The Book & the Veil:
Escape from an Istanbul Harem

by Yeshim Ternar, Linda Leith,
184 pages,
ISBN: 1550650491

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Native and Alien
by Uma Parameswaran

THIS BOOK IS NOT ABOUT the Koran and the hijab, both of which have recently been in the limelight. The author explains that she sees the book "as a symbol of enlightenment, emancipation, and discovery as opposed to the veil as a symbol of rest, resignation, and insight." The absence of precise parallelism is the key to understanding this Turkish-born Canadian writer's standpoint. Everything in Yeshim Ternar's background, education, and sentiment -- dare one say? -- leans towards an exact parallelism of darkness, enslavement, and stasis; but the new hype about roots and ethno-cultural identity that is sweeping across the country forces her responses into another direction. The inevitable result is ambivalence.

In her exploration of her Turkish origins, Ternar uses, without much effect, a narrative strategy that has been forcefully used by Margaret Laurence in The Diviners, where Morag Gunn carries on a conversation with Catharine Parr Trail, and by Margaret Atwood, who looks over Susanna Moodie's shoulder. Ternar converses with Grace Ellison, a British suffragette and investigative journalist whose series in the Daily Telegraph was published as a book, An Englishwoman in a Turkish Harem, in 1915. Ellison also edited a sister-volume, A Turkish Woman's European Impressions (1913), written by Zeyneb Hanoum, one of three women who conspired to get Pierre Loti, a popular writer of the times, to write Les Desenchantees, a book about Turkish women's disenchantment with harem life. The story of how one of the three women lured Loti to Istanbul by pretending to be a harem resident who is pining for him is one of the more interesting details in The Book and the Veil; it also adds to the ambivalences in Ternar.

Indeed, the book provides an interesting opportunity for the reader to study the contrasts between author as reporter and as politically correct participant. While the facts she records lead the reader to conclude that Zeyneb and Melek Hanoum would resort to any subterfuges necessary to get them out of the harem and into Europe, Ternar seems to have taken at face value the sisters' claim that they fled because the publication of Loti's book would have resulted in certain persecution by the Sultan. On the other hand, though Ternar clearly loves Grace Ellison and her books, she often insists on reading Orientalist patterns between the lines because Ellison is an Englishwoman writing about Turkey. Ternar's interpretation of photographs ("reveals a woman who is guarded, a European straining to play the part of a native") and of several of Ellison's journal entries are likewise very subjective. For example, when she refers to Ellison's comment that she missed having political discussions, Ternar goes on to interpret, "I detect a resignation on Grace's part to her single state" and again, "I sense something beyond suffragette concerns, perhaps a romantic interest in the Sultan, in Grace's critique of harem life."

Yeshim Ternar is what I call a "native alien" in my study of Indian-born writers in India who had an English education, were economically advantaged, and were alien to the mainsprings of their native country's culture. Whether they are aware of it or not, native aliens have been indoctrinated to think and feel as a Westerner would. Despite their (perhaps I should say ,.our," since I too could be called a native alien) conscious resentment of Orientalism, they do not have enough grassroots knowledge and kinship with their native ethos and literatures to prevent themselves from using Western ideologies as the norm. Ternar regrets not knowing Arabic, and admits there is irony in how her generation depends on Western sources to educate themselves on Turkish history. More significant, Ternar does not refer to any indigenous Turkish family links. She traces her ancestry to the European wing of the Ottoman Empire; two of the three women with whom she converses in this book are granddaughters of a French marquis, and the third is an Englishwoman. To use your interrogative rhetoric, Yeshim, where are the Turkish women in your search for your roots? You remind me of Goans with whom I went to school in India, and the "burghers" of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, who saw themselves only as of Portuguese or Dutch descent, as though the land and people around them had no part in their making and no share in their loyalty.

Am I being too harsh? But this is Canada, eh? -- and we are going through a colourful debate on multiculturalism.


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