Tales from the Expat Harem

Expat Harem: 9 Years On The Reading List

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 11.09.17 AM Thrilled to see Expat Harem top this list of best expat books in the Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah. Thanks to Expat Harem book and blog writer Catherine Yiğit for the heads up! Leyla Yvonne Ergil writes, "Many an expat has penned their experiences of living of Turkey in captivating accounts of the beauty of the landscape and cultural divides...

"...some of the best reads to laugh, commiserate, and experience the wonder that is Istanbul through foreign eyes."

Glad to be included on this list with:

Screen Shot 2014-09-09 at 12.26.22 PM And thanks to Elle Loftis for recommending the book in her top 10 Turkey reads in Today's Zaman paper.

"It shows a side of Turkey and Turkish culture rarely portrayed outside of fiction, and definitely not covered by international media. Expats in particular will enjoy this anthology, where many of the stories will undoubtedly hit home," Loftis writes.

Featured By Global Living Magazine As One Of Best Expat Books

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Thanks to Shelley Antscherl for naming Expat Harem among best expat anthologies in the January/February 2014 issue of Global Living Magazine!

I'm proud the book is listed alongside the work of editors like Suzanne Kamata of "Call Me Okasaan: Adventures In Multicultural Mothering", Monica Neboli of "Drinking Camel's Milk In The Yurt: Expat Stories from Kazahkstan", Diane Dicks of "Ticking Along Too: Stories About Switzerland", and Kate Cobb of "Turning Points25 Inspiring Stories From Women Entrepreneurs Who Turned Their Careers and Their Lives Around".

And thanks to Summertime Publishing publisher, Expat Book Shop proprietress and fellow expat writer Jo Parfitt for the review. "A fine bit of not just good writing, but literary writing, and that is due to the fabulous work of the editors."

See what else is in the issue here. Screen Shot 2014-01-18 at 8.38.03 AM Global Living is a luxury lifestyle magazine for global citizens and sophisticated internationals who live, have lived, or may someday will live outside their country of origin.

Turkey's Top Selling Novelist Elif Shafak Recommends Expat Harem in The Telegraph

Screen Shot 2013-09-20 at 9.13.43 AM Thanks, Elif!

Turkey's highest selling novelist Elif Shafak recommends Tales from the Expat Harem, the anthology I coedited with Jennifer Gokmen, in the United Kingdom's Daily Telegraph.

In "Flights of the imagination: Elif Shafak on books about Turkey", she writes about Expat Harem:

"It brings out the voices of Western and Eastern women in Turkey. Travellers, students, teachers, housewives – the cultural shock that some of them went through, their personal encounters and how they made Turkey, or perhaps limbo, their home."

Elif also wrote the foreword to our book back in 2005 for the Turkish Dogan Kitap editions in both English and Turkish!

My Global Niche: An Interview With Today's Zaman Newspaper

American reporter in Turkey Brooks Emerson asked me about the foreign edge, and the challenges of finding my niche in Turkey for his series on expat success stories in national English-language newspaper Today's Zaman. In the far-ranging interview, Emerson asks me what the initial impetus for my success as an expat was, and how I've evolved.

No surprise to those who know me, foreign language adoption has not played much of a role -- once I realized that taking business meetings and doing live television interviews in Turkish literally was rendering me mute! But mentoring in all realms of my personal and professional life has been a "secret weapon" in the creative entrepreneurship of self that I aim to practice.

Emerson asks me how the environment affects the outcome of an expat's endeavors. I tell him how sense of place can inspire a sense of self.

"Anastasia says that she has always been attracted to places with an amalgamation of people and cultures. However, the biggest pull is “the idea of crossroads … like Rome, where [she] studied in college … and now here on the Bosporus,” where she senses a positive energy and vibration for self-discovery and reinvention.

"Anastasia believes that working and living abroad is an excellent way to discover new self-potential."

Read Emerson's entire July 2011 interview "The global niche of Anastasia Ashman" online.

The Accidental Anthologist: Creating A Literary Harem

All the editions of Expat Harem bookTurkey often makes the news for suppressing its authors. Ironically, as an American expatriate in Istanbul I found my voice -- by creating a literary harem of my expat peers. My third month in Istanbul I found my way to an American women's social club. Milling among the crowd at the consul general's residence, I introduced myself by describing my writing project.

"At 40? You're too young to write a memoir," snorted a white haired librarian as she arranged second-hand books on a card table.

"Istanbul's such chaos, I'd be surprised if you can concentrate," thought a freckled socialite in tasseled loafers.

My memoir was going to happen. It had to. It was the cornerstone of my survival plan.

 

MY BRILLIANT CAREER WAS PORTABLE. I moved to Istanbul in 2003 so my Turkish husband could take a job in mobile telecommunications. Even though I lacked a formal proposal for my high-concept travel memoir charting the peaks and valleys of what I was calling “an adventurous life,” I already had a literary agent waiting to champion it. I was thrilled my spouse would be developing the kind of advanced cell phone software that excites him and that emerging economies demand. Yet my international move required a defense strategy.

"I'm not going to waste a minute sitting in language classes, diminishing my facility with English," I informed him.

"Whatever makes you happy," he replied.

In my mind I'd be on an extended writer's retreat, free from the daily distractions of our “real life” in New York City, where we had met.

I'd be an asocial expatriate writer who would one day emerge at the border clutching my passport and a masterpiece.

This exotic vision had been percolating since I'd last been an expat—in Malaysia. I’d spent five years rotting away in the tropics like a less-prolific—and more sober—Somerset Maugham.

Foremost to decay in the equatorial heat was my personality—the core of my writing voice.

In steamy Southeast Asia, my first long-term stint overseas, language and cultural barriers prevented me from expressing even the simplest aspects of my identity. When I told people I was a writer they'd reply, "Horses?"

 

I WAS DECOMPOSING at time-lapse speed. Vintage handbags and L.A. sandals sprouted green fungus overnight, while silvery bugs infested my college texts and a decade of diaries. I was also mistaken for a very different kind of Western woman in Asia, like when a crew of Indonesian laborers working at my house wondered when I was going to drink a beer and take off my shirt.

Three years later, in cosmopolitan Istanbul, I was a resurrected ambitious American prepared for my future. I imagined a successful literary life abroad—supported by a defensive version of expatriatism. "This move won't turn my world upside down," I cockily assured worried friends and relatives, who recalled my anguished Kuala Lumpur days.

Now I was all about the work. My plan to avoid alienation in Turkey was foolproof.

Istanbul, a hilly metropolis of 12 million, made Kuala Lumpur look like the sleepy river town it is. I couldn't envision navigating a car on its traffic-logged streets or squeezing into public minibuses or straying too far alone without a translator. I couldn't wait to hole up at home with my computer, DSL connection and a view of the Bosphorus.

Upon my arrival I joined an expat social club for some English speaking company. There I met the scolding librarian and the socialite. I also ran into an upbeat Michigan writer named Jennifer Gökmen, a 10-year émigré also married to a Turk. She had no doubt I would write my memoir. We both needed some writing support so we created a workshop with a handful of other American women.

Within weeks, the memoir stalled as I struggled to map my entire existence... dear god, what's the arc of my life? Maybe that caustic librarian was right! My resistance to Turkey started to wear down.

Jennifer and I began playing with a proposal of our own: an anthology incorporating essays about our Turkish lives.

I was bursting with that kind of material. The cultural gauntlet I faced on my first trip to meet the family. My glitzy Istanbul wedding. Inspired by the original harem of the 15th century Ottoman sultans, where foreign-born women shared their cultural wisdoms, new arrivals comparing notes with old hands, we figured we formed a modern version: the Expat Harem.

And that’s when the harem walls closed in.

 

SILENCED BY WHOOPING COUGH: I contracted a mysterious and ancient ailment of the pharynx. Local doctors unfamiliar with the diagnosis prescribed medications for asthma and antibiotics to treat a lung infection, neither of which I had. I passed the cough to Jennifer. For the next six months we were both homebound, hacking to the point of incontinence, succumbing to every little flu. I avoided anything that might incite a new round of spasms, like conversation and laughter, the coal smoke emanating from rural shanties, chills from the ancient city's stone walls, gusts of autumn blowing down from the Black Sea. The only thing Jennifer and I were suited for was speechlessly working, and we only wanted to think about the anthology.

"Embedded here, we're destined to be alien."

I brainstormed in an email to Jennifer, pointing out the dilemma of life abroad—even for those who want to blend in to local culture, it’s near impossible. Our cultural instincts will forever lead us to different choices— from simple aesthetics like lipstick color to complicated interpersonal communications.

Topkapi Palace harem door by A.Ashman

"The Expat Harem is a place of female power," she shot back, linking us to an Eastern feminist continuum little known in the Western world.

Harem communities offered women the possibility of power—in the imperial harem, they offered the greatest power available to women in this region. These women had the sultan's ear, they were the mothers of sultans. Several harem women shadow-ran the Ottoman empire, while others co-ruled.

Giddy with our anachronistic metaphor, I replied.

"Ethnocentric prison or refuge of peers—sometimes it's hard to tell which way the door is swinging!"

Like a secret password, news spread as we called for submissions from writers, travelers and Turkophiles. Fascinating women from fourteen nations poured their stories into our in-boxes. They shared how their lives had been transformed by this Mediterranean country in the past 50 years, moments that challenged their values and their destinies as nurses and scientists, Peace Corps volunteers and artists.

These women's tales were not universally known.

Many had never before been published and all were minority voices in a Muslim country with a reputation for censorship.

 

ALTERNATE REALITIES flooded over me: eerie Sufi pilgrimages to Konya, the intimacies of anthropological fieldwork on the Black Sea, glimpses of '70s civic unrest in Ankara, a wistful gardener's search for the perfect Ottoman rose in Afyon. Many represented a depth of involvement with the country I couldn't imagine: harvesting dusty hazelnuts on a brambly hillside, trying to follow the 9/8 rhythms of a clapping Gypsy, sharing space on a city bus with a dancing bear in the Technicolor 1950s.

I whispered to Jennifer, "Compared to these women, I'm a cultural wimp!"

Their struggles to assimilate nudged me to forgive my own resistance, and inspired me to discover the country, the culture and the Turkish people.

Now I could use the editing skills I had been suppressing since I was an infuriating child who returned people's letters corrected with red pen. From the comfort of my home office-with-a-foreign-zipcode, I was able to shape other writers’ stories. The anthology rewarded me for postponing the memoir, by laying the foundations for a more insightful next book. The joys of collaborating with writers from my home office clarified confusing aspects of my character—like how I am a prickly introvert who nevertheless craves connection with people.

One late winter day Jennifer and I stopped coughing and sold Tales from the Expat Harem to Doğan Kitap, a prominent Turkish publisher.

"That's more like it," snapped the librarian when I next saw her at a club meeting, my reputation somewhat rehabilitated in her eyes.

Four decades’ worth of expatriate self-discoveries earned its shelf space, more than my own 40-year life story would have.

"It's a love-letter to the country. I put it on my house guests' pillows!" shared the smiling socialite.

The anthology became a #1 English-language bestseller in Turkey and was recommended as a social and cultural guide by National Geographic Traveler and Lonely Planet.

My literary career and conflicted mindset about life abroad now had a promising new cultural context in the expat harem.

 

I FOUND MY THEORETICAL HOME. I arrived an insular writer afraid of losing my voice. In a temporary silence, Turkey suggested an empowering metaphor. It seems the country not only connected me to a worldwide band of my global nomad and expat writing peers, it provided a place to flourish out of restriction -- and raised my voice in the cultural conversation.

[This essay first appeared in JANERA: The Voice of Global Nomads, January 2008]

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What surprise context has your location provided you?

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[18 months, 2 expat writers, one feminist travel anthology with three editions. Our first book! A bestseller. How'd we do it? Read the story of making Tales from the Expat Harem]

From The Mailbag: Expat Says Her Own Situations Now Described

"I just read your book. Thank you for compiling the stories of expat women in Turkey. I am one too. I really laughed and cried along as I went, so many situations for which I had no words now eloquently described for me. I will be passing the recommendation along to my other bemused expat girlfriends in Turkey."

Discussing Life At The Crossroads On Satellite TV With Martin Anthony

Talking about foreign women in modern Turkey, the making of Expat Harem the book, and other cultural crossroads, in a live television interview with Turkey's 6 News. Expat Harem coeditors Jennifer Gokmen and I appear in THE CROSSROADS, an English-language TV talk show broadcast out of Istanbul via satellite -- from Ireland to Mongolia!  The channel broadcasts programs in Turkish, English and Russian, which is why the news crawl appears in Russian.

Click on the photo to view Expat Harem on the Crossroads at YouTube. ⇒

Canadian host and personality Martin Anthony kept us on the hot seat for an hour in this lively session...we may be sitting next to a refreshing-looking pool in the city's breezy Etiler district, but can you tell it's the muggiest day of the year? Ooof, July 10, 2009.

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From The Mailbag: Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin's Coverage Of The Book Sends Couple To Turkey

A message from one of the Expat Harem writers in Istanbul about a couple she met in Istanbul: "A couple visiting from NYC came to Turkey because she, a Bryn Mawr alum, had read about you in the Alumni newsletter when the book came out. She does not know you, but was intrigued enough to read the book, loved it, and insisted that they spend several weeks in this country on their way home from a trip to Ukraine, where she had been living for a few years."

Interviewed By Istanbullum Magazine

When did you move to Istanbul? What is the first memory you have about Istanbul? AA: My husband and I moved in 2003 and stayed in Ulus with my brother-in-law for a few months, so my impressions from those days are of the sun setting over the Topkapi Palace far in the distance as the family ate barbequed lamb chops on the balcony, an assembly line of kuzu izgara. Sprinkling dried marjoram and oregano on the chops. But my first memories started when I visited in 2000 ( I felt ages of winter chill emanating from AyaSofya’s old stones as I gazed up at the Byzantine mosaics). Then when I married in Istanbul the balmy summer of 2001, at Esma Sultan in Ortakoy, the memories punctuated by the flashbulbs of a glitzy Turkish wedding. The overall memory of Istanbul? A lot of kisses, for everyone, coming and going, every day, every night.

What does Istanbul mean to you? 

AA: Since I have a degree in Classical Greek, Roman and Near Eastern Archaeology,  Istanbul’s historical significance as the center of the ancient civilized world is never far from my consciousness. It’s a place of power and energy and ideas, and has been for centuries. There is no mistaking that this is an important place on the globe.  But as a New World woman from cutting edge California, I also love that with its heavy history it’s not musty and dead like a forgotten museum. I can appreciate its new layers of lives and dreams, and find modern day Istanbul to have more than its share of fabulous places, people and events.

Which part of the city do you live in? How do you like it?

AA: I lived in bohemian Cihangir for four years and loved my scenic view of the Bosphorus overlooking Kabatas ferry terminal. Perched on the cliff the view had all the energy of a transportation hub but at the same time was completely serene – and quiet, if you don’t count the taxicabs honking at all hours of the night! The proximity to Taksim and Istiklal was wonderful, and with the new tramway and metro extension, it really felt like the center of the world! My husband couldn’t take the commute to his Maslak office though so we just moved to Istinye, where we have a much more intimate view of the bay with its teal-colored water. I’m liking all the hillsides covered in wildflowers. But I’ll miss the cafes of Cihangir, like Miss Pizza, and Savoy Pastanesi for simit toast on Sundays and of course in a neighborhood so full of feisty street cats, the great veterinarians. I adopted my cat Bunny from Kazanci Sokagi, so where ever I go I’ll always have a bit of Cihangir in my heart, and in my home.

How does Istanbul look like from U.S.? Are there any misconceptions about the city?

AA: Physically I think the general image of Istanbul does not include so much water, waterways, vistas of water. The hills are also a surprise to many people.  It’s hard to conceive of a metropolis made of so many small villages, how Istanbul can go on for miles and still be Istanbul, even if each kilometer is like a new world.

Do you have any favorite spots in the city?

AA: My favorites are the ones I haven’t been to yet! They exist in my dream of Istanbul. There are so many places I yearn to go. Like the Ilhamur Kosku in Muradiye, the Beykoz pavilion, and Beylerbeyi Palace. The Horhor market in Eyup with its Levantine antiques. A strange restaurant in Gunesli specializing in huge platters of chicken wings.  Things you hear about, things you see from a distance, things you have to find a special time to do. The problem is more time I live in Istanbul, the longer my list grows.

Some of the stories take place in Istanbul in the book “Tales from the Expat Harem”. Is Istanbul a good setting for works of literature?

AA: I think so, (and for film too! Why aren’t there more films set in Istanbul?)  The Expat Harem tales set in Istanbul show that the city offers a colorful and diverse backdrop for personal histories, and adds true depth to the narrator’s every day life. When a young Guatemalan woman recognizes two hatun speaking Ladino on a Mecediyekoy bus, she feels pride in her Spanish linguistic connection -- and at the same time she acknowledges the chain of history that brought this medieval language to Istanbul.  What echoes in that moment is that the Guatemalan came to Istanbul through her own chain of history…

 What does Istanbul need? How would it be better?

AA: A more extensive Metro network, servicing coastal spots like Beskitas, Ortakoy and Bebek. Imagine how that would alleviate street traffic!

 What are your future writing projects? Is Istanbul somehow in them?

AA: Istanbul absolutely will play a role in many of my upcoming cultural essays, in fact the title of my travel memoir in progress is “Berkeley to Byzantium: The Reorientation of a West Coast Adventuress”. It’s about the physical (and metaphysical!) journey from my utopian hometown in California, around the world through classical Italy and the media worlds of New York and Hollywood, to the plantations and palaces of South East Asia, finally ending up in Istanbul. The challenge is to fully explain how my life has culminated in this incredibly meaningful place. Another challenge is to stay home and write when Istanbul beckons!

 What do you think about Istanbul being the “European Culture Capital for 2010”?

AA: It’s about time! It seems to me that Istanbul makes good use of its breathtaking monuments and historic settings for cultural activities (like concerts at Rumeli Hisari and the Aya Irini, and exhibits at the Darphane and Tophane-i Amire, and receptions at Feriye and Dolmabahce), and the yearlong festival will be a perfect opportunity to show off  to the world the city’s priceless heritage, and the life that the people of Istanbul inject into these wondrous spots.

How is the expat life in Istanbul? Is Istanbul an easy city for expat living? 

AA: There are tons of options for expatriates in Istanbul, social and business clubs and general communities, and lots of support networks and foreign language media. I’ve been an expat in Rome and Kuala Lumpur where I learned some expat survival techniques and put them into practice as soon as I arrived here.  I think Jennifer Gokmen would agree that making the anthology helped make sense of our own lives in Turkey as foreigners -- the Expat Harem is an apt metaphor for us.  The title positively reclaims the concept of the Eastern harem just as we consider ourselves and our writers inextricably wedded to Turkish culture, embedded in it, though forever foreign. The virtual walls are there: our initial lack of language skills, undeveloped understanding of the culture, and even some of the ethnocentricities that we cling to.  Luckily for us, Istanbul has a long history of welcoming foreigners, and being able to accomodate many different cultures and mindsets.

Expat Harem Are Women On The Brink

This is the introduction Jennifer Gokmen and I wrote to the book Tales From The Expat Harem:

If there were ever a place tailor-made to play host to wanderers, travelers and those pursuing lives outside their original territory, surely Turkey is that place.

 

The perpetual evolution that travel and cultural assimilation visits upon the foreign born women in this collection echoes the continuous transformation that envelops the entire country. Threshold to worlds East or West depending on which way one faces, Turkey is itself a unique metaphor for transition.

Forming a geographic bridge between the continents of Europe and Asia and a philosophical link between the spheres of Occident and Orient, Turkey is neither one of the places it connects.  Similarly, foreign women on Turkish soil are neither what nor who they used to be, yet not fully transformed by their brush with Turkey.

Our Expat Harem women are on the brink of reclassifying themselves, challenged to redefine their lives, to rethink their definitions of spirituality, femininity, sensuality and self.

Aligned in their ever-shifting contexts, both Turkey and the expatriate share a bond of constant metamorphosis.

 

  • Delirious with influenza, a friendless Australian realizes the value of misafır perverlik, traditional Turkish hospitality, when she’s rescued from her freezing rental by unknown Anatolian neighbors bearing food and medicinal tea;
  • a pregnant and introverted Irishwoman faces the challenge of finding her place in a large Black Sea family;
  • a Peace Corps volunteer in remote Eastern Turkey realizes how the taboos of her own culture color her perceptions;
  • and a liberated New York single questions the gallant rules of engagement on the İstanbul dating scene, wondering whether being treated like a lady makes her less a feminist.

 

These are among the Tales from the Expat Harem.

The titillating, anachronistic title acknowledges erroneous yet prevalent Western stereotypes about Asia Minor and the entire Muslim world, while also declaring that our storytellers share a common bond with the denizens of a traditional Turkish harem.

 

Much like the imported brides of the Seraglio, İstanbul’s 15th century palatial seat of the Ottoman sultanate, our writers are inextricably wedded to Turkish culture, embedded in it even, yet alien nonetheless.

If a harem in the time of the sultans was once a confined community of women, a setting steeped in the feminine culture of its era, then today’s Expat Harem surely follows in its tradition.

Virtual and mainly of mindset, this newly coined community of expatriate women in modern Turkey is conjured by the shared circumstance of being foreign-born and female in a land laced with the history of the harem.

 

Like the insular life in the Seraglio of the past, foreign women in today’s Turkey can often be a self-restricting and isolated coterie, newcomers initially limited in independence and social interaction due to language barriers, cultural naiveté and a resilient ethnocentricity.

Tales from the Expat Harem reveal both the personal cultural prison of the initiate and the peer-filled refuge of those assimilated. Our harem is a source of foreign female wisdom, a metaphoric primer for novices and a refresher for old hands.

Our Scheherazades, modern day counterparts of that historic Arabian Nights harem storyteller, are drawn from a worldwide diaspora of women whose lives have been touched by Turkey.

When our call for stories reached them, through networks of people and computers, we heard from a multitude of expatriates in West Africa to Southeast Asia to America’s Pacific Northwest, all desiring to be counted and to recount their sagas.

By telephone from her home in California, an artist who studied illuminated manuscripts at Topkapı Sarayı was the first to admit the precious affliction she shares with many of her harem sisters: “Turkey gets into your blood. I’m an addict now.”

As editors we faced the delicate task of administrating the Expat Harem’s stories, preparing womanly wisdom for safekeeping. Managing the epic enterprise with its ticklish spectrum of cultural appreciation and feminine self-portraiture, our nights were nearly as sleepless as Scheherazade’s!

 

For months we coaxed diplomats, nurses, chefs and others to explore and express their truths about Turkey in a culturally balanced tone.

Some were not professional writers and some were unable to commit their tale to paper. Of those who did, only a fraction survived the editing process.

But affinities emerged as each woman divulged her internal journey and lasting emotional connection to the place and its people. Systems engineers and hoteliers, missionaries and clothing producers, artists, journalists, and others each share a fierce affection for Turkey.

Revealing what Turkish culture has yielded in their lives, they unspool humorous and poignant adventures at weddings in cobbled Byzantine streets, Ottoman bathhouses, and boisterous bazaars along the Silk Road.

In atmospheric travelogue through a countryside still echoing the old ways, through Giresun and Göreme, they transport us on emotional journeys of assimilation into friendship, neighborhood, wifehood, and motherhood.

Modern women in the real world, they take us along on their quests for national identity, business ownership and property possession.

What follows is a literary version of the virtual, modern harem’s never-ending gathering of women, day melting into night, a relaxed feast while delighting in each other’s diverse company, acting out scenes of cultural contrast and discovery.

 

The country rewards seekers, a veiled place insisting on being uncovered. In the process of discovering Turkey, contemporary women of the Expat Harem unmask themselves as well.

In narratives illuminating imperfect human nature and the fullest possible cultural embrace, our Scheherazades wrestle urges to overly-exoticize the unfamiliar and strive to balance self preservation with the fresh expectations placed on them by Turkish culture.

Some delve deep into interiors of country and psyche, like the shy teacher transformed by the full frontal impact of a 13th century Central Anatolian hamam.

Others teeter on the comic edge of a cultural divide, like the archaeologist who sparks hilarity in the trenches at Troy before language skills supplant vaudevillian pantomime.

In attempting to reconcile countless episodes of unconditional native generosity, expatriate women of the harem learn to accept a new emotional calculus.

 

A mid-life dancer mincing her way through the alleys of İstanbul’s bohemian Beyoğlu district to the beat of a darbuka drum invokes Mary Oliver’s poetic revelation, one that echoes in every tale from the Expat Harem:

 

“I was a bride married to amazement."