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From Zanzibar to Berlin and Beyond

Emily Ruete’s Memoirs of an Arabian Princess
 


“Nine years ago I formed the notion of recording some episodes from my life for my children, who had previously known nothing of my background other than that I was an Arab and hailed from Zanzibar.” This is how Emily Ruete begins her Memoirs of an Arabian Princess, the earliest published autobiography of an Arab woman. First published in 1886 by H. Rosenberg (Berlin), and later that year by Friedrich Luckhardt, the memoirs went through four print runs in one year. 2011 saw the 125th anniversary of Emily Ruete’s book, which has increasingly been re-evoked, reprinted and “retold” in recent years, and which seems destined for a long and colourful afterlife.

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Emily Ruete was born in Zanzibar in 1844 as Sayyida (a title she translated as “Princess”) Salme bint Said bin Sultan, daughter of the Sultan of Oman and Zanzibar. After an eventful childhood and young adulthood in various residences on the island, which she describes in detail in her memoirs, she moved in her early twenties into a house in the town. Her neighbour was the German trader Heinrich Ruete. The couple fell in love; the princess became pregnant and left the island secretly for Aden, while Heinrich, who had stayed on in Zanzibar – unchallenged – to wind up his business affairs, followed her some months later. Salme was christened Emily and married Heinrich Ruete the same day, and the couple immediately set sail for Europe to live in Hamburg, Heinrich’s home town. After Heinrich’s death in an accident with a horse-drawn tram in 1870, Emily Ruete, now mother to three small children, made the difficult decision to stay in Germany. In financial hardship and desperate to claim her inheritance, she became embroiled in Bismarck’s Kolonialpolitik in later years. Her “Letters Home”, building on her memoirs, tell of her less than positive experiences in an often prejudiced German society.

“The story of her life is as instructive as history and as fascinating as fiction”, gushed Oscar Wilde in his review of the memoirs in The Woman’s World (1888). Wilde’s effusive words were nevertheless prophetic – Emily Ruete’s life story has inspired both of these interpretations in recent years. For some authors the so-called “abduction” was the stuff of fairy tales (see the innumerable, orientalising versions in the illustrated magazines of the late nineteenth century) and, more recently, of romance novels. These were all quick to evoke The Abduction from the Seraglio and the Arabian Nights, employing predictable stereotypes. Some earlier reviewers emphasised instead the practical, social, and historical value of the narrative, although this value was predominantly viewed as serving German interests in Africa. This socio-historical value has probably become the most prominent interpretation today, with the usefulness of the memoirs seen less in their highlighting of “what was/is going on in Africa” than in their perceived illumination of a “fashionable” topic of our time, namely the “inner life” of Muslim women.

Ruete’s narrative contains much more than the title of the new German edition “Life in the Sultan’s Palace” would suggest. It includes a passionate denunciation of the perfidy of the British Government, a sense of confusion at being used by the great powers in their scramble for Africa, as well as aspects that are unpalatable for today’s reader: good advice for German colonists, and, above all, a defence of slavery. The slavery angle has rightly become a focus of attention in postcolonial and other recent engagements with Ruete’s work – directly in an “Intervention” staged by the artist HMJokinen (2009) which sets the opposing figure of a formerly enslaved woman against an exhibition on Ruete’s life. These aspects are also taken up in the juxtaposition and interweaving of Ruete’s life story with that of slave trader Tippu Tip in Hans Christoph Buch’s novel Sansibar Blues (Die Andere Bibliothek/Eichborn, 2008), as well as in Christiane Bird’s popular-historical exploration The Sultan’s Shadow (Random House, 2010).

Ruete ends her preface by sending her book on a journey “out into the world.” En route the memoirs have undergone numerous transformations and have played a part in many and varied discussions.


This online exhibition presents a selection of items from the 2011 exhibition “Von Sansibar nach Berlin und weiter – 125 Jahre Emily Ruetes Memoiren einer arabischen Prinzessin” [“From Zanzibar to Berlin and Beyond – 125 Years of Emily Ruete’s Memoirs of an Arabian Princess”], curated by Dr Kate Roy (Holder of a 2010 Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation Scholarship and currently Leverhulme Visiting Fellow at the University of Liverpool) in collaboration with Ursula Jäcker, (Research Librarian for German Studies, Berlin State Library). Dr Roy’s participation in the 2011 exhibition was made possible with the support of Women in German Studies.