31 May 2022

Demystifying the Harem:
Domestic Interiors, Women, and Sociability in the Late-Ottoman Capital’s Printed Media

ETH Zurich/gta

Lydia Harrington
(Boston University)

“For the pillow, curtain and chandelier the summer flower motif will be made of satin, for the lanterns of silk, and applied by embroidery or appliqué drawing. The flowers might also be drawn on top of the fabric with brush or paint. The application of the motif on tablecloth, umbrella and dress is also admissible.” (Süs magazine no. 42, 1924).
At the center of orientalist imagination about the Ottomans stood their domestic way of living, which was emblematized in bare rooms with large divans and idle women sitting in their gauzy trousers. The image was reproduced recursively in western travelogues, souvenir albums, or illustrated books (despite the fact that it was losing its immediate relevance at its point of departure). This presentation investigates local discourses about the domestic sphere in Istanbul, which speak directly or indirectly with these orientalist clichés of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century. It analyses advice literature and women’s journals published in Istanbul, which brought together miscellaneous representations of the most public room in an Ottoman household; the space that was called “basoda”, “reception room”, or “salon”. Although oscillating between various degrees of fact and fiction, the excerpts that will be discussed in this presentation suggest that the daily life in the residential interior was in a state of conflict and transition with its material repertoire, decorative practices, and gender dynamics; in other words, that these interiors contradicted with the ahistorical and serene pictures prevailing in Western orientalist engravings.
In my dissertation, titled “Salon alla Franca: Modernity and domestic living in late Ottoman Istanbul (1860- 1930s)”, I reconsider the domestic culture of elite households in a time of dense acculturation with global trends. This presentation will dig into the popular press, in order to unfold the nodes of entanglement between the decorative world and social life occurring in the Ottoman salons and their elements of continuity in the early republican context. Through a bricolage of concerns, criticisms, ideas, and bits of advice about home life published in periodic literature, I will try to generate new insights into a type of interior that no longer exists.


A Chair, A Woman,
A Different Story

ETH Zurich/gta

Mira Xenia Schwerda

(University of Edinburgh)

“Persian Lady receiving a European Lady”; undated lithograph by unknown artist, published in: Glimpses of Life and Manners in Persia. by Lady Mary Leonora Woulfe Sheil (fl.1860). With Additional Notes by Sir Justin Sheil, Knight General and Diplomat (1803-1871). London: John Murray, Albemarle Street (1856, p. 131)

In 1856, the publication of Lady Mary Sheil's travelogue, "Glimpses of Life and Manners in Persia," provided the earliest portrait of a Persian Andaroun (a Persian harem), depicting a contradictory harem scene. The illustration of the "Persian Lady receiving a European Lady" and its accompanying text in the travelogue of Lady Sheil did not resonate with how the Andaroun was wholesomely imagined as an exotic yet unreachable imaginary scene. On the contrary to that, this particular account contradicts "orientalist" expectations for an exotic account of the Other since it depicts a woman, a chair, and a specific moment of sitting and waiting.

In this presentation, I aim to firstly bring to the fore the agency of Persian women who were adopting chairs vis-à-vis their visitors to shape and practice a formal scene inside their own informal zone; and secondly, to reflect on how to read the subaltern's voice in between the lines of such materials.

This presentation is based on an early draft of a chapter in my doctorate project with the working title of "Spelling Out the Resistance." The primary goal of this chapter is to investigate the grey zones within, around, and near the dominant gender boundaries in late-nineteenth-century Iran. In this chapter, I am focusing on the minor moments of resistance against the prevailing gender boundaries, one of which is the radicality of shaping a female gathering inside the private zones of the royal harems in the proposed period.

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