Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Christiane Bird's newest book was recently published -- readers of my Istanbul book may recall that I featured an excerpt from her previous book, A Thousand Sighs, A Thousand Revolts about the Kurds. This new work is entitled The Sultan's Shadow: One Family's Rule at the Crossroads of East and West (Random House) and I've just finished reading it and it's fascinating. Bird was inspired to write this book when she read a reference to the "Arab slave trade" in an article, and an Internet search brought up the name Seyyida Salme, or Emily Ruete, and a book she'd written called Memoirs of an Arabian Princess.

Much to Bird's surprise, Salme's autobiography was still in print (Salme began writing it in Germany in 1875 when she weas thirty-one years old and finished it in 1886). The edition Bird found was an 1888 version published in New York and reissued in 1989. In the preface, Salme wrote, "Nine years ago I made up my mind to write down some sketches of my life for my children...Tired out in body and in mind, I did not expect to live to be able to tell them, when they had grown up, of the many changes in my life, and of the recollections of my youth. I therefore resolved to write my memoirs for them." Daily life for Salme was in Zanzibar, but Bird learned that Salme's story and that of the slave trade through Zanzibar really began in Oman, on the southeastern edge of Arabia.

I won't give away the details of this truly swashbuckling, sitting-on-the-edge-of-your-seat chapter in history, but believe me it is an almost unbelievable story and incredibly worthwhile. The Ottoman Turks only figure in this chapter in a small way, but like anything, it's all related. Bird concludes her preface by noting that "my research had begun with a simple phrase. But that simple phrase had been a key that opened many doors, revealing intriguing, complex stories within stories hitherto unknown to me and, I suspected, most Westerners. They were stories, I thought as I delved yet deeper into East African history, that needed to be told."

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