Sweet! Never was there a confection more sugar saturated nor so gluey gummy. Chocolate perfume it has been called, and not by way of any compliment. This small square of chocolate coated scented jelly is remembered in the mind’s eye in ways that far transcend anything to do with its taste. It is not its distinctive place on shop counter displays among the veritable cornucopia of different brands available to tempt a nation’s sweet tooth that whets the sense of nostalgia. It is not the incomparable taste, definitely not – did anyone ever eat a second bar? No, Fry’s Turkish Delight lives in the memory of generations for the advertising slogan it generated that still trips faultlessly off the tongue: ‘full of eastern promise’!

To those of a certain age the mere mention of Fry’s Turkish Delight comes with wafts of haunting music that conjure images of desert dunes, sheikhs and obligatory diaphanously clad maidens. However it was that Fry’s arrived at the recipe for their inimitable chocolate bar, their advertising department most certainly imbibed the entire history of Orientalist phantasmagoria and indelibly imprinted all its jumbled ambiguities into the consciousness of new generations.

This was and is no innocent confection. The eastern promise that fills this Turkish Delight may appear located among sand dunes or palm fringed oasis but truthfully its delights can all be traced to the Grand Saray of Istanbul. The Topkapi Palace, Topkapisaray, founded in 1465 as the primary residence for the Ottoman sultans has garnered, re-inscribed and became a generic hub for the ongoing legacy of Europe’s Orientalist imagination. The Topkapi stands on Seraglio Point, and one might say that is precisely the point. The term seraglio is a complex of ideas that sprawls more expansively and resonates more evocatively than the reality of any piece of earth. Fry’s slogan and adverts exploit the sprawling complex of ideas associated within the bounds of Seraglio Point.

What is advertising if not the condensation of cultural literacy, the semiotic art form par excellence? Advertising relies upon signs, symbols and the ideas they generate, ideas so embedded in common acceptance, so well-known they are instantly recognisable, instantly available to communicate just the meaning the company wishes to convey, just the stimulation needed to make a product distinctive and desirable. Not just a chocolate bar, Fry’s Turkish Delight is an exotic indulgence because it stimulates an allure that has titillated European curiosity down the centuries. The advertising explains why it is both Turkish and a delight. If the imagery seems to travel far from the reality of Istanbul, the city by the sea, the connections are taken as read and understood.

Fry’s chocolate coated bar is far removed from rahat lokum, the classic Turkish confection that is a gel of sugar and starch flavoured with rose water, mastic, Bergamot orange, lemon, cinnamon or mint and encasing chopped dates or pistachio or other nuts. Its name derives from the Arabic rahat al hulkum, meaning throat comfort. The sweet itself is said to have been invented by one Bekir Effendi who set up shop in Istanbul in 1777 and became confectioner to the Sultan. He became the eponymous founder of Haci Bekir, the company which still operates in Istanbul producing the sweets.

In contrast, Fry’s Turkish Delight could be described as the outcome of some loose mistaken association with the actual original product. Something similar but much older applies to the imagery used in the adverts that popularised the British confection. In Harems of the Mind, Ruth Bernard Yeazell argues that the Turco-Persian word for palace, saray was mistakenly associated with the Italian word serrare, meaning to lock up or enclose. It was used to signify the women’s apartments within the Grand Saray, the locus of the harem a place closed to and guarded from prying eyes. The Italian word generated the English ‘seraglio’ and the French ‘serail’ and all came to mean not merely buildings that housed women but a nexus of social customs concerning Muslim gender relations and ultimately the women themselves. Yeazell’ makes it abundantly clear how seraglios have fascinated, indeed obsessed the European mind and has become central to conceptions of the generic condition of that most mysterious of all creatures – Muslim womanhood.

Fry’s adverts toyed with all aspects of the inheritance of the Orientalist imagination. In the 1960s the ad was set in a desert oasis. A woman dressed in the regulation outfit associated with belly dancers and inmates of the seraglio, harem pants and top with a long diaphanous veil attached to her headdress, emerges from a tent and grasps a tray opulently overflowing with jewels upon which sits a bar of Turkish Delight in its distinctive wrapping. Furtively she runs through the camp nervously looking over her shoulder as she searches out her objective: the suitably luxurious tent of an appropriately turbaned and robed sheikh to deliver this exotic offering. Is this woman fearful of prying eyes seeing what should be hidden from all except her master? Does she carry off illicit riches to pleasure her master as the voiceover states – ‘exotic, delicious; full of eastern promise’?

Just a moment. This is all a little confusing. Who exactly is the target market here? Are men such notorious consumers of scented chocolate that straightforward titillation is sufficient lure to sell this product? Or is the more embedded message that the frisson of being a sex slave, of serving the pleasure of a potent powerful man is every woman’s heart’s desire? Answers within the foil wrapper no doubt.

By the 1970’s the advert had morphed. In this incarnation a woman sits within her tent. She is clad in black, lightweight Muslim cloth draped decorously over body and head. Enigmatically her ringed fingers lift a chocolate morsel to her lips. This woman actually eats a Fry’s Turkish Delight as, we are told, ‘a rich red secret, a rare eastern essence.’ Outside the tent two men fight, an exaggerated balletic wrestling match. The winner, golden and glistening, emerges from the contest and makes his way to the woman’s tent where she opens an opulent casket to reveal ‘a long luxurious taste of the east’ in the shape of a Turkish Delight which is of course ‘full of eastern promise.’

The 70s may have been wordier but let us stop and reconsider. This may have been the era of women’s lib and true the woman gets to eat the confection but, thereby, is she ingesting and thus becoming the essence of eastern promise? In which case has she been empowered to consume herself in seclusion while awaiting the fulfilment of the arrival of a hero worthy of her allure? I hardly think Germaine Greer would approve.

By the 1980s we have reached an even lusher embodiment of the desert setting. The sinuous sensuality of idealised sand dunes transform into a women with exotic hair and characteristic diaphanous attire who, to the haunting refrain of musical accompaniment, sheds a single silent tear. Bounding though the sand dunes comes the very embodiment of an ardent sheikh. He caresses a mound of sand which morphs into another woman again suitably attired. He bends to share his breath with what appears to be a third woman. Cut to something nestled in silk. Is this object nestled in the sensuous curves of a woman’s silk clad thigh or resting on a silken handkerchief strewn on the desert? The man reaches to grasp the Fry’s Turkish Delight from its purple silken resting place, whatever that be. A snake slithers across the sand towards the man. The sheikh raises a silver scimitar and strikes. We see a Fry’s Turkish Delight cleaved to reveal its rich red interior. The only words, spoken in the drippling dulcet tones of voice-over actors Anthony Valentine or John Carson – voices of liquid opulence, or money, as they were known – tell us the scene is ‘full of eastern promise.’

So let me try to get this clear in my mind. Women are the very essence of the desert? Sensual indeed but barren and neglected until awoken by the caress of a man? How post women’s lib is that? And what’s with the snake, or should that be serpent – the enduring symbol of temptation – and what is all that sword play suggesting? Well, modesty forefends that I suggest the associations of the sudden thrust that reveals ‘the rich red secret’ within so full of eastern promise.

The Orientalist lexicon begins with the seminal idea of sexual licence and libidinous behaviour as an essential characteristic of Muslim religion and society. The tortured denial of sensual temporal pleasures was inherent in Western Christian thought from its inception. Little wonder then that the Fathers of the Church who vaunted the moral superiority of celibacy allowing the rest of fallen sinful humanity only the monogamous procreative indulgence of marriage recoiled at reports of the multiply married Prophet Muhammad and the supposed Qur’anic permission for Muslims to take up to four wives. The inversion of Christian norms is prominent in the account of John of Damascus (c. 676–749 or 54 AD), the Christian saint brought up at the heart of Umayyad administration in the time of Yazid I. Last of the Church Fathers St John of Damascus’ work, Concerning Heresy, canonical for both the Roman and Eastern Orthodox churches, saw Islam as Christological heresy, number 101 of that ilk by his tally.

Prurient obsession with sexual arrangements may be foundational to Western interest in Muslim society but its encapsulation in the harem and the idea of the seraglio gathers force from growing interest in the inner life of the Ottoman Empire. The growing power of the Ottomans and their threatening encroachment on Europe was a pressing ‘terror of the world’ in the words of the English statesman and philosopher scientist Francis Bacon (1561–1626). This father of empiricism expressed the common dread of the Ottomans which reached its high watermark in 1529 when the forces of Suleiman the Magnificent reached the gates of Vienna. Fear demonised but by the time another Ottoman surge was defeated at the Battle of Vienna in 1683 the balance of power had decisively shifted. The global expansion of European interests in this period was accompanied by the perception of the waning power of the east. The Ottomans along with other eastern potentates were seen as stultified in superstition hidebound by tradition, slaves to their past while the West embodied the march of progress. Curiosity, the urge to know and understand the quaint and exotic differences that characterised the rich lands of the Orient Europe desired and sought to dominate and control came to the fore as erstwhile fear was transmuted into recoils of horror at the barbarism, despotism and violence the east could visit upon itself.

In medieval times the east had been the subject of Books of Wonder, a far distant place of marvels. This was an especially potent idea derived from centrality of the Holy Land in Western consciousness. The land where miracles had happened was the gateway that influenced all ideas of what existed in the unknown fabled east. By the late seventeenth century the east was visited and reported in increasing numbers of traveller’s tales that sought to demystify the little known inner life of the region and peoples with their eye witness accounts. In 1678 the French traveller Jean Baptiste Tavernier published his Nouvelle Relation offering a detailed portrait of the seat of Ottoman power located in the Grand Saray of Istanbul. He observed: ‘I am writing a chapter on the women’s quarters only to persuade the reader of the impossibility of really knowing them.’ As Ruth Bernard Yeazell notes, ‘if distant places and peoples have always tempted human beings to fantastic projections of their own wishes and fears, then the blank space of the harem, sealed by definition from the eyes of Western men, only magnified the temptation.’ Of the secrets of the harem Tavernier could only say: ‘Unless one wishes to compose a fiction it is difficult to talk about them.’ And of course he was right, that’s exactly what everyone did.

The seraglio/harem entered the annals of Western culture as ethnography and essential topic that had to be included in poetry, plays, operas, visual arts and pornography. The haremlik within the Topkapi was reputedly home to some 400 women. When contact with reality was precluded the identity, life and status of these ‘birds in gilded cages’ had to be constructed on their behalf. What could not be known could be embroidered effortlessly with evocative details borrowed from the Arabian Nights. Antoine Galland, the first to translate the Arabic tales of Thousand and One Nights for European readers, became secretary to the French Ambassador in Istanbul in 1670. His 12 volume French version Les mille et une nuits published from 1704 through 1717 was swiftly retranslated into various European languages and quickly established itself as a most serviceable utility for the fictions of the Western imagination. So central was Ottoman power to the control of Muslim lands most proximate and known to Europe that the interest in and cluster of ideas gathered around the Grand Seraglio became the basis for all understanding of the customary practice and mores of Muslim life everywhere. Old ideas found new outlets in the profusion of diverse and divergent interpretations each of which, no matter how much a figment of the imagination vied to claim learned authority. Footnoted poems and plays citing scholarly sources as warrant for their elaborate detail were common. In the profusion of representations all the confusion of licentious abandon, allure, sexual indulgence jostled with sex slavery, intrigue, jealousy and despotic domination with overtones of barbaric brutality in the frustrated desire that festered in the European imagination.

There is no single consensual narrative of Orientalism. A welter of ideas twist, turn and morph into contradictory formulations. True the confusion of ideas are always compliant to the control and desire of Western observation but that does not mean a coherent monolith of detail. The fascination with Muslim womanhood is consistent as in many ways is what its portrayal represents yet the representations of different eras can be diametrically opposite. In medieval European chanson de geste literature set in the context of the Crusades, for example, Muslim women far from being submissive alluring coquettes were usually portrayed as sharp tongued termagants, shrews who gave their enfeebled men folk no end of grief for their lack of resolve and success. These women were inversions of ideal European moral tropes and the best thing for them was to be carried off by Christian knights, married, converted and thus acquire the silent invisibility appropriate to proper womanhood – which was their formulaic fate in the chanson genre.

When the Ottoman seraglio became the type site of Western interest the exotic, opulent abundance of male opportunity, wives and concubines galore, fed the imagination with a different kind of inversion of moral norms. Behind the veil of seclusion which so effectively excluded direct access therefore must be contained the protean sexual potency of Muslim women, a force that must be controlled, dominated, and made submissive to male power. What could modesty have to do with it?

When European women became travellers in eastern lands they could legitimately lay claim to access to the seraglio impossible for their male counterparts. However, superior opportunity did not bring a coherent alternative portrait. Indeed, many women writers merely sought to demystify the harem by explaining the comforts and little freedoms that came with confinement and a life of lassitude within the walls of constraint. The contrary mode emphasised by other women writers portrayed the demeaning condition akin to slavery that trapped even free inhabitants of the harem. It was an expression of indignation that did no more than rearrange the priority of element in the extant conventions of description.

What best defines Orientalism is not so much its monolithic consensus but the confusion of its tropes and the facility it affords for infinite variety deployed to the same end. The confusion can endlessly be rearranged to support the thesis of the incomprehensibility of the Other based on whichever inversion of Western norms and expectations best fit the argument being made. Difference is the key and necessitate that ‘them’ are separated from ‘us’. Only by acquiring and becoming like ‘us’ can the Other ever truly be known – which is as much the philosophy of modern development programmes as the moral of medieval chanson literature. Plus ça change…

The Orient that is the Muslim World has been dreamed and imagined so often with such consistent themes that their inherent confusion is the accepted norm. What its variant representations are telling Western audiences are reflections not of a reality that is ‘out there’ but the character of their own cultural imagination. Nothing better exemplifies the longevity of the old and familiar of Western imagining than their recycling in Fry’s ads for Turkish Delight. All the exoticism and allure is the fulfilment not of eastern promise but Western desiring. As with so many previous incarnations of Orientalist lore the model for Fry’s ad was nothing real and distant but cinema’s most famous exploitation of the east. The adverts visually reference and draw on the cultural memory of The Shiekh, the 1921 film that made Rudolf Valentino a global megastar of the silent screen.

The drama of the The Shiekh is set in train when an adventurous female traveller, Lady Diana, determines to learn for herself about the ‘ancient custom’ of a strange land that has ‘a marriage market where wives are bought by wealthy men.’ To gain access to what ‘is closed to all except Arabs’ she steals the costume of a dancing girl and enters a ‘casino’ where ‘Brides are won on the turn of the wheel.’ Inevitably Lady Diana lands in trouble, carried off in the teeth of a sandstorm to his opulent desert tent by Sheikh Ahmed Ben Hassan, played by Rudolph Valentino, who asserts: ‘when an Arab sees a woman he wants he takes her’.

Lady Diana, resists the brooding passionate attentions even of Valentino and attempts suicide rather than submit. When the Sheikh is reproached for his lamentable want of etiquette Lady Diana is to be returned to home and family only for her to be kidnapped again, this time by a villainous sheikh, Omair [sic] and his ‘barbarous’ bandits. At which point Valentino’s Sheikh rescues the damsel in distress which should be cue for a romantic climax. The trouble was in 1921 miscegenation, romantic let alone sexual relations across racial lines was strictly forbidden in Hollywood lest it outrage the sensibilities of segregationist American audiences. On the other hand, the film makers could not permit all the pulsating sexual tensions aroused by Valentino, once called ‘catnip for women’, to be wasted and thus disappoint the hordes of swooning ladies he was drawing to cinemas. The film became the first to use the ingenious device that exposes the true nature of the Orientalist project. At the eleventh hour Sheikh Ahmed Ben Hassan is revealed to be Viscount Caryll, Earl of Glencaryll, a true Englishman orphaned and raised in the desert by a friendly sheikh, educated in Paris before returning to the desert to succeed his foster father. All dreams of Orient begin and when necessitated by circumstance end at home ever serviceable to the needs and exigencies of Western desire and determination. What should an Englishman be but the most desirable of desert sheikhs? What more fitting outcome for a venturesome English Lady than to be wooed by an English earl? Western wish fulfilment is the metier of the Western imagination, a fictive environment more closed, confined and enduring than ever was harem or seraglio that might ever have existed in any real time or place.

Fry’s Turkish Delight is anything but Turkish. It is an appropriation, over sweet, cloying designed to adhere, possibly immovably to the interior of eager consumers. Overladen with the narcotic power of that devil’s juice, sugar, the product so basic to the expansive project of Western empire and its overwriting and reimagining of distant lands. The problem – for problem it surely is – is that like sugar on teeth enamel the legacy of Orientalist imagination is so long lasting in its effects that it corrodes the contemporary ability to hold informed dialogues, indeed polylogues of mutual respect and understanding. The noise of errant old familiar fictive ideas construct false baselines for debate. Muslim women, Muslims in general, find themselves faced with the need to answer for and against things that never were nor ever took the form, scale and meaning ascribed them. The detritus of old imaginings resists revisionary learning – myth and legend remain more companionable. The urgent needs of an all too real world smothered in a chocolate coating that is not sweet and has no promise eastern or otherwise.

I am forever glad that I don’t eat chocolate or sweets.

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