- Intimate Outsiders: The Harem in Ottoman and Orientalist Art and Travel Literature
The concept of the harem, like a host of shorthand symbols that represent orientalist understandings of the Middle East, is both categorically simplistic and beguilingly complex. Scholars have utilized and/or invoked the concept in countless orientalist contexts to signify the “Western” notion of the “East” as a space of sexual abandon and lasciviousness, oriented toward the pleasure of men and the submission of women. Such stock, stereotypical notions of the harem are disrupted by the very dynamism of the institution of the harem, which, as the space reserved for women in elite households, has served a variety of roles in numerous historical and geographical contexts. Underlying the concept of the harem, then, is a profound tension between the archetypal image of the harem, which has maintained it as a subject of Western fantasies, and the sociopolitical institution of the harem, which serves as a rich site for investigating some of the complexities of female power.
Indeed, it is precisely this tension that lies at the heart of Mary Roberts’s Intimate Outsiders: The Harem in Ottoman and Orientalist Art and Travel Literature. Looking primarily at the ways European female travelers and artists gained an intimacy within Ottoman elite households while still negotiating an “outsider” status, Roberts aims to “explore the ways in which two seemingly incompatible concepts of the harem, the Western fantasy and the Ottoman social institution, can in fact be interpreted as mutually defining ideas” (4). Without denying the power and saliency of the orientalist framework, Intimate Outsiders builds on a set of scholarship that complicates [End Page 195] the strict binary of a knowledge-producing, powerful “West” determining perceptions of a subjugated, passive “East.”1
Covering the period from 1839 to the end of the nineteenth century, Roberts analyzes both travel writing and painting created in the urban centers of Istanbul and Cairo as part of the mutually informing cross-cultural exchanges of European visitors and Ottoman elites. Roberts formulates a cogent argument about the subtle, nuanced relationship between various Ottoman elites and their European bourgeois interlocutors, examining a series of case studies ranging from famous British orientalist paintings by John Frederick Lewis, to British women’s travelogues, to honorific portraits commissioned by elite Ottoman women. She demonstrates that, even while Europeans gained an increasingly intimate understanding of Ottoman culture, their lingering orientalist fantasies still mediated this understanding.
The book is divided into three sections, each giving a different perspective on the idea of an “intimate outsider.” In part 1 Roberts focuses on the paintings of John Frederick Lewis, presumably to lay the groundwork for exploring the iconic myth of the harem as constructed in popular British orientalist art. In addition to his fame as an orientalist artist, Lewis fits the “intimate outsider” framework due to the popular perception that Lewis had “gone native,” living as an Ottoman gentleman in Cairo. Though he would not have had access to an Ottoman harem, his immersion in local culture lent an authority and veracity to his paintings, despite the fantastical fictions they promoted. In part 2 the author shifts focus to British women’s travelogues, demonstrating how a variety of engagements with archetypal notions of the harem and Ottoman women were both deployed and disrupted. Because women travelers did have access to Ottoman harems, they could manifest more directly a wide range of cross-cultural engagements with the Ottoman harem, seeing the harem sometimes through the orientalist lens of the tales of the Arabian Nights but sometimes experiencing a shift in perspective after entering the harem by becoming the spectacle themselves, even to a reassessment of the veil as a garment offering a privileged position to the woman who wears it by enabling her to “see without being seen” (93). As these last examples make clear, the position of “intimate outsider” encouraged these women travelers to notice the ways in which perspective and privileged intimacy alter stereotypical notions of the harem and...