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  • Writer's pictureAndrea Emily Stumpf

100 Years

Updated: Mar 1


Today, February 29, 2024, marks 100 years since Sayyida Salme’s passing. Since 100 is divisible by 4, that works out. Leap day only comes around once a quartet.


It is tempting to read into the timing. She did not die on just any day – it was that tucked-in, in-between day. And so she lived in that liminal space even into her dying. (See my first blogpost, The Liminal In-Between.) It was as if she could not leave this earth except through a sideways portal, having forsaken a straightforward path already decades before.


Sayyida Salme died in Germany, where she spent her last decade. Her end came amidst family at the home of her youngest daughter, my great-grandmother, Rosa Troemer. This was in Jena, no more than two dozen short miles from Rudolstadt, where she had lasted only two years many years before – feeling like a zoo spectacle there, the talk of the town, so public and yet so alone.


It was in Rudolstadt that her son Said skirted death with diphtheria, after which her two daughters lay deathly ill with scarlet fever. Said continued to be susceptible, and Sayyida Salme herself thought time and again that she was near the end, it was all just too much. This was why she started writing her Memoirs, so the children could know her story.

Physically and emotionally spent, I did not expect to last long enough to see them into adulthood to then tell them about my fateful journey and childhood memories. I therefore decided to write up my experiences and undertook the project with great love and dedication, knowing it was for my dear children, whose tenderness had comforted me during long and troubled years and whose deep empathy has sustained me through my trying times. (Memoirs, Preface, p. 1)

In these solitary moments, no husband, no parents, no extended family nearby, she surely recalled her traumatic witness to her mother’s death when cholera swept across Zanzibar, and her husband’s tragic demise on the tram circuit. Both ends came abruptly, swiftly, and cruelly cast down healthy souls. That Sayyida Salme was still alive well into the twentieth century may have struck her as – odd, if not simply as fate.


She began life as one of the youngest children out of perhaps a hundred and more, born when her father was already 53, to one of seventy-five sarari. Her mother had been brought into the harem at an unusually young age herself – experiencing the Sultan as a father-figure before she became a mother, as I have noted (Memoirs, p. 237). Both mother and daughter were a generation behind many of their contemporaries. We do not know Djilfidan’s age, but Salme was already her second child, the first one having died early – even if this particular sentence in the original Memoiren was strangely left out of both the 1888 and 1907 English translations. Sayyida Salme, too, lost her firstborn, although she never talked or wrote about him.[1] Young deaths were a fact of life, particularly in a country where cures could be deadlier than ailments.

Out of general medical ignorance, we were always beholden to wretched quackery. Now, after having gotten to know the natural and sensible way that doctors handle things here, I fear that many of our dead may have fallen victim to the barbaric treatments more than the disease. Were it not for the unwavering, rock-solid belief in our “destiny,” I am not sure we could have endured the oh! so many deaths in our family and all around us with such resignation! (Memoirs, p. 37)

 As it were, Sayyida Salme outlived every one of her siblings, all the other half-sisters and half-brothers. Living into her eightieth year was no mean feat back then, even if her grandfather, the original Sultan of the Al Bu Said dynasty lasted until age 89.[2] Average life expectancy in the early part of the twentieth century in Germany was below 50. Considering the amount of risk Sayyida Salme undertook and the stress she endured, not to mention the toxic amounts of chloral hydrate, quinine, and bromide she was prescribed and imbibed over the years, her longevity is noteworthy.

 

Sayyida Salme also outlived her husband by half a century, with only three years of marriage followed by fifty-four years of widowhood. That she never remarried was unconventional for the time. Her writings give us no indication of any effort on her part to find a suitable suitor – if there could have been one – even if social expectations would have dictated the same. A husband could have given her financial stability, legal status, and social standing, with so much of the patriarchy curtailing women’s rights and agency. But no, she was truly her own person in so many ways.

 

Much as she originally wrote the Memoirs for her children, she may have written Letters to the Homeland for them, too – but this time simply left the manuscript behind. She must have known that they would find it among her belongings, a shocking account of a time they would have been too young to remember. And so in death, they got to know their mother all over again – her “martyrdom” as Rosa wrote her brother. With this éclat, Sayyida Salme spoke to her children after her passing, and even now – a centennial later – she continues to express herself to us.

 

I will add one last detail that is always shared about her passing, that she was buried alongside her husband with a small sack of Zanzibari sand that was also found among her belongings, forever keeping a foothold in her homeland.

 

Let history surprise you; let her story inspire you – let her authentic voice speak to you.


(c) Andrea Emily Stumpf, February 29, 2024

* Photo of the gravestones in the Ohlsdorf Cemetery in Hamburg from researcher Godwin Kornes (2020).


[1] We know now that six-month-old Heinrich tragically died on the train from Lyon to Paris. Perhaps also relevant, as French-Algerian journalist Salima Talha has explained to me, is that Arab custom for some includes not speaking of children who died as infants.

[2] In a striking parallel almost exactly a century later, the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who launched Oman into the modern age, also lived into his eightieth year, just like Sayyida Salme. For those who like numbers, his lifetime ran from 1940-2020 and hers from 1844-1924.

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Irma Alpenidze
Irma Alpenidze
01 mar

Dear Andrea, thank you immensely for sharing this delightful blog, which beautifully resurrects the essence of a remarkable woman. It's truly enlightening to contemplate how our lifestyles have evolved amidst enduring challenges, yet stories of resilience like this one serve as a beacon of hope. Your words have undoubtedly uplifted my spirits today.

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