In Middle Eastern lore, the harem was a secluded and sacred place where female members of a royal household, including concubines, resided in complete privacy in the lap of luxury.
Long associated with the Ottoman Empire, which collapsed in 1918, the harem was invariably associated with secrecy, intrigue, sex, slavery and decadence.
David Rabinovitch, a Canadian filmmaker based in the United States, was so intrigued by the harem, taken from the Arabic word haram (forbidden), that he has made a two-part docudrama about it.
Hidden World of the Harem, filmed in Turkey, will be broadcast by Vision TV on Feb. 29 at 10 p.m.
Turning on the world’s greatest Islamic empire, Harem is about two royal Muslim women in a seraglio who defy convention and custom in a bid for personal fulfilment.
The first woman, Princess Hatice, seeks to emancipate herself after her father, Prince Murad, is deposed as sultan in 1876 after only 93 days as sultan.
The second woman, Halide Edib, dedicates herself to women’s rights and becomes a champion of Turkish nationhood after the Ottoman Empire crumbles.
“The film is entirely factual,” said Rabinovitch, who launched his career at CBC Radio in Toronto when he was still a teenager and who later produced the popular TV series Take 30, with Adrienne Clarkson. “The characters, the scenes and the dialogue are all inspired by memoirs, documents and contemporary accounts.”
He added, “We researched the locations where the events of the story take place and interviewed descendants. Istanbul is an exotic location, and I had long wanted to make a film there.”
In developing the script, he and his daughter, Zara, benefited from the insights of scholars in Turkey and North America.
Rabinovitch’s interest in “hidden histories” led him to this topic.
“My previous mini-series, Secret Files of the Inquisition, was based on original research into church archives,” said Rabinovitch, who lives in Seattle but whose production company is in Winnipeg.
Adapted from previously unreleased documents, Secret Files of the Inquisition told the story of the Catholic Church’s struggle to remain the world’s only true Christian faith.
In his current project, Rabinovitch seeks to give names, faces and emotions to the women in the imperial Ottoman harem.
He was fortunate to find the palaces, villas and city angles necessary to recreate 19th-century Istanbul.
“That’s not an easy thing to do in a 21st-century megalopolis of 16 million,” said Rabinovitch, whose previous films run the gamut from The Perilous Fight: America’s World War II to Hollywood Babylon. “Every location is authentic.”
He and his Canadian crew worked harmoniously with a Turkish cast and crew, and Rabinovitch was thrilled to hire Turkish star Pelin Batu for the role of Halide Edip.
“I hope the film will speak on many levels,” he said. “It’s the story of strong women living inside the harem system and rebelling against it. It’s a parable of a democratic leader kept under house arrest for decades. It’s the juicy story of sexual empowerment and emancipation.
“It ends with the birth of the first secular democracy in the Islamic world, so it resonates with current events in countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, where the people are trying to create democracies.”
In short, Harem is a parable of sorts about our own times.