Memoirs of Sayyida Salme, 1: east-west and north-south differences

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.

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.


My mother was a Circassian by birth, who in early youth had been torN away from her home. Her father had been a farmer, and she had always lived peace- fully with her parents and her little brother and sister. War broke out suddenly, and the country was overrun by marauding bands; on their approach the family fled into an underground place, as my mother called it — she probably meant a cellar, which is not known in Zanzibar. Their place of refuge was, how- ever, invaded by a merciless horde, the parents were slain, and the children carried off by three mounted Arnauts. One of these, with her elder brother, soon disappeared out of sight; the other two, with my mother and her little sister, three years old, crying bitterly for her mother, kept together until evening, when they too parted, and my mother never heard any more of the lost ones ap long as she lived. P 6

It is generally believed by Europeans that with us the sons are greatly preferred to the daughters; but such was not the case in our ‘family. I know not a single instance in which the son was more liked by father or mother, merely because he happened to be a son. Though the law ib some cases favours sons more than daughters, and grants them larger privileges — as, for instance, in the division of inheritances — yet the children are everywhere loved and treated alike. It is, of course, but natural, and only human, that in the South, as well as all over the world, one child, whether boy or girl, is secretly more beloved by his parents than the other, but this is never shown openly. It was thus with our father also; for the two of his children he loved best were not sons, but daughters, Scharife and Chole. P 9

Both at Bet il Mtoni and at Bet il Sahel the meals were cooked in the Arab as well as in the Persian and Turkish manner. People of all races lived in these two houses — the races of various beauty. The slaves were dressed in Suahely style, but we were permitted to appear in Arab fashion alone. Any newly-arrived Circassian or Abyssinian woman had to exchange her ample robes and fantastic attire within three days for -the Arab costume provided for her.

Bonnets and gloves are no less indispensable articles of toilet to any Western lady or woman of respectability than jewelry is to us. Trinkets are considered so necessary, that even beggar-women may be seen plying their trade decked out in them. My father had special treasure chambers in both his houses at Zanzibar, and in his palace at Mesket, in Oman, amply stocked with sovereigns and gold pieces of Spanish and other coinage; besides these, however, they contained large assortments of feminine adornments, from the simplest article to the diamond-set crown, expressly procured to serve as presents. Each time an increase to the family had taken place, either by the purchase of a Sarari, or by the frequent births of princes or princesses, the doors of these chambers were opened, to take out presents for the new arrival according to its rank and station. On the seventh day after the birth of a child my father used to’ pay a visit to the infant and its mother to present some article of jewelry to the baby. In the same way a new Surie received at once the necessary jewels, and had her servants assigned to her by the chief eunuch. Pp 11-12

[It was decided that my mother and I were to move to my brother’s house in town. Upon the completion of our arrangements, ]

Our large room looked something like a beehive during the parting scenes with so many friends and acquaintances; everybody brought a parting gift in proportion to his means and affection. This is a custom very much in use with us, for no Arab will deny himself the pleasure of presenting a parting gift to his friend, even if he has nothing to give but the merest trifle. P 16

Women are as a rule forbidden by law to speak to a strange man. There is, however, an exception to this in two cases: they may appear before their sovereign and before a judge. As hardly any of these visitors in question were able to write or send a petition, there was nothing left for them but to undertake the short voyage from Asia to Africa, and to prefer their request in person. All of them received presents according to their position and rank freely, and with- out the numerous questions that a poor applicant in Europe is usually subjected to. It is taken for granted in our country that no respectable person will ask for assistance merely for the sake of begging, and this view proves correct in most cases. Pp 27-28

A painter would have found many models for a picture in our gallery, for a more variegated company could not easily be met with. The faces of the people showed eight to ten different shades of complexion at least; and it would, indeed, have puzzled even a clever artist to make out the many-tinted garments worn. The noise was truly appalling — quarrelling or romping children in every corner — loud voices and clapping hands summoning servants, the Eastern equivalent for ringing a bell — the rattle and clatter of the women’s wooden sandals (Kabakib) — all combined in producing the most distracting din.

Our chief amusement was listening to the babel of languages spoken in our midst. Arabic was the only language really sanctioned in my father’s presence. But as soon as he turned his back, a truly Babylonian confusion of tongues commenced, and Arabian, Persian, Turkish, Circassian, Swahely, Nubian, and Abyssinian were spoken and mixed up together, not to mention the various dialects of these tongues. This excitement seemed, however, to disturb no one, and only sick people complained of it sometimes. My father, too, had got quite accustomed to it, and never interposed. P 33

It may be thought strange, according to Western views, that a father so uneasy about the life of his child, and who sets aside all regards of etiquette in his anxiety, should find time to think of his weapons. Here, also, the saying comes true : “So many countries, so many customs.” Incomprehensible as this great attachment which the Arab has for his weapons may appear to a European, so incredible are to us some of the Northern habits, as that of excessive drinking in this country, for instance. P 42


How many times have I been asked: “Do please tell me how can people in your country manage to live, with nothing to do ? ” I had the pleasure of answer- ing this question six or eight times over at a large party, and I need not say how amusing and interesting it was to me to give the same reply so many times over. Coming from a person inhabiting a Northern country, the question is quite a natural one I admit, for it is hard for such to fancy a life without work, being firmly convinced, moreover, that women in the East do nothing all day but dream away their time in a shut-up harem, or, for a change, play with some luxurious toy.

The ways of life differ everywhere; all our views, our habits, and customs are shaped to suit our surroundings. Men and women work in the North either for an existence or for enjoyment. It is not so with people in our blessed South. I use the word ” blessed* ‘ advisedly, as I look upon the contentedness of a people as a great and priceless boon; and because the Arab, so frequently described in books as idle and lazy, is accustomed to an abstemiousness in which perhaps a Chinaman only equals him. The climate itself brings it about that the Southerner may work if he likes, while the Northerner is obliged to. Northern people are inclined somewhat to form opinions and prejudices in their own favour; they are accustomed to look down upon their antipodes proudly and contemptuously, which, to my taste at least, is not a very commendable quality to possess. It is but too often overlooked in this country how indispensable industry and activity are to the North to save hundreds of thousands from starvation. Are Italians, Spaniards, and Portuguese not a great deal less industrious than Englishmen or Germans ? And for what reason? Simply because their summer time lasts so much longer than their winter, and because they have not to struggle so hard for existence. In the cold season so many things of the direst necessity are required, the mere name and existence of which are beyond the comprehension of people in the South. Pp 48-49

Extravagant habits may be met with in every country. Those who possess both inclination and means will never lack the opportunity of gratifying the one and spending the other to the fullest, where- ever they may be. Indeed, I do not intend to enlarge on this subject, but merely draw comparisons between the respective requirements of different countries. P49

Countless objects are needed in this country to protect the frail life of a newborn child against the effects of an ever-changing temperature, while the Southern baby is left almost naked, and sleeps in a draught of warm air. Here a child of two years — from the richest to the poorest — cannot do without shoes, stockings, drawers, a dress, petticoats, gloves, bonnet, ties, gaiters, fur muff, and muffatees — their sole difference being quality; whilst there, all the clothing the son of a prince requires consists of two articles — a shirt and the kofije. P49-50

Now, I ask, is the Arab mother, who wants so very little for herself and for her child, to work as hard as the European housewife ? She has not the slightest idea what is meant by darning stockings or mending gloves, or of any of those numerous trifles that a nursery entails; and as for that important and troublesome domestic item, a washing-day, it is a thing to us unknown; our linen is washed daily, and dried in little more than half an hour, smoothed flat (not ironed), and put away. We do not use, and are therefore spared the anxiety of those useless ornaments called muslin curtains. The garments of an Eastern woman, those of the greatest lady included, require an incredibly small amount of attention and mending: this is easily explained, as women move very little either indoors or out, and have fewer dresses. P 50

All this helps to render life to Eastern women, without distinction of station and rank, much less complicated. But to become properly acquainted with, and to get initiated into all these minor details of household life, it is necessary to have been in the East, and to have lived there for a considerable time. No reliance is to be placed on the reports of travelers, who stop for a short time only, who are unable to gain an insight into all these details, and maybe obtain all their information from hotel waiters. Foreign ladies even, supposing they have actually entered a harem either at Constantinople or Cairo, have never seen the inside of a real harem at all, but only its outside, represented by the state rooms decorated and furnished in European style. Pp 50-51

Our climate, moreover, is so splendid and produc- tive that it is hardly necessary to provide for the coming day. I do not deny that our people, taken as a whole, are averse to ” flurry; ” but it will be easier to realize the effects of a tropical sun, if one only considers how very trying a hot July or August in Europe can be sometimes. P 51

I repeat it — Arabs are by no means inclined to be industrious; they only value two things, the art of war and husbandry, and but very few settle down to a trade. Though they are obliged to do much barter trade, they are poor merchants on the whole, and have but little of the Semitic talent for trading. Very little suffices for their few wants, and the future is left to provide for itself. An Arab never thinks of making plans for the morrow, as he may expect to be called away any day. He never plants but that which he can reap himself; and he considers him who acts otherwise to be “like the rich man who set up greater barns” (Luke xii.). P 51

In this way life in the East is less laborious and more peaceful : it was this that I wanted particularly to point out and to prove before entering on a more minute description of the daily life in an Arab house- hold. Let me, however, state expressly that I am only speaking here of things referring to Oman and Zanzibar, which, in many respects, differ from those in other Eastern countries. Pp 51-52

It is, therefore, quite a mistake to suppose that a great lady in the East does absolutely nothing. It is true she does not paint, nor play, nor dance (according to Western notions). But are there no other amuse- ments to divert oneself with ? People in our country are very temperate, and they are not given to a feverish pursuit of everchanging amusements and pleasures, though from the European point of view Oriental life may appear somewhat monotonous. P 55


No [Muslim] will suffer the assistance of a medical man in such cases; midwives alone are allowed and admitted P 61

The mother always watches over the child herself, and never leaves it to the care of any of her servants. P 62

On the fortieth day a ceremony is performed to which European children could not be subjected : all the hair is shaved off the child’s head. This may appear incredible, but many things in the South are different to what they are here. A bald-headed child would be considered as great a curiosity as a child born with a few tufts of hair is in this country. My Hamburg nurse was quite surprised when she saw my newborn daughter for the first time, whose black hair came down to her neck; nor was she satisfied until she had made my late husband bring home a small soft brush, with which she delighted in curling the baby locks two days old. Pp 62-63

Little children of this age in the East look, beyond a doubt, much better than European ones, in whose dresses white predominates. My opinion remains unchanged on this point even after my long residence in Europe, and my own children looked hideous to me in their baby clothes when I compared them with my little brothers and sisters in their pretty attire. P 64

The smallest children are already strongly perfumed, and everything they use and wear – dresses, sheets, bath towels, and swathing clothes – are covered all night with jessamine (different from that known here), fumigated with amber and musk, and sprinkled all over with ottar of roses before they are used. P 64

What a difference there is between [the wet nurses in Zanzibar] and the half-hearted interest shown by the nurses in this country! Many a time have I been unable to resist interceding in behalf of poor little nurslings when some flagrant carelessness forced itself upon my notice. P 67

The contrast which exists between the wet nurses of these parts and our Arab nurses may possibly be explained by the fact that in most cases the former are compelled to forsake their own children in exchange for a perfect little stranger – a sacrifice for which, every mother will admit, no consideration of mere money will compensate. Pp67-68

The position of a black wet nurse with regard to the child entrusted to her by her mistress in quite a different one… A black wet nurse is not required to part with her child, but frequently, if not always, she retains it. The child of the nurse receives the same nourishment as its little foster brother or sister, shares its pap, its fowl, its bath, wears its dresses, and by and by shares its toys. P 68

I have often reflected how very hard it must be for these poor women [European nurse maids] to part with their own children for the sake of lucre, though I have repeatedly been told that they are by no means so sensible of this as I supposed. This, however, I cannot understand. Could I ever entrust my poor helpless child to a perfect stranger, and with the greatest indifference too? Not for the world! P 68

Rearing children is unquestionably easier in the south than in Northern countries: colds, coughs, and other numerous assailants of European children are unknown there; yet although the climate is very hot, and indoor life is replete with enticing comforts, the children are not given to sluggishness and indolence; they are allowed to roam in full liberty and from them ode of their garments their limbs are nowise fettered. P 69


Besides reading and writing, we were taught a little arithmetic, that is, ciphering in writing up to 100, and up to 1000 mentally; everything beyond that was thought to be of evil. No pains were taken with either grammar or orthography; the very complicated “Ilnahu” can only be acquired by much reading in after years. Of such sciences as history, geography, mathematics, physics, and others I never heard – I only was made acquainted with these branches of science when I came to Europe. I am not sure, however, that I am so much better off now for the smattering I have acquired of these things at great pains, than the people on the other side. This only I know, that my increased knowledge has not saved me from being repeatedly deceived and swindled. Oh, ye happy ones at home who are spared the inevitable sorrows which lie beneath the dazzling gauze of civilization! P 75

In general I am of opinion that Europeans exact just that too much from a school … There is hardly any science which the children are not taught here, and to such an extent that the childish understanding cannot possibly retain all. With the beginning of school life parents see hardly anything of their children. The later are so much overtasked, even after their regular school-hours, that home life and influence are almost at an end. There is a continued race and chase all day from task to task, and how much of these studies will be of lasting value to them? How much of it is crammed, only to be forgotten again as quickly! To my idea, a few extra hours spent in their home would leave a healthier impression on their minds and memories by and by. P 77

For five or more hours daily the poor children are cooped up in a schoolroom which is insufferably hot and stifling. In one school, with more than two hundred children, I remarked that there were only four tumblers. Can any one be surprised under such circumstances if a child sickens? … What is the use of all accomplishments if they are acquired by ruining health? Pp 77-78

Of that feeling of respect which was inculcated into us in early youth for our parents, teachers, and tutors, and old age in general, there is not much to be perceived here. The lessons in religion also seem to me to miss their aim; the children are overburdened with learning numberless dates of ecclesiastical history, while their hearts remain a barren soil. P 78

Let wise men continue their investigations and their broodings; but let them cease cramming children’s minds with dry unprofitable stuff that the brain cannot digest and the soul sickens with and dies. P 78

I was shocked, in looking over some statistics on lunacy, to find that the majority of these deplorable cases were returned from former students of high schools and universities. A good many of these surely were the victims of overpressure. I could not help thinking of my native home, where lunatic asylums are not needed, where I never saw but two maniacs and never heard of any other. Pp 78-79

I have no desire to criticize European culture, nor am I able to do so; I only wished to speak of my own observations, which convinced me that there are many sad failures in the European educational system. But at all events, I shall be pardoned if I question the right which Europeans take upon themselves in deploring the fate of a people as yet “unenlightened,” and their justification in forcibly imparting their civilization on the same… Civilization cannot be obtruded by force, and it will only be just to concede to every nation the right of adhering without hindrance to their views and institutions, which have in the course of centuries been founded under the influence of ripened experience and practical worldly wisdom. Pp 79-80


[In the South] all clothing was hand-made… All dresses rejoice in a uniformly simple cut, alike for men and women, differing only in materials and trimmings. The abomination of tight-lacing, or lacing of any kind, has not yet found its way into the elegant world of the East, neither that fickle goddess [fashion], at whose shrine there is so much blind and reckless worship in these enlightened lands of Europe. Pp 84-85

What struck me, years ago, before I became accustomed to the fact, was that the ladies I came into contact with in my new European home, and who had, I knew, from their childhood up, received the most thorough and comprehensive mental training – that these ladies, I say, should never find any other topic of conversation but the one all-important, all engrossing – dress. Pp 85-86

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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 1 of selection here. […]

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