x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

‘A magnificent century’ made less so by its dark corners

Ottoman sultans kept harems. This fact makes for interesting TV, and interesting history, but sex slavery by any name is a blight.

It goes by many names, but one scourge as old as time itself can be found in the "dark corners" of nearly every society's history and unfortunately, even its present.

The sex trade, forced prostitution or human trafficking: whatever label it's given, this issue continues to be debated while solutions remain elusive. And now television is getting in on the debate.

This month the highly controversial Turkish period drama The Magnificent Century had its premiere in the Arab world, dubbed in Syrian Arabic dialect. This drama chronicles the life of the 16th century sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, who ruled the Ottoman Empire in its golden age.

When it came out in Turkey, there were protests and complaints about "disrespecting" such an important historical figure by showing him drinking wine and spending time with his concubines, and how that reflects badly on Turkish national identity, the history of the Ottoman Empire and Islam in general.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan even called this series "an attempt to insult our past, to treat our history with disrespect and an effort to show our history in a negative light to the younger generations".

Now this drama is reaching Arabic airwaves, as are the sensitivities.

For starters, the Arabic translation of the Turkish title is Hareem Al Sultan. While the term hurma - singular for the plural hareem - is still in use today, more often in the Gulf by older generations to refer to someone's wife, the title here has a deeper meaning that goes further than just the wife or wives of the Sultan. It includes his concubines.

But what I found most surprising in the series was that the imperial hareem section of the grand Topkapi Palace, with over 400 rooms, was also the place where the honoured Valide Sultan - the mother of the ruling sultan - and the ruler's children lived. The mother was the quarter's highest authority.

A hareem section or variations on it can be found throughout history in different places and palaces.

In this particular series, concubines receive an education, have plenty of food and live well. But pull back the curtain and the less glamorous story of their journey unfolds. Some concubines were taken as prisoners of war while others were gifts, bought and sold on the slave markets.

These are just some of the historic reasons the term hurma is out of vogue now, and many women take it as a derogatory term (conjuring up sex slave innuendo if mentioned). The Magnificent Century and its Arabic off-shoot is the latest in a series of discussions on this issue.

The low point came this summer, when a female Kuwaiti former parliamentary candidate said in a video posted on YouTube that sex slaves should be legal and prisoners from war-torn countries would make suitable concubines. Salwa al Mutairi cited religious backing for her claim, and people started posting Qranic verses that mentions slaves and the conditions surrounding them.

It is true that there are verses that mention wives followed by "the captives whom their right hands possess". But at the same time, there are verses that remind Muslims not to "force" anyone into "prostitution when they desire chastity, in order that you may make a gain in the goods of this life".

At the end of the day, what really happens behind closed doors of a Sultan or any historic figure is open to speculation. But debates over moral fortitude are good and allow us to revisit areas of our history that need improving upon. History should not be censored.

For me, Hareem Al Sultan has many wonderful qualities, from beautiful scenery to attention to accuracy. But I also like being reminded of how far society has come, and how far it has to go. In one scene, after seeing a young boy forced to sell water to make a living for his family, the Sultan sends money so the boy can go back to school.

I wish more leaders applied this quality, and walked among their people to understand them better. They would also see those "dark corners" and what some women are forced to do to save their families.