Leyla Saz’s The Imperial Harem of the Sultans: Daily Life at the Çırağan Palace during the 19th Century

An autobiographer can present her process of self-discovery and life story vis-à-vis the experience of the community by considering herself as a member of that community. Nevertheless, it is very complicated and challenging to combine dissimilar identities in a single narrative. Interestingly enough, even though she is not a professional writer, such a problem does not appear in the memoir of Leyla (Saz) Hanımefendi for the reason that she does not express an acute sense of self in her narrative. Instead, Leyla Hanım’s fragmentary narrative presents the lives of women of her era. It is crafted in written modes that do not necessarily have to be associated with the traditional form(s) of autobiography. In this respect, it can be argued that the memoir of Leyla Saz has the very characteristics that Marilyn Booth listed under the title of women’s autobiographical practices in (Colonial) Egypt. Booth, by and large, asserts that fragmentary texts provide a basis for subsequent female narratives. [1] The memoir of Leyla Saz can also be evaluated in this way; for which Booth indicates that “[t]hrough those stories the autobiographical subject forms and displays herself; others enable self-understanding.” [2]

In her fragmentary narrative, Leyla (Saz) Hanım first describes the physical conditions of the imperial harem, then its administration, the rules inside, the customs, and the ceremonies. This narrative is more of a history lesson than a traditional autobiography. The stories of other women remain behind the material details. Only in the chapter, “The Slaves”, which constitutes the third part of the book, after elaborating on the institution of slavery in the Ottoman Empire and its functioning, she places the stories of the slaves of her family at the centre of the text. [3] Throughout this process, readers also bring their feelings and thoughts about Leyla Hanım together and pile up the details of her life by means of these stories. For instance, Leyla Hanım’s memory of Kurdish slaves within the family reveals both the inner world of a slave and the approach of a slave-owned family, particularly the approach of Leyla Saz to the slave. [4] Leyla (Saz) Hanım’s literary competence, which remains in the background throughout the text, is evident here. Notwithstanding the fact that she belongs to another socio-economic class, Leyla Hanım had managed to comprehend the inner world of these women, which can be deduced from the following words: “These girls knew that they were destined to live isolated from the outside world and having no other real choice, they resigned themselves to it in good grace.” [5] One of the reasons for the emotional dimension in her language may be her musician and artisan identity in which composing music shaped her life and expressions. A similar attitude can also be glimpsed in the fourth chapter of the book in which Leyla Hanım talks about the Eunuchs.

In another example, Leyla Saz invites the reader to empathies with black female slaves: “They [referring to Negresses in Leyla Hanım’s own words] were never allowed to see anything outside of their stove and their kitchen.” [6] She shares the story of her sister’s slave Yekta and says, “I was touched by her fidelity and, at the same time, satisfied with her industry” for her determination to learn. [7] In another story, Leyla Hanım expresses the unfortunate illness of her slave, named Yasemin, and the sorrow after her passing as follows: “My poor little Yasemin faded away and drooped to the earth after a few weeks — just like the delicate little flower, jasmine, whose name she carried.” [8] We reach the heart of Leyla (Saz) Hanım, who seems to be hiding in all these stories; but this way, we enter into her mind. Last, but by no means least, it is significant that Booth points out: “Yet the semi-decentered self as subject or object of the life narrative remains; the female self observes and speaks but from the sidelines and of others.” [9] This is also the problem or situation encountered in the memoir of Leyla (Saz) Hanım, where she creates her own voice while being a voice for others.

  • [1] Marilyn Booth, “Locating Women’s Autobiographical Writing in Colonial Egypt,” Journal of Women’s History 25, no. 2 (2013): 37, https://doi.org/10.1353/jowh
  • [2] Ibid., 56.
  • [3] Leyla Saz, The Imperial Harem of the Sultans: Daily Life at the Çırağan Palace during the 19th Century, Memoirs of Leyla (Saz) Hanımefendi, trans. Landon Thomas, 4th ed. (Istanbul, Turkey: Hil Yayın, 2001), 76.
  • [4] Ibid., 87.
  • [5] Ibid., 89.
  • [6] Ibid., 100.
  • [7] Ibid., 104.
  • [8] Ibid., 116.
  • [9] Booth, 56.

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