Leyla: The Black Tulip

Author: Alev Lytle Croutier

Illustrator: Kazuhiko Sano

Publishing Year: 2003

Setting:  Istanbul, 1720


Leyla's father, once an accomplished artist who painted icons for the nearby Orthodox churches despite his Muslim faith, left to fight against the Ottoman Empire when it laid claim to the little country of Georgia. Russia declined to send reinforcements. The Turks won, and Georgia was absorbed into the Ottoman Empire. Georgian soldiers were free to return home, but Leyla's father never did. Months have passed with no word, and though Leyla and her older brother Cengiz work hard to raise tulips and vegetables (they can sell both, and of course eat the vegetables) while their mother is busy caring for the baby twin boys, but money is running out. One neighbor sees the tulip field, and comments that some varieties of tulip are very valuable, the most being the nigh unattainable black tulip. As another winter without Leyla's father draws near, some soldiers from Istanbul offer Leyla's mother a large sum of money...in exchange for Leyla coming with them to Istanbul to be part of the sultan's harem. Leya's mother refuses, but Leyla privately goes to the soldiers later, and sells herself. She takes some tulip bulbs with her

Soon she's on a ship. The soldiers announce that anyone misbehaving will be thrown overboard. No one else from her village is on board, but Leyla bonds with Lena, a five-year-old. She laments to some other girls that Lena's practically a baby, and already being given in marriage. An older girls retorts that they're being sold as slaves--no need to worry about a girl so young being married to some stranger. Reflecting on her treatment so far--being shoved below-decks in a crowded storage hold, having her mouth pried open so her teeth can be examined--Leyla surmises she must be right. She's been treated like an animal. When they reach port, an older woman trains them to be graceful, and a few days later the girls start being sold. One man approaches Leyla and tells her that he works for a man who wants to end slavery. He gives her a gold coin, telling her to keep it safe and it will bring her luck. Though confused by his cryptic speech about monarchs and maps and the breadth of the world, Leyla thanks him and gives him a tulip bulb. Lena ends up sold to someone, but for two days no one purchases Leyla. When she learns that a worse fate awaits her if no one buys her (she could be crippled or blinded and made to work as a beggar), she makes an effort to act demurely to the customers.

Soon, she has been sold, and is assigned to work with the Mistress of Flowers, a mute woman who acts as her owner's master gardener, to tend the tulips and other flowers. She and the other girls there work hard, but it's not grueling as Leyla feared it might be. Leyla finds a friend in Belkis, another girl from Georgia there who's been in training longer. She also starts more intensive training in harem life, during which she learns not to speak of the artistic ability she inherited from her father: according to the interpretation of the Koran in Istanbul, only Allah can make art with people, animals, and plants (Leyla's father reasoned that it was a sin to not use one's talents, and he never minded painting Christian icons because he viewed one's religion as a personal matter). Belkis tells Leyla the ins and outs of harem life: the trainees are competing for a spot in the harem, and within the harem itself women compete to become the favorites of their "husband"/owner and to bear children. Despite the competitive nature of the training, many girls, Leyla included, come to view the others as sisters. Though Leyla misses her family, she's glad to have found others to call family. And when secretly watching an event of the royal family, Leyla realizes that Lena has been given to one of the princesses, Fatma, as something between a plaything and a child. Lena's okay, and nearby!

Leyla has another chance to see Lena when the Padishah who owns the harem has a sort of party for the girls and women. It is at this gathering that Belkis is chosen to be part of his inner circle of favorites. Before Belkis moves into a palace apartment, Leyla uses the back of a discarded piece of calligraphy paper and some dyes to paint a picture of tulips for Belkis. Though Belkis is impressed and moved by the gift, she can't accept it. Her life will be more heavily scrutinized now, and she can't risk having something so heretical as a graven image. After Belkis leaves, Leyla doesn't let herself get close to anyone else. Everyone seems to leave her life when she does: her father, the rest of her family, Lena, and now Belkis. She paints some more in secret, getting dyes by subterfuge. She's sentenced to several days in jail when her deception is discovered, and finds her paintings missing upon her return. She worries that someone will use them against her, but happily it turns out that Princess Fatma has them, and wants Leyla to teach her and Lena to paint!

Princess Fatma is also due to be married soon. In April, the city hold a tulip festival, and the two-day wedding coincides with it, making for the most lavish celebration Istanbul has seen. The bulbs that Leyla and her brother worked to cultivate have bloomed, resulting in the desired black tulip. She wins a cash prize with her flower. The second night of the wedding, a prince who saw Leyla's paintings and recommended that she instruct Princess Fatma and Leyla introduces Leyla to a famous artist tasked with creating a visual history of the Ottoman Empire. He takes Leyla on as an apprentice.

One day, Leyla overhears a familiar voice. Her own father is painting a room nearby! With the help of the prince, he and Leyla are able to reunite. The prince is also able to negotiate freedom for Leyla's father, who will return home. Leyla must remain in Istanbul for now, so she sends gifts home with her father: her paintings, some black tulip bulbs, beautiful clothes for her mother. Furthermore, Padishah is so pleased with the work Leyla's father has done that he has a standing offer to return to work as a free man, with his family. They might all be together again one day.

Then and Now: A Girl's Life

During Leyla's time, known as the Tulip Period, Turkey was part of the Ottoman Empire and enjoyed relative peace. Women mostly stayed indoors, covering themselves with veils when the did go outside. Their families arranged their marriages, and some women became part of the sultan's harem or the harem of another politically powerful man, sometimes when captured in battles or sold if their families were desperate for money. Despite this, being chosen for the harem was considered an honor and a promise of a good life. But when the Republic of Turkey was established in 1923, its president, Kemal Ataturk, outlawed veils and plural marriage. Turkish women gained suffrage in 1934. Most people in Turkey are Muslim, and since veils are still outlawed, the women cover their hair with scarves. And while Turkey remains a modern country, its women still enjoy one good aspect of harem life: the strong sense of community.


Dedicated to Justine. The author then writes "This book was a gift. It is the result of my editor Tamara England's fortuitous bus ride in New York City that led her to Talat Halman, an old friend I hadn't seen for years. I was enchanted by Girls of Many Lands from the very beginning, but I had to have the encouragement of my agent, Bonnie Nadell. Tamara became my editor and proved the magic of author-editor collaboration. Rebecca Bernstein gave me invaluable research assistance and Will Capellaro designed a beautiful book. Ilmi Yavuz and my Turkish publisher, Senay Haznedaroglu, sent me books about the Tulip Era. And as always, I'm grateful to Robert, who not only continued to bring me coffee and love notes, but who was the first to read the manuscript for me. To all, and to my readers, one thousand and one kisses." She also includes a note about how she loved learning of the Turkey's Tulip Era.

For the first half of the book, Leyla is called Laleena.

While the book makes it clear that younger girls aren't going to be married until they're older (or, reading between the lines, won't consummate the marriage until they're older) and some will just be servants, it's still creepy that Leyla sees three and four year olds. My older daughter just turned four.

Some girls are assigned to taste food before meals, to check for poison. One falls to the ground, foaming at the mouth. She's taken away and never returns.

The Mistress of Flowers teaches the girls in her tutelage the meanings of several varieties: marigolds mean jealousy, periwinkles friendship, magnolias perseverance, pomegranates foolishness, and yellow tulips hopeless love.

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