The Harem Midwife by Roberta Rich


This is the sequel to The Midwife of Venice. Our midwife pal Hannah is now working at the harem of Sultan Murad III, which is dominated by his mother, the Venetian-born Valide Sultan.  Meanwhile, her husband Isaac runs a silk business.  It includes a fascinating cast of characters – Hannah Levi, the Valide Sultan, a number of other real historical figures from the court of Murad III, a Venetian woman passing herself off as Isaac’s sister-in-law, and a girl from the Caucasian/Mountain Jewish community, but the actual plot is just too far-fetched to be taken seriously.

Historical notes!   You used to hear a bit about the Mountain Jews back in the mid-1990s, during the Chechen Wars, but you don’t any more.  Their ancestors moved from Persia to the Caucasus – mainly what’s now Azerbaijan, especially a city called Gyrmyzy Gasaba in Azeri and Krasnaya Sloboda in Russian, although the character here comes from a rural area, but also Chechnya, Dagestan, and all round there – in the 5th century AD.  What was the name of that football team which you used to hear a lot about at one time? Anzhi Makhachkala, that’s it!  In Dagestan.  Sorry, the Mountain Jews have got nothing to do with football, but apparently quite a few of them lived in Makhachkala at one time.  And I’ve now got off the point.

Back to 16th century Constantinople.  No-one’s 100% sure of the Valide Sultan’s origins, but the theory put forward in 1900, that she was Venetian-born Cecilia Venier-Baffo, is widely believed and is followed in this book..

The book starts with Leah, a young girl from a remote Mountain Jewish community, being taken prisoner and carried off to the Sultan’s harem.  At the same time, Isaac’s brother has been murdered in Venice by his mistress, a woman called Francesca.  Francesca, passing herself off as Isaac’s brother’s late wife Grazia, travels to Constantinople to demand that Isaac repay the money which his brother had lent him from Grazia’s dowry.  She also plans to kidnap Matteo, Hannah and Isaac’s adopted son, on the orders of a man who wears a false nose as a disguise (as you do) and has connections with Matteo’s birth family.

Hannah is asked to verify Leah’s virginity.  Leah had had a fiance in the Caucasus, and they hadn’t waited for the wedding, but Hannah lies in order to protect Leah from being sold as a slave.  Hannah and Leah then drug the Sultan so that he thinks he’s consummated his relationship with Leah, even though he hasn’t.  The Valide Sultan wants to break the hold that the Sultan’s wife Safiye has on him, as Safiye has only given him one son so he needs to get it together with some of the other woman in the harem, so she’s pleased with Leah.  However, it then transpires that Leah is expecting a baby by her fiance, which obviously can’t be the Sultan’s as the dates won’t match.  Hannah and two other women smuggle Leah out of the harem, and pretend that she’s chucked herself out of the window.  Everyone apparently buys this, although it later turns out that the Valide Sultan hasn’t been fooled.

Meanwhile, a rabbi informs Hannah, Isaac and Cesca-masquerading-as-Grazia that, under the Boaz-Ruth law in the Bible, Isaac is obliged to marry his brother’s widow.  His marriage to Hannah is to be decreed invalid as they have no natural children.  However, if he can raise the money to pay the loan, Grazia can declare that this marriage is invalid and he can then go back to being married to Hannah.  I did say that it was far-fetched!

Leah dies in childbirth.  Hannah takes the baby.  The Valide Sultan reveals that she knew about Leah’s escape, and gives Hannah a load of money for helping to break Safiye’s hold on the Sultan.  Hannah and Isaac use this money to pay off the fake Grazia, who is then exposed anyway.  And it then turns out that Hannah is finally expecting a baby of her own.

The depictions of Constantinople, Venice and the Mountain Jewish communities are absolutely fascinating, but the storyline is just beyond bonkers!   But it’s certainly never boring.



The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak


This is one of the recommendations in the Duchess of Cornwall’s Book Club.  One of the very few good things about this nightmarish situation we’re in is seeing what sort of books famous people have on their bookshelves, seeing as everyone seems to position themselves in front of the said bookshelves when they’re doing interviews from home.  You do wonder if they sneakily shift a few books which don’t suit their image out of the way of the camera, but never mind!   This one’s set in Constantinople/Istanbul during the 16th century, and what a joy to have a book which is set in the Ottoman Empire but isn’t primarily about either harems or invasions of Europe!  It’s about an elephant keeper who’s also an architect’s apprentice.  Now that’s different 🙂 .

OK, what did I know about the Suleiman the Magnificent, in whose reign the book opened?   He had a Ukrainian wife referred to as Roxelana.  He thrashed the Hungarians at Mohacs, conquered Belgrade, besieged Vienna, threw Knights of St John off Rhodes and then tried to throw them off Malta, and there was that naval battle against Charles V where a Jewish pirate defeated that Genoese admiral after whom that ship which sank in the 1950s was named.  Oh, and he allied with the French against the Habsburgs, but England didn’t get involved because Henry VIII was too busy sorting out his family problems.  OK, what about the Suleimaniye Mosque?   Amazing place.  Seen it twice.  Who designed it?   Er, absolutely no idea.  Books about the Ottoman Empire don’t mention architects.  They only mention harems and invasions of Europe.

We did get harems in here, and we did get invasions of Europe, but the book was mainly about the life of people on the fringe of the court.  And it was fascinating.

I was rather confused at the start of the book, because the main character’s name was Jahan and he said that he came from Agra.  Hang on, I thought this was about the Ottoman Empire, not the Taj Mahal?   That bit didn’t become clear until right at the end, when our man Jahan, a 12-year-old orphan escaping his cruel stepfather at the end of the book, ended up helping to design the Taj Mahal whilst in his 90s.  But the book was largely set in Istanbul, although we also saw some of the invasions of Europe, and also a trip to Rome.

It was a complex book, and there was a lot going on.  Just to get back to the sultans, as well as Suleiman, we also saw the reigns of his son and grandson, Selim II and Murad III.  Selim II, I asked myself?  He was the one with the Venetian wife from what’s now Croatia.  Lost the Battle of Lepanto, which Spain is always claiming as a great success but which I credit to Venice.  I went to Lepanto (Naupaktos) once, and I was so excited about being there that I spent ages taking photos on the beach and ended up right at the back of the ice cream queue, which is really not like me.  Murad III?  He was the one who exchanged letters with Elizabeth I.  Oh dear.  We really do learn about the Ottoman Empire from either a Western viewpoint or else from some weird hangover viewpoint left over from the Enlightment interest in harems, don’t we?

Anyway.  Mimar Siman, the architect to whom Jahan was apprenticed, was one of the greatest architects of all time.  He designed over 90 mosques, including the Suleimaniye Mosque in Istanbul and the   Selimiye Mosque in Edirne/Adrianople, as well as vast numbers of palaces, Turkish baths, schools, bridges and mausoleums.  A lot of the book was about the actual building work, and the idea of architecture as some sort of metaphor for life.  There was also a love story, with Jahan being in love with Mihrimah Sultan, Suleiman’s daughter, a woman he could never marry.  And there was a rather confusing thread about plots against Siman and various people conspiring with each other, which all came out near the end even though it’d never been very clear that there was a mystery in the first place!

Lots of different groups of people featured.  Eunuchs.  Labourers.  Court officials, including the Grand Astronomer whose wonderful observatory was destroyed on the sultan’s orders after only three years.  Sephardi Jewish booksellers.  Roma gangs, who helped Jahan out of many predicaments.

And, of course, there was Chota, the elephant with whose birth Jahan assisted, and who became the sultan’s official elephant 🙂 but remained Jahan’s closest friend.

The historical timeline’d been messed about with a bit, to suit various aspects of the plot, but the author did explain in an afterword about what she’d changed and why she’d changed it.  And it was brilliantly written.  You’ll need to concentrate, and it’ll help if you’ve got a bit of idea about the Ottoman Empire to start with, but this is highly recommended, as something different.



The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson


I downloaded this in the hope that I’d be going to Iceland this summer. The way things are, I may not be going any further than the Iceland supermarket in the precinct; but at least we’ve still got books, and this is a very good one. I’ve always associated the seal people stories with the Scottish Isles, but they’re also to be found in Iceland and other Scandinavian counties, which says something interesting about the Viking heritage of parts of the British Isles. This is based on a true story, the “Turkish Abductions” of 1627, in which Barbary pirates kidnapped and enslaved around 400 people from Iceland. It’s thought that over a million people were taken in Barbary slave raids on ships and coastal areas across Europe, from the 16th century to the 19th century. This one’s particularly remembered as the loss of 400 people out of Iceland’s total population of only 60,000 had such a big impact.

The main character, Asta Thorsteinsdottir, did exist, as did many of the other characters in the book. Her husband, Olafur Egilsson, was released so that he could go to Copenhagen to plead with the King of Denmark to ransom the captives. Only 27 of them, one of whom was Asta, returned to Iceland. That wasn’t until 1638, and this book imagines what her life may have been like in the meantime, as people were forced to try to adapt to a new way of life, their treatment dependent on who’d bought them, saw their children raised in a different culture, and, if they did go home, struggled to settle back into what was left of their old lives. It’s a historical novel, not a fantasy novel, but there are a lot of references to both the Icelandic sagas and the tales of Scheherazade, and the point is made that there are very few accounts of the time written by women.

The descriptions of both Iceland and Algeria are superb, and it’s a fascinating book (and a sensible story, not one of those lurid Orientalist things about glamorous women being carried off to sultans’ harems, like that awful film in the ’80s!) about a subject which affected much of Europe and North Africa but is rarely spoken about any more.

The pirate who led the raid was Dutch, and Asta’s fictional master in Algeria was half-Dutch, and that was quite typical of what happened. People “went native” because it gave them better opportunities. Asta was portrayed as refusing to convert from Lutheranism to Islam, but one of her friends converted and married a local man, and the son of another friend converted and became a pirate. Her eldest son was taken away as soon as they arrived. Her two younger children were bought with her, but her daughter was later sent to join the sultan’s harem in Constantinople (the Barbary states being part of the Ottoman Empire), and both she and the younger son were brought up as Muslims. They weren’t unhappy with that, having never really known anything else.  The real fate of Asta’s children isn’t actually known, but it is known that they didn’t return to Iceland with her.

They were all shown as being reasonably well-treated, despite being slaves. That obviously would depend on the whims of their individual owners, and Sally Magnusson’s chosen to depict quite a kindly owner – although there’s one horrific episode in which Asta is abducted and raped by another man, and we also hear of the ill-treatment of some of her friends.

It did stray into the realms of fairy tales in that Cilleby, Asta’s master (the name was supposed to have come from his Dutch father, but it sounded more Yorkshire than Dutch to me!), who’d bought her to be a sewing maid, kept asking for her to be brought to him every night … so that she could tell him the Icelandic sagas. A very definite nod to Scheherazade there, and we also saw how the women in the harem told each other Arabian Nights stories. “The sealwoman”, despite the title of the book, didn’t feature very much: she was an old lady who believed in the legends of people being descended from seals, but she died early on. The idea seemed to be that sealwomen had left their homes in the sea and become trapped on land, and had to adapt as best they could, and that that was what the Icelandic slaves in Algeria were doing. There was also a running theme of an elfman, one of the huldufolk (hidden people) who are said to live hidden lives in Iceland (and the Faroe Islands) but can choose to make themselves visible to humans.

The sealwoman warned Asta not be like Gudrun in Osvifrsdottir in the Laexdala saga, who got involved with two men.  It’s not very clear why she would have done that when they’d only just been abducted, TBH, but, inevitably, Asta and Cilleby became romantically involved.  But, when, eventually, the King of Denmark agreed to ransom any Icelanders who wanted to return home, Asta made the decision to go, even though it meant being parted from her children … but the chances were that she’d never see them, at least the oldest two, again anyway.  She then found it very hard to settle back into her old life, after nine years away and everything that had happened.

But she had to try to adapt and make the most of things, because that’s all you can do.  When this book was first published, people said that lessons could be drawn from it in terms of the damage that slavery does to cultures and communities, and also for refugees settling into new countries.  Now, I feel as if I’m trying to draw lessons from it about how you cope if you’re unable to go out and about as you please (obviously I am not comparing lockdown/self-isolation to slavery, but hopefully anyone reading this will know what I mean!), and what a great help stories and story-telling can be.  Sometimes, you find yourself forced to adapt to circumstances you could never have imagined, and that’s happening to all of us at the moment.  Stay safe and well xxx.  And, if you’re looking for a book to read, give this a go!

As the Poppies Bloomed by Maral Boyadjian


This is a novel about the Armenian Genocide, but it focuses on the home and community lives of a group of people in an Armenian village. We don’t see the death marches: we do see some of the main characters being murdered in their own homes.  I’ve head people question the popularity of The Diary of Anne Frank, because it doesn’t show the concentration camps or the Einsatzgruppen massacres; but the whole point of that book is that it reminds us that the victims of the genocide to which it relates were just ordinary people, leading ordinary lives, with the same hopes and dreams as anyone else.  This one’s the same.  The author uses the word “dehumanisation”, and, when there’s just been yet another mass hate killing, this time in El Paso, and when a frightening number of people seem to think it’s OK to dehumanise anyone who votes for a different political party to them, holds different views on a particular issue, or has a different ethnicity, religion, gender, socio-economic background, sexuality or sexual identity, it’s critically important to remember where dehumanisation can lead.  The author’s grandparents all survived the Armenian Genocide.  Up to one and a half million people didn’t.  The book also gives a very interesting insight into Ottoman Armenian culture and traditions.

I was quite disturbed by a comment I read on Facebook last week: someone had written that “[supporters of a particular political party] are not people”.  OK, you probably shouldn’t get too wound up over things that ignorant people write on social media, but there’s so much of it around these days.  It’s about anything and everything.  Often it’s the usual “hate crime” areas – race, religion, sexuality, politics.  Sometimes it’s targeting groups of people for the most bizarre reasons, like which football team they support, or even which newspaper they read.  All right, obviously I’m not suggesting that anyone’s about to try to massacre people who read a particular newspaper, but when you spout that sort of hatred, when you label people, when you dismiss them, lump them together, when you dehumanise them … it’s a slippery slope.

Anyway.  This book’s set mainly around the time just before and after the Siege of Van in the spring of 1915, when Ottoman forces attacked the city of Van and were beaten back by the Armenian resistance.  Exactly what was going on, especially whether or not the Armenians had Russian support, is still unclear – but what is clear is that horrific atrocities were carried out against the Armenian civilian population of the area, before, during and after the siege.  The region had already seen massacres of Armenians in the 1890s and 1900s.  The book’s centred on the Sassoun area, closely linked to Armenian nationalism, and the scene of massacres in 1894, 1904 and 1915.

It’s a fascinating portrayal of life in an Ottoman Armenian village. There’s a lot of very interesting detail about the structure of family and community life, and about food, drink, clothing, farming, the treatment of illnesses, and the rituals surrounding births, marriages and deaths. There are romances that work out, and romances that don’t. It’s a book about a group of relatives and friends leading their lives. It’s so important that there are books like this, fictional or non-fictional, about the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s, or any other genocide, as well as accounts of death marches and concentration camps and mass shootings, because it’s so important to remember that the victims were just ordinary people They should have just lived their lives out in peace, but they had the bad luck to be part of a demographic group that was the target of other people’s politics and hatred.

This was a long-running thing, though. There’d been some talk internationally back in the 1890s about tackling the issue of the Turks’ treatment of the Armenians, but nothing was done about it. The older generation of characters well remember what happened then. Several characters are involved in political movements. The fear of the Turks hangs over them at all times. And then we see the killings, in several of their guises. We see women, children and old men massacred in their homes. We see other women taken away, their fate unknown: we know that mass rape was a big part of the Armenian Genocide. We see young men conscripted into the army to fight in the Great War, but killed by their supposed comrades. We see other young men killed in clashes between Armenians and Turks.

We also see that a lot of the killings were carried out by Kurds. That’s something that’s rarely spoken about, although it is acknowledged by some Kurdish groups.

Some characters survive. At the end, we see one of them in America, telling his grandchildren what happened. That’s based on the experiences of the author, who was born in Lebanon and now lives in Canada: all four of her grandparents were survivors. She mentions that many of her friends had never heard of the Armenian Genocide. The Turkish government won’t acknowledge that it happened. Most other governments don’t recognise it either – not because they don’t believe that it happened, but because they won’t risk upsetting modern Turkey, a major player in the complex politics of the Middle East.

Unusually, it was in the news in the U.K. recently, when respected academic surgeon Lord Darzi, whose grandparents fled the Armenian Genocide and lost many relatives and friends during it, resigned from the Labour party. He said “As an Armenian descendant of a survivor of the Armenian genocide I have zero tolerance to anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or any other discrimination against religion or race”.  In the U.S., Kim Kardashian West – not someone I thought I’d ever be writing about!! – has drawn attention to the subject, calling on the American government to recognise the Armenian Genocide.  It won’t happen, but at least she’s raising awareness of a subject that isn’t spoken about enough.

This is a very interesting book.  It’s not heavy-going or difficult to read, and it tells the reader a lot about Armenian culture.  There’s a lot of romance and family life in it.  But, essentially, it’s a novel of the Armenian Genocide, and that makes it important as well as interesting – both because the Armenian Genocide isn’t given the recognition that it should be, and because the world seems to be increasingly poisoned by hatred and we need to stop and remember where that can lead to.  This is a book about ordinary people leading ordinary lives.  And most of them end up being murdered.  Everyone who posts some nasty comment on social media, or shouts abuse at someone in the street, should bear that in mind – and, after what’s just happened in Texas, this is a particularly good time to do so.

The Spice Box Letters by Eve Makis


ArmeniaThis is the first historical novel I’ve come across which tackles the issue of the Armenian Genocide, the hundredth anniversary of which was commemorated earlier this year.  It’s not the best-written book I’ve ever read, but it covers a very important subject.

Up to 1.5 million people were killed in the atrocities against Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.  Only 29 countries officially recognise what happened as genocide.  Many regional parliaments and assemblies do too, and only Turkey and Azerbaijan officially deny that what happened was genocide, but most national governments are reluctant to commit themselves, perhaps due largely to the fear, given the situation in the Middle East, of the possible consequences of upsetting Turkey.

France has taken the lead in trying to persuade Turkey to change its position; other countries, notably the Republic of Cyprus and Uruguay, have also done much to ensure that what happened is recognised; and the Pope spoke out about the subject in April … as a result of which, Turkey recalled its envoy to the Vatican.  Rather bizarrely, most of the coverage of the centenary commemorations in the English language media seemed to centre on the visit of Kim and Khloe Kardashian to the memorial complex in Armenia.  I am not a fan of the Kardashians, but they did speak very movingly about the genocide and their sadness that it isn’t properly recognised.

No-one who was actively involved can be alive now, and no blame can be attached to modern-day Turkey and its people … but the subject remains extremely sensitive in Turkey, and, especially given the present situation in Syria and Iraq, most governments dare not risk confrontation with the Turkish authorities.  So it’s very unlikely that there will be widescale recognition any time soon that what took place was genocide.  But it was.

Moving on to the book, it was one of these which flip between different time periods and different sets of characters: we had the British granddaughter of a woman who’d survived the Armenian Genocide finding a series of letters written by her grandmother, shortly after the grandmother’s death in the mid-1980s, and part of the book was narrated by the granddaughter, part by the grandmother via her letters, and part by the grandmother’s brother, who, unbeknownst to her, had also survived and was living in Cyprus.

Much of the stuff set in the 1980s wasn’t particularly good, quite honestly.  It was just all too easy for everyone to find their long-lost relations, via a series of highly improbably coincidences and a few phone calls.  And no-one seemed the slightest bit upset to discover that a lifetime of lies had been told about someone’s paternity.  One aspect of which was however shown very well was the pressure put on some of the younger generation to stick to the old ways and remain within, and, in particular, to marry within, the Armenian community, even if that wasn’t going to make them happy.  That’s something which is common to many minority communities, and I’ve known families torn apart by it.  Happily, in this case, the Armenian grandfather eventually accepted that his granddaughter should marry for love, regardless of ethnicity or religion or anything else.  Another was the long-term psychological effects on those who’ve been through such a trauma, and how depression and anxiety can strike them even decades later.

The parts of the book which covered the events of 1915 and the years immediately following it were much better – and very. very sad.  We saw men killed, women and children deported, women abducted and raped, deportees being massacred, and deaths from disease and from the sheer difficulties of making such long journeys in a harsh climate and without food and water.  Then we saw the survivors being scattered across the globe: Cyprus, Britain, the USA and Lebanon all featured in this book, and, of course, the Armenian diaspora covers a myriad of other countries too.

The book didn’t actually mention the issue of recognition of the genocide, even though that’s usually the first thing people talk about when the subject’s mentioned.  Maybe the author didn’t want to seem to be too political: it’s an extremely sensitive subject.  But she’s done a good job of telling the story in the form of a novel, and I hope that a lot of people will read this book.  It’s a story which deserves to be read.