Beit-al-Ajaib, the House of Wonders
Dance Me, Dance Me to the End of Love
Susan was startled by a knock on her door. She rolled off the bed and shuffled sleepily over to open it. Khalida was standing outside looking slightly impatient with Subira standing behind her looking uncomfortable, Khalida had chided her for not waking Susan earlier.
“I’m sorry, I must have dozed off, what time is it?” asked Susan.
“It is four-o-clock, come, I will take you to see the baths,” replied Khalida.
Susan hurriedly dressed and was soon walking with Khalida across the courtyard to a pair of ornately carved doors. Khalida opened the right-hand door and gestured for Susan to go in.
The room engulfed them, it was cavernous. The walls seemed to touch the sky through a domed roof of stained glass. Sunlight, refracted into dancing rainbow glints, streamed onto a large central pool where women and children splashed about, their laughter tinkling through the light. The colours where an exotic mix of rich plums, mango yellows, tamarind browns. The smells were of water, incense, scented oils, women, young children.
“A retreat from the world, and from men. In our society we welcome this space. Let me introduce you to Na’ima, she is the Sultan’s mother.”
Kahlida led Susan over to a lady in her mid 60’s who was sitting alone.
“Salaam. This is Susan, the new teacher. Susan, this is Her Highness Na’ima bint Hamed bin Saleh Al-Fulani.”
“I am pleased to meet you Susan. I hope your stay with us will be enjoyable.”
Susan smiled. “Thank you.”
Khalida introduced Susan to the other women and pointed out many of the children playing around the pool. They returned to Na’ima who was talking to an elegant young woman of immense beauty, a true Arabian princess.
“Susan, this is Princess Bahiyya, the Sultan’s sister. She has just returned from Germany where she is studying music at the Royal Conservatory in Berlin. She plays the cello exceedingly well. Are we to have a concert soon?”
Khalida addressed the last question to Bahiyya, who was holding her hand out to Susan.
“That sounds exciting,” exclaimed Susan, “I would love to hear you play. I developed a passion for music from my parents, in particular chamber music. My mother is devoted to Mozart.”
“It will be a pleasure,” replied Bahiyya smiling.
A young girl ran up to the table and threw her arms around Na’ima.
“Please take a seat, Susan,” invited Na’ima. “This is little Princess Ibtisam, the daughter of Jamillah, the Sultan’s second wife. Ibtisam turned six today.” Na’ima turned to Susan. “Would you take some tea with us?”
Susan sat down and smiled broadly at Ibtisam, who returned it, revealing a missing front tooth. Her delicate oval face was set in a sea of curls.
“Yes, I would love some tea. Lemon would be perfect, thank you.”
The women talked until it was time for dinner when Na’ima and Bahiyya stood up and took their leave.
“Do we eat together all the time?” asked Susan.
“Oh, no! You can choose to eat in your rooms or at the dining room. It depends on whether you want to be alone or have company. That is, except when the Sultan decides to eat with us. Then his wives and family have to attend. You do not have to come at all if you do not want to.”
“I was told that the Sultan has three wives, is that right?” asked Susan.
“Yes,” replied Khalida. “Ruqayya, his first wife. She has three children. You will be teaching her two boys. Jamillah, his second wife. She has three boys and a daughter, Ibtisan, who you just met. And Samira, his third wife. She is breast feeding at the moment, it is unlikely she will be eating with us tonight.” Khalida smiled. “The Sultan was displeased when she chose to breast feed her daughter herself. Normally the Sultan’s wives have a wet nurse. However Samira insisted, and Samira can be very headstrong.”
“And you Khalida?” asked Susan.
“I have three children. Asad who is twenty, he is studying engineering in Germany. Wasim, who is twenty-two and has just began working as a doctor in France, and Sanya who is eighteen and still lives here at the Palace. I am a distant cousin of Sultan Hamoud and I am the sister of Seyyid Khalid who is currently in exile at Dar-es-salaam.” Khalida laughed. “He upset the British and was forced to leave Zanzibar, but that is for another time.”
Khalida led Susan across the inner courtyard to another set of open double doors. Sounds of laughter tumbled out into the courtyard. The room was sumptuous. An assortment of tureens and exquisitely glazed bowls were set along low tables where the women lounged on inticate Persian cushions like plump silkworms, reaching out for food as the whim took them.
The children ran around freely, snatching morsels of food from the platters, then running away laughing. Servants moved about silently and efficiently, clearing away used utensils and plates. The tureens were replaced as soon as they were emptied.
“Come, sit with me,” said Khalida, “I will introduce you to Sanya, my daughter.”
Khalida called out to Sanya who was looking after a group of the younger children. She came over and extended her hand.
“I am pleased to meet you,” said Sanya smiling. “My mother tells me you are the new teacher for the Sultan’s children and Salil.”
“Yes, that is right,” replied Susan, taking her hand.
Sanya walked around to sit on the other side of her mother. She reached over and helped herself to food from a nearby tureen.
“And this is Fahim,” introduced Khalida, ruffling the hair of a young boy who had come to sit between her and Sanya.
“He is the youngest boy of Jamillah, the Sultan’s second wife. She has not arrived yet.”
“Where are the husbands?” asked Susan, looking around at all the women. “I know they are not allowed in the harem.”
“There are no husbands. In addition to the Sultan’s mother and wives, there are single female relatives, widowed relatives and female visitors,” explained Khalida.
“Where do the others live?” asked Susan. “Those who are married.”
“Married couples live in their own houses away from the Palace. The single men mainly live in apartments at the Palace. When you have time, you will see that the three Palaces are all connected by raised covered walkways. We do not have to go onto the street if we do not want to.” Khalida went on to explain. “While we are more relaxed now, there was a time when the women of the Palace were not permitted to walk on the streets. That, I am glad to say, is now over. Sultan Hamoud was educated in England and he bought back new ideas and instigated many changes. He also bought back a passion for gadgets, which is why we have electricity and telephones at the Palace. There is also a lift, an ice-making machine and our own bakery.”
“He sounds enlightened,” said Susan.
Khalida smiled. “It is not a term I would use,” she countered. “It is change, and some of us think it is for the better, but it is not necessarily because he is enlightened. That implies that we were not before, that he bought the civilizing influence of the British Empire to these barbarous shores.”
Susan looked mortified. “I didn’t mean to imply,” she stammered. “I am sorry, I did not think.”
Khalida laughed again. “No, Susan, I am sorry. I did not mean to chide you. However, it is true that the attitude of the colonialists is patronising.”
Khalida corrected herself. “Some colonialists.”
“I had never thought of myself as a colonialist,” said Susan, thoughtfully.
A young boy walked into the room. He came to talk briefly to Fahim.
“This is Rashad, he is Jamillah’s eldest son.”
“Let me guess,” said Susan, smiling “you would be about twelve.”
“Yes, that is right,” replied Rashad, formally.
“Miss Carey is to be the new teacher at the school,” said Khalida.
Rashsad smiled in acknowledgment.
Jamillah came into the room with Ibtisan and Jamal. Rashad grabbed Fahim’s hand and took him over to their mother, who sat to the left of Na’ima.
“And your husband, Khalida?” Susan asked, suddenly dreading the answer.
A shadow crossed Khalida’s face.
“He was killed in 1896.”
Khalida had become used to this question. The pain had subsided over the years, now she could answer with composure. However she knew the night would bring back memories, cutting like razor blades.
Susan waited to see if Khalida wanted to continue.
“I am sorry Khalida,” said Susan tentatively.
“It was life,” said Khalida sombrely. “True tragedy is unforeseen, unforeseeable, a random event. That time, for me, the whole affair might have happened and had no effect on my life, instead, it took my husband.”
Susan thought of her mother, thought on life. She smiled at Khalida in acknowledgment.
A woman in her early thirties walked into the room accompanied by two teenage boys.
“This is Queen Ruqayya, the Sultan’s first wife,” whispered Khalida.
Ruqayya nodded to Susan, but said nothing as she walked over to take her seat at the head of the table, beside Na’ima.
“And those are her two sons, who you will be teaching,” continued Khalida, gesturing to each of the boys. “Saifulla, who is sixteen and Salah al-din who is fifteen.”
The boys followed their mother’s example, acknowledging Susan with a formal nod, but did not speak.
“You are the new teacher, then?” asked Ruqayya after she had helped herself to some food.
“Yes,” replied Susan, a little disconcerted. She turned to the two boys. “I look forward to teaching you both.”
The boys smiled, and continued to place food on their plates.
Ruqayya called out to one of the children playing around the tables. She ran over to stand opposite her mother.
“Salima, say hello to the new teacher, Miss Susan Carey.’ Salima, who was eight, turned to Susan, and, looking her directly in the eyes said, “Hello Miss Carey” in perfect English.
“Hello Salima,” replied Susan. “You speak English beautifully.”
“Thank you, Miss Carey.”
Salima turned to her mother. “May I go now mother?”
Ruqayya nodded, and Salima walked back over to the other children.
Susan turned to Khalida and spoke in a quiet voice, “I thought the boys would be much younger when I first accepted the position. They informed me of their ages later. I was surprised. They said it was something about the Sultan wanting to keep them here in Zanzibar as long as possible. Not that it really matters, I suppose.”
Khalida smiled. “Yes, I am aware of the tradition of sending children to your English Public schools at a very young age. However the Sultan believed that it was more important they spent their formative years here in Zanzibar. They will, after all, become the future leaders of this country.” Khalida reached over to help herself to some food. “He ensures they have the best tutors and they will go to Eton for their last two years to prepare for university, as you know.”
“I can see the logic in that,” replied Susan thoughtfully.
“They have visited England many times, also Germany and the continent,” added Khalida. “The Sultans of Zanzibar and their families have been regular visitors to the continent.”
Susan smiled, but the fleeting thought that this was useful information if she were to fulfil her role as a spy disturbed her.
The rest of the meal was spent talking to Khalida and Jamillah. At the end of the meal the other women came up and chatted briefly with Susan.
Shortly after, a servant herded the younger children together before taking them to their rooms.
Jamillah departed, leaving Susan and Khalida talking and sipping tea. Khalida was enjoying her new companion.
“Did you know Princess Salme?” asked Susan. “I read a brief reference to her in one of the texts I studied. She seemed most intriguing.”
Khalida became animated.
“Of course, she is a cousin!”
Khalida leant over to Susan and in a mock conspiratorial voice said. “It is a tale of seduction and elopement.” Then, with a mischievous smile, she continued. “Would you like to hear it?”
Susan nodded, smiling broadly. “Yes, I would love to.”
“Her name is, or was, Seyyida Salme binti Seyyida Said bin Sultan Al Busaidiya. That means she was the daughter of Sultan Seyyida Said, “binti” means the daughter of, “bin” means the son of. Princess Salme was born in 1844. Her mother’s was name Jilfidan and she had been a slave. I remember her, she was so statuesque and her skin was a pale ivory. Her eyes used to intrigue me. They were blue and always sparkling, as though she was keeping a mischievous secret from you.” Khalida laughed out loud. “Which she probably was, after all, she was one of the concubines of the Sultan.”
Susan smiled, but showed no inclination to interrupt, so Khalida continued.
“Unfortunately, Salme’s father, Sultan Seyyida Said, and her mother, died when she was quite young. When her father died, he was drowned travelling back to Oman, her uncle Sultan Seyyid Majid succeeded to the throne. He was very stern. We were all scared of him. Salme was always searching for some way of forgetting the pain of losing her parents. She had convinced her father to let her learn English and German from a very young age and she loved to converse with the people who came to see the great Sultan of Zanzibar. Remember, our family controlled the slave trade in East Africa at that time, and most of the spice trade. When she was sixteen she became very fond of one of the people she met at the palace, a German nobleman, Rudolph von Lowenhertz.” Khalida stopped and looked directly at Susan. “Remember that Salme was restricted to the Palace and had a strict Islamic upbringing.” Khalida stopped again and smiled. “She used her personal slave to carry messages back and forth between herself and von Lowenhertz. Somehow, although it must have been very dangerous, they managed to meet at the palace where their love was obviously consummated, as she fell pregnant.”
Susan smiled broadly.
“You may very well smile,” Khalida responded. “ In your society it would be bad enough. Remember, this was a union between an infidel and a Muslim, a true believer of Mohammed. It was considered a crime.”
“Surely not!” exclaimed Susan.
“Yes,” replied Khalida, “and it still is for women. A man may take an infidel as a concubine, however it would be almost impossible for him to marry her.”
“I have much to learn,” mused Susan. “What happened to them?”
“Salme feared for her own life and that of her lover. They fled to Aden where she had a baby boy, who they named Heinrich. Salme converted to Christianity and married Rudolph. They then went to live in Berlin. Bahiyya visits her regularly when she is in Germany.”
“Have you been to Germany to see her, Khalida?” inquired Susan.
“Yes, I took my degree at the Universität Berlin. I was able to visit Salme and her three children regularly. It was quite exciting, she is a friend of the Kaiser’s and I often met him at her house.”
“The Kaiser!” exclaimed Susan.
“Yes, and many of his ministers and the other nobles of the court. Salme is a great favourite of the German Court. Remember our family have had diplomatic relations with Germany since they came to East Africa in the eighteenth century,” replied Khalida, with obvious pride.
“This is like stepping into the pages of a history book. I have read a lot about the history of Zanzibar, but to be able to talk to the people who lived that history and helped shape it is very exciting,” exclaimed Susan.
“I will be delighted to tell you some of the stories.”
Susan’s face became animated, “I am particularly looking forward to seeing places that have been just black and white photos, or a description in a book, to me.”
“Why don’t we make a start this Saturday?” responded Khalida. “I will take you to the Anglican Cathedral which is the oldest of its kind in East Africa. It stands on the site of the public slave market that was built by Sultan Seyyid Sa’id.
“I would love to,” replied Susan. Then, after a pause, she asked, tentatively. “Could I ask you a question?”
“Yes,” replied Khalida.
“Ruqayya seemed very aloof, did I do anything wrong?”
Khalida smiled. “No. Ruqayya is the Sultan’s first wife. She is, shall we say, conscious of her position and is very haughty. She is also a little jealous of Jamillah, I think.”
Khalida then beckoned to Subira who had been waiting, un-noticed by Susan, with the other servants.
“Now, it is late. Subira will take you back to your room and help you to bathe and prepare for bed.”
Susan stood up and greeted Subira, then paused to let her lead the way back to her bedroom. This caused consternation to Subira, who would not think of walking in front of her mistress.
Khalida noted the hesitation and spoke quietly to Susan.
“The mistress always walks first, unless you specifically ask a servant to lead you somewhere you have not been before. I know it may seem strange to you Susan, however it is important that the harmony of our social order is retained.”
“Yes, it does seem strange. I will try to remember. I find it very hard to treat someone as anything but my equal. As a woman, I know all too well what it is like to be considered inferior,” replied Susan.
“There is much to learn about our culture and society Susan. Much that simply cannot be learnt from a textbook. It is, perhaps, best not to judge until your have had a chance to live in both worlds.”
Khalida spoke the words quietly, without ill-will. Susan smiled in acknowledgment and walked with Khalida across the courtyard to the steps leading up to the first floor balcony. Subira waited while the two women said goodnight and then followed Susan into her room.
Susan lay in her bed and looked out at the stars, a cool breeze gently stirred the lace curtains. She thought over her first day. Friend with a Princess, her own luxurious rooms with a panoramic view of the harbour. Susan was surprised that she merited such luxury. She had mentioned it to Khalida when they were saying goodnight. Khalida told Susan that the rooms had been shut up for years, ever since they had been re-built after the bombardment of 1896, a shadow crossing Khalida’s face as she spoke.
“Bombardment?” Susan asked.
“Yes,” replied Khalida. “The British sent a warship into the harbour to shell the three palaces. Two were destroyed and this one lost the entire side overlooking the harbour.”
Susan was shocked.
“That is when your husband ................,” her voice trailed off.
“Yes,” observed Khalida. “Colonialism has two sides.”
Dance Me, Dance Me to the End of Love
The title, thought not the story, was inspired by a song by Leonard Cohen
Dance me to the End of Love
Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic till I'm gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
And dance me to the end of love
Let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone
Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon
Show me slowly what I only know the limits of
And dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the wedding now, oh, dance me on and on
Dance me very tenderly and dance me very long
We're both of us beneath our love, we're both of us above
Oh, dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the children who are asking to be born
Dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn
Raise the tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn
And dance me to the end of love