(Mis)Representation of Muslim Female Characters in Byron’s ‘Turkish Tales’

(Mis)Representation of Muslim Female Characters in Byron’s ‘Turkish Tales’

Asmat Jan

Lord Byron’s ‘Turkish Tales’ comprise The Giaour (1813), The Bride of Abydos (1813), The Corsair (1814), and The Siege of Corinth (1816). These works “stand out for their rich Oriental content and context, [and in] their cross-cultural empathy”. In them, one finds “positive Orientalism”, and hence they represent, in the lexis of Professor Abdur Raheem Kidwai, “‘the samples of finest Orientalism’” (for details, see my previous article, “Byron’s ‘Turkish Tales’ through the Prism of ‘Literary/ Romantic Orientalism’”, Kashmir Reader, June 1, 2020, p.4). The quality of Byron’s Orientalism comes out most sharply in his portrayal of oriental characters. In this article I will present an assessment of the description and (mis) representation of Muslim female characters (like Leila, Zuleika, Gulnare, etc.) vis-à-vis Romantic Orientalism in Byron’s Turkish Tales, with a focus on how far Byron’s oriental characters conform to their stereotypes in English literature and what image of the orient they represent.
In The Giaour (1813)—the word ‘Giaour’ is derived from the Turkish ‘Gavur’ literally meaning ‘infidel’ or ‘non-believer’ (similar to Arabic word Kafir)—the main characters are Hassan and Giaour. Throughout this poem, the figure of Leila is drawn with the help of similitudes; concrete, physical details about her are conspicuous by their absence. We get her sketch only as viewed by others, as diverse as her lover, Giaour, who idealises her beauty and the Muslim fisherman who abhors her for her defiance of the socio-religious and moral code.
Though she prompts all the action in the poem, being at the centre of a fatal confrontation between two men, the Giaour and Hassan, she takes hardly any part in the actual events. Since both men want to possess her exclusively, she is dependent on others for her existence and description. As an abstraction of ideal beauty, however, she maintains her ethereal presence throughout the poem, and in keeping with this aura is portrayed mostly in non-human terms.
The Giaour depicts Leila in similitudes of ‘light’ and ‘star’; she is ‘The Morning-star of Memory!’ (1130), and ‘a form of life and light’ (1127); and the kind of love Leila inspires is depicted by Byron as:

is light from heaven—A
spark of that immortal fire
With angels shar’d—by Alla given.
To lift from earth our low desire (1130-34)

For Prof Kidwai, what is more striking in the above passage is the emphasis on the “spiritual and the divine, accentuated by the reference to ‘Alla’—the oriental expression for God, to the exclusion of physical details”. Other aspects of Leila’s idealised beauty and her non-human account are brought into play most vividly in the following passage, which is characterised by a preponderance of Oriental images:

Her eye’s dark charm ‘twere vain to tell,
But gaze on that of the Gazelle,
It will assist thy fancy well.
As large, as languishingly dark.
But Soul beam’d forth in every spark
That darted from beneath the lid.
Bright as the jewel of Giamschid, […]
On her might Muftis gaze, and own
That through her eye the Immortal
shone (473-79 and 491-92).

The Oriental similitude of the jewel of Giamschid brings into play an abstract feature of her beauty, the inward light and brightness. “Leila’s being is of a kind that makes even such men discover in her the signs of ‘the Immortal’. Leila’s purity, innocence and rich associations with Paradise are emphasised throughout the poem,” Prof Kidwai writes.
Byron’s repeated representation of Leila in terms of soul seeks to refute the popular Western misconception that Islam denies the soul to women. More importantly, the passage contains Oriental terms such as ‘Al-Sirat’s arch’, ‘Houris’ and ‘Alla’, which are specific to the Islamic conception of paradise. Not only is Leila, as Jerome J. McGann notes, “deliberately associate with the natural paradise of the landscape”, she is closely identified with the Muslim paradise as well.
In sum, Leila is described, as Kidwai puts it, in “authentic Oriental terms of reference”; she is “subject to tyranny, total segregation, and subjugation, and deprived of personal and sexual freedom”. She is “greeted not only with death but also with blame and condemnation”; and she “does not enjoy even basic freedom and is treated more as an object rather than a person, over which two males—both the oriental Hassan and western Giaour relentlessly fight”. Given this context, it is worthy to quote Marilyn Buttler: “Leila’s tragedy provides the human context against which the claims of the great religions are seen and it is notable that neither religion has a space for her, in this world or the next”.
Unlike the ethereal Leila in the Giaour, Zuleika is at the centre of attention in The Bride of Abydos—another oriental poem by Byron which is considered to be one of his ‘heroic poems’. Most of the similitudes employed in The Bride concern Zuleika, who shares many features of Leila. Zuleika too is an “abstraction of idealised beauty”; as she is referred to more than once as ‘Perl’ [Paree] (I: 151 and II: 85), the Oriental word for a fairy. She personifies, in an abstract fashion, ‘Beauty’, ‘Bashfulness’, and ‘Pity’ (I: 226-29). Again like Leila, she is represented repeatedly through the image of light—‘spark of Beauty’s heavenly ray’ (I: 171), ‘the light of love’ and an ‘eye [that] was in itself a Soul!’ (I: 181). Zuleika’s association with paradise is stressed throughout the poem, making her appear all the more innocent and pure.
Most importantly, Zuleika is thoroughly oriental. The first reference is made to the paradise-like life she leads in the company of Selim, before the story unfolds itself. This account is loaded with Oriental images which reinforce the local colour:

We to the cypress groves had flown
And made earth, main, and heaven our own!
There lingered we, beguiled too long
With Mejnoun’s tale, or Sadi’s song (I: 69-72).

Oriental motifs figure constantly in the poem, especially in the opening part. The ‘gardens of Gul’ (I, 8), ‘citron and olive’ (I, 9), ‘the voice of the nightingale’ (I, 10) and ‘the roses’ (I, 14) heighten the serene, romantic setting and contrast starkly with ‘the spirit of man’ (I, 15).
Unlike Leila, Zuleika does not, however, have merely a nominal role in the action. But mostly she remains an object of masculine dispute, between her father Giaffir and Selim, and contains a range of distinctly Oriental similitudes. Selim’s account that Zuleika is the quintessence of religious values and child-like innocence is underlined by the following oriental similitudes:

Blest—as the Muezzin’s strain from Mecca’s wall
To pilgrims pure and prostrate at his call;
Soft—as the melody of youthful days.
That steals the trembling tear of speechless praise;
Dear—as his native song to Exile’s ears (II, 402-06).

The use of precise oriental terminology—‘the Muezzin’s strain’, ‘Mecca’s wall’, ‘pilgrims pure and prostrate’, and ‘the call’—helps to locate Zuleika in a particular “Islamic religio-cultural context”. In sum, in portraying Zuleika, Byron attempts to grapple with a whole range of issues and concerns, all related to oriental characterisation.
In The Corsair (a tale in verse by Byron narrating the story of Corsair Conrad), unlike the above two tales, Byron’s Oriental diction and the incidence of Oriental similes decreases gradually. An illustration of this is found in the way he portrays Gulnare—the heroine of The Corsair. She shares some traits of Leila and Zuleika, in that passing reference is made to her ‘heavenly face’ (II, 397) and ‘white arm’ holding ‘a lamp’ (II, 398), which “evoke associations of purity, innocence and paradise, the passage describing her form conspicuously lacks Oriental images”. This is depicted in these lines:

Rather, she is sketched in general terras;
That form, with eye so dark, and cheek so fair;
And auburn waves of gemmed and braided hair;
With shape of fairy lightness—naked foot,
That shines like snow, and falls on earth
so mute (II, 402-05)

In terms of the conception of woman, Byron’s Gulnare is a problematic figure, whose actions do not conform to traditional roles. Gulnare, however, “rejects”, as Caroline Franklin writes, “both Eastern patriarchal oppression of women and the Western notion of wifely domesticity”. She represents the “rebellious woman who flees the domestic scene by a violent rebellion”. On depiction of Gulnare’s ‘unveiled, blood-stained face’, Mohja Kahf (in Western Representations of the Muslim Woman) comments: “Gulnare’s spot of blood clouds her feminine translucence, momentarily gives her the dimensionality and complexity lacking in Romantic females. … Gulnare is a troubling spot of complexity and opacity amid the central Romantic Representations of Oriental woman”.
The Siege of Corinth is a rhymed, tragic narrative poem by Byron. This poem, initially, evokes the “stereotype of conventional literary orientalism” that depicts “the total rout and ignoble defeat inflicted by Christians on Muslims”. In this Tale, Byron is “simply not interested in linking his oriental characters to polemical concerns”. Though The Siege is deficient in depiction of Oriental images, however, an Oriental image is used to accentuate the atmosphere of the impending war in the following lines:

As rose the Muezzin’s voice in air
In midnight call to wonted prayer;
It rose; that chaunted mournful strain,
Like some lone Spirit’s o’er the plain:
‘Twas musical, but sadly sweet (221-25)

In the opinion of Seniha Gülderen-Krasniqi & Salih Okumuş (University of Prishtina, Kosovo) Byron’s Turkish Tales “brought different novelty from the western world. Some depicted as rebellious heroes as Byron himself, some the mysterious environment, some the customs, some the women’s rights, some love and some ethics, but all in all they depicted Orientalism. The choice of subject and dominant Oriental content in Tales fortifies Byron’s admiration of this region”. His motto was to “stick to the East” as “the public was Orientalising”.
Keeping in view the overall depiction and description of Muslim female characters in Byron’s Turkish Tales, it is apt to conclude with these lines of Seniha Gülderen-Krasniqi & Salih Okumuş’: Byron’s Turkish Tales are “written with orientalist perspective and carrying traces of Eastern civilisation arouse curiosity of the English reader. The genuineness of Turkish Tales and attraction of the reader comes from brilliant colours, passions and settings he candidly transmitted to his reader based on what he has seen and experienced”.

*The writer studied English Literature at Islamic University of Science & Technology (IUST), Awantipora, where her Master’s Dissertation was on “Romantic Orientalism: A Study of Lord Byron’s ‘Turkish Tales’”. asmatayoub@gmail.com

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