Sunday, September 9, 2012

Fatmé Sjemile, Escapee from the Sultan's Harem

On 26 Sep 1913, a young woman stepped off the ship France and onto US soil. She was just one of 1,826 passengers on the ship. According to the ship’s manifest and the Ellis Island paperwork, she was born in Turkey. But, we can speculate that the accuracy of her birthplace might only have been as accurate as her reporting of it, since many people arrived at Ellis Island without birth certificates or other proofs of identity.

Steamship France, Photo source: The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc.
Although she was only 22, this lovely young woman had already achieved notoriety in the music halls of Paris. Now, possibly sensing the oncoming storm in Europe, or perhaps escaping more personal troubles, she was once more giving up the comforts and familiarity of her home in pursuit of a place where she could be free. Her name was Fatmé Sjemile, and she claimed she had been the favorite odalisque, or concubine, to the Sultan Abdul Hamid. Whether she was coming to America, as so many immigrants were, to avoid war or simply in search of a better life, or even fleeing agents of the Ottoman Empire, intent on capturing her and taking her back to the sultan’s palace, her spirit and determination were very much evident in the choices she made.

AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE Fatmé Sjemile, Supreme Dancer of the Sultan of Turkey
At the turn of the twentieth century, Orientalism was at its height. French Colonial interests in the Mid-East, Asia, and North Africa offered inspiration to designers of Art Nouveau dress and jewelry. Mata Hari, a school teacher of Dutch origin, enthralled all of Europe with the fanciful Oriental image she had created for herself. In this postcard photograph, Fatmé wears a costume evocative of a 19th century Turkish dancing girl, precisely the image she wished to conjure for her audience. Even the texture of Fatmé’s hair is reminiscent of that of the Moss-Haired girls, the Circassian beauties, of P.T. Barnum’s invention fifty years before, who also were claimed to be harem girls escaped from Turkish sultans. 

We cannot know whether this flamboyant beauty’s claims were true, but we can appreciate the romance of her story: the harem girl who escaped from the sultan’s palace, made her way down the steep and treacherous mountains of Turkey and across Europe, and upon her arrival in Paris fascinated audiences with her Oriental dancing.

Madge Lessing, photographed by C.J. Horner of Boston. Dressed fancifully as a page, or perhaps as Cupid, Madge appears to be leaning against a friendly tiger in a scene reminiscent of John R. Neill's illustrations to some of the later OZ books, in particular, those featuring the Hungry Tiger.

Madge Lessing & friend, photo by C.J. Horner of Boston