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November-December 1861

From The Missouri Democrat, Thursday, November 7, 1861.

A Peep Into the Sheik’s Harem.

After a little mysterious whispering we were asked if we should like to visit “the house,” this being the only term by which it is permitted to allude to the female portion of the family. We gladly assented, though feeling a doubt as to the kind of interview we should have, our Arabic being limited to five words, and, of course these ladies speak no other language. At this moment two fine little boys ran into the court, sons of our host, about seven and four years old. They were splendidly dressed, and each had a superb aigrette of diamonds in his fez; and both had their eyes deeply stained with antimony. Our companions and all the other men now went away, and we were left alone with the Sheik, who, opening a door at the end of the court, introduced us into a room far more European in its furniture than any of the others. The floor was covered with a brightly colored velvet carpet; a four post bed, with muslin curtains, stood in one corner; and over an English fire-place was a looking-glass and several ornaments of bad French china. Indeed, there was nothing Eastern about the rooms but a long divan under the latticed windows. Two ladies now entered, evidently very nervous and frightened. The eldest, the Sheik’s wife, looked much older than her husband; she might have been fifty, from her appearance, but probably was not thirty, as women in the East age rapidly; the constant use of the hot bath, want of exercise, and the quantity of sweetmeats they eat, making them lose their teeth and their complexions quite young.

She was magnificently dressed in crimson brocaded satin, with a velvet jacket of the same color, covered with gold embroidery. It was very open in front, showing a chemisette, which, as well as the undersleeves, were of thin gauze, trimmed with gold lace; round her throat hung several gold chains, with medallions set with pearls, diamonds, emeralds, and other precious stones. Her features were still handsome, though strongly marked, the eyes much blackened with antimony; otherwise she was not painted, nor were her hands stained with henna. The younger lady, her daughter, was about fourteen. She had fine eyes and a gentle expression of countenance. Her dress was like her mother’s in shape, the petticoat only being of velvet brocade and the jacket green. Both ladies wore long violet gauze veils fastened to the head by beautiful diamond ornaments; the hair was cut square to the face, while a quantity of false hair hung behind in innumerable plaits, to which gold coins were fastened. A black woman now brought an unfortunate baby who had evidently been going through the misery of a toilette. The eyes were painted with antimony, while the tears caused by the operation had washed long streaks of black down its poor little checks. On its head it had three caps, the upper one being of velvet, perched quite on the top of its head, and ornamented with diamonds, But the grandeur seemed to be reserved for the higher regions, as its legs were rolled up in a sort of muslin rag. This baby belonged to the younger lady; we had seen it before for a moment, strapped into a most miserable cradle inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

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