Book review: Tales from the Expat Harem


Tales from the Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey

Edited by Anastasia M. Ashman and Jennifer Eaton Gokman

Reviewed by Aly Young

As a self-proclaimed travel freak currently teaching English in Korea, I love venturing into new places and letting the unknown surroundings stimulate my senses. I am particularly curious to hear how other travelers experience different countries, especially when it involves other equally adventurous females traveling solo.

Tales from the Expat Harem, an anthology of modern travel writing about Turkey, includes stories that span four decades, contributed by 29 women from around the world, the majority being from America. The tales are told from many drastically different perspectives with entrepreneurs, archaeologists, Peace Corps volunteers, missionaries, English teachers and women marrying into the Turkish culture — to name a few — offering their personal and often intimate accounts of the Turkey they have come to know and love. The topics throughout this anthology range from the hamam or Turkish bath, marriage rituals, tales of the bazaar, song and dance, and Turkish superstitions.

The recurring mention of Turkish tea throughout most of the stories made me crave the environment where tea is constantly being served in miniature tulip shaped glasses. The savory descriptions of the Turkish food, which appear throughout the various stories, got my taste buds salivating for homemade yogurt, cucumbers, eggplant, dolma (stuffed vine leaves) and baklava. The tea, food, dancing, marriage rituals and the Turkish bath all sound amazing but the idea that appealed to me most from this collection of stories was the recurring theme of Turkish hospitality. An example of this genuine hospitality can be found in “Rescued by Village Intelligence,” where Claire Uhr is sick with influenza and is taken in and cared for by her unknown neighbors. In another story, “Hijacked,” Kathleen Hamilton Gundogdueing is unnecessarily wary of certain strangers who are in fact going out of their way to ensure her safety and comfort.

The stories of the hamam (Turkish bath) culture reminded me, although with a uniquely Turkish twist, of the saunas I regularly frequent in Korea. A couple of the stories in the chapter on the hamam may leave a few insecure male readers feeling a bit uneasy, with topics including yeast infections and female pubic hair customs in Turkey. The uncomfortable subject matter is handled humorously though in “FeminIstanbul” by Dana Gonzalaz in regard to having to translate something rather personal and embarrassing in an unfamiliar language where privacy is completely, but not intentionally, disregarded in the face of translation assistance. Karen-Claire Voss also wrote beautifully of her experience and transformation in the hamam in “The Goddess Metamorphosis”.

I enjoyed reading about the independent and adventurous nature of many of the authors and often times their situations were reminiscent of my own when traveling solo in an unfamiliar country. Not that I wish to be in a relationship with a gallant alcoholic, as Trici Venola writes of in “A Fine Kettle of Fish,” but the author’s overt and passionate way of living and writing is very alluring. The stories clearly show the passion and love that these women have for Turkey and the way the culture has intertwined with their own, through self-discovery in a foreign land.

There are countless ways to experience a different country and no two people can have the same experience. This collection includes several different tales with many contrasting situations and experiences that weave together to form an overall perception of what Turkey is really like from a female viewpoint. If you’re looking at Turkey as a place to visit, live or work, and want an inside look at local culture and lifestyle, this book is highly recommended.

Note: Aly Young works as an English conversation teacher in Seoul, South Korea. She maintains an excellent expat-travel blog called Wandering Seoul.

Recent guest book reviews include Cedar Van Tassel’s review of Warning: Failure to Buy This Book Could Result in Death or Serious Injury, and Bill Jenkins’ review of Elliott Hester’s Adventures of a Continental Drifter.

Posted by | Comments Off on Book review: Tales from the Expat Harem  | August 16, 2006
Category: Travel Writing

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