Islamic History Sourcebook:
Aïshé Hanoum, c. 1888
The next morning, I had just finished my morning toilet when a slave came to conduct me
to Aishe Hanoum, from whom she presented me with an indoor veil. I arranged it on my hair,
to show my appreciation of the gift, and followed the slave to the floor below, where her
When I entered her apartments, I found her kneeling before an easel, deep in work. As
the slave announced me, she rose from the ground and came to me with outstretched hand. It
struck me as curious that she offered to shake hands, instead of using the temena,
the Turkish form of salutation, since I knew her to be extremely punctilious in the
customs of her nation. I suppose she did this to make me feel more at home. "Welcome,
young hanoum," she said, after kissing me on both cheeks.
"Do you paint?" I asked, going toward the easel, disguising my surprise at
meeting with such disregard of Mussulman customs in this orthodox household.
No, not painting, just playing. It is only
an impression, not a reproduction of one of Allah's realities." Good Mussulmans do
not believe in "reproducing Allah's realities"; yet there stood on the easel a
charming pastel. Even orthodox Moslems, I saw, were not above beating the devil round the
stump. "How very beautiful!" I exclaimed. "Aishe Hanoum, you are an
"Pray! pray! young hanoum," she protested, a little frightened, I thought,
"pray do not say such things. I am not an artist. I only play with the colors."
"Let me see some more of your playing," I persisted. Rather reluctantly, though
wishing to comply with her guest's desires, she brought out a large portfolio, containing
several pastels and water-colors, and we sat down on a rug to examine them. Whether they
were well done or not I cannot tell; but they were full of life and happiness. The curious
part was that, whenever she painted any outdoor life, she painted it from her window, and
on the canvas first was the window, and then through it you saw the landscape as she saw
The more I looked at her work, the more enthusiastic I grew. "You must be very
talented," I said, turning to her. "It is a pity that you cannot go abroad to
study." "But I have studied many years here."
"That is all very well," I said, still busy looking at the pictures.
"Just the same you ought to go to Paris to study." "What for?" she
asked. "Because I think you have a great deal of talent which unfortunately is wasted
in a harem." As I spoke, I raised my eyes.
Ordinarily I am not a coward, though I do run from a mouse; but when my eyes met her
finely penciled ones, there was a curious look of anger in them that made a shiver go down
my back. "If I have said anything to offend you," I said, "I beg you to
forgive me. Believe me, it was my enthusiasm." She smiled in a most charming way. If
she had been angry, it had gone quickly by. "But why do you wish me to go to
Paris?" she asked again.
"I don't know," I said, "except that Paris is nearer Turkey than any
other great center, and I feel that you ought to have the advantage of being where you
could get all the help possible." "What for?" she inquired. I began to feel
uncomfortable. I knew her very little, and this was the first time I ever visited a former
seraigli (one who has been an inmate of the imperial palace). "Because," I
answered lamely, "when a person has talent she generally goes to Paris or to some
other great artistic center."
"What for?" again insisted the question.
If I had not been in a harem, and in the presence of a woman of whom I was somewhat
afraid, my answer would have been, "Well, if you are foolish enough not to know, why,
what is the use of telling you? " Instead, while that exquisite hand was lying on my
arm and those big almond-shaped eyes were holding mine, I tried to find a way of
explaining. "If you were free to go, you could see masterpieces, you could study
various methods of painting, and if it were in you, you might become great in turn."
"What for?" was the calm inquiry.
She was very beautiful; not of the Turkish type, but of the pure Circassian, with
exquisite lines and a very low, musical voice, and of all things on this earth I am most
susceptible to physical beauty. At that particular moment, however, I should have derived
great pleasure if I could have smacked her pretty mouth. "Well," I said calmly,
though I was irritated, "if you had a great talent and became very famous, you would
not only have all the money you wanted, but glory and admiration." "What
for?" she repeated, with inhuman monotony.
"For Heaven's sake, Aishe Hanoum," I cried, "I don't know what for; but
if I could, I should like to become famous and have glory and lots of money. "
"What for?" "Because then I could go all over the world and see everything
that is to be seen, and meet all sorts of interesting people." "What for?"
"Hanoum doudou," I cried, lapsing into the Turkish I had spoken as a child.
"Are you trying to make a fool of me, or---" She put her palms forward on the
floor, and then her head went down and she laughed immoderately. I laughed, too,
considerably relieved to have done with her "what for 's." She drew me to her as
if I were a baby, and took me on her lap. "You would do all these things and travel
about like a mail-bag because you think it would make you happy, don't you, yavroum?"
"Of course, I should be happy." "Is this why you ran away from home---to
get famous and rich?"
She was speaking to me precisely as if I were a little bit of a thing, and was to be
coaxed out of my foolishness. "I have neither fame nor riches," I answered,
"so we need not waste our breath." "Sorry, yavroum, sorry," she
said sympathetically. "I should have liked you to get both; then you would see that
it would not have made you happy. Happiness is not acquired from satisfied desires."
"What is happiness, then?" I asked. "Allah kerim [God only can
explain it]. But it comes not from what we possess, but from what we let others possess;
and no amount of fame would have made me leave my home and go among alien people to learn
their ways of doing something which I take great pleasure in doing in my own way."
She kissed me twice on the cheek and put me down by her. "You are a dear little
one," she said.
From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's
Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin,
1914), Vol. VI: Russia, Austria-Hungary, The Balkan States, and Turkey, pp.
Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by
Note: Many Western sources about Islamic countries exhibit what has
come to be known as orientalism. The terms used ("Mohammedan" for
instance rather than "Muslim"), and the attitudes exhibited by the writers need
to be questioned by modern readers.
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© Paul Halsall, November1998