Book Review – Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar

Book Review - Memoir - Emily Ruete

Book Review - Memoirs - Emily RueteTitle: Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar

Author: Emily Ruete, also known as Princess Salme of Zanzibar and Oman

Genre: Autobiography

Pages: 210

Published by: The Gallery Publications

Year of Publication: 1998

Book Summary

Salme, princess of Zanzibar and Oman, daughter of Sultan Said the Great, was born in the Beit el Mtoni, largest of the Zanzibar palaces, in about 1840. Her mother was a ‘tall and shapely’ Circassian slave, one of scores of concubines whose destiny was to give pleasure and comfort to their master as members of the royal harem. But readers expecting revelations of the erotic East beyond the harem screens will be disappointed.

Nor, in this fascinating autobiography, will they discover too many secrets with regard to Salme’s daring romantic dalliance with the German businessman she later married. The affair, which flourished from rooftop to rooftop across the narrow gap separating the lovers, respective town houses, and which led to an early pregnancy, elopement and marriage, scandalized Zanzibar society and almost brought the Sultanate and Britain into serious conflict. But Salme alludes to it only briefly.

What she does provide are countless absorbing insights into everyday life in the harem and the palaces, at a time when Zanzibar was at the height of its influence and at the focal point of an astonishing network of activity, from the lucrative trade in slaves, ivory and cloves to the exploration of the African interior and the political intrigues which characterised the ‘Scramble for Africa’. With an intuitive feel for the value of mystery that might be expected from a daughter of the harem, Salme leaves us in possession of stimulating new knowledge, yet wanting to know more.

My Thoughts

Emily Ruete, born 1840, was one of the youngest of 36 children born into the harem of Sultan Said. According to Wikipedia, she wrote this book due to financial hardships she faced after her husband died but Emily ,in the preface, claims that:

“… my memoirs were not intended for the general public, but for my dear children alone, to whom I have decided to bequeath the same, in token of a fond mother’s love, and I only yielded to the repeatedly expressed wishes of many friends in having them published now”.

This was only the first of several perfume scented views that Princess Salme presented of her life in this memoir.

She begins with a brief history of her childhood, which as you can imagine is full of comfort and luxury; and you can tell how nostalgic she is for those times. The next few chapters shed light on the everyday life of people in Zanzibar in those days, a lot on the culture, their attitude to education: Writing apparently was only allowed to the boys and slaves. The women in the harem were too precious for this tedious task apparently, but that’s not the strangest thing of that time. Even those who could write still preferred to send their messages verbally through their servants, I mean, how they did not see that this was a recipe for disaster is beyond me.

Naturally, when you have rich ladies that are not allowed to do much in the form of work, fashion is a major topic in this book. I particularly found this fascinating; these ladies were not messing around. Emily Ruete takes her time to elaborate on the fashion of her time, and it is amazing. I felt like I had travelled back in time or I was watching a fashion show in my mind. I don’t think much has changed in that aspect too, Arabs are still all about their fashion and luxury items today.

There is also the political intrigue you would expect from a family of 36 children. After her father dies, the order of succession comes into dispute; younger siblings are not willing to wait for the older ones to die before coming to power. This led to the split of Oman and Zanzibar into the independent entities they are today. There are spies, blood feuds and secret missions in the night, and it all feels like a James Bond movie. Except that this actually happened.

Emily Ruete also made a case for improved healthcare for women in the harem, since the restriction access to strange men meant they couldn’t get proper examination from medical doctors, which in those days were mostly men. I imagine she particularly felt strongly about this since her own mother died from illness as well without getting to see a doctor.

While this book is rich in culture and intriguing history, if you have an interest in those things, there were several times I felt like throwing it against a wall, tearing it to pieces and burning it. Did you just ask me why?

Well, Emily’s opinion of “Negroes” and her hard-on for Slavery leave nothing to be desired and left a bitter taste in my mouth. Like a typical princess, in her defense of the slave trade, she states:

“ …the slaves are for the most part well cared for. They have of course to work for their masters without wages but they have no care themselves

The Negro, above all, is fond of his ease-works only when he is compelled to, and then requires the strictest control even for the little work he is required to do in our parts. Neither are they an easy family to rear and keep, for there are many thieves, drunkards, deserters, and incendiaries among them. What is to be done with these? To overlook their sins would be to encourage them in their practice. Imprisonment they would not resent, but on the contrary, court it, and revel in their cool retreat, eating, drinking, and dreaming their time away.

Under these circumstances there is only one expedient – corporal punishment.”

Just typing that again makes me want to spit in her face. The way she talks about a race of people like they are not only second class citizens but nothing more than accessories and work animals is despicable and I had decided against writing a review of this book but then I looked up reviews in mainstream media and not a single person mentions this gross factor. I mean, I rarely get myself worked up over things that can’t be changed by my raving but MY GOD!!! This is ridiculous.

I would give her the benefit of doubt due to the time she lived in but NO, she was well-educated and enlightened enough to know better. When you look up Emily Ruete, you get results like:

  • Rule-breaker, because she taught herself to write against the norm.
  • Rebel, because she ran away with her German Lover. Something which she barely mentions in this book. According to Wikipedia, she ran away from Zanzibar after she got pregnant. This led to her eloping with her future husband and taking the Christian faith but she never mentions this child (he died soon after his birth) and I am left to wonder if she went to the same finishing school as Cersei Lannister. (I am referring to the tendency of speaking only the ‘truth’ that suits you).

Because of this, I have decided to take all accounts of personal experiences with a bucket of salt. I can’t trust someone who refers to Egypt as a half-civilized culture, when her own people think the ability to write is a sign of servitude or whatever.

I didn’t mean to write such a long post and it took me a week to compose myself enough so this wouldn’t turn into a shouting match with a dead person, but the fire inside me had to be quenched somehow. If you can manage to overlook the racism, this book will take you to a fascinating time in history. Since, writing wasn’t a popular skill among the women of Zanzibar of that time; that makes this book  a historical artifact. As the saying goes, Books will take you places… (Even distasteful ones).

Note to the Publisher: This book needs to be revised pronto. The sheer number of typos in this edition are too many to be ignored. Just because this book is peddled out to tourists doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do a good job of it. I really hope you get this message too. God bless.

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