Born a princess on the African spice island of Zanzibar, Emily Ruete was brought up in a harem in the Sultan's palace, naturalized as a German through marriage, and then manipulated by both Germans and British in their efforts to gain control over the island. Her engrossing memoirs, set against the backdrop of political intrigue in the great age of European colonialism, offer a vivid portrait of nineteenth-century Arabic life, not only in the palace but in the city and on the plantations as well. It also explores relationships within her family and to the Arab and black communities, children's education, and the role of women in a polygamous society.
Ruete could be the subject of a thrilling romance. As Romero ( Life Histories of African Women ) explains, she was born in 1840 as Salme, princess of Oman and Zanzibar, and grew up privy to the machinations of her father's harem and of her scores of siblings. Following her father the sultan's death in 1856, Salme participated in one brother's unsuccessful coup to wrest the throne from another. Despite strictures confining Islamic women, she trysted with a German who is thought to have impregnated her, fled to Germany where she converted to Christianity, changed her name, married her lover, bore three children and was soon widowed. Ruete relates few of these escapades; instead she provides a disingenuous account of harmonious life at the palace. Despite the profusion of concubines, Ruete claims that Arabs predominantly practice monogamy; her father is a beneficent king--although Romero states that he attained power by murdering a cousin. The disparity between introduction and text, the latter translated from the German, generates a peculiarly successful tension, enhanced by carefully recorded details of court life. Illustrations not seen by PW . (Sept.)