Chapter 1: Memoirs of an Arabian Princess




IT WAS at Bet il Mtoni, our oldest palace in the island of Zanzibar, that I first saw the light of day, and I remained there until I reached my seventh year. Bet il Mtoni is charmingly situated on the seashore, at a distance of about five miles from the town of Zanzibar, in a grove of magnificent cocoanut palms, mango trees, and other tropical giants. My birthplace takes its name from the little stream Mtoni, which, running down a short way from the interior, forks out into several branches as it flows through the palace grounds, in whose immediate rear it empties into the beautiful sparkling sheet of water dividing Zanzibar from the continent of Africa.

A single, spacious courtyard is allotted to the whole body of buildings that compose the palace, and in consequence of the variety of these structures, probably put up by degrees as necessity demanded, the general effect was repellent rather than attractive. Most perplexing to the uninitiated were the innumerable passages and corridors. Countless, too, were the apartments of the palace; their exact disposition has escaped my memory, though I have a very distinct recollection of the bathing arrangements at Bet il Mtoni. A dozen basins lay all in a row at the extreme end of the courtyard, so that when it rained you could visit this favourite place of recuperation only with the help of an umbrella. The so-called “Persian” bath stood apart from the rest; it was really a Turkish bath, and there was no other in Zanzibar. Each bath-house contained two basins of about four yards by three, the water reaching to the breast of a grownup person. This resort was highly popular with the residents of the palace, most of whom were in the habit of spending several hours a day there, saying their prayers, doing their work, reading, sleeping, or even eating and drinking. From four o’clock in the morning until twelve at night there was constant movement; the stream of people coming and leaving never ceased.

Entering one of the bath-houses – they were all built on the same plan – you beheld two raised platforms, one at the right and one at the left, laid with finely woven matting, for praying or simply resting on. Anything in the way of luxury, such as a carpet, was forbidden here. Whenever the Mahometan says his prayers he is supposed to put on a special garment, perfectly clean – white if possible – and used for no other purpose. Of course this rather exacting rule is obeyed only by the extremely pious. Narrow colonnades ran between the platforms and the basins, which were uncovered except for the blue vault of heaven. Arched stone bridges and steps led to other, entirely separate apartments. Each bath-house had its own public; for, be it known, a severe system of caste ruled at Bet il Mtoni, rigidly observed by high and low..

Orange trees, as tall as the biggest cherry trees here in Germany, bloomed in profusion all along the front of the bath-houses, and in their hospitable branches we frightened children found refuge many a time from our horribly strict school-mistress! Human beings and animals occupied the vast courtyard together quite amicably, without disturbing each other in the very least; gazelles, peacocks, flamingoes, guinea fowl, ducks, and geese strayed about at their pleasure, and were fed and petted by old and young. A great delight for us little ones was to gather up the eggs lying on the ground, especially the enormous ostrich eggs, and to convey them to the head-cook, who would reward us for our pains with choice sweetmeats.

Twice a day, early in the morning and again in the evening, we children – those of us who were over five years old – were given riding lessons by a eunuch in this courtyard, without at all disturbing the tranquillity of our animal friends. As soon as we had attained sufficient skill in the equestrian art, our father presented us with beasts of our own. A boy would be allowed to pick out a horse from the Sultan’s stables, while the girls received handsome, white Muscat mules, richly caparisoned. Riding is a favourite amusement in a country where theatres and concerts are unknown, and frequently races were held out in the open, which but too often would end with an accident. On one occasion a race nearly cost me my life. In my great eagerness not to be outstripped by my brother Hamdan, I galloped madly onward without observing a huge bent palm tree before me; I did not become aware of the obstacle until I was just about to run my head against it, and, threw myself back, greatly terrified, in time to escape a catastrophe.

A peculiar feature of Bet il Mtoni were the multitudinous stairways, quite precipitous and with steps apparently calculated for Goliath. And even at that you went straight on, up and up, with never a landing and never a turn, so that there was scarcely any hope of reaching the top unless you hoisted yourself there by the primitive balustrade. The stairways were used so much that the balustrades had to be constantly repaired, and I remember how frightened everybody was in our wing, one morning, to find how both rails had broken down during the night, and to this very day I am surprised that no accident occurred on those dreadful inclines, with so many people going up and down, the round of the clock.

Photograph by Coutinho Brothers, Zanzibar

Statistics being a science unfamiliar to the inhabitants of Zanzibar, no one knew exactly how many persons lived at the palace of Bet il Mtoni, but were I to hazard an estimate, I think I should not be exaggerating if I put the total population at a thousand. Nor will this large number seem excessive if one considers that whoever wants to be regarded as wealthy and important in the East must have an army of servants. No less populous, in fact, was my father’s town palace, called Bet il Sahel, or Shore House. His habit was to spend three days a week there, and the other four at Bet il Mtoni, where resided his principal wife, once a distant relative.

My father, Seyyid Saïd, bore the double appellation of Sultan of Zanzibar and Imam of Muscat, that of Imam being a religious title and one originally borne by my great-grandfather Ahmed, a hereditary title, moreover, which every member of our family has a right to append to his signature.

As one of Seyyid Saïd’s youngest children, I never knew him without his venerable white beard. Taller in stature than the average, his face expressed remarkable kindness and amiability though at the same time his appearance could not but command immediate respect. Despite his pleasure in war and conquest, he was a model for us all, whether as parent or ruler. His highest ideal was justice, and in a case of delinquency he would make no distinction between one of his own sons and an ordinary slave. Above all, he was humility itself before God the Almighty; unlike so many of great estate, arrogant pride was foreign to his nature, and more than once, when a common slave of long and faithful service took a wife, my father would have a horse saddled, and ride off alone to offer the newly wedded couple his good wishes in person.

My mother was a Circassian by birth. She, together with a brother and a sister, led a peaceful existence on my father’s farm. Of a sudden, war broke out, the country was overrun by lawless hordes, and our little family took refuge “in a place that was under the ground” – as my mother put it, probably meaning a cellar, a thing unknown in Zanzibar. But the desperate ruffians found them out; they murdered both of my mother’s parents, and carried away the three children on horseback. No tidings ever reached my mother as to the fate of either brother, or sister. She must have come into my father’s possession at a tender age, as she lost her first tooth at his home, and was brought up with two of my sisters of her own years as companions. Like them she learned to read, an accomplishment which distinguished her above the other women in her position, who usually came when they were at least sixteen or eighteen, and by that time of course had no ambition to sit with little tots on a hard schoolroom mat. She was not good-looking, but was tall and well-built, and had black eyes; her hair also was black, and it reached down to her knees. Of a sweet, gentle disposition, nothing appealed to her more than to help someone who might be in trouble. She was always ready to visit, and even to nurse invalids; to this very day I remember how she would go from one sick bed to another, book in hand, to read out pious counsels of comfort.

My mother had considerable influence with Seyyid Saïd, who rarely denied her wishes, though they were for the most part put forward on behalf of others. Then, too, when she came to see him, he would rise, and step toward her – a signal distinction. Mild and quiet by nature, she was conspicuously modest, and was honest and open in all things. Her intellectual attainments were of no great account; on the other hand, she showed admirable skill at needlework. To me she was a tender, loving mother, which, however, did not prevent her from punishing me severely when I deserved it. Her friends at Bet il Mtoni were numerous, a rare circumstance for a woman belonging to an Arab household. No one’s faith in God could have been stronger. I call to mind a fire, which broke out one moonlight night in the stables, while my father was in town with his retinue. Upon a false alarm that our house had caught, my mother seized me under one arm and her large Koran under the other, and ran out of doors. Nothing else concerned her, in that moment of peril.

So far as I can remember, my father – the Seyyid, or Sultan – had only one principal wife, from the time I was born; the other, secondary wives, numbering seventy-five at his death, he had bought from time to time. His principal wife, Azze bint Sef, of the royal house of Oman, held absolute sway in his home. Although small and insignificant-looking, she exercised a singular power over her husband, who fell in readily with all of her ideas. Toward the Sultan’s other wives and to his children she behaved with domineering haughtiness and censoriousness; luckily she had no children of her own, else their tyranny would certainly have been unendurable. Every one of my father’s children – there were thirty-six when he died – was by a secondary wife, so that we were all equals, and no questions as to the colour of our blood needed to be raised.

This principal wife, who had to be addressed as “Highness” (for which the Arabic is Seyyid and the Suahili Bibi), was hated and feared by young and old, high and low, and liked by none. To this day do I remember how stiffly she would pass everybody by, hardly ever dropping a smile or a word. How different was our kind old father! He always had a pleasant greeting to give, whether the person was one of consequence or a lowly subordinate. But my high and mighty stepmother knew how to keep herself on the top of her exalted rank, and no one ever ventured into her presence without being specially invited. I never observed her to go out unless grandly escorted, excepting when we went with the Sultan to their bath-house, intended for their exclusive use. Indoors, whoever met her was completely awestruck, as is a private soldier here in the presence of a general. Thus the importance she gave herself was felt plainly enough, although upon the whole it did not seriously spoil the charm of life at Bet il Mtoni. Custom demanded that all of my brothers and sisters should go and wish her a “good morning” every day; but we detested her so cordially that scarcely one of us ever went before breakfast, which was served in her apartments, and in this way she lost a lot of the deference she was so fond of exacting.

Of my senior brothers and sisters some were old enough to have been my grandparents, and one of my sisters had a son with a grey beard. In our home no preference was shown to the sons above the daughters, as seems to be imagined in Germany. I do not know of a single case in which a father or mother cared more for a son than for a daughter simply because he was a son. All that is quite a mistake. If the law allows the male offspring certain privileges and advantages – for example, in the matter of inheritance – no distinction is made in the home treatment given to children. It is natural enough, and human too, that sometimes one child should be preferred to another, whether here in this country or in that far southern land, even though the fact may not be openly acknowledged. So with my father; only it happened that his favourite children were not boys, but two of my sisters, Sharife and Chole. One day my lively young brother Hamdan – we were both about nine years old at the time – accidentally shot an arrow into my side, without, however, doing me much injury. The affair coming to my father’s ears, he said to me: “Salamah, send Hamdan here”; and he scolded the offender in such terms as to make his ears tingle for many a day after.

The pleasantest spot at Bet il Mtoni was the benjile – close to the sea, in front of the main building – a huge, circular, open structure where a ball could have been given, had such a custom been in vogue with our people. This benjile somewhat resembled a merry-go-round, since the roof, too, was circular; the tent-shaped roof, the flooring, the balustrades, all were of painted wood. Here my dear father was wont to pace up and down by the hour with bent brow, sunk in deep reflection. He limped slightly; during a battle a ball had struck his thigh, where it was now permanently lodged, hindering his gait, and occasionally giving him pains. A great many cane chairs – several dozen, I am sure – stood about the benjile, but besides these, and an enormous telescope for general use, it contained nothing else. The view from our circular look-out was splendid. The Sultan was in the habit of taking coffee here two or three times a day with Azze bint Sef and all of his adult offspring. Whoever wanted to speak to my father in private would be apt to find him alone in this place at certain hours. Opposite the benjile the warship Il Ramahni lay at anchor the year round, her purpose being to wake us up early by a discharge of cannon during the month of fasting, and to man the rowboats we so often employed. A tall mast was planted before the benjile, intended for the hoisting of the signal flags which ordered the desired boats and sailors ashore.

As for our culinary department, Arabian cooking, and Persian and Turkish as well, prevailed both at Bet il Mtoni and Bet il Sahel. For both establishments harboured persons of various races, with bewitching loveliness and the other extreme fully represented. But only Arabian dress was allowed to us, while the blacks wore the Suahili costume. If a Circassian arrived in her flapping garments or an Abyssinian in her fantastic draperies, either was obliged to change within three days, and to wear the Arabian clothes provided her. As in this country every woman of good standing considers a hat and a pair of gloves indispensable articles, in the East ornaments are essential. In fact ornaments are so imperative that one even sees beggar-women wearing them while plying their trade.

At his Zanzibar residences and at his palace of Muscat, in Oman, my father kept treasuries full of Spanish gold coins, English guineas, and French louis; but they contained as well all sorts of jewellery and kindred female adornments, from the simplest trifles to coronets set in diamonds, all acquired with the object of being given away. Whenever the family was increased, through the purchase of another secondary wife or the birth – a very frequent event – of a new prince or princess, the door of the treasury was opened, so that the newcomer might be suitably endowed according to his, or her rank and position. In case of a child being born, the Sultan would usually visit mother and child on the seventh day, when he would bring ornaments for the infant. A newly arrived secondary wife would likewise be presented with the proper jewellery soon after she was bought, and at the same time the head eunuch would appoint the domestics for her special service.

Although my father observed the greatest simplicity for himself, he was exacting toward the members of his household. None of us, from the oldest child to the youngest eunuch, might ever appear before him except in full dress. We small girls used to wear our hair braided in a lot of slender little plaits, as many as twenty of them, sometimes; the ends were tied together; and from the middle a massive gold ornament, often embellished with precious stones, hung down the back. Or a minute gold medal, with a pious inscription, was appended to each little plait, a much more becoming way of dressing the hair. At bed-time nothing was taken off us but these ornaments, which were restored next morning. Until we were old enough to go about veiled, we girls wore fringes, the same that are fashionable in Germany now. One morning I surreptitiously escaped without having my fringe dressed, and went to my father for the French bonbons he used to distribute among his children every morning, but instead of receiving the anticipated sweetmeats, I was packed out of the room because of my unfinished toilette, and marched off by an attendant to the place from which I had decamped. Thenceforth I took good care never to present myself incompletely beautified before the paternal eye!

Among my mother’s intimates were two of the secondary wives who were Circassian, like herself, and who came from the same district as she did. Now, one of my Circassian stepmothers had two children, Chaduji and her younger brother Majid, and their mother had made an agreement with mine that whichever parent survived, should care for the children of both. However, when Chaduji and Majid lost their mother they were big enough to do without the help of mine. It was usual in our family for the boys to remain under maternal tutelage until they were about eighteen to twenty, and when a prince reached this age he was declared to have come to his majority, that is to say, the formalities took place sooner or later, according to his good or bad conduct. He was then considered an adult, a distinction as eagerly coveted in that country as anywhere else; and he was at the same time made the recipient of a house, servants, horses, and so on, beside a liberal monthly allowance.

So my brother Majid attained his majority, which he had merited rather by his disposition than his years. He was modesty itself, and won all hearts through his charming, lovable ways. Not a week passed but he rode out to Bet il Mtoni (for, like his deceased mother, he lived at Bet il Sahel), and although my senior by a dozen years played games with me as if we had both been of the same age.

Photograph by A. C. Gomes & Co., Zanzibar

One day, then, he arrived with the glad news that his majority had been announced by his father, who had granted him an independent position and a house of his own. And he besought my mother most urgently to come and live, with me, in his new quarters, Chaduji sending the same message. To his impetuous pleading my mother objected that without his father’s consent she could not accept, and said she must therefore first consult him; as for her, she was willing enough to share Majid’s and Chaduji’s dwelling if they wished. But Majid offered to save my mother this trouble by himself asking the Sultan’s sanction, and the next day, in fact – my father happening to be at Bet il Sahel – he brought back the coveted permission. Thus our transmigration was decided upon. After a long talk between my mother and Majid, it was concluded that we should not move for a few days, when he and Chaduji would have had time to make the necessary arrangements for accommodating us.