The Enduring Mystique of the Almeh

By Nelly Mazloum

Nelly Mazloum in "The Almeh," 1949

Until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the beginning of the 19th century, the harems were considered a secluded, almost monastic area of the house, Serail, Konak, or palace. Harem comes from haram: sinful, barred by Koranic Law. Moharram means forbidden, inadmissible to human eyes. Few were permitted access into the women’s quarters, and fewer still were those who wrote about the living conditions of the harem.

The Almeh existed since pre-Islamic times as a teacher, a woman of knowledge, employed in the homes of the wealthy families. In most ancient times the Almeh was a teacher of dance and song. To dance, to sing, to dream, to teach women about feminine qualities and how to attract men’s everlasting love was her mission in life.

During the Islamic wars, men would die in battle, leaving their wives and children in mourning and unprotected. The Prophet issued a law which bound the remaining warriors to the obligation of defending the dignity and honor of those widowed families, and taking responsibility for their safety and protection by integrating them into their own fold. This law became an institution, and the Awalem (plural of Almeh) became a convenient solution for the good maintenance and smooth order of the growing Haramler (women’s quarters).

The Almeh was chosen for her skills as performer and teacher in the harem to extol virtue and initiate the women in fine manners, tasteful conduct and graceful demeanor. A person usually far more intelligent than the rest of the female community in the household, she held an exceptional place as the intermediary figure par excellence between the master of the house and the women’s quarters. Versed by experience and insight into human psychology she could instinctively detect the emotional intricacies and controversies going on in this small society, consisting exclusively of women and children. Quarrels occurred daily, provocated by envies, jealousies and secret ambitions to become the favourites of the Sultan. The Almeh was always alert to the situation and knew how to counsel those who aimed too high for their own good, and console the broken hearted who were rarely called to please their master. Knowledgeable in dance, song and poetry, she could find the right verse, the proper words, the coaxing tone to explain the meaning of inner beauty, patience and silent grace, which women had to emulate to attract the attention of their lord and master.

The Almeh was allowed to go in and out of the harem without needing permission; she was usually trusted by the women as a faithful emissary. Called to entertain the congregation of men during feasts where other women were banned, she became a consummate manipulator of gossip, which she knew how to turn into stories of love, hate, tears, laughter and mockery. She was the confidant of the master to whom she was totally committed, body and soul. Yet, being the prototype of a woman belonging to future generations, she felt free to betray him if she was bold enough to wish it, or felt the dire necessity to do so. She excelled as an entertainer, and possessed the talent of lending a compassionate ear to her master’s sorrowful complaints during his moments of distress. She soothed his spirit by singing and dancing; sprinkling rose water on his hands and face, then serving his meals in intimate silence. After midnight, she would softly tread out of the chambers to prepare the wife of her master’s desires and bring her to his bed as a perfect gift from heaven.

The Almeh was a personality, a performer, an artist, a mother, a politician, and a guru all in one. She planted the seeds that would help women eventually succeed in playing an increasingly prominent role in public affairs. She taught women to please, but also encouraged their personal growth, despite the suffocating atmosphere that prevailed in which the sole reason for women’s existence was to beget sons and surrender to the authority of one single man. The Almeh was a personage of great charm and powerful bearing, well liked and often feared; she coped intelligently with men and women with a talent and directness that to this day remain legendary in the annals of ancient Oriental culture.

She taught the women of the harem to dance and sing their womanhood, putting into their tender bodies a magical feeling that resulted from the expression of their passion with poetic movements and subtle modesty. She was a genius in the arts of “feeling” and measured the pleasures of life by reconciling indulgence to beauty, passion to wisdom, without tumbling the scales, without rupturing the harmony, without shattering the spell that binds heart and mind to the senses.

In time, the Almeh’s role was blurred by the drastic social changes and political alterations of power during the 18th century, and by the beginning of the 19th century she was relegated to posts like chief of the woman slaves personnel, or put to the service of one of the Sultan’s four legal wives.

When the harems were disbanded in 1923, the Awalem, as well as the other slaves, had to disperse, returning to their families or gaining their living as singers and dancers in public places. By then, the high status of the Almeh as a woman of knowledge had been entirely lost, and nothing remained of her once brilliant past.

In our modern times, amidst the noise and bustle of our hurrying anguish for survival at any cost, we would do well to stop a while and remember the Almeh of yonder epochs: to reinvent ways to honor and rejoice in our body, to reflect anew upon the sacredness of relationships, and to learn afresh how to grant a deeper value to our senses by caring for the virtues of love, beauty and art, in our lives as free women, wives, mothers, teachers and sublime creators of the daughters and sons of this fabulous planet called Earth.

Nelly Mazloum was a well-known dancer and actress during the forties, fifties and sixties in Cairo, during Egypt’s booming “Renaissance Period of the Arts.” She has researched the history of the Almeh, and starred in a movie entitled “The Almeh” in 1949. Ms. Mazloum now resides in Athens, Greece, and teaches in her school there and abroad.

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