Saturday, 8 October 2011

Zanzibar - Memoirs of an Arabian Princess

One of my favourite things about writing this blog is finding out more about the lives of some of the people who have lived in the places I blog about.  One of the most famous records of life in 19th-century Zanzibar, Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar was written by a woman called Emily Ruete. This was the name that she adopted after she had eloped with a German merchant, but her birth name was Salamah bint Said and she was the daughter of the 19th-century ruler of Zanzibar and Oman, the Sultan Seyyid Said. Hers is a fascinating story and reminded me a little bit on another book I've read about Gayatri Devi, the last Maharani of Jaipur (see my previous blog post about Gayatri Devi).

Although she was born and brought up in Zanzibar, Salamah bint Said was eventually forced to leave the islands.  She'd become somewhat of a persona non grata in the eyes of most of her family, as she had, rather foolishly, got caught up in a plot against her eldest brother, Majid and then, in an effort to make amends had offended his successor and rival, Bargash, which meant that both sides of the feud turned against her.

Book cover
No wonder then that she sought comfort in the arms of her neighbour, a German merchant, and it caused no small degree of scandal when she turned up pregnant in Aden, where she converted to Christianity and married Herr Ruete before moving back to Germany with her new husband.  She bore him another two children before he was tragically killed in a tram accident and she found herself alone, in a strange land, struggling to bring up three small children all by herself, with little hope of ever returning to Zanzibar. 

She did eventually return to Zanzibar, many years later, but couldn't settle there and made her way back north to Lebanon and Germany again.  As well as telling the fascinating story of her life, Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar also describes Zanzibari life in great detail and deals with a range of themes that touch on culture and society.  I've picked out a few of them below:


To the modern reader, Frau Ruete's opinions come across as being terribly racist.  Her description of the Africans who worked for the Sultan in the chapter entitled On the idleness of the Negro, show a common 19th-century view of black people as being work-shy and in need of constant instruction.  Perhaps I should have titled this paragraph, On the idleness of Concubines and their children, as a more accurate (and 21st century) appraisal of life in the Sultan's harem!  She also alludes to the racial tension between some of the Sultan's wives.  Her own mother was Circassian (originating in the Caucasus region of, what is now, southern Russia) and Emily refers to the tension that existed between the Sultan's Circassian and Abyssinian wives, with the Circassian women looking down on the Abyssinians as darker skinned and therefore inferior.

She seems to reserve most of her vitriol for the Hindu merchants who managed a lot of the trade on Zanzibar and she refers to a horrific incident when a Hindu was tricked into entering a courtyard where an animal was being slaughtered, his horror being the subject of ridicule and abuse by the Hindu's Muslim neighbours.

Education and Work

Racism aside, I'm always interested to see how 'the West' is perceived in the eyes of other cultures and Emily's stay in Germany gave her the perfect opportunity to compare life in the North with life in the South.  She talks a bit about the different approaches to work in Europe and in East Africa and points out the influence of the weather on the European's v the African's approach to work.  She struggled to survive the harsh winters in Germany and generally believed that Europeans had a tougher life, as survival itself was a constant struggle.

She also makes an interesting point about Education and how European schools so closely resemble prisons!  She criticised the tendency in Europe to teach children lots of useless facts that they will never use in their adult lives.  I think it was an astute observation and I was also interested in her views on giving children homework, something that wouldn't have happened in Zanzibar, because it would have disrupted family life.

Attitudes towards Child care

Emily with her husband and two of her children
She also compares life in Europe rather unfavourably, with regard to child care and how children are raised.  She felt that European children didn't spend enough time with their parents, particularly their mothers and she couldn't understand how English children would be sent off to boarding schools, where they might not see their parents from one end of the year until the next.  This was a stark contrast to Zanzibar, where children were more or less constantly in contact with their mothers and, at least once a day, with their fathers.

I was interested to learn about the tradition of 'swaddling' that existed in Zanzibar and in many parts of the world in the 19th century.  According to Islamic custom, children were bound for the first forty days of their lives.  I guess swaddling was believed to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (also called Cot or Crib Death).  

The position of women in Zanzibari society

She also talks about the position of women in Zanzibari society.  Whilst some of her observations regarding the limitations of being a woman might be expected of an Islamic society, she also talks a lot about the rights that women had, such as rights to property and the right to marry above or below your social standing.  On one hand, she talks about the enclosed life of the harem, where the Sultan's wives are not allowed to see daylight for fourth months after his death.  On the other hand, she tells us about her great Aunt Assha, a fiercely independent woman, who ruled Oman and fought battles to protect the regency of the Sultan, Emily's father.  Frau Ruete herself challenges many of the preconceptions we have about a woman in the 19th century and this book was the first autobiography ever written by an Arabian woman.

An apple a day

The medieval practice of cupping
One part of European life that she really respected was the modern approach to medicine that she experienced in Germany.  This time Zanzibar compares unfavourably with Europe and she regrets that her homeland remained behind the times and antiquated in its approach to medical science.  She refers to old-fashioned practices such as 'cupping' (ie. applying hot cups to the skin) and blood-letting, which was commonly practised in Zanzibar when she was growing up.  She also mentions remedies that involved boiling pages containing verses from the Qu'ran and then drinking these in a kind of tea.  There seems to have been no recognition of mental health issues in 19th-century Zanzibar and depression was seen as a kind of 'demon' that took possession of the person's body.  The best cure was . . . well, cupping and bleeding!

Her mother died when she was fifteen, in a cholera epidemic that swept across Zanzibar. Without her mother around, she lacked appropriate guidance during the turbulent time after the Sultan's death, when different family members took sides with different heirs to the throne.

Torch-lit parades through Stone Town

There is a lot more to this story than I have time to write about in this blog post and the book is well-worth a read, if you fancy getting out of your cultural comfort zone!  She went to great lengths to explain the nature of Islamic traditions and festivals, such as Ramadan and I couldn't help observing that, what is quite familiar to most Europeans today, needed a more detailed explanation for the benefit of the 19th century European reader.  Perhaps we have moved forward and embraced other cultures after all?

My abiding memory of the book is the scene of rich Zanzibari women paying visits to each other, in the early morning hours before sunrise, with a retinue of servants carrying massive lanterns to light their way through the huddled streets of Stone Town.

Image credits:

The image of Emily Ruete with her husband and two of their children is taken from Wikimedia Commons - this image is in the public domain, as its copyright has expired and you can see more information at the image's description page.

The image of cupping is also from Wikimedia Commons and is originally from a 15th century English manuscript, which is kept at the British Library.  This image is also in the public domain and you can also see more information at the descrition page on Wikimedia Commons.

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