Doa Aly

Doa Aly

Only When All the Poison Has Gone (The Healing of Emily Ruete) 

Single channel digital film projection, 3:2, 2023, 18 min 18 sec 

Only when all the poison has gone (The healing of Emily Ruete) is based on the writings of Emily Ruete, born Salamah bint Said bin Sultan, Princess of Oman and Zanzibar (1844-1924), as introduced by Emeri van Donzel in An Arabian Princess Between Two Worlds: Memoirs, Letters Home, Sequels to the Memoirs, Syrian Customs and Usages, published in 1993.

Sayyida Salme/Emily Ruete was a sensational figure in nineteenth-century Germany. Her successful memoirs, the oldest known autobiography by an Arab woman, were originally published in 1886 as Memoiren einer arabischen Prinzessin (Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar). Sayyida Salme was born in Zanzibar, as the 36th and last child of Said bin Sultan Al-Busaid, Sultan of Oman and Zanzibar (1804-56), and his Circassian concubine Jilfidan. Salme’s father died at sea in 1856, and Majid bin Said became the first Sultan of Zanzibar. In 1859, Salme’s mother succumbed to cholera, and she was bequeathed her properties and plantations. That same year, a dispute for the throne broke out between her brothers Majid and Barghash. Because she could write, Salme, only fifteen, was persuaded to act as Barghash’s secretary. The rebellion was soon brought to an end; Barghash was exiled in Bombay for two years, and Salme retreated into one of her properties in Stone Town. She eventually made up with Majid, which earned her the undying enmity of Barghash.

While living in Stone Town, the expats district of Zanzibar, Salme met and fell in love with German merchant Rudolph Heinrich Ruete, and became pregnant by him in the summer of 1866. When news of her pregnancy reached Sultan Majid, she fled aboard a British navy ship to Aden, where Heinrich joined her on 30 May 1867. On that same day, Salme converted to Christianity, adopted the name of Emily, and the couple married and traveled to Hamburg, Germany. She had given birth to a son in Aden, but he died en route to Germany. The Ruetes settled in Hamburg for three years during which they had another son and two daughters. Rudolph Ruete died suddenly in 1870, following a horse tram accident.

Alone and destitute in a foreign country, with three small children, Emily began obsessing about claiming her Zanzibari heritage–the inheritance from the brothers and sisters who were deceased since she had left Zanzibar. Majid had died in 1870 and was succeeded by Barghash, whose resentment of his sister was worsened by her apostasy and marriage. Between 1870 and 1888, Emily left no stone unturned in her attempts to reconcile with her brother, in order to access financial relief and the right to return to Zanzibar with her children. She moved to Berlin, and obtained the citizenship of the State of Hamburg in 1872. From Berlin, she began a forceful campaign against Barghash, bringing herself into diplomatic and aristocratic circles in Germany and England, gathering support for her cause, hoping to exert influence over her increasingly belligerent brother. In 1883, she wrote a long letter in Arabic to Barghash imploring him to help her and enticing him with her powerful connections. It was never answered.

Emily Ruete’s family and the inheritance she hoped to claim were sandwiched between two major historical events: the unification of Germany in 1871, making her a citizen of the German Reich; and the Anglo-German scramble for East Africa. Under Barghash’s rule (1870-88), Great Britain and Germany divided Zanzibar’s territory between them, securing economic control over it. In 1890 the British proclaimed a protectorate over Zanzibar itself, bringing the 19th-century East African trading empire–whose last heir she was–under British domination.

She began writing her memoirs in 1877, as a record for her children but also as a possible means of generating income. The memoirs extend from intimate recollections of family life in Zanzibar, to her move to Germany, return to Zanzibar, and journeys in the Near East. She also bitterly describes her two visits to Zanzibar in the 1880s. In 1885, Bismarck had decided that Frau Ruete’s claims, as those of a German citizen, could be useful to his plans in East Africa. Emily and her children were brought to the shores of Zanzibar aboard a German Navy ship. Barghash refused to receive his sister and her family. Soon after arriving in Zanzibar, it became clear to the Germans that the Sultan had little power, and negotiations were carried out with British authorities on the ground. Emily’s claims were dropped, and she was compelled to return to Germany empty-handed. Shortly after the death of Sultan Barghash in 1888, she undertook another voyage to Zanzibar on her own initiative; it was equally unsuccessful. Sayyid Khalifa bin Said, Barghash’s successor, was just as unforgiving of her past transgressions. During the 1888 visit, it became clear to her that she would not obtain any help from her family unless she reconverted to Islam, which she absolutely refused. Disgusted by the way she was manipulated by Bismarck and his officials, Emily left Germany and decided to settle in the Near East. She lived in Jaffa, Jerusalem and Beirut. In 1914 she returned to Germany and lived with her daughter in Jena. She died during the German depression in 1924, and was buried in Hamburg. On her tombstone the following text is engraved: “Faithful in his innermost heart is he, who loves his homeland like you.” (E. Van Donzel, 1993)

Emily Ruete’s unique destiny set her at the threshold between two worlds, two kingdoms of God and two empires of men. Her desire to negotiate on her own terms ran against the strong currents of the long nineteenth century, and roused opposition from a suite of powerful men across two continents. Always a misplaced body, a biopolitical problem, and yet, pushed by intense emotional energies, Emily retained an intrinsic sense of self. Her restless, timeless and genderless, individuality is evident in her writing; Emily navigated her core identities with fascinating agility. She wrote to Bismarck, Emperor William I, Crown Princess Victoria, as a faithful Christian, to Barghash as an influential German, and to her sisters as the eternal Muslim. At the height of her defeat, she wrote her memoirs and became immortal. She understood that identity was a mental construct, a mythical object, shapeshifting at will to accommodate ever changing vessels. The daughter of a merchant-monarch, her writing reveals an acute awareness of identity as currency. She wrote a lot and moved a lot.

Doa Aly sees Emily’s legacy as an instance of the wound of separation; her yearning to return “home”, to heal and be complete again. Every time she had to swallow this yearning, it sank through her like poison and embittered her life, her words, and actions. The Healing of Emily Ruete wants to turn the unconscious processes in Emily’s writing into a conscious awareness of movement, through choreography, to create an immersive field of healing feminine energy, a meditation, using her character as an effigy in a cathartic experience, for and by her. 

The film was Commissioned by 32Bis, Tunis, for the exhibition Le Cheveu de Mu’awiya (Mu’awiya’s Thread) curated by Nadine Atallah.

Masahat Festival, Oslo, 2023
Installation view, 32 Bis, "Mu'awiya's Thread", 2023