What an absolutely fascinating and enlightening book this is! Of course, it is also one-sided, prejudiced, and
definitely the viewpoint of this particular lady. But nevertheless, it is enjoyable and entertaining, and allows us to peek inside a lifestyle that to
most of the public is forbidden territory.
As I was reading, I took so many notes, I have pages of written material. Weeding through will be the difficult part, because I found so much of interest here. Perhaps it is because living in a situation as the author did is so far removed from the experience of a typical Westerner. Salamah bint Saïd, (later Emilie Ruete) lived from 1844 to 1924. Her book was first published in German in 1886, then in English in 1907. Though she spent most of her long life away from Zanzibar, the book is primarily about her years in the harem, ending with the circumstances which compelled her to leave and a little about her life afterward. I really do not know if this lifestyle, or anything resembling it is still followed, but according to Wikipedia, polygamy is legal and practiced in a number of countries, including Tanzania, Africa, of which Zanzibar is part, so I would imagine there are at least parts of her descriptions that might still apply today.
Salamah was the daughter of Sultan Seyyid Saïd. Her mother was bought as a slave, making her ineligible for a principal wife. However, all children, whether of slaves or chosen brides were considered equal, and were titled prince or princess. The Sultan had one main wife, Azze bint Sef, who was mean and apparently ruled the roost, and also childless. Salamah had over 30 siblings, some old enough to be her grandparents. There were numerous nationalities represented within the harem, including Persian, Turkish, Circassian, of which Salamah was included, plus Suahili, Nubian, and Abyssinian. She considered her light-skinned races superior to the darker races, and didn't hesitate to mention that opinion frequently throughout the book.
One thing that impressed me was the fact that love played an extremely important part in Salamah's childhood. She adored her father, and was treated well, even when she was naughty. She loved many of her brothers and sisters, and seemed to have a very happy life. But with so many people living in such a close proximity, and from so many different backgrounds, there were always jealousies and parts of the family that didn't get along. In addition to the wives and children, there were also many slaves and eunuchs, so overcrowding was a problem.
One thing I found surprising is that, at least from Salamah's perspective, it seemed that women had a lot more rights and influence than I would have imagined. I was also surprised to learn that they could even divorce their husbands. One such case arose with a brother of Salamah, Majid, who took a young wife from Oman (also under the Sultan's rule). But another sister, Chaduji, was so cruel to her, that she ended up divorcing her husband for this reason.
Children of the Sultan were required to go to school with a tutor. The girls learned to read (the Koran), and the boys also learned to write. Salamah, against the rules, taught herself to write. Schooling for girls is over at age nine.
Salamah spent quite a bit of time discussing general living habits of "Mahometans" ( people of the Islam faith). She stressed that they are very clean people. They sleep in their day clothes (at least during this time period), including jewelry, which was considered an essential part of their raiment, as were exotic perfumes. Clothes were frequently changed during the day. Religious rites are not negotiable. People are called to prayer five times a day, and according to Salamah, it equals a full three hours altogether. For the ladies, days were spent mostly relaxing, visiting, perhaps doing needlework. Meals were also ritualistic, and social standing was strictly observed. Even guests of a lower class would not be able to share a meal with the Sultan.
The section on babies was rather disturbing. First, (and it is her habit throughout the book to make insulting remarks about non-Arabic people), she criticizes midwives as ignorant, and says if a baby survived it was through God's will. The midwives came mostly from India, but in this case, she also admits the Arabian midwives were ignorant, too.
When a baby is born, it is wrapped tightly in a bandage from 'from heel to shoulder" and remained thus for forty days, supposedly to give it "a good erect carriage." I think it sounds cruel. For females, ears are pierced, six holes per ear, and "loaded with heavy rings forever." On the fortieth day, when the bandages come off, the chief eunuch shaves the baby's head, and "it is dressed up in a silk shirt, a cap with gold braid, earrings, anklets, and bracelets," then taken out into the rest of the community. When it reaches three of four months, the child is given slaves, which will be its property.
When Salamah was nine, her father, the Sultan, took a voyage to Oman to regulate his government there, which he did on a regular basis, and would be gone a couple years. However, this time, his family in Zanzibar waited and waited, and began to become more and more uncomfortable with the situation the longer he remained away. They desperately tried to receive information, including from Gypsies and other soothsayers. One in particular, who was abnormally stout, claimed to be carrying a baby for years in her womb that could predict the future. The Sultan's family, however, eventually realized how they had been scammed—there was no baby talking inside the womb; the woman was just a very fat ventriloquist!
But alas, despite their hopes, the Sultan did not return. He died on the ship, which was the beginning of the end of the pleasant life at Zanzibar. Three years later, Salamah's beloved mother died of cholera. She was now an orphan at age fifteen.
Jealousies had sprung up, and then a full-fledged, violent dispute between brothers both claiming the right to be Sultan, and Salamah unwittingly became involved. The family unity had certainly been broken by this point.
Meanwhile, she had made friends with, and then fallen in love with a German merchant living next to her, Herr Ruete. Their relationship was forbidden, of course, so she managed to escape. Unfortunately, he was killed three years later, leaving her with three small children. This book was written, supposedly to give them a written account of her youth, but also because she needed money for support, since she had lost all claims on her wealth when she left.
Though by no means could I say this lady is a great writer, the personal perspective of which she has written makes this book well worth a read. Incidentally, there are quite a few pictures and illustrations also included, but, strangely enough, they don't necessarily pertain to the text, so therefore, this book will be found in the "non-fiction" index on this site rather than the "books with lots of pictures" index.
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