Showing posts with label Columbus. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Columbus. Show all posts

28 January 2016

What's a nice Jewish girl doing in the Sultan's harem?

It's not what you think!

When young marrano sailor Diego Mendoza boarded Admiral Columbus's flagship, I didn't know his voyage of discovery, which began on the very day the Jews were expelled from Spain, would lead me—and Diego's sister Rachel, a character who didn't even exist yet—to the harem of Sultan Bayezid II in Istanbul, at the heart of the Ottoman Empire.

Diego appeared inside my head in the middle of the night, as our best fictional creations do, and nagged me until I wrote "The Green Cross," a mystery short story set aboard the Santa Maria that was published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and nominated for an Agatha Award. One thing led to another . . .
In my novel, Voyage of Strangers, about Columbus's second voyage, I accounted for Diego's parents by saying they had fled to Firenze (Florence), whose de facto ruler, Lorenzo di Medici, was known for his tolerance toward the Jews. Rachel, who had remained in Spain, escaped the Inquisition by wangling her way onto the Admiral's ship and participating in the events of 1493 to 1495 in Hispaniola, which included the tragic destruction of the Taino people. At the end of Voyage, Diego, Rachel, and their friend Hutia, a Taino survivor, are sailing back to Europe to embark on a search for their family.

Once I started researching events after 1492, I realized that the Mendozas were in trouble, and so was I. We all had to be resilient if we wanted to survive. Here are some of the historical events that shaped my new novel, Journey of Strangers, (just out in e-book and paperback):

1492: Lorenzo di Medici died, making Firenze less of a haven for the Jews.
1493: 120,000 Spanish Jews fled to Portugal. Eight months after offering them refuge, the King of Portugal changed his mind. He abducted two thousand Jewish children, forcibly baptized them, and sent them as slaves to São Tomé, a pestilential island off the coast of West Africa.
1494: King Charles VIII of France invaded Italy, claiming the throne of Naples and occupying Firenze along the way. The Medici had to flee, and so did the Jews.

The harem! you say. What about the harem? I'm getting there . . . War-torn Italy and the pirate-infested Mediterranean were dangerous even to Christian townsmen, villagers, and travelers and even more so to the Jews, who tended to get scapegoated in any crisis. The Ottoman Empire offered a haven. Sultan Bayezid extended an invitation to Jewish merchants, scholars, artisans, and physicians, seeing them as potential assets to the Empire. And that's how so many Sephardic Jews ended up in Istanbul and other Ottoman cities.

By the time Rachel reaches Istanbul, she's added a wealth of remarkable experiences to her native charm and ingenuity. She wants a life that offers more than being married off to some nice Jewish boy, keeping his house, and bearing his children. For one thing, she's in love with Hutia, who plans to convert to Judaism so her parents will consent to their marriage. The rabbis may have something to say about that. In the meantime, Rachel learns, as I did, that the purveyors of goods and services to the women sequestered in the Sultan's harem were Jewish women known as kiras, a word derived from the Greek for "lady." The kiras were the harem's conduit of communication to and from the outside world. In the course of becoming a kira, Rachel gets to know the Sultan's women, the hatuns (Turkish for "lady"), and has some difficulty steering clear of their intrigues.

Let me tell you some things I bet you didn't know about the harem. I didn't either. I didn't come across Leslie P. Peirce's brilliant book, The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire, which is by far the best source of information on the Ottoman women, until later. So not all of these details appear in Journey of Strangers. Oops. I apologized in the Afterword.

• By the late 15th century, the Ottoman Sultans were not taking wives from neighboring Turkish princely houses but choosing slave women as their concubines and not marrying them. This freed them from the potential problem of ambitious in-laws. (Twenty years later, Suleiman the Magnificent broke tradition by marrying the concubine Hürrem, whom you may have heard of as Roxelana, but that was the exception. She'll appear in my next book.)

• A woman who bore the Sultan a son gained enormous prestige and position. As a young man, he would be given a province to govern. His mother went with him and in some cases played a role in the governing of the province. If her son became Sultan in turn, she won the jackpot of power, wealth, and influence. If he did not, he would probably be strangled or beheaded so the new Sultan would not have to worry about rivals, and his mother became a nobody.

• It was the custom for the Sultan to keep his current favorite as a bedmate only until she bore him one son. Then their sexual relationship ended. From then on, she was defined by her role of mother to a prince. (Again, Hürrem was the exception.) If she had a daughter and the Sultan still desired her, she could try again. Each mother conspiring on behalf of multiple sons would have created intrigues of intolerable complexity. So they weren't given the chance.

• The harem was not in any sense a bordello. It was the Sultan's household, his home, the quarters of the female members of his family according to Islamic law. Besides his concubines (past, present, and future), the harem included his daughters and sisters and their many attendants, as well as his mother. Each of them received a daily stipend. One source of Peirce's myth-busting scholarship was the harem's household accounts from the 16th century on.

I could go on. Did you know that not only the janissaries but also the viziers and other palace officials were all the Sultan's personal slaves? The Sultan would marry off his sisters and daughters to these high-ranking damads (slave sons-in-law) to ensure double loyalty. Hmm, this isn't really about sex at all, is it? Maybe the title should have been "How the Sultan made sure he didn't have any trouble with his in-laws."

Elizabeth Zelvin is a former SleuthSayer and author of the Bruce Kohler mystery series and the historical novels Voyage of Strangers and Journey of Strangers. Her short stories have appeared in EQMM and AHMM, been nominated for the Agatha and Derringer Awards, and listed in Best American Mystery Stories 2014. Her most recent releases are a new e-edition of the entire Bruce Kohler series and Breaches & Betrayals: Collected Stories. Liz is a New York psychotherapist who practices online, a poet, and a singer-songwriter whose album is titled Outrageous Older Woman. You can learn more at, friend her on Facebook at, and find her work on Amazon's Elizabeth Zelvin Page.

25 April 2014

Crime Cruise-Costa Rica

Harbor at Limon, tug ready to assist
During his fourth and final visit to the New World in 1502, Columbus discovered a land he named Costa Rica, meaning the rich coast. Unfortunately, there was no gold or treasure to be found here. The place he first anchored was an island near the future port of Limon, the Spanish word for lemon.

Costa Rica is a country where Central America narrows before joining the South America continent at the land bridge of Panama. It has coasts in two different oceans while its capital, San Jose, lies in the Central Valley between the two coasts.

Our boat dock in rain forest  for the Tortuguero Canal
The Tour

We docked on the Caribbean side in the harbor of Limon, but as we had been reminded by our guide, Costa Rica is a third world country and poverty is widespread in Central and South America. We saw no tourist resort areas and therefore assumed that today's rich coast was on the Pacific side of the country. Online tourist ads seem to favor that side.

Toucan eating a piece of fruit

Our first stop on the tour took us to the Tortuguero Canals, a series of natural and man made waterways which connect Barra de Colorado and Tortuguero with the port of Limon. Here, a short boat trip on the canal showed us some of the various wildlife native to the area, such as small caimans, sloths, a variety of birds and a lizard nicknamed the Jesus Lizard for his ability to run across short stretches of water on his hind legs without sinking. Naturally, the lizards we saw and photographed didn't perform for us. Must have been camera shy.

Bird walking on water lilies

Next came a short walk through a portion of the Veragua Rain Forest. We lucked out, it wasn't raining at that moment. At the end of the walk, we entered the Sloth Sanctuary, which raises seized and abandoned wild animals until they can be released back into nature. Underneath a large net dome, we found two types of sloths hanging in trees and on caretakers, two types of small monkeys running amok up and down vegetation, a very friendly Toucan who wanted a fruit snack and several turtles in ponds. Many of the caretakers were student volunteers from Germany, Austria and other countries.

taking a break from running amok
Back on the bus, we rode a few miles to a banana plantation and packing house. All the banana bunches still on the trees were wrapped in blue canvas bags to protect them from insects. When the bunches reach the right maturity, they are cut and tied onto a cable system which delivers them to the packing station. Here, the blue bags are removed, they get water baths in two different large tubs under an open air shed and are then graded and packed into cardboard boxes for shipping. We learned there are three upright stalks on a banana tree: the mature stalk with a bunch of bananas, the  shorter stalk that will bear bananas the following season and the just growing stalk replacing the mature one cut from the year before.

The Crime

Casinos are legal in Costa Rica and while there were no laws on the books about online gambling, U.S. and Canadian entrepreneurs started setting up and operating online sports books and poker rooms in this Central American country during the late twentieth century. Not having a physical location in the U.S. allowed them to evade U.S. gambling laws, and by keeping their accounts in other foreign countries, the online gambling sites also avoided paying taxes on their massive profits to Coasta Rica. Shortly afterwards, the U.S. government passed the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act of 1999, banning online sports books and poker rooms. Since these operations were based in Costa Rica, the online gambling entrepreneurs thought they were safe. Their business flourished into about 2006 when they soon found they had a problem whenever they arrived at an American airport during a money run or for other reasons. Arrests were made. Then, the FBI stepped up the pressure by coming to Costa Rica to make raids and arrests. These defendants were quickly extradited back to American soil on charges of money laundering and violations of the Wire Act. In 2006, President Bush signed an even more restrictive law, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act. However, it was the Black Friday Raids of 2011 that finally broke the back of the big online gambling organizations in Costa Rica.

To depict the heyday of this time period, Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake starred in a recent movie, Runner, Runner about the online poker rooms in Costa Rica. The movie showed scenes of the piles of money made by the entrepreneurs, violence between rivals, drug usage by those involved, their hedonistic life style and the coded software written by employees to cheat the online customers.

As a side note, one of my prior racquetball partners had a son who left a sports book in Vegas several years ago to work online gambling in Costa Rica. However, he was smart enough to get out of the business and out of that country before the Black Friday Raids.

Yep, we'd go back to Costa Rica, but I think we'll try the Pacific side next time.

See you in Jamaica in two weeks. That Jimmy Buffet's got some nice rum drinks there in his establishment, not to mention the one free Margarita for every customer.

30 January 2014

Review: Voyage of Strangers by Elizabeth Zelvin

It’s always nice to see writers try something new and different and out of their comfort zone. Elizabeth Zelvin, our Sleuthsayers colleague, has taken a big step away from her very New York detective Bruce Kohler and his friends in therapy and in recovery to tackle the lethal adventures and messy politics of Columbus’s New World voyages.
Most of us learned about Columbus from the famous rhyme and the annual school holiday. The rest of the curriculum on the Conquistadores focused on the clashes with the Aztecs and Mayans and on the destruction of the Inca Empire. But exploitation, pillage and genocide hit the New World earlier, with what became the disastrous landing of the famous flotilla on the Caribbean islands.

So devastating was the meeting between Europeans and the native Taino and Caribe, that very little of their culture now survives. Ironically, a voyage that set out to find the East Indies for trading purposes degenerated into a scramble for gold, and when that proved thin on the ground, for slaves.

Zelvin’s Voyage of Strangers finds a way into this now obscure episode via a character who is a stranger to both the Spanish crew and the natives they encounter. Diego, a teenaged sailor in the Admiral's fleet, has a big secret: he is an unconverted Jew and as such vulnerable to arrest and death at the hands of the Inquisition.

Zelvin says that Diego “came knocking on the inside of my head in the middle of the night, demanding that I tell his story.” The young sailor showed up originally for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine stories, but he hung around until she gave him a novel of his own. Voyage of Strangers begins with him covertly saying his prayers up in the crow’s nest of the Santa Maria, then returns him to the scarcely less dangerous Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella, where the Moors have recently been defeated and enslaved, and the Jews, the next target, forced to flee, convert or perish at the stake.

Diego is protected by Admiral Columbus, a friend of his father’s, and he hopes to make money in the New World, thus recouping his family’s lost fortune. For the moment, he puts aside some nagging worries about the treatment of Taino friends and focuses on getting his younger sister, Rachel, safely out of Seville and off to their parents living in exile in Florence.

This proves easier said than done. Diego is a paragon of an older brother, but Rachel, though charming in every way, is a handful. She’s sure that she can pass as Christian, having spent some time hiding in a convent; what’s worse is that she’s also sure she can pass as a boy, and she fully intends to accompany Diego on the Admiral’s next voyage.

The novel really is in two parts, the Spanish segment, involved with the preparations for the second and much larger expedition to the New World, the dangers of the Inquisition, and the difficulties of traveling safely with a lively girl of thirteen, and the sea voyage and the delights and terrors of the islands.

The island segment is more gripping and unusual. Zelvin, who has visited in the Caribbean and knows tropical climates well after a time in Côte d’Ivoire as a Peace Corps volunteer, does a good job of imagining the lush island with its spectacular hills and waterfalls, abundant food and generally easy living. Alas, the beauty of the island is soon tarnished by the demands of European military architecture and an obsessive pursuit of gold that eventually corrupts even Diego’s admired Admiral Columbus. For a time, however, the brother and sister enjoy the freedom of the forest and the friendship of the Taino, whose generous and easy going culture will prove no match for rapacious guests operating in a completely different economic system.

Voyage of Strangers is very good on the tragic clash of cultures that ensues. Diego, particularly, is almost preternaturally understanding and broad-minded, although his own experience as a hunted minority does give him an insight into the plight of the Taino.

The story of the young people and their adventures acts somewhat to ameliorate what is otherwise an unrelievedly grim account of the conquest of the Caribbean. Diego and Rachel and their Taino friend Hutia are good company. The island, at least initially, is an adventure playground, and the novel, as well as its quite modern characters, is both suitable and historically enlightening for teen as well as adult readers.