Memoirs of Sayyida Salme, 2: the married life

These selections are from Emily Said Ruete’s Memoirs of an Arabian Princess. She was born in Zanaibar as Princess Salme bint Said ibn Sultan al-Bu Saidi, a.k.a Sayyida Salme. Some bio and version notes here, and part 1 of selection here.

I’m basing the selection on the public domain copy available at Archive.Org as:
Ruete, Emily. Memoirs of an Arabian Princess: An Autobiography. Translated from German by unknown translator. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1888.
Archive.Org’s live text version is missing pages 56-94 and other chunks and has many typos. I am comparing it with the print copy (actual 1888 publication which still resides in University of Toronto’s library collection, tattered as it is) for corrections and for typing missing parts. Page numbers are the same in both the online and the print version.

I am convinced that, as a woman born in the East, people will be apt to think me partial, and I fear I shall not succeed in eradicating altogether the false and preposterous views existing in Europe, and specially in Germany, on the position of the Arab wife to her husband.


In spite of the easier ways of communication in these days, the East is still too much considered the land of fairy-tales, about which all sorts of stories may be told with impunity. A traveler making a few weeks’ tour to Constantinople, to Syria, Egypt, Tunis, or Morocco, sets about at once to write a big book on the life and the customs of the East. He has been able to judge only quite superficially of these, and has seen absolutely nothing of domestic life. He contents himself with setting down the distorted stories and second-hand accounts of the French or German waiters at his hotel, or from sailors and donkey boys, and considers these sources of information perfectly reliable and trustworthy. But even from these there is not much to learn, and accordingly he throws the reins over the neck of his imagination, and gallops away into fable-land. The only necessary merit of his book, he thinks, is amusement and entertainment, which are the sugar-plums between the pages, and lure the reader on, and his production i& pronounced “such a success!” Pp 146-47


My own experience, I admit, was somewhat similar — for I myself judged things in Europe at first by their outward appearance only. When I first met in European society faces beaming all over with smiles, I was, of course, led to believe that the condition of husband and wife must be much better regulated, and that connubial happiness was a thing much more frequently met here than in the Mahometan East. When, however, my children had outgrown the age when a mother’s continual presence is more desirable than her absence, and I was able to go more into society, I soon perceived that I had completely misjudged men as well as the general state of affairs. I have watched many cases of what is called “wedded life,” in which the parties seemed to be chained together expressly to make each other suffer excruciating torments. I have seen too many of such unhappy cases to make me believe that Christian wedlock stands on a higher level or renders people much happier than the Mahometan. To my mind married life, in the first instance, cannot be made more or less happy by any particular religion, or by existing views or habits alone; matrimonial happiness can alone depend upon real congeniality and harmony between husband and wife. Where these exist, happiness and peace will always predominate, and from them will spring in time that harmonious sympathy which wedlock truly ought, and is intended to be. Pp 147-48


Women in the East can love more deeply than their cooler Northern sisters. By jealousy polygamy [in the East] is turned into a source of great vexation and torment — and that is well. Many a man of sufficient wealth to facilitate this has a horror of daily scenes, and therefore he prefers monogamy, which acts as a further check to this bad custom. No sensible man, and surely no woman, can excuse or defend polygamy. Bui now comes another question. How is it with Christians? How about wedded life in civilized Europe? I will say nothing of the fact that in a Christian state the Mormons, a sect who call themselves Christians, are publicly and openly avowed polygamists. Is wedlock always considered a sacred institution in moral Europe? Is it not bitter irony and delusion to talk of only “one” wife? The Christian may, of course, marry one woman only, and that is the great superiority of Christianity; the Christian law requires the just and the good, the Mahometan allows the evil; but custom and practice mitigate to a great extent in the East the evil consequences of the law, while sin is rampant here in spite of it. I should say the only difference in the position of a married woman in the East and in Europe to be, that the former knows the number as well as the characters of her rivals, while the latter is kept in a state of considerate ignorance about them. Pp 149-50


Certainly there exists in Zanzibar as well as in this country the uncomfortable character known as the domestic tyrant. But I may state upon my conscience that I have heard here a good deal more of loving husbands who sometimes think fit to establish their argument by physical manipulation. Any decent Arab would feel ashamed and dishonoured by such an action. P 153


Some fashionable mothers in Europe shift this duty on to the nurse, and by and by on the governess, and are quite satisfied with looking up their children or receiving their visits, once a day. In France the child is sent to be nursed in the country, and left to the care of strangers. P 155


Whenever, therefore, a European lady called upon us, the enormous circumference of her hoops (which were the fashion then, and took up the entire width of the stairs) was the first thing to strike us dumb with wonder; after which the very meagre conversation generally confined itself on both sides to the mysteries of the different costumes; and the lady retired as wise as she was when she came, after having been sprinkled over by the Eunuchs with ottar of roses, and being the richer for some parting presents. It is true, she had been to and entered a Harem, she had seen the much-pitied oriental ladies (though only through their veils), she had with her own eyes seen our dresses, our jewelry, the nimbleness with which we sat down on the floor — and that was all. She could not boast of having seen more than any other foreign lady who had called before her. She is conducted upstairs and downstairs again by the Eunuchs, and is watched all the time. Barely she sees more than the reception room, and more rarely still can she guess or find out who the veiled lady is with whom she conversed. In short, she has had no opportunity whatsoever of learning anything of domestic life or the position of Eastern women. P 156


In Arabia matches are generally arranged by the father, or by the head of the family. There is nothing peculiar in this, as the same is done even in Europe, where man and woman are allowed to meet freely. Does it not often happen here that a reckless father who has run deeply into debt sees no way out of his difficulties but by the sacrifice of his pretty daughter to some creditor; or that a fashion- able, pleasure-loving mother hurries her child into marriage for the sole purpose of obtaining an undisputed sway? P 163

Amongst the Arabs there are just as many despotic parents, who care as little for the happiness of their children, or listen to the voice of conscience. P 163


Under any circumstances the betrothal never lasts long, as but few arrangements are, necessary in our blessed South. There we know nothing of the hundred and one things considered indispensable to Northern people on such occasions, and an Eastern bride would become speechless with surprise at the sight of a European trousseau. Why are people in these parts so very fond of loading their new bark with such a quantity of unnecessary ballast?


I remember reading once about a fashion that prevailed in France at one time, of employing only one particular hairdresser who was very clever, and that this man, in order to satisfy on festive occasions his numerous customers, had to begin his work on the previous day, and that the ladies were compelled to pass all night seated in their high-backed chairs without stirring, so as not to disarrange their fashion- able head-dress. P 192

The scene is something like that in a European ball-room, with the difference that quieter colours or white dresses prevail there. I wonder what a European belle would think of an Arab lady’s “full dress,” and whether she would care to exchange her gauzy and delicately tinted ball costume for the following combination: a loose red silk dress, richly embroidered with gold thread in different patterns, elaborately trimmed with gold or silver lace, and satin trousers of bright green. It sounds odd, I own, but habit soon does away with a great many of our scruples. I was struck with something of the same feeling, but from a perfectly opposite cause when for the first time I saw people in Europe dressed in sober grey and black. I was far from overjoyed at having to adopt these dark shades myself, and being told that they were conformable with good taste and breeding. P 193

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  1. […] These selections are from Emily Said Ruete’s Memoirs of an Arabian Princess. She was born in Zanaibar as Princess Salme bint Said ibn Sultan al-Bu Saidi, a.k.a Sayyida Salme. Some bio and version notes here, and part 2 of selection here. […]

  2. […] Part 1 of selected passages here, and part 2 of selected passages here. […]