Tuesday, 7 January 2014

An African Princess

I read that Palgrave McMillian published The autobiography of an African Princess featuring Fatima Massaquoi, daughter of King of Gallinas of Southern Sierra Leone. She lived in Hamburg-Germany where she experienced the rise of the Nazi movement and were she hosted Marcus Garvey. 
Easy to say that I immediatly connected with another autobiography by another African Princess, Sayyida Salme bint Said ibn Sultanfrom Zanzibar. The book was originally written in German and the English title is Memories of an Arabian Princess, published in 1888 by D. Appleton & Co. 
Arabian princess? Yes, at that time Zanzibar was Sultanate of Oman, so she was African of Arab origins. Princess Fatima and Princess Selma had something in common, below underlined.

I stumbled upon Selma's life while living in Stonetown and recently had the opportunity to write about her life for an anthology.
At the end of last summer a friend proposed me to join her new anthology project of multicultural stories for children. The anthology' s title is Metissakané which in wolof means fusion of cultures. The idea behind the project was to revisit old traditional stories and find their pair in the present time. Something of the past which could relate to the experience of today. It didn't take me so much to know that I would tell the story of Princess Selma of Zanzibar. While I was living in Stonetown-Zanzibar, I've came across her story so many times and from many different people, I've visited many of the places she attended during her life. As I wrote in one of my book "Zanzibar is the only place where I experienced the absence of time" so I felt the presence of Selma as if she never left the Island and as if we were just in the XIX century. Only the presence of cars gave me the perception that we weren't in the past.

Selma as a child
Why did I think of her? Because her personal story seemed to me so close to the present time. To understand it I must start from the beginning. Selma was the youngest daughter of  Sultan Sayyd Said bin Sultan Al- Busaid who had 36 children. Her mother, Jilfidan, was of Circassian origin and it is said that she inherited  her beauty.
Her father was known as a righteous man. And when he died in 1856 her brothers took power and peace became a dream.
She had self-taught herself how to write and read practicing on the Coran, thank's to the help of an educated slave. Girls at that time were not expected to learn much but she felt she had to have a proper education. She was self determined and also a  sporty girl as well, trained to horse riding and fencing. 

Zanzibar at that time was a slave market. Right in the Indian Ocean facing the costs of Tanzania. It was still a major slave trade market (only in 1873 Sultan Barghash was forced to sign adn edict that made slave trade illegal) where merchants from all over the world met for business.
One of these merchants was Rudolph Reuter, a German business man who happened to be Selma neighbour and who soon fell in love with her. Of course it was not going to be an acceptable relationship: too many differencies. She was African, he was European, she was living on a tropical Island him in a cold North European country, she was muslim, he was christian, she spoke Arab and Kiswahili and he spoke German. Surely Selma's family would not accept their marriage. So with the help of friends, she managed to leave the Island. After deciding to marry Rudolph she  waited for him in Aden where he joined her a few weeks later and got married. From there they headed to Hamburg-Germany (same city where Fatima Massaquoi relocated). Here she was introduced to his family who welcomed her and tried to let her feel home. To marry Rudolph she converted to christianity and changed her name, she wasn't anymore Selma but Emily, Emily Reute. She started wearing western clothes and  speaking German. They had three children.  She tried hard to adapt to her new, so different, life but her thoughts were always home, in Zanzibar. She decided to return and see weather she could settle there with her family, but part of her own family in Stonetown didn't welcome her well, while friends had always supported her choice. She travelled back to Germany full of sadness.

Selma died in Germany without returning to her beloved island again (even Fatima never returned to Sierra Leone). She died, as I wrote in my story, holding in one hand the sand of Zanzibar which she brought to Europe in a leather bag during her last trip back home. She was so attacched to her homeland that she couldn't leave forever without smelling and touching its sand.
It is a heart breaking story and I thought at those migrants who nowadays leave their own country to look for better life, to follow a beloved one, to rejoin with the family, to find peace and how much pain and solitude they bring in their heart. I know several women who changed their religion and name for love, I know many people (friends too) who moved to a new country with the idea of returning but never doing so, for a reason or another. I knew also people who died with their heart full of nostalgia for their mother land. 

There's one thing about Selma, which intrigued me as a writer. Selma wrote (as Fatima did) Yes, in her German "exile" she wrote her memoirs. She did it for herself, to stay attacched to the memory of her island; she did it for her children (in the preface she writes: Originally my memoirs were not intended for the general public, but for my dear children alone) to let them know how was life in Zanzibar; she did it for her people who she loved so much.
Writing enabled Selma to heal her pain and solitude. She wrote because she needed to write to preserve the memory of the  different world she belonged to. 
I have many friends who are actually immigrants, I'm an immigrant too... I've always been. I've worked with immigrants (refugees, exiled, asylum seekers) using writing as a "place" where to honestly deal with the identity conflicts within themselves and reading their writing (at least in their early stage) there's much of Selma's desire to portray their motherland, their culture, their people in a style dense of solitude,  loss, frustration and displacement. 


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