Jonathan Yardley

Book review of "The Sultan's Shadow," about a 19th-century Arab princess.

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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, July 11, 2010


One Family's Rule at the Crossroads of East and West

By Christiane Bird

Random House. 374 pp. $28

Christiane Bird's account of the Al Busaidi sultans in Oman and Zanzibar during the 19th century is, she says, "a tale rich with modern-day themes: Islam vs. Christianity, religion vs. secularism, women's rights, human rights, multiculturalism, and a nation's right to construct its own destiny." In truth those themes are not quite so visible in "The Sultan's Shadow" as its author would have us believe, for despite her lucid prose and dogged research, the book never comes together into a coherent whole. Instead, it is an oddly arranged miscellany, some parts of which are exceptionally interesting, but she never manages to connect them to each other in a convincing fashion.

Part of the problem may simply be that she is trying to tell a complicated story that few in the West know anything about. At the outset, as she presents it, we are led to believe that this is the story of a sultan named Seyyid Said and his daughter, Seyyida Salme, a.k.a., Emily Ruete, and that story alone contains enough interest and drama to make a compelling book. Bird insists on dragging in so much peripheral or tangential material, however, that the reader too often becomes lost in side excursions as well as "the endless fray of alliances and betrayals that characterized life in the royal Al Busaidi family," all of them involving equally endless lists of Arabic names and surnames that cumulatively have the same numbing effect as the names in a 19th-century Russian novel.

Boiled down to its essence, the tale begins with the ascension of Seyyid Said to the Omani sultanate in the 1820s after a prolonged (and thoroughly confusing) period of violent squabbling that culminated in the murder of a rival. He seems to have been a remarkable man who "committed his share of atrocities when dealing with his enemies but was a just and liberal ruler at home, beloved by his people, especially as he grew older." The celebrated explorer Richard Burton called him "as shrewd, liberal and enlightened a prince as Arabia has ever produced," and an Italian physician who served him for a time said: "His constant love of justice, and distinguished clemency, the effects of which are felt, not only by his own subjects, but even by his domestic slaves, make us endeavor to forget the deep atrocity of that crime which places him on the throne."

The country where he took command today is "the Sultanate of Oman, a modern nation with clearly defined borders, but during Seyyid Said's time, ["Oman"] was used more loosely, to refer to a broad swath of territory centered on the country's northwestern mountains." Strategically located then as now, with direct access to the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea, it was an important link for trade between East and West, which included the East African slave trade. This trafficking in human lives was then, and remains now, far less known than the West African trade that fed markets in the New World, but it was big business: "During the mid- to late 1800s, when Seyyid Said and his sons were in power, over a million Africans may have been abducted from East and Central Africa to Zanzibar, with between a third and a half then shipped farther north -- to Arabia, Turkey, Syria, the Persian Gulf, and India."

Slaves brought to Oman "were treated relatively well -- though there can be no such thing as a 'good' slave system." The traffic in slaves intensified after Said moved his capital to the island of Zanzibar, that "romantic land of lustrous white beaches and swaying dark green palm trees . . . twenty miles off the coast of East Africa," which he chose because it was "an ideal central refuge for the Indian Ocean traders, who stopped here to rest, repair their ships, and replenish their supplies," and because "it provided a safe anchorage year round." Before long it was discovered that Zanzibar had perfect conditions for growing cloves, which quickly became a central part of its economy and further enriched the Al Busaidi family. Harvesting cloves required skilled workers, which meant that experienced slaves were treated far better than those elsewhere, though scarcely so well as if they had been free. Among them were numerous concubines:

"Most ordinary Arabs in Zanzibar owned concubines, and they often had more children through these relationships than they did with their legitimate wives. Seyyid Said's family composition was the norm, not the exception. Every child born to an Arab father and a concubine was regarded as an Arab, and was treated, in theory at least, as the social equal of their freeborn siblings."

We don't know how many concubines served Seyyid Said's pleasure, but doubtless there were scores of them. One was Djilfidan, "a tall Circassian slave with knee-length, jet-black hair," who in August 1844 gave birth at Zanzibar to a daughter, Salme. Salme lived there throughout childhood and adolescence, developing "the outspoken, independent, and impulsive spirit that would get her into so much trouble later in life." She received a bit of education -- Arab girls usually got the short end of the educational stick -- but was given ample opportunity for healthy play: "She and her siblings were left largely on their own from dawn until dusk -- free to roam about the palace and its grounds, play tag among the clove trees, or go down to the beach to swim and sail boats."

Her father died suddenly in October 1856, leaving his 12-year-old daughter bereft and ending her innocence at a very early age. There ensued the predictable struggle to succeed him, which eventually was won by her brother Majid, "a gentle and amiable person who . . . lacked the charisma and force of character of his father, but was an effective and steady ruler." At a very early age, Salme was drawn into palace intrigue, not all of which turned out to her credit, and then "sometime after July 1865" she met, and soon fell in love with, "a tall, blond German businessman named Heinrich Ruete." This romantic entanglement of East and West was "an astonishing development for that time and place," and became all the more so when, the following year, she managed to escape from Zanzibar -- an act of "extraordinary courage" -- and to marry Ruete in May 1867, six months after giving birth to his child.

It was a happy marriage. The first child died at an early age, but three others were born later; Salme "was a devoted mother and throughout her life would make many decisions based almost exclusively on the welfare of her children." But Salme hated Hamburg, to which she and Ruete moved shortly after their marriage, and after her husband's death in 1870 in an accident, she felt completely lost. Her "position in Hamburg society devolved overnight from that of an exotic, mysterious princess married to a wealthy, well-respected businessman to that of a lonely and needy widow with three small children to support." She missed Zanzibar dreadfully, but her brother Seyyod Barghash, who had assumed the sultanate after Majid's death, refused to admit her to the island or to see her. She lived until 1924, but the last decades of her life were spent adrift, though somehow she managed to write a memoir, "Memoirs of an Arabian Princess," that appears to be an essentially reliable account of her highly unusual life.

This is the essence of the story, and it's a good one. Unfortunately, though, Bird insists on padding it out with far more than is really necessary about the roots of the Al Busaidi dynasty, the East African slave trade and, quite incredibly, the search for the source of the Nile. This last leads her into a digression of more than 50 pages in which the story of Salme is completely ignored while that of David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley is explored at length. This is, as is well known, an interesting story in and of itself, but its pertinence to the Al Busaidi story is marginal at best; it adds length to this book, but not depth. A few bold slashes of an editor's blue pencil would have made "The Sultan's Shadow" a far better book than it is.

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