) but rather, sympathetic interest in the exotic, which then graded into the sensual (Flaubert and Maxine Du Camp in Cairo), and then into the sexual. For before there was the Latin lover (in full-bodied Latin-American form, as with Porfirio Rubirosa, or the suaver Italian, including Vittorio da Sica in “The Earrings of Madame De…” and Vittorio Gassman in all kinds of things) there was Rudolph Valentino as the Sheikh of Araby. And along with the sweet singers of the mystery and majesty of the Arab desert and the noble Bedu—think of Freya Stark and a cast of dozens of English female travellers, each more intrepid and Virago-publishing-house worthy than the next.
“And then there was also the Arab as a sympathetic comic fellow. You find, for example, in the History of Hasty-Pudding Theatricals that between 1890 and 1930 the subject given most attention were those loveable comic fellows, the Arabs.
“And the same is true in popular songs—see the old anthologies of Sigmund Spaeth, and all the songs about funnily-named Arabs or Turks who do battle with the Roosian “Ivan Skaminsky Skamar.” Lots of fun, no sense of menace in those pre-OPEC, pre-Da’wa, pre-mosques-and-minarets everywhere in the Western world days.”
(A lengthy and detailed treatment of issues surrounding this, written by Ibn Warraq, was published in 51 parts at Jihad Watch a couple of years ago, under the title: Walter Scott, The Talisman, The Crusades, Richard I of England and Saladin: Myths, Legends and History.)
At the time, I offered a kind of nightcap to bookend Hugh's brief excursus:
“Further widening Hugh’s chronological poles, we have in 1704 Antoine Galland with his first translation into a Western language (French) of those quasi-Islamic fables The Thousand and One Arabian Nights, which became enormously popular throughout the West for at least two centuries after that; and we may fast-forward to 1965 when Elvis Presley (in a turban and tight silk pants) and the sensually pantherine Fran Jeffries (playing a harem girl “Aisha”) played cat-and-mouse in Harum Scarum. Not to mention the blonde suburban jinn America came to know and love in the series I Dream of Jeannie.”
Then in 1992, speaking of the Arabian Nights, Disney came out with the wildly popular Aladdin (Robin Williams playing the genie) -- popular in various parts of the Muslim world as well (see my 2006 essay Aladdin, Disney, Malaysia, and Islam).
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One example of this Orientophilia out of thousands one could pluck from a genie-bottle has taken the form of various types of romantic literature about Muslims (usually regarding Ottoman Turks and their Sultans). Some of this literature descends into soapy bathos -- as, for instance, in the novels of Bertrice Small, particularly The Kadin. One blurb at Google Books handily distills its meager essence:
Abducted from a life of privilege, she was sold into slavery in a distant land. For Lady Janet Leslie there would be no escaping the harem of the wealthy and powerful Sultan Selim...
The "Abducted" which that summation breezes over refers to the attacks & abductions which Mohammedans in their Jihad of the High Seas (i.e., piracy) perpetrated against Westerners for over 1,000 years, mostly in the Mediterranean, but also at times up the Atlantic coast of Spain, France, and even England (and once, Iceland!) -- not to mention in raids on villages near coastlines from Greece all the way to Spain. As I wrote in my 2012 essay, Tilting at windmills, about Cervantes and Islam:
“As we should know, but don't: Muslims routinely abducted Westerners and enslaved them, for centuries -- documented in the books White Gold by Giles Miton, as well as Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast and Italy, 1500-1800, by Robert C. Davis, whose author estimates approximately one million or more Westerners who suffered this cruel fate at the hands of Muslims during that time period alone (see also Chapter One -- available to read for a free preview at Amazon.com -- of Peter Hammond's new book, Slavery, Terrorism & Islam, for a good overview of Islamic slavery). And, of course, a good deal of the cruel problem of the so-called 'Barbary pirates' (i.e., Muslims adapted to water travel) entailed their abduction and enslavement of innumerable Europeans, and then, fatefully, of Americans.”
Billed under the sub-genre of "erotica", The Kadin seems to be one of a series indulging the morbid obsession author Bertrice Small seems to have -- un-self-reflectively -- with civilizational self-hatred (among the titles I see there is the dry-heave-inducing The Love Slave which, from its description, deals in the same sordid world as its hapless white kidnapping victim is relegated to the harem of the Caliph of Cordoba). One could make quite a study of this sub-genre, if one could stomach one's fascination with protracted vehicle collisions on the freeway turning slowly into existential nausea. Today, I only take a look at a few choice reader reviews of The Kadin (it garnered over 150 reviews at Amazon.com), from which I culled what I consider to be a typical attitude of the white female PC MC when contemplating, and no doubt anticipating, through the gauzy veil of her witlessly unwitting wishes, her swarthy rapist. Note: kadin is an Arabic word meaning "a favorite" -- referring to the Sultan's favorite sex slave, the white abductee. Or perhaps a better translation would be "pet", with all the connotations we can think of.
I hereby quote some of them (I won't even bother typing "[sic]" since the misspellings amongst these readers of literature abound). The bolded portions are my emphases. Their preposterousness should be self-evident. Their common theme reflects an utter, almost surreal lack of condemnation for the abduction and sex slavery that is the sine qua non of the whole bloody story. Indeed, one almost gets a sense from these white housewives in their little book club that for them, the pinnacle of Women's Lib was to have been kidnapped by Sultan Selim and grown up to become Mistress of the Harem:
" i loved how the women forged a bond together and all their experiences at the moonlight serai."
a Google Books reviewer -- " I loved the setting in Constantinople. Had to go to Istanbul just to see this for myself. I liked how the kadins worked together with each other for the benefit of Selim. I've read this book over and over."
"The Kadin, the first of the two, tells the story of Janet Leslie, who as a young woman is stolen away to the Middle East to become Cyra Hafise, wife of the Sultan of Sultan's son, Selim. She is based on the real life Ayºe Hafsa Sultan, a very powerful woman in her time. The story also features her just as famous son, and a handful of Selim's other wives, colorful characters in their own right. I've always loved the mysterious beauty of the Middle East, and as the greater part of this novel takes place there, you can see why it's my favorite of all of Small's works."
"This is the amazing story of Janet aka Cyra Leslie, a young Scottish girl kidnapped and purchased for a Selim, future Turkish sultan. Even though this is not the life she would have chosen, she quickly adapts and is determined to make her life with Selim as pleasant as possible. She forms a lasting bond with her fellow wives and finds herself madly in love with Selim. This isn't a fairy tale romance. Cyra has to share Selim with other women, and their life is repeatedly marred by violence and tragedy."
"One day she is betrayed and kidnapped only to be sold is the slave markets of the East. She arrives in Ottoman ruled Turkey and meets 2 other young woman who will be embroiled in a plot with her. Their role will be to become the favorites of the current sultan's beloved son Selim. Janet, now named Cyra, makes a vow with the 2 other women Firousi and Zulieka that they will remain true to each other and survive their ordeal. This book tells the unforgetable tale of a remarkable woman who must learn to live in a culture completely foreign to her own, a woman who falls in love with Selim and remains true to her friends, a woman who would be mother to one of Turkey's greatest sultans, Suleiman the Magnificent. "
"I loved... abolutely LOVED this book. I first got it from a woman giving away a lot of her books due to moving and I read it until it fell apart. Then I bought another copy, which will likely also need replacing soon. Whenever I need a good dose of pick-me-up, I head straight for Ms. Small... usually to The Kadin. Lady Janet Leslie-turned-Cyra (Hafise) is a woman for women to be proud of -- a worthy heroine! Since I only objected to a tiny scene near the very end of the book, I could not remove even one star for trivialities such as that... but it was my own personal hang-up on the personality and identity of Cyra that the way her old friend Colin treated her near the end of the book should not have been tolerated, considering who she was - both the most powerful and beloved woman in the Ottoman Empire, and the strong-willed, not-to-be-trifled-with woman that she was. I don't care if she was past fifty by then; the Cyra I know should have had him killed for such presumption. I would have, if I were her... never doubt it! However, I may be more upset about that one small scene than necessary, considering Cyra is my hero, but what a worthy hero she is! Set in the fascinating world of a Turkish harem at a young age, Cyra is transformed from an impetuous child to a beloved and sweet, yet powerful woman. The nature of the harem life necessitated that she be ruthless when it was called for; and she had the strength of character to never shirk what needed to be done and the wisdom to know how and when to act in order to be in control of her own life. Though she lived in a harem, she was NEVER a slave or a victim, as harem life is usually portrayed -- indeed, she and her 'sisters' (Sultan Selim's other wives) made harem life seem very appealing. The four women shared a husband but there was never any jealousy or anger between them - they loved each other and each other's children more than anything. This story was touching and beautiful, the plot engrossing, the characters endearing and the setting fascinating. It made me extremely interested in Turkish history and harem life in that time period. This was one book that I most certainly would have loved to live in, had I the chance. I urge anyone to not pass it up. I have since read every Bertrice Small book that I could get my hands on, but "The Kadin" and Cyra still hold my heart, followed only closely by Cyra's descendant, Catriona, in "Love Wild and Fair," who most certainly has Janet Leslie's spirit - though staying mostly in Europe. What I love about Ms. Small is her attention to detail and being able to make wonderful pictures with her words. I know what Cyra's clothes looked like, her rooms, her jewelry, and of course her face. I enjoyed that aspect so much that to this day, it is difficult for me to enjoy a book unless I can picture every scene down to the last detail, and unlike many other authors, Ms. Small's detailing is never boring or used as a page-filler, but it's descriptive and fascinating - an integral part of the story."
At least one reviewer over at Amazon had a lick of sense:
"That Cyra, a strong-willed, high-spirited young teenager could easily accept her fate was a bit hard to swallow."
Apparently there was a movie version of the story -- Intimate Power (1989), also known as The Favorite (a more direct translation of the Arabic word kadin), directed by Jack Smight, starring F. Murray Abraham as the Ottoman Sultan. Interestingly, most of the reviewers seemed to dislike it -- and one reviewer was "offended" by its presumption that a European woman might be behind the Ottoman "reforms" of the 19th century (meaning that the reform props should be given to the Muslims themselves, apparently). At least one reviewer, however, had some wits about them:
"This movie gives a very good insight of the brutality of the muslim world of the early 19 century when women had absolutely no rights, and when people were just sultan's servants. It also gives a fair insight of the clash between the emmerging [sic] western civilization (France) and the middle east."
This augurs well for the movie's veracity, as opposed to the novel's, given how seemingly all the Amazon reviewers gush over how ro-man-tic it was for a 13-year-old girl to be abducted from her family then turned into a sex slave to be regularly raped -- even if the novel might be better written, artistically, than the movie was directed. I have yet to verify the film's merits, though the previews are laughable: F. Murray Abraham's Ottoman Sultan comes across as a nobly Saladinesque Muslim ruler, preposterously telling his fresh new and pale white sex slave (not the English Lady Janet Leslie, but a French noblewoman, Aimée Dubucq de Rivéry, played by actress Amber O'Shea) standing alone together in his harem bedroom, as he grips her jaw in the palm of his hand: "I won't have you by force -- only by your own choice!"
Talk about fantasy.