Words Writ on a Camel’s Shoulder by Sara Wheeler

Sara Wheeler

Words Writ on a Camel’s Shoulder


‘I simply took the Koran and tried to copy the letters on the shoulder blade of a camel.’ After this plucky start on the writer’s road, Princess Salama bint Said, Zanzibar’s first published author, went on to introduce literacy among her female compatriots. You can see the actual shoulder bone, with its densely carved script, in a room crepitating with fans off one of the baked lanes in Stone Town, the old quarter of Zanzibar’s capital (Zanzibar is the name of the archipelago as well as the main island and its capital). Born in 1844 in Mtoni Palace, Salama (known as Salme) was the daughter of the first Omani sultan of Zanzibar, Sayyid Said bin Sultan al-Busaidi, and of Jilfidan, a Circassian slave. In her early twenties, she eloped with a German merchant and jumped aboard a frigate to Hamburg, where she began a new life as Frau Emily Ruete. Her Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar appeared in German in 1886 and in English two years later. In its salty pages, the princess emerges as a pioneering apostle of cross-cultural understanding and a commentator who, pointing out the distorting European perspective in published descriptions of Africa and

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