“For as to secrecy, Henry is quite the hero of an old romance . . .”—Mansfield Park
Once upon a time, there was a beautiful Arabian princess. Staring soulfully out her window, she fell in love with a handsome commoner from a distant land. She escaped from her harem, sacrificing all she had ever known, and ran away with him to his homeland . . .
Okay, sorry, this post has nothing to do with Jane Austen. But it’s about a nineteenth century true life romance, and another pioneering woman writer. We can still enjoy the princess’s books today. Like Austen, she managed to step outside of the society she grew up in and give us a new view of it.
I just got back from a trip to Zanzibar. Isn’t the name a delight? It may be from the Gulf Arabic phrase, “zayn ‘zal barr,” meaning “this land is good,” or more likely from the words, “zenji barr,” “land of the black people.” Zanzibar is a group of islands off the eastern coast of Africa, south of the Equator. It is now part of Tanzania (which united mainland Tanganyika and Zanzibar). (The main islands are Unguja and Pemba. The larger island, Unguja, is also called Zanzibar.)
An Arabian Princess
Years ago I read M. M. Kaye’s book Trade Wind*, a historical novel set in Zanzibar, the “Isle of Cloves,” in the 1800s. One of the real-life characters in the novel is Princess Salme*, whose story I got to explore when I visited.
Said elGheithy, expert on Princess Salme, runs a lovely museum in Stone Town about the princess. He took me on a tour of the city, showing me places related to her life. I had already read Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar, Salme’s autobiography and commentary on Eastern and Western lifestyles of her time.
Seyyida Salme (Seyyida means something like “lady”) was born in 1844 at the Mtoni Palace (Beit Mtoni) in Zanzibar. Her father, Seyyid Said, (“sigh-yid sah-eed”) was Sultan of Zanzibar and Oman. At that time, Zanzibar was far wealthier than far-off Oman in the Arabian peninsula. The lush island grew expensive spices, especially cloves. By 1850, the islands were the world’s largest producers of cloves. (Today, Oman is wealthier because of oil.)
Zanzibar was also a trading center for eastern Africa and the Middle East, and a hub of the infamous slave trade. An Anglican cathedral now stands where slaves were once sold. A museum on the site commemorates those who suffered from “the sale . . . of human flesh” (as Austen says in Emma).
Salme’s father, Sultan Said, was an Arab, from Oman. Arabic was the language of the court. The children had to speak Arabic whenever they spoke to their father, though many other languages were spoken in their huge household.
According to Salme, her father had one principal wife, Azze, who dominated the household but had no children. She was from the Omani royal family. (Other sources say he had two other principal wives; they were Persians.)
Sultan Said also had no less than 75 “secondary wives,” or concubines. These were slaves, who were freed when they had borne the sultan a child. When Sultan Said died, he had 36 children, all from these “secondary wives.” The mothers came from many parts of the world. Salme’s mother was a Circassian, from southern Russia, captured by raiders and brought to Oman as a child.
Many of these wives and children, along with servants and slaves, lived in lovely Mtoni next to the sea. Salme estimates that a thousand people lived in the palace.
Her mother learned to read along with other palace children, and Salme also learned to read and to recite the Qur’an in Arabic as a young child. Only boys were taught to write. However, Salme taught herself to write Arabic, copying the Qur’an onto a camel bone, which was used as a slate. Then she convinced one of the household slaves to continue teaching her.
Attempted Palace Coup
Writing came in handy later on, when she became involved in a rebellion. When her father died, her brother Majid became sultan of Zanzibar, while her older brother Thuwani took over Oman. Another brother, Barghash, thought he should be sultan of Zanzibar and a few of his sisters supported him. Salme idolized her older sister Chole, who followed Barghash, and Chole drew Salme into the rebellion. Salme wrote the letters which were passed back and forth as they laid their plans. However, the rebellion was soon squashed.
Salme was then ostracized by most of her family. She made her peace with Majid, who was kind and forgiving. However, Chole, Barghash, and the others would not forgive her for reconciling with Majid.
Lonely and isolated, Salme began to watch the neighbours who lived just across a narrow alleyway from her home in Stone Town. She was intrigued by a young German man, Rudolph Heinrich Reute, who worked for a Hamburg trading company. They became friends, then fell in love. They found ways to meet each other secretly. When they were seen together, the foreign community began to be concerned that their relationship would bring trouble by angering the sultan.
When Salme became pregnant, she made plans to leave Zanzibar, knowing she would not be allowed to marry Reute, and her life might be in danger for bringing shame on her family with an illegitimate pregnancy. (Though Said elGheithy points out that it would have been possible for her to retire to her home in the countryside, have the baby in seclusion, and pretend the child belonged to one of her slaves or relatives. But Salme chose to leave instead.)
The British consul’s wife helped Salme escape. During the New Year’s celebration, when there was much noise and confusion, Salme was rowed out to a British ship. The ship took her to Aden, where she spent months waiting for Reute. Their baby, Heinrich, was born there. Reute finished up his business in Zanzibar then came to meet her.
While she waited, Salme was instructed in the Christian faith. When Reute arrived, she was baptized in the Anglican church, taking the name Emily, after her friend, the British consul’s wife. Then she and Reute were married, the baby was baptized, and they set sail for Europe.
They landed in Marseille and headed overland for Reute’s home in Germany. Sadly, their baby died, somewhere along the way in France. When they reached Germany, Reute’s family welcomed them, and he continued to work.
In the next three years, while they lived in Germany, they had three more children. Then suddenly Reute died in a carriage accident. Salme/Emily was left on her own with three young children.
Salme says that her kind brother Majid, the sultan, had quickly forgiven her escape from Zanzibar, since “as a true Moslem, he believed in divine foreordination, and was convinced that this had determined [her] departure.” He had allowed Reute to complete his business, unhindered, after she left. He even sent Salme gifts, although they did not reach her.
So, Salme wished to return to Zanzibar after her husband died, and Majid would have allowed it. But he died two month’s after Reute’s death, and her brother Barghash took over as sultan and would not allow her return.
Seeking a Home
Over the following years, she and the children moved from place to place, always looking for a better situation. She made friends everywhere. Salme became a language teacher, tutoring people in Swahili and Arabic. She made two trips back to Zanzibar, seeking to restore ties with her family and to receive some portion of her inheritance. She tried to get help from the German and British governments, but did not succeed. Her family in Zanzibar did not welcome her, and her brother Barghash offered her only a small amount of money.
Eventually she moved to Beirut and lived there for many years. She wanted her children to appreciate the Arab part of their heritage as well as the European part.
East and West
Salme also wrote her memoirs (in German), partly to teach her children about their background, partly to support herself, and partly to help Europeans understand the East from a more sympathetic point of view. She describes her happy childhood and tells the story of her life. Much of the book describes Zanzibari and Omani customs and compares them, often unfavorably, to European customs.
For example, she says that German education crams a lot of information into the head, far more than she was taught. But she complains that it does not address the heart or the character, which are more important. Too much study is also detrimental to health. She says, “the mind is cultivated, to be sure, but the heart is left untilled. One should study the word of God and His holy commandments first, speculating upon ‘force and matter’ last.” And, “All day long it is not living, but hurry and scramble, scramble and hurry, from one lesson to another.” A valid comment for today!
Salme defends the position of women in the East, saying, “it is wrong to suppose that the Eastern woman enjoys less social respect than her husband.” She goes on to describe the restrictions on women in her culture, but tempers them with the respect shown between husband and wife. And she concludes that polygamy is no worse than European acceptance of extramarital affairs.
One of my favorite parts is where she defends the “Southern races” not working hard. She says that in Northern countries, because of the cold winters, people are obliged to work hard in order to survive. But it is no particular virtue that they have to do that. They shouldn’t look down on others who are in kinder climates and don’t need to work so much!
She explains some practices of Islam. For example, fasting in Ramadan:
“Fasting is of course no mere outer observance; in Ramadan the faithful Moslem submits to rigid self-examination, that he may discover his moral faults and sue forgiveness of his sins – just as in Holy Week the devout Christian prepares for the sacrament. One tries to do all the good one can this month, even avoiding to kill wild beasts. Hence the celebration of Ramadan tends to soften the heart, to bring man nearer to God, to improve and elevate him for the time being, if not for his whole life.”
She says “Moslem fanaticism” is “vastly exaggerated.” In her case, she says, “when I returned to Zanzibar after an absence of nineteen years. I had in the meantime turned Christian, so that, being a renegade, I deserved my countrymen’s hatred worse than if I had been born one, but they all welcomed me, with frank cordiality commending me to God’s protection. It is not fanaticism but the instinct of self-preservation that animates them when their cherished institutions are assailed by ignorant or unworthy representatives of Christianity.”
Salme suggests that Christians send doctors to her island rather than brandy. She also recommends abolishing slavery gradually, introducing agricultural machinery so that plantation owners would not be ruined by losing their slaves. (In fact, many on the island did lose their entire fortunes when slavery was abolished.) Salme of course is speaking from her perspective, having grown up as a privileged woman. She does not consider slavery a totally bad thing, based on her experience in royal palaces, although we know from history that it was far worse elsewhere.
Salme is the first-known Arab woman to publish her memoirs. So her memoirs were a ground-breaking event in helping the western world better understand Arab culture. She later published her letters, a sequel to the memoir, and a book on Syrian customs. These books are not easily available, but her Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar is inexpensive (on kindle) and easy to get. It’s fascinating reading. (Two translations are available; the Lionel Strachey one is the one I read and it appears to be well-done.)
Princess Salme/Emily Reute attempted to bridge two very different worlds, and help them understand one another. She died in 1924, age 80. A bag of sand which she collected from the beach at the Mtoni Palace was buried with her; she had carried it as a remembrance of her beloved home. Her Memoirs end with a lament for her home and the people she loved.
Salme’s descendants now live in several different western countries. One of them recently visited Zanzibar, planting a small tree in Salme’s memory in front of Beit Mtoni. Her legacy is not forgotten.
Why is Salme still remembered? Perhaps for the romance of giving up a privileged, luxurious place in her warm country and going with the man she loved to a cold, uncomfortable but “civilized” country. Perhaps for her ability to travel between and connect different worlds. Perhaps for her teaching and her insightful writing, that pioneered a place for Arab women in the West. I appreciate her desire to be a bridge between East and West.
What about you? What do you hope to be remembered for?
For Further Exploration
Sayyida Salme aka Emily Said Ruete includes photos of Salme at different ages, and links to passages from her memoirs about various topics.
Zanzibar’s Controversial Princess Salme and Her Museum includes more photos of the museum
Princess Salme Museum at Emerson on Hurumzi, Stone Town, Zanzibar:
*Trade Wind, a historical novel by M.M. Kaye, is an entertaining way to read about the history of this period, and the author has obviously done her research well. However, be aware that unfortunately it includes a rape scene (not explicit, but still violent). The story explores the slave trade, an attempted coup (which involved Salme), a cholera epidemic, and pirate raids. M.M. Kaye’s Death in Zanzibar, a mystery, is set in a later time period when the author visited the island. add links
*Salme’s name may be spelled Salmé, Salamah, or Salma. From seeing how it is written in Arabic, Salma seems to me the best transliteration, but most sources use Salme or Salmé.