The Steel Seraglio, penned by the immensely creative Carey family, is a work of historical fantasy inspired by the legend of Sitt al-Mulk. The daughter of an Egyptian Caliph and his concubine, this young woman rose to power during the 10th century, ultimately becoming an influential Fatimid ruler
The Careys do not, however, allow this to limit them. In their tightly-plotted and lyrically-written epic, not one, but three hundred and sixty-five women–concubines displaced from the palace harem during a coup–refuse to die in the desert, and instead forge themselves into a matriarchal utopia. Egalitarian and self-sustaining, this “City of Women” begins as a refugee camp in the desert mountains, but becomes a thriving centre of art and learning, where storytelling, crafts(wo)manship, and diplomacy form the backdrop of social life.
The myth of a matriarchal utopia has a long history. Rooted in the legends of ancient societies (most famously the peace-loving Minoans and the warlike Amazons) and elaborated by early anthropologists of tribal communities, the female-oriented society was spun by feminist writers of the later twentieth century into new galaxies, most notably by science fiction writers such as Margaret Atwood, Ursula le Guin, and Marge Piercy. The Steel Seraglio is forged out of this tradition: yet, is this vision not somewhat belated? In a world that has made apparent strides toward gender equality, yet remains stubbornly remote from any realization of the promised peaceful and holistic paradise, are we not past believing in utopias? How convincing is The Steel Seraglio in its presentation of a distinct society premised on a woman-centred community?
The first thing to note is that Seraglio is an extremely tightly-plotted novel, assuring watertight motivation behind the steps that the women take toward matriarchal living. The action is framed around, and springs from three military encounters, each of which entails a complex build-up of strategies and resources, innovation, and conflict. The first, a palace coup, launches the women into the desert and requires them to plot their own course to safety. The second–the recapture of their city–provides the necessity and the context for their evolution into a self-sustaining and close-knit community. The final military encounter–a siege that threatens the physical existence of the city–reveals to its inhabitants that what they have created is not an eternal, earthly paradise, and not only a temporary ideal, but, rather, a possibility: “It will fall, in the end, into that darkness, and all its works will turn to dust. It doesn’t matter a damn. It exists now, it will always have existed. It is enough.” The integration of inward, philosophical development with the military conflict and physical danger that the women face ensures that neither aspect becomes gratuitous, each contributing context and meaning to the other.
A further element of Seraglio that substantiates its claim for a feminist utopia is the voice–or, rather, the multitude of voices–in which it is written. Although the primary narrator is the seer Rem, Seraglio overflows with the voices and lives of its numerous cast: not only key players, such as the cattle thief and chief diplomat Anwar Das with his tall stories and countless alibis, but also walk-on parts like Rashad, the palace cook, whose commentary on the ascetic regime that sends the women into exile is seasoned with recipes that mirror the transition from opulence to austerity. This anecdotal, patchwork style not only brings the community vividly to life, but also establishes clear motivations for their contributions to, and support of the new, matriarchal system.
There is a further way in which the accumulation of these voices establishes the credentials of Seraglio as a feminist text. It is, after all, the excavation of the personal, the individual, and the contradictory that marks the “female” form of writing that critics such as Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray and Helene Cixous proposed in opposition to the traditional logos of patriarchy. L’ecriture féminine is characterized, like Seraglio, by the accretion of diffuse local stories, the layering of private voices, and the slow and messy evolution of the story in contrast to the pre-determined, logical framework or system. It is, furthermore, a phenomenon often associated with “body,” against the masculine “mind,” an opposition fundamental to European philosophy. In this respect also, the Seraglio provides a striking symbol of its use of the “feminine” mode in the figure of Rem, who writes the story of the Seraglio in ink distilled from her tears:
“Her second dubious gift, and the reason why she never cried in public. When she was younger, Rem had sometimes imagined herself as a scroll, with all her words securely wrapped inside her. They must be very sombre words, if they only escaped when she cried.”
The Steel Seraglio is not a work of feminist or utopian theory. Nor is it a historical fantasy, a romance, a thriller, a poem, an allegory, or an epic. Rather, somehow, it is all of these things, mixed with a handful of gnomic utterances, a generous splash of the comic, and permeated by a deep understanding of what it means to weave a fairytale through with vision, to tell stories as a way of making meaning and making change, and to let those stories hang and fall, drifting “like dust motes in the changeless light.”
Jessica Wright is an editor, translator and poet currently living in a small glass-making town in the West Midlands. Most recently, she has come runner-up in the James Kirkup Annual Memorial Poetry Competition, run by Red Squirrel Press. She also runs a weekly writing circle, and an online, occasional poetry co-composition group.