Hidden World of the Harem: From Empire to Exile premieres Wed., March 7 at 10pm EST/7pm PST.
A world shrouded in mystery where sex, slavery, and servitude ruled the lives of its inhabitants. This is what often comes to mind when we think of what life must have been like in the harem of the Ottoman sultans. In reality, it was a mannered existence where families were raised in an atmosphere of decorum and refinement.
As we entered the twentieth century and rapid progress was taking hold everywhere, the protected, cloistered world of the harem was forced into an era of change as well. Women who lived their lives behind palace walls and under strict traditions began to seek liberation and freedom. They sought the abilities to choose their own mates and live monogamously, to strive for higher education and to participate in public life. As a great empire was crumbling, the women at its centre were discovering their own, individual power.
The two-part docudrama Hidden World of the Harem throws the doors open wide on the last 50 years of the Ottoman Empire and the long-held hierarchy and customs of the harem system through the stories of two women and their struggles for personal freedom and emancipation for their people.
The first woman, Princess Hatice, is the daughter of Prince Murad, who is deposed after just 93 days as the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and is kept with his family under palace arrest for 28 years. Princess Hatice’s sheltered life is shaped by her love for romantic French novels and the influence of her father’s democratic ideals. After she spends over two decades behind the walls of Ciragan Palace, Hatice is offered a choice by Sultan Abdulhamid II to stay with her parents or to accept his promise to arrange a marriage for her. She accepts the offer and leaves her family but, the husband the Sultan has deliberately chosen for her is a crude brute. Refusing to accept this, the fiery princess risks everything to gain her freedom, including a torrid affair with her cousin’s husband.
The second woman, Halide Edib, a daughter of polygamy, was a Turkish writer, scholar and public figure dedicated to women’s rights and emancipation. When her husband decides to take a second wife in 1910, she demands a divorce. She becomes the champion of the Turkish nation as the Ottoman Empire is collapsing. Speaking to a crowd of 200,000 in occupied Istanbul in 1919, she galvanizes the people of Turkey to demand freedom. During the British occupation with a death warrant out for her, she flees to join forces with Mustafa Kemal in Anatolia. As propaganda minister in the rebel government, Halide is promoted to the rank of sergeant in recognition of her military services.
These two personal histories are set against an epic sweep of history resulting in the creation of the modern Turkish republic – and the end of a way of life for the women of the harem.
Hidden World of the Harem was written by father-daughter team David and Zara Rabinovitch. The programs were also directed by David Rabinovitch, who was honoured with a Gemini Award for his previous mini-series for VisionTV, Secret Files of the Inquisition. They were produced by Harem Productions Inc.’s Ian Dimerman and David Rabinovitch for VisionTV.
We chatted via Skype with David and Zara Rabinovitch about the fascinating process of researching, writing and producing the programs, the importance of shedding more light on this period in Turkish history and the experience of working with each other on the project. David and Zara’s interviews, as well as a sneak peek at Hidden World of the Harem are below.
- by Henry Lees