January 22, 2011

Book Review: The Sultan's Shadow

Many scholars in the academy, as well as their aspiring graduate students, bemoan the lack of attention paid to the particular subjects they study. Their field of speciality, often the rarefied territory of a few other scholars around the world, never seems to impede upon the popular consciousness in a way that is satisfying to their critical mind. Yet historians are apt to be highly critical of those popular accounts which do make it to major publishing houses as reflecting superficial understandings and canards of historical innacuracy, reductive in their intent. This is especially the case in histories of the Middle East and Africa, where the stories told to a popular audience frequently reflect the moral anxieties of a Western audience and the exotic projections of their wildest fantasies.

Christine Bird's latest book has all the elements of Orientalist fantasy-- the East African slave trade, illicit romance, harem life, wild political intrigue, and swashbuckling pirates. Yet Bird manages to tie the various stories of the rise and fall of the Busaidi family in the Indian Ocean into a coherent narrative that incorporates academic analysis (via her Notes) and an engaging narrative. Additionally she vividly sketches her characters in animated descriptions which conjure imaginative mental portraits from the disparate pieces of the past. I found myself irresistibly drawn to her sensitive characterization of Seyyid Said, the intrepid first ruler of the Arab-Omani dominion in Zanzibar, and Salme Said, his restless orphaned daughter who pays a steep price for her decision to elope from Zanzibar with a German merchant.

The book's strongest passages are those dealing with the 18th century political history of Oman and those that describe Princess Salme's impressions of Germany. Sections on Livingstone, Stanley and Tippu Tip do little to add to our knowledge of these men; their stories have been told too many times for there to be much new in the telling. But Salme's "reverse ethnography" of Germany is sensitively handled by Bird and deserves closer attention by scholars; her tragic and ambiguous role in German imperial conquest is also well told. Having chosen to leave her home and reject her religion and cultural identity, Salme finds herself widowed and alone in Germany, facing the responsibility of caring for three children. Her courage in the face of adversity and her critical and perceptive critiques of German culture, her "reversal of the gaze" are moments when the narrative transcends the "good story" aspect of history and becomes a window to cultural alienation and the limits of perception.

From Salme's story, Bird perceptively brings out the dependence on foreign power that eventually undermines the independence of Zanzibar and the Busaidi monarchy. But this latter narrative, while admittedly more mundane in its aspects, is given a rushed page or two at the conclusion of the book. Thus a story which Bird spent a great deal of time setting up and executing hurtles too quickly to an abrupt and unsatisfying finish. A worthy, though flawed, introduction to Oman and Zanzibar for those interested in learning the basic story.


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