HAREM: THE WORLD BEHIND THE VEIL, by Alev Lytle Croutier. New York: Abbeville Press. 224 pp. $35. BECAUSE it is so self-evidently an unjust and archaic social institution, the harem has been frivolously and indulgently served up as an entertainment product, even to this day.
As a setting for ``The Arabian Nights'' and romantic movies out of the ``Kismet'' mold, the harem still represents to the popular imagination an exotic fantasy, a private world filled with music, dance, festivities, and happily subservient concubines - the Scheherazade motif of prettily costumed ballets.
In fact, the harem belongs to the history of slavery - specifically, women's form of slavery - flourishing from the Middle Ages to the early part of this century.
Alev Lytle Croutier documents the harem as it was, whenever possible using the testimony of its inmates. The words of one unknown Turkish woman - speaking out of her humiliation with touching dignity - can be read as a summation, and indictment, of the harem:
``I am a harem woman, an Ottoman slave. I was conceived in an act of contemptuous rape and born in a sumptuous palace.... I am richly dressed and poorly regarded.... I am anonymous, I am infamous.... My home is this place where gods are buried and devils breed, the land of holiness, the backyard of hell.''
Drawing not only on historical research but also on her own family history - her grandmother grew up in a harem - Croutier focuses primarily on the Seraglio at the famed Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. She also looks briefly at the ordinary harems of wealthy merchants and the more modest classes.