QOTD (2010-04-12)

From The Life and Letters of Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, a Flemish ambassador to Istanbul in the 16th century. Busbecq is writing here about the public baths of Istanbul:

The great mass of women use the public baths for females, and assemble there in large numbers. Among them are found many girls of exquisite beauty, who have been brought together from different quarters of the globe by various chances of fortune; so cases occur of women falling in love with one another at these baths, in much the same fasion as young men fall in love with maidens in our own country. Thus you see a Turk’s precautions are sometimes of no avail, and when he has succeeded in keeping his wives from a male lover, he is still in danger from a female rival! The women become deeply attached to each other, and the baths supply them with opportunities of meeting. Some therefore keep their women away from them as much as possible, but they cannot do so altogether, as the law allows them to go there. This evil affects only the common people; the richer classes bathe at home, as I mentioned.

It happened that in a gathering of this kind, an elderly woman fell in love with a girl, the daughter of an inhabitant of Constantinople, a man of small means. When her courtship and flatteries were not attended with the success her mad passion demanded, she ventured on a course, which to our notions appears almost incredible. Changing her dress, she pretended she was a man, and hired a house near where the girl’s father lived, representing herself as one of the slaves of the Sultan, belonging to the class of cavasses; and it was not long before she took advantage of her position as a neighbour, cultivated the father’s acquaintance, and asked for his daughter in marriage. Need I say more? The proposal appearing to be satisfactory, the father readily consents, and promises a dowry proportionate to his means. The wedding-day was fixed, and then this charming bridegroom enters the chamber of the bride, takes off her veil, and begins to chat with her. She recognises at once her old acquaintance, screams out, and calls back her father and mother, who discover that they have given their daughter in marriage to a woman instead of a man. The next day they bring her before the Aga of the Janissaries, who was governing the city in the Sultan’s absence. He tells her that an old woman like her ought to know better than to attempt so mad a freak, and asks, if she is not ashamed of herself? She replies, ‘Tush! you know not the might of love, and God grant that you may never experience its power.’ At this the Aga could not restrain his laguther; and ordered her to be carried off at once, and drowned in the sea. Thus the strange passion of this old woman brought her to a bad end.

The Turks do not inquire very closely into secret vices, that they may not give an opportunity for false charges, but they punish severely open profligacy and crimes that are detected.

Firstly, poor old woman; secondly, I’m thrilled for obvious reasons that this story turned up by chance in my reading for my Islamic history class. There are obvious references to male homosexual activity everywhere in the standard Western discussion of travels in the East, which subsequently get lots of attention in late 19th- and 20th-century gay cultures, but I feel like it’s rare that we get a good look at female same-sex eroticism like this. It’s fascinating, and there’s a lot I don’t have time to pick apart here, but it’s firstly interesting that it’s pretty clear that the old woman only dresses up as a man as a ruse—it’s not that the social narrative entails a sort of Shakespearean gender inversion in which she must be disguised as a man in order to pay suit to another woman. She falls in love while dressed as a woman, and she reveals herself to be one as soon as she logistically can. Indeed, given that Busbecq is a rough contemporary of Shakespeare, this is particularly interesting: take the concern in Twelfth Night, for instance, about what Viola is wearing that leads the “wrong” people fall in love with her, and compare it to this situation. And finally, that last sentence in the passage above is so fascinating: the implication here is that “secret vices” are going on all the time, which makes sense given what we get from other Western sources with which I’m more familiar about the differing sexual mores of the Middle East, but I like what that says about the performance of female modesty in Ottoman Islamic culture, and of course the promise that there’s more where this came from.

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