memoir

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]

Reading Travelers: Find Your Historical Context

"Can you share a travel secret?" asked an online travel site for women prepping its annual feature of tips from women writers worldwide. "Read the women who went before us," I replied. "Or, read about them."

For this expat/ archaeologist/ writer/ traveler, cultural wisdom pools at the intersection of women and travel.  The romance and grit of historical travelogue connects me to the land -- and reminds me of travel's transformative force in the lives of women. Reputation-risking. Life-threatening. Culturally redeeming. Personally empowering.  (My post about a related controversial history.)

Adventurous Women in Southeast Asia (Oxford-in-Asia), a selection of traveler sketches by historian John Gullick, gave my own struggling expatriate experience new meaning when I was sweating it out for 5 years in the Malaysian jungle. Playing an attitudinal extra aristocrat on the 1860s filmset of "Anna and The King" with Jodie Foster and Chow Yun Fat in 1999 (next to a pig farm during a swine flu outbreak, but that's another post!), I appreciated learning about the dark side of the iconic governess to the Siamese court. Foster may have played Anna Leonowens prim, proper and principled but actually the lady was a scrappy mixed-blood mistress of reinvention. There was hope for me!

If you plan a trip to Turkey maybe Cultures in Dialogue holds similar promise for you. The print-on-demand series resurrects antique writings by American and British women about their travels in Turkey (1880s to 1940s), along with surprisingly political writing by women of the Ottoman empire. Contempo analysis by spunky scholars Reina Lewis and Teresa Heffernan refreshes the context of a region in transition.

Any favorite antique travel reads? What draws you to by-gone reports? +++++ Check out some of expat+HAREM’s favorite hybrid life reads here.

Disposable Liaisons Of The Traveling Class

It's that time of year -- for what's euphemistically called "Romance on the Road." Getting your groove back in foreign zipcodes. Shirley Valentine’s Day. In 2006 I reviewed for Perceptive Travel a somewhat academic book about the controversial practice of "sex pilgrimage", traveling for the purpose of sexual adventure. I'm no proponent of behavior that often falls outside the bounds of a traveler's own culture as well as severely straining mores at international destinations. I warned the assigning editor he probably had more optimistic reviewers in his stable of cutting-edge travel writers. But he couldn't find anyone who wanted to be associated with the dense “history & how-to cum memoir” ROMANCE ON THE ROAD. Shipping it from Nashville, Tennessee to Istanbul was his best option.

Viewing the situation from the sex-toured Near East and my five years in South East Asia, it’s clear that one forgettable fling has the power to affect systems far larger than the person, family, village or region which witnessed and absorbed the behavior.

Plus, the environment of sexual predation many Western women face overseas is bound to be heightened by the wanton choices of sex pilgrims. Travelers and expatriates like me strive to modulate our behavior to find social acceptance with native friends, families and colleagues, aware we must differentiate ourselves from sexual opportunists who don't have to lie in the messy bed they've made.

Which cultural product are sex tourists exporting? Is the practice of hot-and-bothered globetrotters empirical evidence that Western culture is morally corrupt?

+++ Here's my full review from Perceptive Travel:

Romance on the Road Traveling Women Who Love Foreign Men

By Jeannette Belliveau (reviewed by Anastasia M. Ashman)

Jeannette Belliveau was a "sex pilgrim" for 12 years and now the 51 year old former erotic adventuress reveals all in this dense volume of travel sex history and how-to cum memoir.The author got her groove back after a divorce by sleeping with men in Greece, the Virgin Islands, the Bahamas and Brazil. Of French Canadian descent, she is currently married to a younger man of color she fantasizes looks like a 'pharaoh'. In ROMANCE ON THE ROAD she attempts to place her actions into wider context.

As an American expatriate living in Turkey, this reviewer senses a motive of authorial self-preservation: to normalize controversial sexual behavior which not only falls outside the bounds of her own culture but severely strains mores at international destinations.

Creating what she calls a geography of sex and love, the newspaperwoman from blue-collar Maryland examines a social phenomenon that may have involved more than 600,000 Western women in the past 25 years: travelers who engage in flings or long term affairs with foreign men, vaulting over cultural boundaries. While intercultural love and marriages are a subtheme, the book's focus is hedonistic sex with virile strangers."Travel sex by women is revolutionary," Belliveau declares, a rebellion barred from polite conversation and insufficiently chronicled by social scientists even if its roots are deep in Victorian travel.

The Western world might not deem it noteworthy but the buzz is growing in remote Central American fishing villages, sandy strips of West Africa, and the tiniest towns in the Himalayas. The author suggests that today's feminine voyagers are "stumbling into a major life experience without a map."

Does Romance on the Road provide a compass for the heartbroken (or hot-and-bothered) globetrotter looking for a distant cure? It can get a gal started.

Prurient interest will be dampened however by the charts, graphs, survey results, and Modern Language Association-style citations of more than 800 bibliographic sources from Henry James' Daisy Miller to a British newspaper feature entitled "My Toyboy Tours".

There's a global chronology of the trend, a summary of related books and movies, and basic ethics and etiquette ("remember the man is real, not an actor in your fantasy"; and "do not use him as a sperm donor").

She has done an admirable job of combining veteran intelligence on each locality with a profile of an adventurous Western woman and a timeline of foreign female exploits in the region. Much like the book itself, these geographic chapters are not all fun and games. In Latin America, "sex is a parallel universe of magic" yet gigolos may sport "a breezy attitude toward the truth". A sex pilgrim profiled has a bleak history, found murdered on the side of a Mexican road, "presumably left by a cruel pickup".

Clearly an optimist, Belliveau argues that despite obvious risks the lustful practice can be psychologically healing, fulfill a woman's urge for sexual connoisseurship, or address situations like involuntary celibacy.It can also be a road to discovery.

Erotic adventure may not be on the agenda but can be inspired by the act of travel itself. Wandering women have the opportunity to "reclaim pagan freedoms lost since the advent of civilization" Belliveau waxes, since they exist in a liminal zone, a reality unconnected to their usual existence. A traveler may view the people around her as social equals, think of herself as anonymous, feel unburdened by expectations of social propriety, be more playful and suggestive. Novelist Rebecca Brown is quoted discovering her sexuality on a trip abroad: "Like Stein, Toklas, and other women who have traveled away from home, it took leaving my native land to realize I was a lesbian."

Even so, it is difficult to approach Romance on the Road, or know who would, besides social scientists who might wallow in its surfeit of statistics or old hands who will identify with the insider dope, and buoyant we-can-all-get-it-on (and perhaps heal the world by having international children) conclusions. It's hardly pleasure reading nor something to openly peruse on a crowded subway. Some may not want to get caught reading it at all. This reviewer's Turkish husband handed it over saying "You got a trashy book in the mail."

It's unfortunate that Belliveau's concentration on ecstasy abroad overwhelms her scholarship on ethical and economic questions as well as cultural and social ramifications in sex-host cultures.

The few harmful consequences she includes are female tourists being perceived as "man-stealers" by native women in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean and Africa; the new role of hustler that thousands of foreign men have adopted; and a rise in STDs and incidents of harassment and assault. Soon enough she is making the case for positives like liberated Scandinavian women spurring sexual revolutions for their sisters in Spain, Greece and Mexico.

Belliveau doesn't seem concerned with the cultural factor freespirited sensualists export.

Writing from the sex-toured Near East, this reviewer suggests the damaging potential of each disposable liaison is empirical evidence that Western culture is morally corrupt. One forgettable fling has the power to affect systems far larger than the person, family, village or region which witnessed and absorbed the behavior.

The environment of sexual predation many Western women face overseas is also bound to be heightened by the wanton and culturally inappropriate choices of sex pilgrims. Travelers and expatriates striving to modulate their behavior to find social acceptance with native friends, families and colleagues must struggle to differentiate themselves from sexual opportunists who don't have to lie in the messy bed they've made.

Without apology Belliveau admits this detrimental byproduct of her Shirley Valentine amusement (or was it healing?): "At first I was appalled at the smothering level of harassment I encountered in Athens. Then I succumbed to these temptations, with the likelihood that my sex partners became further convinced about the ease of seducing any lone Western female tourists to later cross their paths."

On behalf of thousands of traveling women hoping to explore the world unmolested -- thanks for nothing.

Heartbroken (or Hot-and-Bothered) Globetrotters

My review of Romance on the Road: Traveling Women Who Love Foreign Men by Jeannette Belliveau Jeannette Belliveau was a "sex pilgrim" for 12 years and now the 51 year old former erotic adventuress reveals all in this dense volume of travel sex history and how-to cum memoir.

The author got her groove back after a divorce by sleeping with men in Greece, the Virgin Islands, the Bahamas and Brazil. Of French Canadian descent, she is currently married to a younger man of color she fantasizes looks like a 'pharaoh'. In ROMANCE ON THE ROAD she attempts to place her actions into wider context. As an American expatriate living in Turkey, this reviewer senses a motive of authorial self-preservation: to normalize controversial sexual behavior which not only falls outside the bounds of her own culture but severely strains mores at international destinations.

Creating what she calls a geography of sex and love, the newspaperwoman from blue-collar Maryland examines a social phenomenon that may have involved more than 600,000 Western women in the past 25 years: travelers who engage in flings or long term affairs with foreign men, vaulting over cultural boundaries. While intercultural love and marriages are a subtheme, the book's focus is hedonistic sex with virile strangers.

"Travel sex by women is revolutionary," Belliveau declares, a rebellion barred from polite conversation and insufficiently chronicled by social scientists even if its roots are deep in Victorian travel. The Western world might not deem it noteworthy but the buzz is growing in remote Central American fishing villages, sandy strips of West Africa, and the tiniest towns in the Himalayas. The author suggests that today's feminine voyagers are "stumbling into a major life experience without a map."

Does Romance on the Road provide a compass for the heartbroken (or hot-and-bothered) globetrotter looking for a distant cure? It can get a gal started. Prurient interest will be dampened however by the charts, graphs, survey results, and Modern Language Association-style citations of more than 800 bibliographic sources from Henry James' Daisy Miller to a British newspaper feature entitled "My Toyboy Tours". There's a global chronology of the trend, a summary of related books and movies, and basic ethics and etiquette ("remember the man is real, not an actor in your fantasy"; and "do not use him as a sperm donor").

She has done an admirable job of combining veteran intelligence on each locality with a profile of an adventurous Western woman and a timeline of foreign female exploits in the region. Much like the book itself, these geographic chapters are not all fun and games. In Latin America, "sex is a parallel universe of magic" yet gigolos may sport "a breezy attitude toward the truth". A sex pilgrim profiled has a bleak history, found murdered on the side of a Mexican road, "presumably left by a cruel pickup". Clearly an optimist, Belliveau argues that despite obvious risks the lustful practice can be psychologically healing, fulfill a woman's urge for sexual connoisseurship, or address situations like involuntary celibacy.

It can also be a road to discovery. Erotic adventure may not be on the agenda but can be inspired by the act of travel itself. Wandering women have the opportunity to "reclaim pagan freedoms lost since the advent of civilization" Belliveau waxes, since they exist in a liminal zone, a reality unconnected to their usual existence. A traveler may view the people around her as social equals, think of herself as anonymous, feel unburdened by expectations of social propriety, be more playful and suggestive. Novelist Rebecca Brown is quoted discovering her sexuality on a trip abroad: "Like Stein, Toklas, and other women who have traveled away from home, it took leaving my native land to realize I was a lesbian."

Even so, it is difficult to approach Romance on the Road, or know who would, besides social scientists who might wallow in its surfeit of statistics or old hands who will identify with the insider dope, and buoyant we-can-all-get-it-on (and perhaps heal the world by having international children) conclusions. It's hardly pleasure reading nor something to openly peruse on a crowded subway. Some may not want to get caught reading it at all. This reviewer's Turkish husband handed it over saying "You got a trashy book in the mail."

It's unfortunate that Belliveau's concentration on ecstasy abroad overwhelms her scholarship on ethical and economic questions as well as cultural and social ramifications in sex-host cultures. The few harmful consequences she includes are female tourists being perceived as "man-stealers" by native women in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean and Africa; the new role of hustler that thousands of foreign men have adopted; and a rise in STDs and incidents of harassment and assault. Soon enough she is making the case for positives like liberated Scandinavian women spurring sexual revolutions for their sisters in Spain, Greece and Mexico.

Belliveau doesn't seem concerned with the cultural factor freespirited sensualists export. Writing from the sex-toured Near East, this reviewer suggests the damaging potential of each disposable liaison is empirical evidence that Western culture is morally corrupt. One forgettable fling has the power to affect systems far larger than the person, family, village or region which witnessed and absorbed the behavior.

The environment of sexual predation many Western women face overseas is also bound to be heightened by the wanton and culturally inappropriate choices of sex pilgrims. Travelers and expatriates striving to modulate their behavior to find social acceptance with native friends, families and colleagues must struggle to differentiate themselves from sexual opportunists who don't have to lie in the messy bed they've made.

Without apology Belliveau admits this detrimental byproduct of her Shirley Valentine amusement (or was it healing?): "At first I was appalled at the smothering level of harassment I encountered in Athens. Then I succumbed to these temptations, with the likelihood that my sex partners became further convinced about the ease of seducing any lone Western female tourists to later cross their paths."

On behalf of thousands of traveling women hoping to explore the world unmolested -- thanks for nothing.

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This appeared in Perceptive Travel, July/August 2006