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REVISITING THE ABBASID HAREMS Nadia Maria Ei. Cheikh TT The harem has not been properly historicized. It has suffered from the timelessness of the Orient that Edward Said discussed in Orientalism, that is the Orient as a zone of time locked out in a premodern past (Said 1978:231, 235, 278-9). Indeed, the uniform and monotonous accounts appear to have been written by one and the same hand throughout the centuries. Part of the attraction ofreading about the harem was that it permitted Westerners to imagine they had access to a separate temporal realm (Lewis 2004:254-6). Racine justified his dramatization of"such modern events" in Bajazet's seraglio, or harem , by saying that for a French audience there is "scarcely any difference between what is, I dare say, a thousand years away and what is a thousand leagues away. . ." (Grosrichard 1998:123). In the words ofone scholar, "even for the modern reader this tale possesses the strange quality ofbeing instantlyrecognizable. Why does it seem so self-evident, timelessly elevated above history?" (Grosrichard 1998:xiii-xiv). Lewis (2004:183) suggests that the stereotype ofthe Ottoman imperial harem came to stand in as a signifier for all harems. Representations of any harem had, therefore, to position themselves in relation to the imagined spatial frameworks attributed to the ideal harem of the generic stereotype. In her work on the Ottoman harem, Peirce (1993:118) criticized modern studies that "conflate the accounts ofwomen who lived in the harem in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with the earlier descriptions written by Europeans." She upheld that, despite areas of continuity, the harem was an institution that experienced continuous change. This paper seeks to challenge the static "timeless" nature of the JOURNAL OF MIDDLE EAST WOMEN'S STUDIES Vol. I, Na 3 (Fall 2005). C 2005 2 «ß JOURNAL OF MIDDLE EAST WOMEN'S STUDIES harem, and move beyond the parameters ofOrientalism and beyond the level oftheoretical abstraction. It also endeavors to dispute the Orientalist literature that refers to the harem in the singular—as if there were one type ofharem—and contends there were a variety ofliving arrangements for women in Islamic households. To steer away from conventions and clichés, this paper undertakes a more detailed investigation ofharems at a particular historical moment, tenth-century Baghdad. The first part ofthis paper discusses the harem ofCaliph al-Muqtadir (908-932), analyzing its structure as well as the social, economic and political power that a number of harem women were able to exercise. The narratives pertaining to his reign are particularly useful for such an investigation, since the power struggle between the various factions at the caliphal court allowed the caliph's mother, along with a number of other harem women, to exercise political power and influence. Indeed, al-Tanükhi (1978:(II)45) includes in the list of those who conducted affairs because of the youth of al-Muqtadir, his mother (referred to in the sources as al-Sayyida, Shaghab, or as Umm al-Muqtadir) and his aunt Khatif. While the model of the complex polygamous harem complete with multiple wives, concubines, and eunuchs could be found in the caliphal harem, it was far removed from most people's lived experiences. The second part of the paper therefore discusses the household harems. In this section, the two adab anthologies of al-Tanükhi (940-94), al-Faraj ba'da al-shidda and Nishwär al-muhadara, are particularly valuable, as they contain material pertaining to the social history ofthis period. Such books of anecdotal narratives convey not only historical information but also social values and the art of social conduct (Leder and Kilpatrick 1992). The composite content of Nishwär presents a rich variety of examples of social behavior, framed within anecdotes of contemporary Iraqi Muslim life and society. Al-Faraj includes anecdotes of various epochs centered around the theme of relief after adversity (El Cheikh 2002). THE ORIENTALIST HAREM AND ITS CRITICS The desire to penetrate the mysteries ofthe Orient, most notably the urge to enter into the forbidden space ofthe harem, is one ofthe constitu- NADIA MARIA EL CHEIK 3 tive tropes of Orientalist discourse (Yegenoglu 1998:73). Lewis (2004:4) talks...


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