Navigation Kopfzeile

Emily Ruete’s ‘Memoirs of an Arabian Princess’

‘What transformations I’d been through over the years…’: Memoirs of an Arabian Princess turns 125,
by Kate Roy
Memoiren einer arabischen Prinzessin,
4th edition, 1886

‘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…’ – so opens Emily Ruete’s Memoiren einer arabischen Prinzessin (‘Memoirs of an Arabian Princess’), generally acknowledged as the earliest surviving, published autobiography of an Arab woman. First appearing in 1886 with Berlin publishers H. Rosenberg, and later with Friedrich Luckhardt, it ran to four editions that same year. 2011 marks the book’s 125th anniversary. Though not a new German book, it is one that has been increasingly re-evoked, reprinted and ‘retold’, and seems destined for a long and colourful afterlife.
Emily Ruete was born in Zanzibar in 1844 as Sayyida (which she translated as ‘Princess’) Salme bint Said ibn Sultan, daughter of the Sultan of Oman and Zanzibar. After an eventful childhood and young adulthood in various residences around the island, detailed in her memoirs, she moved in her early twenties to a house in the town, next door to German trader Heinrich Ruete. The pair fell in love; the princess became pregnant and fled to Aden, where she was joined some months later by Heinrich, who had stayed on in Zanzibar – unchallenged – to wind up his business affairs. She was baptised and married on the same day, immediately setting sail for Europe. Landing in Marseille, they eventually continued by train to Heinrich’s home town of Hamburg, a journey on which their first-born child died. After Heinrich’s own death in a tram accident in 1870, Emily Ruete, mother to three young children, made the difficult decision to stay on in Germany. In financial straits and desperate to claim what she perceived was her rightful inheritance, the coming years saw her embroiled in Bismarck’s aspirations for East Africa.
‘The story of her life is as instructive as history and as fascinating as fiction,’ wrote Oscar Wilde in his 1888 review of the memoirs in Woman’s World. Wilde’s words were prophetic – Emily Ruete’s story has inspired both these treatments in the intervening years. The ‘elopement’ seemed the stuff of fairy tales (witness the countless versions in late-nineteenth-century illustrated magazines with their requisite set of familiar characters) and romance novels (the latest from 2010), all quick to evoke shades of The Abduction from the Seraglio and the Arabian Nights. And Ruete herself was characteristically – and significantly – prosaic here: ‘Our friendship, which gradually evolved into a deep love, was soon known about the city and my brother Majid also learned of it – I never experienced hostility from him on this account, let alone the imprisonment that has been the subject of some tall tales.’ But some early reviewers and the second English translator were quick to acknowledge the practical, social, and historical value of the memoirs. The latter is probably the foremost interpretation today, where its usefulness for highlighting ‘what is/was going on in Africa’ has given way to its perceived illumination of an obsession of our times, the ‘inner life’ of Muslim women. We move, to take just a few examples, from Wilde’s primary observation that Ruete’s book ‘protests against the idea that Oriental women are degraded or oppressed’, through French historian and literary critic Arvede Barine’s 1889 indignation that the pages ‘are written with the conviction that they will shake up our ideas’, to Fedwa Malti-Douglas’ 1996 verdict that the narrative is by no means tied to its time, but has ‘the ability to insert itself into many of the contemporary debates on the Muslim world both in the East and the West.’
Frank and open about her attitudes, Ruete’s narrative contains much more than the title of its new German version, ‘Life in the Sultan’s Palace’, would suggest, not all of it palatable for the modern reader: a passionate denunciation of the perfidy of the English government; a sense of confusion at being used and abused by great powers in the scramble for Africa; more controversially, advice for German would-be colonists; and most controversially of all, a defence of slavery. The slavery angle has rightly taken its place in postcolonial and other recent revisitings of her work: directly in a 2009 ‘intervention’ by the artist Jokinen, setting the opposing figure of a former slave against an exhibition on Ruete’s life; and by juxtaposition and interweaving with the life story of slave-trader Tippu Tip in Hans Christoph Buch’s novel Sansibar Blues (Eichborn, 2008) and Christiane Bird’s historical exploration The Sultan’s Shadow (Random House, 2010).
Stylised cover image of Ruete, 1907
English-language version

Two English-language versions of Ruete’s memoirs are readily accessible, an 1888 anonymous translation, published by Ward and Downey (London) and D. Appleton (New York), and a 1907 version translated by Lionel Strachey, and originally published by Doubleday, Page & Co. (New York). Both have sparked a flurry of reprintings in the last few years (in many cases by publishers with little knowledge of the original, but prizing the perceived ‘documentary value’ of the text), so that to date we have to negotiate their foibles – the older clunky and sometimes inaccurate, and the younger with some substantial cuts and a rather more sensational framing of the contents. Arguably neither captures the energy and seemingly stylised simplicity of the original. An ‘academic’ version also exists in E. van Donzel’s somewhat heftily-priced An Arabian Princess Between Two Worlds (Brill, 1993), perhaps best read in the numerous libraries it has made its home. His is, to date, the only work to include a translation of Ruete’s later texts, in particular her ‘Letters Home’ which chart her less than positive experiences in an often prejudiced German society.
As the memoirs move into an age of print-on-demand and Kindle (a ‘Victorian erotica’ version is currently on the market), they continue to be retold in new formats and media. 2007 saw a documentary film, and there is talk of an opera.
‘So let my book make its way out into the world,’ wrote Ruete in the conclusion to her preface, ‘and win just as many friends for itself as I have been fortunate enough to find wherever I have gone.’ Did she imagine quite how far – and how long – it would roam?
Kate Roy
is a Leverhulme Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Liverpool and a John Dryden Translation Prize recipient for 2011. She is currently working on the various incarnations of Emily Ruete’s life story, old and new.