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."