“This western courtship is beginning to bore me!” – Harem (1986)

The other night I watched a mini-series from 1986 called Harem.

"The loss of innocence". I imagine their working title for that tagline was "The western hymen".


Now, I had no knowledge of this series prior to watching it, but honestly, any series from the 80s titled “Harem”? Is bound to be awesome, so I thought. And I was not disappointed. A fantastic blend of pulp fiction romance, cheesy orientalism, over-the-top lines, stereotypes, a selection of has-beens in supporting roles, and many, albeit prudishly subdued, references to sex, the series turned out to be guilty pleasure galore, not to mention startlingly close to being a perfect television adaptation of Several Daydreams I Had as a 12-Year-Old. Same plot and setting, same simplistic character depiction, same lack of details about anything remotely complicated or multifacetted. Just the way I like it.

In the story, we meet Jessica (Nancy Travis), a lively, yet somewhat naïve young lady in the beginning of the 20th century in England. Her father is English, but her late mother was American and we get more than a few hints that this accounts for Jessica’s liveliness, because every Englishman and -woman in this series sounds like a Victorian-era neurotic old school marm at a girls’ school. Including Jessica’s fiancé Charles, with whom she is nonetheless smitten when we first meet her. He’s a diplomat of sorts and as he has to go to Damascus on business for several months, she decides to go with him so that they may be wed in Syria instead of having to wait until he returns to tie the knot.

Once there, her lively willfulness moves her to go on an expedition to Palmyra, where I’ve totally been, too. Unlike me, however, she has scarcely arrived at the site before she is kidnapped by what appears to be a tribe of bedouins. One of them, Tarik Pasha (Art Malik), speaks English fluently, yet is dashingly handsome in that so-not-a-stiff-Englishman kind of way. This will be important later!

Jessica is sold off by the would-be bedouins to the harem of the Sultan of the Ottoman Kingdom, played by none other than Omar Sharif. Once there, Jessica finds that the harem is filled with erotically provocative young ladies, eunuch waiters, and the Sultan’s very, very evil wife, the Kadin (Ava Gardner) who has made it her life mission to be jealous of any woman her husband might desire, which is pretty stupid if you ask me, considering that she lives in her husband’s friggin’ harem. If it’s come to a point where your husband has established a whole institution of sexual slavery in order not to have sex with you, it’s probably best to just accept the facts and move on.

Apart from being apalled by the Kadin’s creative ways of secretly killing off her husband’s harem girls, Jessica takes the whole having-been-sold-as-a-sex-slave quite easily. But then that may be because she knows deep down that she hasn’t yet learned to enjoy her body and not be afraid of what happens between a man and a woman. Luckily, the Sultan’s old favourite mistress, Usta (Cherie Lunghi), is there to open her eyes to these things, and we are treated to a series of more than slightly homoerotic scenes in which Usta gives Jessica a massage or teaches her not to be ashamed of her own nakedness. Those Eastern women are so wise about these things. So in touch with their bodies.

By way of her American willfulness and intelligence, Jessica graudally becomes the Sultan’s favourite, even though she still won’t sleep with him, because she wants him to “court her in the western way” as opposed to the eastern way,  which essentially means to not be treated like a victim of trafficking, Jessica informs us. Around the same time, Jessica is reunited with sexy bedouin Tarik Pasha who turns out to be a revolutionary, fighting against the tyrannic sultanate. Will Jesscia join him? Or will she be reunited with Charles who is faithfully using his every diplomatic skill in order to retrieve her from the harem? Or will she cave in and have sensual, sensual sex with the sultan, western courtship be damned (“This western courtship is beginning to bore me!” as a lustful Sultan says in one scene)? Watch it yourselves to find out! I won’t spoil it for you.

Anyway, the introduction titles of the series are a pretty good indicator for the mood of the story:

At its peak, the Ottoman Empire stretched from Algeria to Arabia and into Europe. It was equal in power and size to the Roman Empire. When finally the strength of the empire began to falter and the Sultan’s authority challenged, there was much internal struggling plagued with violence and bloodshed.

It was also at this time that there were reports of foreign women being kidnapped and sold into the Sultan’s Harem. Suddenly forced into a kind of life and culture they never knew existed, their safety always in question – these western women were forced to live on eastern terms.”

I love that. It’s like they’re basically saying: “Back in history, a whole bunch of complicated politics and stuff went down. But we won’t bore you with that. Instead, here’s a story we made up based losely on research about sexy young sex slaves! Interracial sex slaves! Wooo!”

The trick is of course not to take any of this seriously. And as long as you don’t do that, it’s a delightful series, full of cheesy goodness, and an excellent guilty pleasure. Omar Sharif is wonderfully ham-like, Ava Gardner is deliciously over-dramatic. Art Malik is a generic, yet satisfying fairy tale prince, while Nancy Travis is probably the weakest link in the romance. Not quite wide-eyed enough to speak to my mothering instincts, and not quite willful enough to be feisty, she just ends up being kind of bland. And Cherie Lunghi reminds me an awful lot of Jane Seymour, but I guess that’s not a problem if you’re ok with Jane Seymour (but I am not).

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