NOT TO BE MISSED
"Memoirs of an Arabian Princess", the autobiography of Emily RUETE [Born Sayyida Salamah Princess of Oman and Zanzibar]
New York: Doubleday Page & Company, 1907. 228p.
Translated from German by Lionel Strachey.
Ce compte rendu en français
In 1866, the vivacious Princess Salamah bint Sa'id of Zanzibar eloped with a German merchant and eventually settled with him in Hamburg under the new name of Emilie Ruete. Her autobiography published in 1886 evokes her childhood, her youth and her life in Germany. It offers thoughts and comments on various subject matters ranging from everyday life in the Sultan's household, to political intrigues, family feuds and personal experiences of a new immigrant confronted by the rigours of Europe's climate, inhabitants and peculiarities. An interesting read in itself, this autobiography can also be acknowledged for its historical merit in conjunction with the unpublished sequel of Emilie Ruete's memoirs, various records pertaining to her life and letters which she sent back to Zanzibar .
Princess Salamah was born in Bet il Mtoni in one of her father's palaces. The elderly Sultan had a large number of wives, scores of children, innumerable visitors and an army of slaves, eunuchs and domestic servants: the total population living within the walls of his residence may well have been in excess of a thousand people. Many races mingled together and the place was alive with continuous hustle and bustle: "From four o'clock in the morning until twelve at night, there was constant movement" (p.4), Salamah wrote. Many different languages and dialects were spoken beside Arabic: Persian, Turkish, Circassian, Swahili, Nubian, Abyssinian ...; tons of food were prepared daily and the demands of such a large gathering of people, under the same roof, were reflected in the many buildings constructed over time in order to accommodate everyone. Innumerable passages, precipitous stairways and a maze of corridors linked countless apartments to a vast courtyard and several bath-houses and Turkish-baths.
"A rigorous caste system ruled at Bet il Mtoni, rigidly observed by high and low" (p.5), but the young Princess did not feel the weight of social inequalities and family hierarchies; she thrived on the animated life of the palace and enjoyed to the full the love of her mother, the kindness of her elderly father and the excitement of playing with other children of her own age. "In our home, no preference was shown to the sons above the daughters" (p.12) she says, and schooling for children of both genders was quite similar: memorizing the Holy Koran and learning to read. Writing and basic arithmetic were also on the syllabus for the boys, but no one stopped the young Princess from learning them as well.
Leaving Bet il Mtoni with her mother to settle in with her elder brother Majid was her first heartbreak. From one day to the next, she had to leave behind all the excitement of a busy compound for a place where she felt very lonely. But Majid gave her all kinds of animals and "an army of fighting cocks" which, she says, "rendered my solitary existence at Bet il Watoro a great deal easier to bear". (p.27) Not the kind of gift one would make to a young girl in 2011, but one that gives some insight into the unexpected interests of a young Arab Princess a couple of centuries ago. It is also with some surprise that one learns further down the page that, "later on, Majid taught me how to fence with sword, dagger, and lance, and when we went into the country together, I would practise pistol and rifle shooting. Thus I developed into something like an Amazon, to the utter dismay of my mother, who entirely disapproved of fencing and shooting. But I very much preferred manipulating these weapons to sitting still by the hour over needle and bobbin ... Nor did I neglect horsemanship; Mesrur, a eunuch, was ordered by Majid to continue the instruction he had begun." (p.27)
The bliss of childhood began to unravel when a family feud compelled Salamah's mother to leave Bet il Watoro and to move on to Bet il Tani, another family residence. The death of the Sultan a few years later, the destabilising fight over his succession between Majid and his brother Bargash, the passing of Salamah's mother and eventually the Princess meeting with Rudolph Ruete, were all dramatic events that hastened the transition from an inquisitive little girl, full of life, to a young women required to obey strict etiquette, manage her own affairs, take sides in the fratricidal strife that splits her family and, for better or for worse, pay the price for her decisions.
Salamah's astonishing discernment, determination and mobility, challenge some common stereotypes about womenfolk living in Afro-Arabian harems and palaces. No matter how one looks at it, Salamah was definitively not as Arvède Barine, a French historian reviewing the autobiography in the late 19th century, puts it a "primitive creature ... moaning gently about insignificant and childish matters that make us smile in spite of her crestfallen look".  True, Salamah says, "the rich Oriental woman neither paints, plays the piano, nor dances (as understood in Europe). But those are not the only existing methods of passing time." (p.60) "The feverish, everlasting chase after new pleasures and enjoyments" dominating Europeans' life was "quite foreign" (p.60) to the Sultan's Court, she adds, but that did not preclude people, women as much as men, to follow their inclinations, to engage meaningfully with life and to achieve contentment. Furthermore, some women did play a far greater role in the management of the country than is usually acknowledged.
One example proposed by Salamah is her Auntie Curshit who, she says, combined an extraordinary willpower and unmatched intelligence. On one occasion, her son Khaled had to represent his father during his absence, but it was said, Salamah adds, that it was indeed she who governed our country with Khaled as her puppet. "Her counsel was invaluable to our family, and her decisions momentous". (p.42) The bravery of Salamah's great-aunt Aashe, who took the reins of government at the death of her brother, a generation earlier, and secured the throne for her young nephews, also testifies to the power wielded by some of the women confined behind the walls of their palace. And one might well add Salamah herself to the list of the shrewd women who challenged customary wisdom and attempted to influence the course of history, behind the scene. The tone of her letter, sent in1883 to her brother Bargash who succeeded Majid as Sultan is that of a woman full of assurance and keen to volunteer some sound advice to a man who was clearly manipulated by London : "I wish you to understand, my brother, that all the English wish is to diminish your power and rule in your realm; they cannot wait until the time has come to seize Zanzibar from you along with all that is in it, just as they seized Egypt and its dependencies through their murderous and mighty stratagems". 
Salamah's advice was not heeded and the Sultan, ignoring his sister's advice, bargained away Zanzibar's independence. Yet, it is not so much the unsuccessful outcome of the Princess's counsel that is important here, but rather the fact that she could indeed voice her opinion in matters political. Freedom of speech in Zanzibar in the 1880s did not exist along the lines we understand it today, but Salamah's experience shows, that at least some women of the Sultan's entourage were not completely cut off from the outside world. In this regards, it is also interesting to learn that girls were not altogether deprived of family inheritance. Not only could they own money and jewellery, but also slaves and property in their own name. Salamah received some land and a stipend from her father when she was deemed to be of age, and she also inherited three plantations from her mother when the latter passed away.
It is in one of these properties located away from the Zanzibar coastline that she took refuge when she fell foul of her brother Majik for conspiring against him, together with her other brother Bargash. True to form, she got involved with the overall running of her property and got interested with agriculture and means of production. Unlike the "Queen's Hamlet" of French Queen Marie-Antoinette, her plantation was not a mere entertainment. It yielded revenues and Salamah's attitude towards the mostly black African slaves, employed to carry out all of the work, was not that of a benevolent shepherd. To her, workers in bondage were essential to the economy of the island and they were not spared the whip, nor the harsh working conditions imposed on the lower class of society in the Island and, indeed, in most parts of Africa. Slavery was the bread and butter of the world economy and Salamah only saw England's "humanitarianism" as one of the spurious stratagems used to destabilise Zanzibar and Arabic societies in order to steal their wealth.
It is true, as Salamah suggests, that England would have been better served by sending a few female physicians to Zanzibar rather than "civilisation heralded by vice" and "demoralising brandy". "One woman doctor could do more in the East than a dozen men" (p.166) , she adds, but it was not part of British strategy at the time. That, of course, does not make more palatable Salamah's defence of slavery, eunuchs' mutilation, as well as her well-entrenched racism towards people of a dark complexion a racism that was the source of much infighting and resentment between the Sultan's wives and their children of different complexion. Some evils seem to have poisoned the world from the dawn of time and it reminds readers that in spite of her openness, clairvoyance and fascinating destiny, Salamah remained the product of her time and education. She managed to unpack Europe secrets, overcome the worst difficulties and uncovered the secret of political manipulation but, at heart she remained a dutiful daughter: a Princess loyal to the social hierarchies and values of her parents. In this respect, a short extract from a letter, sent back to Zanzibar after she had to adopt a new name and religion, is telling: "To the external world, I bear my Christian name, whereas internally I am as good a Muslim woman as you yourself are". 
This composite make-up opened Salamah to new perspectives and allowed her a multi-focal view of the world that was almost totally absent in19th century colonial thought. The conclusion of the aforementioned 1889 French review of the autobiography is a case in point. Author Arvède Barine cannot see Salamah as an emancipated Arab women casting a sharp look over both Europe and Zanzibar's societies; she can only see her as a poor whining foreigner, unable to recognise the moral superiority and grandeur of European civilisation. In spite of her erudition and feminist preoccupations Arvède Barine too remained a product of her time and education; unlike Salamah, she based her view of an Arabian 'Other' on some fleeting images gathered during her short sojourn in Anatolia and, an absurd belief in the sacred duty of Europe to "civilise" the world.  Thus her closing argument:
"The Arab and us are temperamentally unsuited. Neither time, politics nor missionaries can change that fact. One may pin the blame on race or religion, it does not matter ... We are irreconcilable, their race and ours, because our way of understanding notions such as human dignity and morality are too far apart; because the disagreement between our conceptions of the duty of the human race and its finality is too profound; because our watchwords are too different. The watchword of the Arab is Immobility; Ours is Forward march! There is nothing common between us." 
Blinded by delusion and fooled by the pseudo-scientific typologies that took hold of Europe at the time of an unprecedented pursuit of overseas territorial acquisitions, Arvède Barine and most of Europe's intelligentsia were quick to refute the dissenting voice of that Arabic Princess telling her own story candidly, and in a style and language they could readily understand. In so doing they missed a golden opportunity to revisit their ethnocentric views of women's conditions in the East even if one may rightly argue that life in Zanzibar's palaces was not necessarily a good illustration of women's circumstances in other parts of the Arab world. Contrary to what Arvède Barine believed, it was not European and Arabian's understanding of human dignity, morality and religion that were irreconcilable, but some countries obstinate attempt to conquer the world and the stubborn determination of others to resist this hegemonic ploy. Not much has changed on this score ever since.
The effort made by Salamah, not only to learn German, but also to educate herself in history, geography and overall knowledge associated with Western civilisations, allowed her to make fascinating and well-informed comparisons between what she called "Oriental" and German usage the latter being in many regards very similar to the French. But at first, it was rather the fear of the unknown, the inability to communicate and her struggle to make sense of life abroad that consumed all her energy. "It is not easy for one of us to penetrate their way of thinking" she wrote in a letter back home; "as life, manners, customs and perceptions of the people of the north are so totally different from ours, I fear that much will appear exaggerated to you, perhaps even impossible". 
Her rushed conversion to Christianity  and the promiscuity of men and women passengers, sleeping together on the deck during her first journey to Europe, were just some of the many cultural shocks she would have to overcome in the course of her exile. Bland food, pork meat, people's excessive drinking, Hamburg's concentration of blond people difficult to distinguish one from the other for an untrained eye, names impossible to remember, people hurrying in the streets, others constantly scrubbing the floor of their dwelling while bathing only once a week in a dirty bathtub, because showers and running water were not the norm in these parts, women wearing most uncomfortable corsets and stiffened petticoat, small rooms, thick curtains, dark rooms, closed doors and an over-abundance of gadgets in the kitchens: the list is endless of the things that struck her as highly puzzling. But a year of intensive tutoring in the German language provided her with the means to communicate with friends and neighbours and to understand better the purpose of German pursuits. It also opened the way to a reflection on the limits of both East and Western competing wisdoms. Her commentary on children's education in Germany is a good example.
"It is inevitable that, having been brought up where I was, I should make comparison with European systems, of which my children enjoyed the privileges. There is certainly a great disparity between German over-education and Arabian ignorance; too much is exacted on one side, too little demanded on the other. But I suppose such sharp difference will never cease, but will persist to the end of the world, as no race appears capable of settling upon a golden mean. Here, at all events, the children have their minds stuffed with a great deal more than they can possibly absorb. Their schooldays once begun, the parents see very little of them. ... All day long it is not living, but hurry and scramble, scramble and hurry ... What a lot of time they waste too, in arduously gaining facts destined to prove utterly useless, inasmuch as they seem to be imparted for the sole purpose of being forgotten. ... Give me that open veranda of ours... I notice little here of that respect which we all, my brothers, sisters and self, accorded to our parents and teachers: in fact, to age generally. Neither does the religious instruction given at schools seem to be as effective as it ought to be, and no wonder, since it takes a purely mechanical form; endless lists of dates ... where a good sermon would inspire them far more than those barren historical facts. We had to memorise lessons too, but not to the entire neglect of the soul, which here suffers at the expense of the brain... Everybody wants to rise up and up so high through education that, finally manual labour becomes a disgrace; too much importance is attached to knowledge and culture... Yes, the mind is cultivated for sure, but the heart is left untilled...". (pp.81-82)
This analysis of children's education dates back to the 1880 yet many 2011 parents would still empathise with these views. Like Salamah, many wonder the efficacy of boning up on knowledge that nourishes the brain rather than the heart and which, in the long run, makes one neither wiser nor happier. Many topics broached in Memoirs of an Arabian Princess lead to fundamental questions that still challenge contemporary society: What is the value of material accumulation? Does it lead to a better world? What is the point of endlessly chasing novelties? What is the price to pay when skills and expertise are put ahead of deference, honesty, piety and contentment? These are questions of universal interest but, as Salamah maintains, they are not issues calling for a single and universal solution. There is not only one way to see the world and "you cannot produce civilisation by force; you should allow other nations the right to follow their own ideas and traditions which must have developed as the result of mature experience and practical wisdom in seeking enlightenment after their own fashion." (p.83)
Memoirs of an Arabian Princess is not only interesting because it tells of the life of a young Arabic Princess long before African women put pen to paper: it is also one of the first, if not the first book that portrays Germany and more generally European society from the point of view of a young African woman endowed with a keen and critical eye. Definitely an illuminating publication that challenges many preconceptions and invites readers to revisit their own beliefs and convictions.
1. An more recent English translation of the "Memoirs" by E. van Donzel is available in Sayyida Salme/Emily Ruete. "An Arabian princess between two worlds: memoirs, letters home, sequels to my memoirs: Syrian customs and usages". Leiden, E.J. Brill, 1993. For a recent French translation see "Mémoires d'une Princesse Arabe". Paris: Editions Karthala - CREDU, 1991.
2. In an article (in French) published in the Revue des deux mondes in 1889 by Arvède Barine (Mme Louise-Cécile Bouffé-Vincens) and reprinted in her book, "Princesses et Grandes Dames", Paris: Hachette, 1899, pp. 151-214.
3. Even if some scholars suggest that she was manipulated by the German Chancellor who also had colonial aspirations in the region.
4. "Letter to Sultan Bargash" . (Translation into English from the Arabic original). In E. J. van Donzel (ed.). Sayyida Salme /Emily Ruete. "An Arabian princess between two worlds", p.51.
5. On this topic, see a fascinating booklet by Dr. Dorothée Chellier, "Notes d'un médecin envoyé en mission chez les femmes arabes". Tizi Ouzou: Imp. Nouvelle J. Chellier, 1895.
6. "Letters home". E. van Donzel (ed.) Sayyida Salme /Emily Ruete. "An Arabian princess between two worlds" p. 411.
7. Arvède Barine. "Princesses et Grandes Dames", p.166.
8. "Ibid.", p.214.
9. "Emil Ruete's letter to an unnamed correspondent". (Translation into English from the Arabic original). In E. J. van Donzel (ed.). Sayyida Salme /Emiliy Ruete. "An Arabian princess between two worlds", p.407.
10. "For the pastor it was apparently sufficient to hear me pronounce "Yes" to everything he said to me at the baptism and the following marriage ceremony, in a language which was incomprehensible to me. Nothing else was required. [...] Separated from my former religion, and knowing the new one by name only, there began for me a period which cannot be described by words", "ibid.", p.411
This review is based on the 1907 English translation by Lionel Strachey.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities
Created: 01 November 2011.