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The Banality of Luxury : HAREM The World Behind the Veil by Alev Lytle Croutier; (Abbeville Press: $35; 224 pp.; illustrated; 0-89659-903-5)

August 27, 1989|Michael Gilsenan | Gilsenan is professor of contemporary Arab studies, Magdalen College, Oxford, England. and Scene from "The Harem Bath."

This book is like a marvelous box of expensive chocolates, or rather, perfumed Turkish delight. The titles are asenticing as the aroma of jasmine: training of odalisques, harem walls, death, secrets of flowers and birds, riddles and stories, opium, disenchantment, death, desire and consummation, regeneration of (eunuchs') genitals, jewelry, death. . . . Mortality taps away in the perfumed garden, a woodpecker amid the singing birds.

The sumptuous pictures seduce us too. Ingres' coolly classical nude La Grande Odalisque of 1814 with her rich jeweled clasp in the hair emphasizing her skin's luster, looks over her right shoulder at the viewer, her hand loosely holding the phallic handle of her peacock fan. Bouchard's naked beauty in After the Bath of 1894 looks away intent on her testing of the water; her body faces us but oh so tastefully, heavy gold bangles and rich drapery on the couch tell us she is not of our European world of the feminine. Sir Frank Dicksee's sultry Leila, 1892, reclines in flaming red and gold robes but manages to look only positively repressed and English beside Renoir's Odalisque, 1870. Her slouched pose and hooded eyes, tired with who knows which pleasures, make her business all too clear. She is not serving tea.

Sensuality. Better, Oriental sensuality. The air is so heavy you can smell it in Delacroix and Renoir. We know it is "Eastern" air and these are Eastern breasts, thighs, sultry glances because of the almost suffocating colors, glittering pearls in rich settings, damasks, a leopard skin here and there.

Black slaves play their part, male and female. Mother of pearl inlay is everywhere and so are the inevitable hubble bubble pipes. If Western males were to have their fantasies, every dream element had to find a place in the cliched decor of desire for The Orient.

The Orient as Woman. Accessible woman, passive yet alluring woman, always available because always possessed woman. Explored, examined and dominated like The East itself she must also look "mysterious." The glowing canvases are a rhapsody of mostly 19th-Century European men's erotic imaginings.

And there is the eternal and cliched question of this book's subtitle: Just what was "The World Behind the Veil"?

More to the point, what was the world behind that tight, all-covering black suit of the respectable middle-class gentleman in the gallery, dressed permanently as if going to a funeral (as the French poet Baudelaire sardonically observed)? What is the world behind the designer jeans of the man looking at these images of 1989? Is he turned on? Does "the harem" still intrigue us, tempting women too into secret dreams?

Publishers certainly think so. They are in the business of selling things and knowing markets. We still want to consume the world, pry into all its veiled places, penetrate all its, her, hidden parts, see everything that is concealed. The pictures reproduced here themselves sell for millions. High art plus sex plus fantasy plus money, even in this age that's a heady cocktail.

Alev Lytle Croutier begins her superbly illustrated stroll through this universe of illusion recalling her own family, and growing up in an old house "which was once the harem of a pasha." A girl, the women told her things about the world of women. She is Turkish but left for the United States in 1963 when she was 18. So she was there, but is partly an outsider. Ideal credentials.

Old photos tell their own stories of her family. A great uncle poses with his wife and daughters. The riding boots and crop, military uniform and sharply turned up mustaches are the very type of officer gentleman. The wife has her head covered in a scarf and two-tone boots peep out from beneath what looks like the rich material of her all-concealing dress. The children in identical off-the-face brimmed hats lean formally on their parents' knees or shoulders. On the opposite page the author's father and mother pose in "Turkish costume," which reminds us how quickly "the folk" came to be used in dressing up by the local well-to-do, a kind of charade of something called "the traditional."

In an odd way the snapshot resembles the picture of Mr. and Mrs. Silk Buckingham elaborately costumed in Oriental clothes in the England of 1816 (by Pickersgill). The irony here does not seem to be part of the author's own awareness. She is inclined to flit from subject to subject, picture to picture, book to book. Sometimes she comments stringently on the Orientalism and fantasy of it all. Mostly she is rather blandly content with a few lines on Ottoman history or a paragraph or two on shopping, food, dress. The pictures themselves are often treated merely as illustrations of a reality. She will suddenly use Sir Richard Burton or even Montesquieu's Persian Letters as if they were just reliable reporters of the world of, say, black eunuchs.

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