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THE AUTHOR:  SAYYIDA SALME / EMILY RUETE

19242024 a centennial anniversary

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Sayyida SalmePrincess Salme—was born in 1844 on the island of Zanzibar as the daughter of the great Omani Sultan Sayyid Said and his Circassian surie Djilfidan. She is remembered for what she did, including secretly teaching herself to write and later falling in love with a German merchant. She is also remembered for what she wrote, as the first Arab woman ever to publish a book.

In her Memoirs of an Arabian Princess, published in 1886, and in her subsequent Letters to the Homeland, we follow her journey from East to West, through her vivid recollections and prescient insights. Her account details her extraordinary transition from life as an Arab royal amidst harem politics to life as a Christian single mother raising a family in a foreign land.  

Having taken the name Emily in a Christian baptism and Ruete in a Christian marriage, both on the same day, she signed the Memoirs Preface as “Emily Ruete, born Princess of Oman and Zanzibar.”  But she notably also placed her Arabic signature on the title page, with her Arab self as the author. Over time, she kept both names close, one surely of necessity while living in Germany, the other intrinsic to her origins.

Beyond her double name that doubled her identity, we can also see her in an array of other dualities:

 

She was the consummate insider who became the observant outsider, the rare bird that flew the coop. She got caught in the currents of colonialism—first aided, then cornered, then jilted by the one power; useful, and then discarded by the other power. She changed her religion in good faith and remained a woman of great faith, even though she was condemned for giving up her Muslim faith. Split in two, she personified the bridge between East and West, but had to find strength in herself, as she lost her foothold on the one side and secured only weak moorings on the other. From young princess to young widow, she moved from a patriarchal dynasty to a patriarchal society—one box here, another box there—always finding her rights and agency curtailed. She was a pawn much of her life, driving her own destiny, but caught in the webs of other people and powers. And with that, she went from the height of privilege and prosperity to the edge of depression and poverty. Even so, when she passed away in 1924, Sayyida Salme/ Emily Ruete had outlived every one of her many Sultanate siblings and lived vigorously to tell the tale.

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