My friends, Cheryl and her husband Dave, are touring Spain and Portugal this summer. They will stay the nights in monasteries, fortresses and castles. In one stronghold, many of the bedrooms were, once upon a time, occupied by the master’s harem. Cheryl said, “I certainly am not going to sleep in one of those rooms. I want no part of a harem.”
Personally, give me the harem room. I’ve seen the movies. I could stand to be waited on hand and foot. I can see myself lounging around the marble pool draped in a diaphanous gown, posed against a backdrop of ferns, orchids and tropical flowers. I like the idea of brawny attendants waving ostrich feather fans to cool my brow; sparkling wine and hand-dipped chocolates at my side, not a care in the world.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t for one minute believe this romantic image of the sultan’s harem as painted by Hollywood was the real thing. The harem was a place to keep women in seclusion. But it also served as a sanctuary, a refuge for the women of the household, whether wives, daughters, grandmothers or sisters.
We all remember the old cliché: a man may work from sun to sun but a woman’s work is never done. What intrigues me about a harem is the possibility for a division of labor, a way to split up and share that never ending drudgery. Another cliché: Many hands make light work.
In my fantasy, we, the women of the harem, would work together to keep the household running smoothly. For example, tonight might be my night to cook dinner. Another member of my imaginary harem might do laundry, another take care of the children and yet another tend the garden. Perhaps tomorrow I get the garden. If I like to garden more than the others, I’ll take more of the garden days. She who enjoys the kitchen bakes the bread, bastes the roast, and burns, I mean, browns the gravy. We would seamlessly work out a schedule with everyone taking a turn, everyone getting a break, nobody stressed and overworked.
I can hear the protests. “That sounds like socialism. And your harem couldn’t be that perfect. What about jealousies? Back-biting? Catfights? Slackers?”
Hey, this is my fantasy and I’m creating it my way. But, alright, now that you brought it up, aren’t these difficulties part of non-harem, everyday life too? And don’t we learn to deal with them?
For me, the crowning glory of life in my make-believe harem, is that we women would have time for the arts. In the real world, arts have always been the prerogative of those with time and money. Virginia Woolf wrote that to pursue her art a woman needs a room of her own and a stipend. She wanted every woman to have the luxury of pursuing her talents, whether art or poetry or sculpture or finger painting or embroidering dish towels. For most of us who yearn for such creative moments time must be stolen from endless household duties plus the nine to five. We dream of the day when we can ... but mostly, we don’t. We are too tired.
In the perfect world of my harem, we women would make sure that each of us got a chance to pursue our dreams, whatever they might be. I lean toward the arts. Perhaps you wish to study medicine.
And she wants to repair tractors. In our harem, we would cheer one another on our way. We would provide for each other the extra oomph, the necessary push when the road ahead seems full of ruts.
On second thought, while I’m building my fantasy harem, why not include a marble pool where we can recline at ease, wafted by soothing breezes beneath a temperature-controlled dome. Surround us with orchids. Bury us in blooms. Bring on the eunuchs to pamper us, cater to our every whim and indulge our every fancy. Tempt us with exotic foods, chilled wines and endless chocolates. Dreams are for free. Peel me a grape.
(Sondra Ashton graduated from Harlem High School in 1963 and left for good. She finds, upon her return, that things are a little different. Keep in touch with her at http://montanatumbleweed.blogspot.com.)