Why you should care
Sayyida Salme was the first Arab woman to publish her memoirs in the West.
Pictures of Saudi teenager Rahaf Mohammed, the daughter of a minor Saudi official, went around the world in January when she successfully slipped away from her family — she said they abused her — boarded a plane to Thailand and later found refuge in Canada. Last year, Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, whose father rules the United Arab Emirates, tried to escape her family but was intercepted. But these getaways, while dramatic, are nothing new: More than 150 years ago, the daughter of Zanzibar’s Sultan, Sayyida Salme, was planning a similar departure, which would dramatically alter the course of her life.
It was during the windy season of 1866. Rumors of Salme’s love affair with the German merchant Rudolph Ruete had spread like wildfire through Zanzibar’s Stone Town and when her brother Sultan Majid caught news of it, he ordered her not to leave town. Her family would never accept a foreign spouse for the Sultan’s youngest daughter, and certainly not a German man. Salme realized that a life with Ruete in Zanzibar was impossible and was desperate to leave. Looking for allies, she reached out to the British consul, who, fearing she would be executed for her affair, arranged for her to depart on a British warship bound for British-controlled Aden. Salme packed a few belongings and sailed north.
“She took a huge risk. She obviously thought that she was in a difficult situation and because of her strained relationship with her family she had little to lose. It was a leap into the unknown,” says Professor Jeremy Prestholdt from University of California at San Diego, who has done extensive research on Salme’s life and 19th-century Zanzibar.
Born in 1844, the daughter of the Omani Sultan of Zanzibar, Said bin Sultan, and his concubine Djilfidan, Sayyida Salme was brought up in a world of privilege and hierarchy. Early in her life, however, she stood out as a daring and unconventional princess. Secretly, she taught herself to write by copying passages from the Quran onto a camel shoulder blade and at the age of 16, she acted as party secretary to her brother Barghash during his attempt to overthrow his older brother Majid. Barghash later lost the battle for the throne and was exiled to India. Salme was allowed to stay, but for her disloyalty, she was given the collective cold shoulder. “She was alienated from her family,” says Prestholdt.
With her family turned against her, Salme found a friend among the foreigners in Stone Town. Rudolph Heinrich Ruete lived opposite her townhouse and from her balcony, she could catch glimpses of him and his European guests. Soon, they would arrange secret meetings in the countryside. “I think they had an intimate and loving relationship,” says Prestholdt, “but it wasn’t possible in Zanzibar.”
Once in Aden, Salme waited for Ruete — and during the nine months it took him to wrap up his work, she gave birth to their first son. Although Sultan Majid tasked the local elite with convincing her to return home, Salme was steadfast in her decision to stay with Ruete. When he finally arrived in 1867, Salme converted to Christianity and the couple married. They took off for Europe that same day.
She arrived in Hamburg as Emily Ruete, a 23-year-old Arabian princess who had to conform to her new identity as a lady of the German upper class. It wasn’t easy. In letters to her sister, she described how she stayed away from pork and how the church made her anxious. “She felt like she was culturally out of place, and she saw a lot of moral corruption in Germany,” says Prestholdt.
When her husband died in a tram accident just three years later, Salme was forced to navigate German society on her own.
Desperate to provide for her three children, she began to offer private lessons in Swahili and Arabic, and in her quiet hours, she would write about her life as a princess in Zanzibar. What started as long letters intended for her children later became the first published memoirs by an Arab woman. Issued in German in 1886, Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar drew wide attention among Europe’s literary circles, and Salme became a celebrity for offering a view into the Sultan’s harem. But she did more than deliver a fascinating account of palace life; she challenged Europe’s supreme power position.
“Her voice was one of the rare ones that offered a strong criticism of imperialism,” says Prestholdt.
In her memoirs, Salme confronted the rationale that colonization was a humanitarian act of civilizing the peoples of Africa and the Middle East. She questioned the right of Europeans to view others as “unenlightened” and wrote that her intention was to remove “many misconceptions and distortions current about the East.” For an Arab woman to criticize the European powers was unheard of at the time. “Even in this century of railroads and rapid communication, so much ignorance still exists among European nations of the customs and institutions of their own immediate neighbors,” she wrote.
“She was extremely courageous, taking the risk to project her story to the world and criticizing imperialism and representations of Africa and the Middle East. That was in a way revolutionary,” Prestholdt says.
In her later years, Salme found a home in Beirut, which offered her room for both her European and Arabian identities. Despite several attempts at recovering her inheritance, her appeals were consistently rejected by the Zanzibar court. In 1924, she passed away in Jena, Germany, and her ashes were buried next to her husband in Hamburg. Buried alongside her urn was a small bag of sand from Zanzibar she had always kept with her.