Ankara Sosyal Bilimler Üniversitesi, Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü, Batı Dilleri ve Edebiyatları, Ankara/Türkiye

Keywords: Islamophobia and Turkophobia; American popular literature,Nineteenth Century Image of the Turks,Her Rescue from the Turks


Turkophobia and Islamophobia[1] has a long tradition in the West, dating back as early as to the eleventh century when the Crusading armies from Europe arrived in the Middle East, firstly to drive the Seljuk Turks out of Anatolia, at the request of the Byzantine emperor, and ultimately retrieve the holy city of Jerusalem from the Muslims in 1095[2]. In the coming centuries, the rise of the Ottoman Turks’ power and territorial expansion of their empire into the heart of Europe, marked by the Mehmed II’s conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and his grandson Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent capture of Belgrade, Hungary and eventual siege of Vienna in 1529[3], further strengthened the image of the Muslim Turks as the barbaric archenemy in a Westerner’s mind. This religious and cultural confrontation between the East and the West eventually led to the formation of a set of images to represent the other, as Edward Said describes in his Orientalist theory.

Accordingly, for the West—initially Europe and subsequently America— the East has come to be viewed through binary oppositions—such as barbaric despotic East versus civilized and democratic West; sensual and exotic East versus rational and familiar West; backward superstitious Orientals versus advanced enlightened Westerners. For Said, this binary opposition helps the West assert its cultural and civilizational superiority to the East mainly because “European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even an underground self.” (1979:3). After the United States began to exert its place in the world political arena at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which also corresponds to the waning power of the British imperialism, these culturally charged images and representations about the Turks were embraced and transferred to the American continent, unchanged. Emergence of the Turquerie[4] in literature, arts and dress in Europe at the end of eighteenth century, interest in Ottoman home decoration and costume, coupled with the The Arabian Nights’ popularity—underemphasized but significant factors in the emergence of Romanticism— increased the reading public’s demand for the exotic and the strange. The writers and publishers in Victorian England and corresponding America in order to cater for this desire published works which served an exotic, sensual and barbaric East for a Western readership. As a result, travel writings about faraway locations and novels with Oriental characters in Eastern settings and decor became a cultural commodity to profit from, determining the nineteenth century perception of the Eastern other.

John Esposito, in Islamophobia: The Challenge of Pluralism in the 21st Century aptly maintains that “Literature and art have been a powerful vehicle for the dissemination of Islamophobic discourse and images historically” (2011: xxxi). Motivated by this assertion, this article will be an examination of the images and representations, catalyst in perpetuation of both Islamophobia and Turkophobia, maintained in American popular culture at the end of the nineteenth century, by a close study of St. George Rathborne’s (1854-1938) popular dime novel Her Rescue from the Turks (1896). Even though the narrative in the format of romance in this study is a clear example of poor literary taste, given the popularity of cheap chauvinistic, erotic and exotic romances with the general populace and therefore its wide readership, bringing these now-lesser-known nineteenth century cultural texts to attention is important in terms of forming a better picture about the West’s stance against a foreign culture and a people, namely the Turks and Turkish culture at that point of history. By identifying the stereotypical conception of the Turkish other in a nineteenth century text, it will surely be meaningful observation to see where the modern Hollywood’s cinematic codes about the East (e.g. in character development, plot and setting) are based and how they are sustained.

Her Rescue from the Turks (1896) is a novel written by American popular fiction novelist, St. John Rathborne, who also authored many other adventure novels including Saved by the Sword: a romance of the Greco-Turkish war (1898), which offers a narrative about the Greek independence revolts against the Ottomans corresponding to the years between 1821 and 1832. In this popular dime novel, two Americans, Captain Mark Meredith and Ichabod the Plummer’s roads intersect in the Ottoman capital, “Constantinople: the city of the Turks!” (Rathborne 1896:5). Both have come to the East with a mission. The Captain has promised to Amy’s father in his deathbed that he would rescue his daughter from her scheming step mother. The step mother, Barbara Randolph, also Nancy’s biological mother, to secure her husband’s inheritance, has struck a bargain with Osmar Pasha, the commander in chief of the Ottoman army. According to the scheme, Osmar Pasha will take Amy into his harem as his wife while Mrs. Randolph will inherit all the money left from her husband. Meanwhile, Ichabod, struck by the charms of Nancy, Amy’s step sister, pursues her to the Ottoman capital to declare his love for her. Meeting coincidently at one of the hotels at Pera in Istanbul, the district where foreigners customarily lodged, two Americans, join their forces to save an American girl from “a fate terrible than death”; and they vow to fight the Turks no matter what; even if it means to wage war against all Muslims and “the Koran readers in the Orient” (Rathborne 1896:24). The novel, thus, opens by vilifying and othering peoples of the East as religious enemies.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, with the emergence of a new genre of cinema, similar plot narratives—based on abduction of Western women into harems--were adopted; glaring examples of which are 1921 American silent romantic drama The Sheik, and its sequel The Son of the Sheik (1926), both starring famous Rodolph Valentino as the Oriental man who captures an American woman to put in his harem; Jewel of the Nile (1985), the American hero played by Michael Douglas goes on a mission to rescue his girlfriend who is abducted by an Oriental man; or Harem (1985) a movie featuring Nastassja Kinski as the American businesswoman kidnapped and held captive in a harem of an Arab man played by Ben Kingsley. In his perceptive study of the image of the Arabs in Hollywood cinema, Jack Shaheen, argues that “The moviemakers’ distorted lenses have shown Arabs as heartless, brutal, uncivilized, religious fanatics through common depictions of Arabs kidnapping or raping a fair maiden; expressing hatred against the Jews and Christians; and demonstrating a love for wealth and power” (171). Likewise, in this article, I aim to show how similar Orientalist representations that are adopted unchanged for the Arabs, had been used for another Muslim people, the Turks before and during the nineteenth centuries.

In this novel and like ones in the American cinema, Oriental setting serves as an exotic landscape where an adventurous Christian Western man’s bravado is showcased in his defeat of the Oriental enemy, quintessentially the Muslim Turks or the Arabs, in order to rescue the damsel in distress. Accordingly in Her Rescue from the Turks, a series of events unfold and in the end the Captain, reenacting the Orientalist fantasy of a nineteenth century Western man, with the help of his friend, invade the harem of Osmar Pasha, where Amy is held captive. After the ensuing conundrum, the Americans bravely rescue Amy, Nancy and another woman, whom turns out to be Amy’s biological mother, from the harem and set off to the train station heading to Europe. In the end, the Western damsels in distress are saved from the Turks and the couples happily unite in marriage, settling in America while the scheming step mother is left in Osmar Pasha’s harem as a punishment for her terrible deeds.

To better understand the Orientalist codes which determine the representation of the Turks as barbaric, backward and sensual others and Islam as “the alien religion,” it is of utmost importance to review the historical and political context of the late nineteenth-century American and Ottoman Empire relations. Written in and published in New York in 1896, corresponding to the Progressive Era[5], the novel celebrates the emergence of America as the leading military and political power of the world, based on the technological advances and innovations which became visible in urbanization and industrialization of the former rural landscapes. This rapid economic growth, helped by the completion of transcontinental railroad ways, mining and factory building, drew millions of poor immigrants from Europe, marking the New World as the place of prosperity and opportunities in comparison to weakening economies and power of old Europe and the rest of the world, including the Ottoman Turkey.

At the end of the nineteenth century, The Turkish empire[6] was going through a fateful period of decline and dissolution despite Abdul Hamid II’s, who reigned between 1879 and 1908, great efforts to keep the empire together, which was composed of different millets of religious and ethnic backgrounds such as the Turks, Greeks, Bulgarians, Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, etc., against the separatist nationalist movements supported by the imperialist European countries, most notably France and Britain. An important economic and strategic center, Egypt, had already declared its sovereignty by the help of the British who invaded and occupied the city in 1882; the Armenians, through the support of coreligionists Catholic France, in the south-East of Anatolia rose in rebellion to start their own state; the Greeks with the help of the Russians, French and British had already declared independence in 1830; the Bulgarians began to be semi-autonomous after the Turko-Russian War of 1877-79. Amid a survival crisis, the Turks had to allocate all energy and effort to combatting separatist wars, supported by the imperial great powers of Europe, which had already divided the Ottoman Empire, having labeled it as “the Sick Man of Europe,[7]” among themselves through secret negotiations and agreements. Public funds spent on war and preservation of the unity of the empire took its toll, leaving cities underfunded, economy in crisis despite Abdul Hamid’s efforts to open factories, hospitals and educational institutions, as well as building railways connecting Istanbul to Hijaz region, the stagnation was prevalent and the demise was imminent.

Rathborne’s romance takes place in such a context where the emergence of America as a young world power is contrasted with the decline of the Ottoman era. The novel, therefore, becomes one of the earlier examples of haughty pride and overconfidence customarily reinforced in American cinema and adventure romances. Written and published three decades after the end of the American Civil War (1861-1865), the novel conflates post-war nationalist American sentiments in the alien context of the Ottoman Empire. The protagonists Captain, the Virginian and Ichabod, the Yankee, representing the South and the North in the American Civil War respectively, reconcile their differences and unite around one mission in this Oriental setting: to save an American girl from the Turks. The South and the North, represented by these two characters, symbolically unify in their collaboration against the common enemy, the Oriental Turk. Invasion of the harem described as “a herculean task, that might appall most men” (Rathborne 1896:122), therefore serves a consolidating climax for the veterans of the American Civil War who had fought each other: “Well, it is tough on us, but then, you know, governor, we come of that Anglo-Saxon race that never gives up as long as life remains—representing two sides of the country that carried on the biggest civil war on record, each believing they were right” (117).

It can be inferred that as an author of popular culture, Rathborne, building on American nationalist ideology, sets out to create the image of a strong unified country by its juxtaposition of East and West; Muslim and Christian; Turk and American through literature. While doing this, Rathborne resorts to Orientalist binary oppositions, which ultimately help stigmatize Turks and Islam as an enemy, an aberration and an anomaly. Thus, throughout the text, Turks and their Eastern-Islamic culture is represented as what the Western and American culture is not. Testifying to Edward Said’s critique of the Orientalist binary juxtaposition of the East and West, while the West embodies positive virtues and ideals; the East is a breeding ground for corruptness and immorality, and therefore, in need of Western interference and transformation. And as Said maintains “Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restricting, and having authority over the Orient” serves to that end (1979:3). The popular romance of Rahtborne, due to its Orientalist perceptions, becomes a jingoistic and chauvinistic celebration of the American patriotism; an unrelentingly demeaning portrayal of Islam as inferior to Christianity; a misinformed representation of Oriental women and the harem only serving to the creation of a false sense of superiority of Western counterparts; and a view of irredeemably backward and primitive Ottoman culture in opposition to advanced and rational American West. In this paper, I will try to bring textual evidences to illuminate each point.

The View of Islam as an Anomaly and Superstition: Bouts of Islamophobia

After the tragic and fateful terrorist events of 9/11, the negative view of the Muslims in America gained in strength. Citing the statistics released by the Gallup poll, in Who Speaks for Islam?, John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed indicate this Islamophobic attitude in American public opinion:

For example a 2006 USAToday/Gallup poll found that substantial minorities of Americans admit to harboring at lEast some prejudice against Muslims and favoring heightened security measures for Muslims as a way to prevent terrorism. The same poll found 44% of Americans saying that Muslims are too extreme in their religious beliefs. Nearly one quarter of Americans, 22%, say they would not want a Muslim as a neighbor; less than half believe U.S. Muslims are loyal to the United States.” (2007:x).

Though having been exacerbated by the recent bellicose encounters and clashes between the Christian West and Islamic East, the negative perception of Islam as “an extremity supporting barbaric actions” has a long tradition in America, largely borrowed from Europe. Her Rescue from the Turks reflects this presumption, as one such point of stigmatization that is observed in this romance is related to Islamic religion. The choice of the author to open the novel in the month of Ramadan, a subject of peculiar observation for Western travelers to the Islamic Orient in their narrative by all means, is a deliberate move to create an atmosphere of “exotic oddity” for the Western audience. Therefore, charged with biases, abstinence of the observing Muslim Turks from eating and drinking from dawn to sunset for one month is presented as an absolute strangeness and an extremity. The narrator, in the opening part of the novel, identifies the position of the protagonist as a Christian and familiar in opposition to the unfamiliar Muslims. This point of contrast only serves to increase the otherness of the Muslim Turks, conveniently labeled as “peculiar people” by the narrator. The Captain, wandering through streets in Istanbul during the holy month of Ramadan, comments on the situation of the Turks, saying:

A peculiar people are these same Turks, and in no respect does their oddity crop out more remarkably than in following the teachings of the Koran, which enforces upon them this time the necessity of utter abstinence in the way of food and drink, between sunrise and sunset, but allows all manner of fEasting after the golden orb of the day has sunk behind the hills. (Rathborne 1896:5)

This passage, as a repetition of the ages-long Christian perception of Muslims as followers of “a false religion,” is important because of its Islamophobic implications. Author’s deliberate juxtaposition of abstinence with overindulgence as meaningless opposites —By means of the use of phrase “all manner of fEasting” being allowed after the sunset— is a deliberate move to heighten “extremities of behavior” unique to the primitive superstitious Oriental people. Therefore, the narrator not only marginalizes fasting Turks as animals swooping down on food with “sounds of fEasting grow more pronounced” (Rathborne 1896:8), but also presents sunset meal after a day-long fasting, iftar, as a habit of over-indulgence in worldly appetites and sin. Contrasted with this “brutish” religious manners of the Muslim Turks, the Western Christian is presented to be the epitome of measured behavior and reason because unlike the ‘impulsive and bestial’ Muslims, the Captain “is not the one to let his appetite get the better of his judgment” (1896:8).

In a similar fashion, Christianity and Islam are contrasted repeatedly in the text, while the former is valorized for its virtuous teachings and humanity; the latter is disparaged for failing to bring out the good in people. This is why, for example, Captain Mark casts off Amy’s mother from Christianity when she fails to conform to her Christian upbringing. In the episode when Amy’s mother’s schemes are revealed, Captain protest in amazement: “You would hardly believe a woman reared in a Christian country could be so cruel, so mercenary; but as you say, she must be an extraordinary creature” (Rathborne 1896:28). So while cruelty and indecorum is an exception in Christian lands; it is an everyday happening in Muslim world. Even the dervishes are no exception, the descriptions of the dervishes, similar to Christian hermits, who chant the names of Allah, only add to the unfavorable portrayal of followers of Islam: “ A band of howling dervishes… and their execrable chant of “la illa Allah” [sic] racks the ears of the listener with excruciating agony” (6).

As it is the case with many travel narratives and novels about the East, the writers superimpose some concepts in Christianity onto Islam because of lack of information about the latter. This happens especially when writers with Christian backgrounds mistakenly transfer the Christian divinity of Je sus, as expressed by the notion of trinity, onto Muhammad, (Islam in fact considers both as human beings with a mission to deliver God’s words). As a result, in those texts, we come across phrases like if “Allah and the Prophet will”, which fails to reflect the genuine tradition in Islamic societies which would be “insAllah” meaning “if Allah wills.” Or the name of the religion is corrupted as “Mohammedanism” or its followers as “Mohammedans,” based on an uninformed imitation of linguistic formation of the name Christianity, derived from the root Christ. This is also true for this novel. The implication of this seemingly small mistake is telling because it leads us to question European writers’ credibility as representing the East. Another misinformation in this text is about the Ramadan fasting and the following holiday. The text tells us that during fasting, Muslims are not allowed to attend to worldly concerns. This misinformation reinforces the concept of the mystical and spiritual East, showing a lack of interest in material things, that explains why they lack behind technologically. However, in Islam, marriage, and worldly concerns are not discouraged during the Ramadan. (Rathborne 1896:58). This deliberate dissemination of misinformation about Islam, which ultimately shapes the Orientalist attitudes in the West, is a point that constitutes the main argument of Edward Said’s in Covering Islam: How the Media and Experts: “In many instances “Islam” has licensed not only patent inaccuracy but also expressions of unrestrained ethnocentrism, cultural and even racial hatred , deep yet paradoxically free-floating hostility” (1997:li) “in other words, covering Islam is a one-sided activity that obscures what “we” do, and highlights instead what Muslims and Arabs by their flawed nature are” (xxii).

The Orientalist Comparison of Civilizations

Another Orientalist trope one observes in Her Rescue from the Turks is related to creation of an image of an overindulgent and idyllic East. However, in contrast to the idealization of rural life and celebration of nature as observed in Romantic literature, the stereotype of industrious West vs. indolent East is implied in the narrative: “these rich Turks live only to get all the enjoyment possible out of life, and it sometimes looks as though they came near reaching the ideal of dreamy, happy-go-lucky existence” (Rathborne 1896:120). Building on the Orientalist stereotype of industrious West vs. indolent East, the Turks are characterized as an irreconcilably lazy people: “it pleases a Turk to know that he has plenty of time; the dreamy life of an Oriental allows him plenty of opportunities for reflection, of which he is sure to avail himself ” (176). So while a dreamy Turk languishes on his divan wasting time, the industrious American recognizes the importance of time. As a representative of the West, Captain Mark is always careful about time, makes timely decisions and hates wasting time doing nothing “delay is not a part of his system” (176).

In addition to serving as an exotic background to West’s adventures and feats, detailed depictions of the Oriental settings also attest to the Romantic fascination with the exotic and the faraway, but only with reservations. The narrator repeats the repulsion-attraction duality John MacKenzie points out, when he describes Istanbul; its streets, architecture and people (1995). Narrator tells us that it is “the most interesting city on all continents for Anglo-Saxon eyes” and to a Western tourist the city offers spectacles and adventure because he can get “the first glimpse of genuine Mohammedanism, and the wonders of the Levant” (Rathborne 1896:6). Istanbul is picturesque to the beholder with its beautiful scenery but it is also repulsive and alien due to its inherently violent nature and filth at close inspection: “Constantinople presents the finest picturesque when seen from above, and a little distance, of any city in the world— it is only when one explores the narrow streets and sees the filth, that the spell vanishes” (21). In line with this disparaging view, throughout the text, the narrator reminds repeatedly the wretched conditions of Istanbul’s streets and houses. The mysterious and enchanting but at the same time strange and unpredictable nature of the East, one of the most reinforced Orientalist tropes, finds its voice through the narrator’s description of the city and its history. Reducing its past only to political unrests, wars and bloodshed, the narrator says, specifically referring to the Sultan Mahmud’s abolition of Janissaries in 1826, “from the time of its grounding by the Roman emperor centuries ago up to the last Russo-Turkish war; it has been a scene of turmoil; and the reign of the terrible Janissaries was only ended early in the present century, when the people in their might, some fifteen thousand of the iniquitous soldier brigands were put to death” (6). Obviously, in line with the Orientalist image of a barbaric East, Istanbul is marked as the hotbed of perpetual savagery and atrocity.

Building on the Eastern Question of the nineteenth century, which can be summarily defined as the political topic of debate emanating from secret plans of and negotiations between the imperialistic European powers to divide the Ottomans given the apparent signs of military and economic weaknesses observed since the late seventeenth century—1699 Treaty of Karlowitz, signed after the failed siege of Vienna marked the end of the military eminence of the Ottoman Turks over Europe—the American romance uniformly calls on the West to interfere in the annexation of the Ottoman lands. As a reflection of this imperialistic ambition, the narrator openly voices the ages-long anti-Turk sentiment in the West: the expulsion of the Turks from Europe and Anatolia back to the Central Asia. Accordingly he says “Thus it has been an open question for some time whether Mr. Turk will be forced across the Bosphorus by the feverish enterprise of England and France or the great White Tzar” (Rathborne 1896:7). Pushing the Turks across the Bosphorus channel will obviously mark the gradual expulsion of them through Anatolia back to where they came from; therefore, the narrator celebrates any indication of the visual transformation of the landscape and architecture on the European side of Istanbul along with the Western civilization’s lines as cultural amelioration and retrieval. As a result, the narrator happily remarks the resemblance between some districts of Istanbul such as Pera and Galata “where the streets and houses give one the impression that it is an adjunct of Paris rather than the Orient” and Paris—in Pera, non-Muslim populations as well as the European residents especially ambassadors, officials and soldiers grew in number after the Crimean War of 1853-54 due to their alliance with the Ottomans against the Russians and built houses imitating Western architecture. It is apparent that the Muslim Turks’ presence in European Turkey is a nuisance and should be ended soon.

In addition, based on an Orientalist viewpoint, throughout the text the narrator uses every opportunity to compare the Western and Eastern civilizations, exalting the former and deeming the latter as backward. One point of juxtaposition is carried out through technological developments. The narrator, implying the latest architectural developments taking place in America, such as construction of high rising buildings, maintains that Constantinople, or Istanbul, is outdated and frozen in time with its ill-paved roads and relatively small number of carts, failing to compare to the West’s metropoles of London and New York. This backwardness can also be observed in other areas such as communication technologies. In an episode where Captain and others are fleeing Istanbul to the safety of Europe, after rescuing Amy from the harem, Captain plans to cut the communication between the chasing Osmar Pasha and the train station for an easy escape. What is interesting to note here is that Captain, heavily conditioned by Orientalist views of the inferior Eastern other, and is sure to see a Western operator, either American or English, running the telegraph office. As a result, the narrator makes this disparagingly offensive comment about the Turks: “A Turk has not advanced so far as to master alphabet of Morse, and send lightening messages” (Rathborne 1896:149).

So in this Orientalist perception, the Turks are not only technologically backward but what is more condescending is that they do not even have the intellectual or technical capability to put to use a simple Western invention. The following remarks exemplarily create the image of a thickheaded inept Oriental, a stock characterization that is uniformly repeated in the future American cinema such as Indiana Jones series. The demeaning categorization of the Muslim Turk as such actually belies commonsense reasoning considering the fact that the telegraph system came to Turkey in about 1865 and the novel set in Abdul-Hamid’s reign between 1876 and 1909. So one wonders how the Turks, and for that matter any other group of human beings, cannot learn a simple technology as this in almost two decades? When Captain arrives at the telegraph office, as he anticipated, he finds a Western “brethren” who bravely joins forces with the American in this mission, “I am a gentleman, an Englishman, and for the sake of saving a girl from such a fate I would do much if I knew how to proceed” (Rathborne 1896:150).

Overall, Her Rescue from the Turks suggests that everything about the Orient is in decay. For example, “Turkish justice when aroused is terrible,” the authorities are sluggish and it takes forever for them to devise a working plan as it happens in Turks’ chase of the Americans (181). In the scene where the Captain and Ichabod show their soldierly valor and talent in running away from the Pasha’s house, Turkish soldiers are portrayed clumsy and impotent. Osmar Pasha’s soldiers not only fail in a simple task of blocking the runways but also they are hopelessly incapable of pursuing a carriage because they fail to obey orders. The following passage offers a denigrating comparison of Turkish and Western soldiers:

The proverbial slowness of Turkish soldiers to obey orders, and exercise their own judgment. If they could have some of the rapidity of movement noticeable in American troop—if their minds could grasp a situation as speedily as British regulars, they would make formidable enemies against any European forces, since as fighters they are genuine tigers. (175-76)

In addition to this apparent advanced West as opposed to backward East dichotomy, the Orient is represented to be a breeding ground for lowly human beings. In the text, one is sure to encounter sweeping generalizations such as “The average Turk is a poor rascal—his soul is greedy by nature” (Rathborne 1896:118) or implications that bribery symbolized by “the itching palm of the Bashi-Bazouk” is a common occurrence (152). In their escape episode out of Istanbul, this group of Americans are surrounded by the Turkish street porters offering a help with their luggage. The hammals or porters are unnecessarily described in the most disparaging manner; obviously in an attempt to showcase a Western man’s bravado and manliness, these poor Turkish men looking for a job are pictured as cowardly jackals surrounding a lion. “This Western lion, Ichabod, repels the jackals with his roar, and when he turns upon them they scatter and jump beyond his reach with the utmost precipitation.”(179). The narrator describes the American as a larger than life figure and unashamedly presents his beating of poor porters as a victory: “Yes, there he comes, as big as life, and around him are several Turkish turbaned and fez-covered rascals”(181).

The Orientalist Representation of Characters: Turkish Ottoman Osmar [sic] Pasha vs. American Captain Mark Meredith

In addition to offering a negative view of the Ottoman civilization, based on architecture and the use of technology, this nineteenth century American romance also reinforces the superiority of the West over the East through misleading and judgmental comparisons between the Turks and the Americans. The narrator’s characterization of the protagonist of the novel Captain Mark Meredith, and Osmar [Osman] Pasha as his antagonist succinctly exemplifies this East-West binary. In stark opposition to negative descriptions the text offers about the Turks, American Captain Meredith, the owner of sugar plantations in Cuba and a Civil War veteran who had fought on the side of the South, shines as an ideal chivalrous man with a strong sense of duty and friendship. In accordance with this, the Captain, symbolizing the West, is continuously described with positive adjectives such as valiant, moral, and honest. He is the epitome of a heroic warrior: “His appearance easily bespeaks the soldier –there is a martial air about his erect figure; and the firm way in which he plants his heel down when he walks proclaims an education gained amid scenes of military valor”(Rathborne 1896:7). In addition to his fierceness at war, the Captain abides by the codes of chivalry such as comradeship and gentlemanliness in and out of the battlefield.

The following description of the Captain can be read as a nostalgic invocation of chivalry of the Crusaders against the Muslims in the Medieval Period: “the face itself is rather striking—an iron-gray mustache gives it something of a stern look, but the clear eyes are full of geniality, and the possessor would undoubtedly make a boon companion on a cruise or a trip to the wilderness, where much of the pleasure consists in a wise choice of a willing and warm-hearted associate” (8). A careful observant of chivalrous codes, the Captain is a character who is in control of his passionate emotions and treats women courteously. To highlight this point, the narrator makes a specific note of his avoidance of staring at Turkish women out of passion; in this specific episode the Captain has to look at the women for duty, as he is trying to identify Amy among the veiled women. Nor he ever succumbs to basic human desires such as eating; he never lets his hunger to impair his judgment when compared to Muslims busy eating after a day of fasting.

While the Captain, symbolizing the West, embodies noble qualities in himself, the Eastern antagonist of the novel, Osmar [sic] Pasha, is all what he is not. The narrator’s portrayal of Osmar Pasha, probably based on a real historical figure Gazi Osman Nuri Pasha (1832-1900), who fought as the field marshal in the Turkish-Russian War 1877-78, and later became the hero of the Siege of Plevna due to his unrelenting resistance against the enemy despite dire situations in the war, is nothing but condescending and disparaging. Osmar Pasha, as an Oriental evil stock character (becoming a model for the American cinema), only serves as a foil character to crystalize the prowess of the Western hero. As a result, Osmar Pasha is repeatedly described by adjectives such as mogul, wicked, wily and wretched in the text. While the Captain is shown as a strategic genius who knows what to do in any given situation with his just decisions; Osmar Pasha is a barbaric Oriental man who seems to act on minute impulses without proper judgment of circumstances. In the scene, as a hint at Eastern barbarity and violence, where the former slave of the Captain is brought before the Pasha for acting suspiciously in front of his house, the narrator portrays Osmar Pasha as fierce and impulsive: “he scowls and lays a hand on his sword, at the same time muttering something about the bastinado (Rathborne 1896:47). He would have treated the former black slave Daniel mercilessly, if it had not been for Amy’s soothing female interference. This and other instances in the novel all help create the stock image of the Oriental despot who acts on impulses of barbarity, violence and passion (usually manifested as a weakness towards women’s charms).

While the two men from America are shown to be examples of courage and chivalry—even the ex-slave Daniel exemplifies his Western side when encouraged by his master— the Pasha’s masculinity and martial talents are constantly disparaged in the text. In the scene where the Pasha and his accompanying soldiers confront the Captain and Ichabod after their escape from his harem with Amy, the Turkish general’s talent and power as a soldier is ridiculed. The author even doesn’t pair him up with the Captain or Ichabod during the fight. Daniel without much effort renders the Pasha ineffective. Incompetent Pasha vainly struggles to draw his sword before he is beaten by the former slave of the Captain. The whole scene is worth quoting, as an indication of the overt jingoistic tone:

Although the battle is a fierce one, it does not last more than a minute, hardly that. Even the cowardly and aged Daniel takes his share in it; perhaps the presence of his master infuses some new and amazing spirit in his craven veins, for bending his head down on a level with his waist, he charges the spot where the great pasha himself stands, vainly tugging at his keen sword to release the blade from the scabbard…. The Turk ceases to tug at his stubborn sword; he throws up his hands with shrill shout of dismay. In another instant the human battering ram comes into contact with his abdominal regions; then is heard a fearful shriek, and the stout hero of a score of battles, doubling like a hinge, lands a score of feet away. (Rathborne 1896:69-70)

This obvious belittling of a Turkish war hero can be read as an attempt to reenact the West’s desire of victory over the Turks. Also Rathborne’s overt hostility to the Muslim Turks seems to arise from his strict demarcation separating Christianity and Islam. As a result, Rathborne views non-Muslim millets such as the Bulgarians, Greeks and Slavs in the Ottoman Empire as connected to the Western civilization through the uniting factor of Christianity. Rathborne therefore backs minority uprisings within the Ottoman Empire, as exemplified clearly in his pro-Greek novel Saved By the Sword: a romance of the Greco-Turkish war (1898). Osman Pasha, as the prominent figure in suppressing the rebellions and for his success against the Russians in the war, naturally comes under the attack of the author. As a result, Rathborne belittles the Pasha’s valor and fantasizes his defeat. By rendering famous Turkish general of Turco-Russian war as well as other Turkish soldiers incapable and cowardly— they also “run as fast as their shaking legs will carry them, uttering cries for Allah’s protection” (1896: 75)— the passage celebrates Christian West’s desired unity against the Muslim East.

The text abounds with such instances where the Turks are characterized as “cowardly buffoons.” The following scene, for instance, portrays a helpless Turkish man who is easily incapacitated by a Western man: “The Turk makes little resistance; he is not capable of it when in the hands of such a demonstrative foreigner, but relapses at once into a state of “innocuous desuetude” (142). In another instance, Ichabod, who has “a very poor opinion of Turks as soldiers” defies one courageously, roars at his face and picks him up and dashes him onto ground before he knows it. (180). The Turkish soldier, humiliated, like a “swimmer, lands in mud-puddle with a tremendous splash” (180). In another instance, the narrator describes a confrontation where the two Americans easily fight off a brigand of Turkish soldiers and ridicules them further when he makes the demoralized soldiers “crawl into the shelter for the bushes lining the road” like scared kittens when their majors were killed (1896:197).

Osmar Pasha’s dignity and fame is besmeared not only by the Western men but also Western women, through the myths of the harem. In their conversation, “the Anglo-Saxon maid of the nineteenth century” ridicules Osmar Pasha and his affections for her saying, “I laughed at him, the stout, middle-aged Turk— he is very amusing, and told him when I married, if ever such a fate befell poor me, I intended taking a man who did not have forty wives.” As a response, the Pasha, made a laughable buffoon for his sensual attachment to women, when he readily announces that “he would get a divorce from all others for her” (Rathborne 1896:35). The other American woman, Nancy, also voices similar views: “The conceited old jackanapes, to think any English speaking girl could ever fall in love with such a mummified chap— not to mention the awful fact that he already has forty wives, more or less in his wigwam—faugh!” (59). In the following passage, Osmar Pasha is further ridiculed for his supposed irrational fondness of women. In this particular scene, Amy confronts and outwits the dumfounded Pasha to rescue their imprisoned servant Daniel from his wrath through her agency and her bravery:

“There is even a touch of authority in her voice that rather startles the Turk. When was an Oriental nabob like himself ever braved by a woman before— but it makes a deal of difference whether the occasion is before marriage or after—whether the female in the case is a Turkish or American beauty. The valiant hero of the Russo-Turkish war looks a bit startled, but smiles and bows, with a fat hand on his heart. “Your wishes are law to me, delightful being. I have no desire outside of them. Consider it done” (1896:54).

The Pasha is demonically bad and poses a great danger to the Western women “There is danger in the air for her [Amy], as his evil eye brings a blight on everything around” (Rathborne 1896:17). As a result, not only his characteristics but also his physical appearance is depicted unfavorable: he is a stout man with a “fierce expression on his dark face” (45). While Captain, representing this culture, is always kind and understanding with women-for example, he puts his life into danger just to get Amy’s purse in order not to upset her; the Eastern men are disrespectful “brutes” who don’t understand women. When Amy yawns and signals to be excused from the Pasha’s company; the narrator tells us that he fails to understand these social gestures for being a brute and obtuse man. “The ordinary hints of good society are quite wasted upon this obtuse man, who is not accustomed to vagaries of the mind feminine. . . but the brute pays not the slightest heed to such courteous signs” (50). While Western men are capable of pure and innocent love, the Pasha, symbolizing Eastern men, is ultimately an unashamed womanizer, seducer and in the end a pathetic looser. Reminding the reader of Eastern promiscuity, the narrator has the Pasha fall for Amy at first glance; from then on he “appeared to worship the very ground she walked on, in his miserable Eastern way; but the young woman it appears snubbed his lordship unmercifully”(1896:23).

These passages do several things at once; firstly they repeat the Orientalist stereotype of Muslim men marrying forty wives to satisfy their insatiable lust. However, Islam forbids taking more than four wives at a time; furthermore, it regulates and/or even discourages polygamy by stipulating that the husband provide equal economic conditions (e.g. separate houses) and give equal attention to each wife. So the image of “Muslim men with forty wives” is a mere exaggeration. In addition, contrary to the Orientalist fantasies of European men, majority of women in the harem did not have any sexual relations with the man of the house. As some Western women travel writers indicated, such as Julie Pardoe, most women in the harems served as handmaids to the wife or the husband. Secondly, these passages parody the Eastern men’s excess sensuality, while valorizing Christian Anglo-Saxon monogamous culture. Thus, Eastern males cannot be true lovers; they are after the flesh of women. To show that, the narrator tells us that the Pasha has his plan B of capturing the widow, Rebecca Randolph in case his scheme about Amy fails (1896:55).

The Orientalist Misinformation: The Myth of the Harem

The plot narrative of Her Rescue from the Turks is based on the Orientalist image of the harem[8] which repeats the ages-long myths that it is a prison where women are kept as sex slaves. For a typical nineteenth-century Western male, when thinking about the Orient, perhaps, nothing sounded more mysterious than the harem and odalisques residing in it. The Eastern harem fascinated the European mind for centuries up until its disappearance in the early twentieth century after the First World War. But until then, the secluded parts of the Muslim household where the women lived captivated the European male fantasy as a mystery. As travelling European males were not allowed into the harems of the Ottoman households, their only means of information about these forbidden territories had to come from other texts about the East, hearsay and their imagination. As a result, as Billie Melman and others have argued, generally, the male discourse about the Eastern femininity and sexuality completely differed from that of European women who, having access to harems as female visitors, had experienced harem life directly (1992). Unlike the male discourse which was sensual, objectifying oriental women and her sexuality; female discourse desexualized and ‘normalized’ Eastern harems and condition of their female residents. It is evident that Rathborne heavily borrows from this misconstrued image of the harem.

The harem as a concept remained a mystery for Western men because of its inaccessibility to outside males. European travelers and writers as well as painters fantasized about this unknown world of Eastern women, which ultimately led to the rise of the Orientalist idea of sensual and lascivious East. Others conceived harem as the places where oppression of Eastern women was played out. Invoking the idea of Eastern women as the “captives at the gilded cages” the narrator in Her Rescue from the Turks presents the harem as a prison, and declaring a life in the harem as a forced seclusion with no access to outside world. In accordance with this view of the harem, the text provides a physical description of the Ottoman houses which help register the harem as a bleak prison for the jeweled Oriental beauties: “The walls tower above, built in massive style that remind them of feudal castles seen along the historic Rhine,… of work-houses and penitentiaries in America” (Rathborne 1896:117-18); “Gloomy outside, all windows facing the inner court where the flowers bloom and the fountain plays— where the women of the household chat and pass the time away, free to wear their most precious trinkets and show their faces.” (10). This image of the harem as prison is further stressed by the absence of windows: the windows, if there is any “are mere slits in the wall intended not for light, but to allow a circulation of air” (27). After the invasion of the harem at the end of the novel, based on the Captain’ and Ichabod’s inside observations, the narrator reiterates this image of the harem as a prison. The American men, whose breach was made ever easier by bribing the Pasha’s guard, finally have a chance to gaze at the women in the harem, who disappointingly prove to be old, fat and ugly unlike the famed odalisques.

This deconstruction of the harem myth as a place full of sensual women unfortunately does not help deorientalize the harem; in fact, in Rathborne’s textual constructions, the harem loses its sensual connotations only at the expense of being turned into repulsive prisons, short of being normalized as households in Eastern societies: “Several upon whose faces the eyes of Mark rest are even middle-aged and stout—with nothing to do but eat, dress and gossip; they take life easy and the days pass on, each like its predecessor, a dream. It is the life of a prisoner—seldom do they see the outside worlds, and yet most of them have no ambition to see a change in their lot” (Rathborne 1896:126).The strangeness of the harem and Ottoman household, as symbols of an Oriental civilization, is quickly offset by a comparison to the familiar. After wandering in the traditional Turkish quarters, which seem alien and unfavorable to a Western eye, Captain Meredith reaches the “gay suburb of Pera” in Istanbul, showcasing Western styled architecture. The narrator capitalizes on this perceived otherness for a jingoistic assertion of self-identity by playing into the burgeoning American nationalist sentiments and pride. Thus, the narrator concludes commenting that Captain Meredith “likes not these Eastern customs, this citizen of the young Western giant nation” (10- 11).

Osmar Pasha’s harem, where Amy is threated to end up in, conforms to the typical Orientalist description of the harem and condition of women. Harem excels in beauties and riches; however, stripped off any familial feelings, the harem is rendered as a space for objectification of female sexuality: “His seraglio is second but to that of the Sultan—a place if grandeur, where houiris are plentiful. Many a Turkish maiden, brought up in the faith of her fathers, would feel it an honor to have the renowned soldier look favorably upon her, or see him bargaining with her father” (Rathborne 1896:105). Building on Orientalist stereotypes about Eastern femininity, this passage determines Eastern female gender role. As objects of male sexual desire, Eastern females are simply beauties without mind or will. Their agency is non-existent; they are raised to satisfy and obey both the parents and husbands as profitable objects in marriage bargains. Here, as can be seen, marriage as an institution in Turkish society is reduced to being a commodification of the female body. Therefore, Captain Meredith, disgusted by “this evidence of the depth of degradation from which the poor women of Turkey have never been lifted,” sets his invasion of Osmar Pasha’s harem as an example to West, strengthening the image of the Oriental woman in need of a male Western savior.

Already marked as a prison due to its physical structure, the harem is presented to be a space which imperils the freedom and agency of Turkish women. And in line with the Orientalist view, imprisonment and violation is carried out through the objectification of oriental female body. As a result, Oriental women are understood to be men’s amusement toys who provide sensual pleasures in their strictly protected harems. While the agency of the Western women is repeatedly celebrated in the text, this misinformed but prevalent textual construction of the Eastern femininity is reinforced in Her Rescue from the Turks. According to which Oriental women are submissive and sensual and in the Oriental cultures men expect women to conform to this image.

Thus, the Virginian girl, Amy, symbolizing the Western women, is characterized to challenge Osmar Pasha’s patriarchal authority at any given instance. When summoned downstairs to meet him, unlike submissive Eastern women filling his harem, Amy protests “Did a score of Osmar Pashas wait below they would call in vain for my presence” (Rathborne 1896:37). The narrator describing Amy’s feelings not only repeats her agency and freedom, but also invokes the Orientalist perception that Eastern females are worthless sexual objects who are abused by Eastern males: “It does not matter one iota to Amy Randolph that a man second in power only to Abdul Hamid, the Sultan, is waiting for her below—a man who has taken a violent fancy for her, as she might for some horse or painting that strikes his fancy, and which money will purchase” (43). Amy’s defiant refusal to submit to Osmar Pasha is immediately linked to her Western origins as she proudly announces that she is a soldier’s daughter and “inherit[s] a little of Randolph courage” and she is sure to have her “way in spite of a dozen pashas—in spite of the whole Turkish nation” (1896:42-43). As representing the stock Oriental male character, in another instance, Osmar Pasha is furious to see that Amy has left the party without his consent. The narrator, in order to highlight Oriental patriarchal hegemony, comments on this situation saying that “these Turks imagine at times the world of women was created especially for their convenience” (52). So marking the harem as the physical embodiment of women’s subservience, Amy declares defiantly that “nothing on earth can tempt me to accept such a faith—I‘d sooner be dead than marry him” (Rathborne 1896:38).

Another strong-willed American woman, Nancy, is also presented to be the exact opposite of sensual and obedient Turkish women. Therefore, the Oriental Pasha has a hard time dealing with Nancy, who “has an innate satisfaction in hoodwinking the sterner sex” because this “vivacious creature so entirely unlike the girls of his own country, brought up to fear and respect the lords of creation (Rathborne 1896:52-53). The harem life is even believed to affect the way women carry themselves around in Turkey. Hinting at the lack of agency and so-called oppression of the Turkish women, to evade suspicious eyes, Nancy advises Amy to imitate the manners of “effete Eastern women” after donning the Turkish costumes. As a result, when they are fleeing from the Pasha’s harem in this Eastern female disguise, Nancy instructs Amy to forget her Britishness and “keep the veil down so, walk like an effete Eastern women and not like a British girl, and I would stake considerable that you may defy the closest scrutiny” (59).

In a problematic manner, as a precursor to the Islamophobic attacks currently observed in the Western countries in Europe and the U.S. on the veil, Rath borne views veiling as another form of female oppression. Therefore, it is not only the harem but the way the Turkish Muslim women dress causes female seclusion. The narrator considers the women of the East as mysteries hidden behind their ugly abbas-a flowing loose outside garment—when walking in the streets “the ugly abbas hide their charming figure, and the cloudy yashmak the contour of their faces below the flashing black eyes, so that one and all have much the appearance of floating mysteries”(7). In this passage, one can easily arrive at the conclusion that the real objection of the narrator to women’s veil and conservative Islamic clothing results from a frustration of being prevented from gazing at the Muslim female body freely.

This misinformed juxtaposition of the women’s status, ultimately helps create a false sense of security and superiority for the Western women, creating an imaginary West where women should be thankful and content for their lot comparing their lives to the fellow Eastern counterparts. This misinformed comparison obviously ignores the imposition of coverture[9] on married women in the West, according to which married women had to relinquish their legal rights to the husband upon marriage (Perkin 1993:126-127). This meant they could not hold property nor enter into contracts without the husband’s supervision and consent. Divorce was also prohibited by the law. This unfounded Orientalist comparison is therefore created in oblivion of the fact that Muslim women, since the revelation of Islam, were actually granted the right to own and maintain property without the husband’s interference, to represent themselves legally in court and to file for divorce.

Disregarding these facts, many examples in the text help situate the harem as a yardstick to compare the status and rights of women in Western and Eastern societies. Accordingly while the Turkish women live a life of captivity, submitting unconditionally to their masters’ wills, the women of the West are free individuals who assert their agency. Therefore, the narrator makes it clear that Amy will not be a part of Pasha’s harem even though the Pasha promises to make her the happiest bride in Stambul (sic), offering every comfort and riches she can think of. She refuses because the harem means forgoing the freedom Western women enjoy:

the independent spirit that animates a Virginia girl—all the riches of the world would not atone for the lack of freedom. American women are not made in the same model as those of Turkry, Georgia, Circassia and contiguous countries, brought up to resemble only beautiful, expressionless dolls, educated with but one purpose in life—to bring out the highest possible price to their parents when sold into the harem” (Rathborne 1896:54).


Penned in 1896 by a famous and prolific American dime novelist, Rathborne’s Her Rescue from the Turks, is an illustrative representative of the West’s Orientalist view of the Turks and Islam. By repeating centuries old images such as the harem as a prison for sensual and obedient Oriental women; Islam as a “false religion” encouraging carnal and base desires; and the Turks as corrupt, uncivilized barbarians, the text showcases the nineteenth century—also corresponding to the high point in Western imperialism— jingoistic pride in Western civilization, at the expense of the Turkish Muslim culture and people. Analyzing this then popular but never studied novel is important because it helps us to understand how the Oriental setting serves as a fictive space where differences and enmities between Western characters are reconciled, through battling the common Oriental enemy. This reading also helps us to understand the inception, perpetuation and endurance of Orientalist stereotypes about Islam, the Turks (later applied on the Arabs) that will be mimicked in future Hollywood cinema and Western pop culture and literature.

Works Cited

Asbridge, Thomas (2011). The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land, New York: Ecco Harper Collins.

Barın Akman, Filiz (2018). Ottoman Women - In the Eyes of Western Travelers, Istanbul: Kopernik.

Diner, Steven J. (1997). A Very Different Age: Americans of the Progressive Era, New York: Hill and Wang.

Esposito, John, and Ibrahim Kalın, eds. (2011). Islamophobia: The Challenge of Pluralism in the 21st Century, New York: Oxford University Press.

Esposito John and Dalia Mogahed (2007). Who Speaks for Islam?, New York: Gallup Press.

İnalcık, Halil (2001). The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age 1300-1600, New York:Phoenix Press.

MacKenzie, John M. (1995). Orientalism: History, Theory and the Arts, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Melman, Billie (1992). Women’s Orients: English Women and the Middle East, 1718-1918: Sexuality, Religion and Work, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Palmer, Alan (2011).The Decline and Fall of the Ottoman Empire, New York: Fall River Press.

Peirce, Leslie P. (1993). The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire, New York: Oxford University Press.

Perkin John (1993). Victorian Women, New York: New York University Press. Rathborne, S. George (1896). Her Rescue from the Turks: a novel, New York City: The Hobart Co.

Shaheen, J. (2003). “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People”, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 588, 171-193.

Retrieved from

Said, Edward (1979). Orientalism, New York: Vintage Books.

Said, Edward (1997). Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World, New York: Vintage Books.

Swallow, Charles (1973). Sick Man of Europe: Ottoman Empire to Turkish Republic, 1789-1923, London: Ernest Benn Ltd.

Williams, Haydn (2014). Turquerie: An Eighteenth Century European Fantasy, New York: Thames and Hudson.


  1. For a detailed discussion of the Orientalist coverage of Islam in American media, see Edward Said’s Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World.
  2. See The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land by Thomas Asbridge.
  3. For a further historical information on this subject, consult Halil İnalcık’s The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age 1300-1600.
  4. Haydn Williams’s recent book Turquerie: An Eighteenth Century European Fantasy makes an excellent study of this subject, enriched with accompanying illustrations and paintings.
  5. Information about this subject is available in Steven J. Diner’s A Very Different Age: Americans of the Progressive Era.
  6. See Alan Palmer’s The Decline and Fall of the Ottoman Empire.
  7. For the emergence of the term, see Sick Man of Europe: Ottoman Empire to Turkish Republic, 1789-1923 by Charles Swallow.
  8. In The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire, Leslie P. Peirce challenges the image of the harem as the lascivious sexual playground and with historical data shows the political power of the royal Ottoman women.
  9. Also see Filiz Barın Akman’s Ottoman Women - In The Eyes of Western Travelers for a detailed comparison of the rights of the married women in the East and West.