I desired to read a good ethnography of Middle Eastern life in the 1800s, but not happening upon one, I settled for Our Moslem Sisters: A Cry of Need from Lands of Darkness Interpreted by Those Who Heard It, edited by Annie Van Sommer and Samuel M. Zwemer. (Published in 1907.)
Sommer and Zwemer were Christian (Calvinist) missionaries–as such, we should keep in mind that much of the book is an explicit appeal for more funding, since missionaries must eat and often don’t have much income.
There are common themes that show up in each chapter–divorce is commented on extensively in most. I shall try to avoid repetition in my choice of quotes; if you wish a fuller picture of the countries discussed, I recommend the book.
Today we begin with Tunisia (as usual, quotes will be in “” for readability):
“When I came to this country some twelve years ago, the thing that most struck me in visiting Arab houses was the cheerfulness and even gaiety of the women. I had a preconceived picture in my mind of poor creatures sitting within prison walls, pining to get out, and in utter misery.
“Nothing of the kind! What did I find? Laughter, chatter, the distraction of periodic visits to saints’ tombs, or that centre of social intercourse—the bath. Old women, the scandal-mongers of the neighborhood, go round to retail their news. (And it will be allowed that even in England there are many who take a deeper interest in the doings of their neighbors than in more elevated topics of conversation.)
“Here Jewesses, spreading out their pretty, silken goods to tempt purchasers, or neighbors who had “dropped in” by way of the roof for a gossip, not over a dish of tea, but a cup of black coffee. There Arab women, much like children, quickly shaking off little troubles and meeting greater trials with the resignation of fatalism, which finds comfort in the magic word, “Maktoob” (It is decreed), in a manner incomprehensible to the Western mind.
“Is it surprising that I almost accused my fellow-missionaries of misrepresenting the home life of the people? But I only saw the surface and had not yet probed the deep sore of Mohammedanism nor realized the heavy burdens which its system entails.
“Let me tell you of three of the heaviest of these burdens: Polygamy, Divorce, and the Ignorance which results from complete lack of education and walks hand-in-hand with its twin-sister, Superstition. …
“Divorce is, however, the great curse which blights ]domestic happiness, and words fail me to describe the misery it brings.
“The Moslem population of the city of Tunis is sixty thousand. Setting aside men and children there remain, roughly speaking, about twenty-five thousand women, and comparing my own experience with that of other lady missionaries we are agreed in affirming that the majority of these women in the middle and lower classes have been divorced at least once in their lives, many of them two or three times, while some few have had a number of husbands. In the upper class and wealthy families divorce is not nearly so common, and for obvious reasons.
“I have never known a man to have thirty or forty wives in succession as one hears of in some Mohammedan lands. A man once told my brother-in-law that he had been married eighteen times, and I heard of another who had taken (the Arab expression) twelve wives, one after another; but this last was related with bated breath as being an unusual and opprobrious act.
“When a woman is divorced she returns to her father’s house and remains dependent on him until he finds her another husband, her monetary value being now greatly reduced….
“Among the upper classes a girl does not often marry till about seventeen years old, but a poorer man is glad to get his daughters off his hands at a much earlier age, especially if he can obtain a good dowry in payment. …
“The history of the two little girls in the accompanying photograph, shows clearly the contrast between the life of an English and that of an Arab child. It was taken about eight years ago at the birthday party of my little niece, who had been allowed, as a treat, to invite a number of Arab girls to tea, and was photographed with one who was about the same age as herself. The one, Dorothy, is now thirteen years old and still a happy, light-hearted schoolgirl, carefully sheltered from all knowledge of evil. The other, Fatima, to-day, sits in her father’s house, divorced, desolate, and soured in temper by her hard fate. And, indeed, her story makes one’s heart ache. …”
Remedies in the case of sickness
“If there illness in the house, a message is first sent to the “degaz” (soothsayer), who writes a magic paper, encloses it in a leather case, and sends it to the sick one with directions to fasten it on the head, arm, etc., according to the part affected.
“Another favorite remedy is to pour a little water into a basin on which passages from the Koran are written, and then either drink or bathe with it as the disease may appear to require.
“These powerful remedies failing to restore health, the invalid is next taken to the tomb of some celebrated “saint.” There, offerings are made and prayers recited. A favorite resort in Tunis is the Zawia of Sidi Abdallah, situated just outside the city wall. Here a black cock is sacrificed and a little of its blood sprinkled on the neck, elbow, and knee of the sufferer on whose behalf it is offered.
On the Potential for Education
“To begin with, the first glance will show their intelligence. Get an average ignorant Englishwoman of the peasant class to repeat a Bible story that she has never heard before. She will dully remember one or two salient facts. Go up to a mountain village here and get a group of women and talk to them, and choose one of them to repeat to the others what you have said. You will feel after a sentence or two that your Arabic was only English put into Arabic words; hers is sparkling with racy idiom. More than that, she is making the story live before her hearers: a touch of local color here—a quaint addition there. It is all aglow. And this a woman who has sat year after year in her one garment of red woollen drapery, cooking meals and nursing children, with nothing to stimulate any thoughts beyond the day’s need.
“And their powers of feeling: do their faces look as if these have been crushed out by a life of servitude? Not a bit of it. No European who has not lived among them can have any idea of their intensity: love, hate, grief, reign by turns. Anger and grief can take such possession of them as to bring real illness of a strange and undiagnosable kind. We have known such cases to last for months; not unfrequently they end fatally; and more than one whom we have met has gone stone-blind with crying for a dead husband who probably made things none too easy while he lived.
“And then their will power: the faces tell of that too. …
“The dark side lies in untrueness born of constant fear of the consequence of every trifling act, moral impurity that steeps even the children—wild jealousy that will make them pine away and die if a rival baby comes. Their minds are rife with superstition and fertile in intrigue.”
“The families in which daughters are allowed to read are few and far between: just an occasional one among high-class government officials, or a favorite daughter here and there who is destined to support herself and relatives by teaching the few privileged to learn among the rising generation. The little girl is seldom welcomed at birth. It is a calamity she was not a boy. A few years of half-freedom for the town-child and hasty neglect for the village maiden. Many a better-class woman enters her home as a bride, in the carriage which so carefully conceals her, and sees but four white washed walls for the remainder of her days, nor leaves their monotony until carried out in her coffin. …
“Divorce is fearfully common and easy. Plurality of wives is an awful curse. The chief features of home-life are quarrels, intrigues, attempted poisonings, and rankling bitternesses.
“Slavery is more common than in other countries so near the borders of civilization, and the possession of these human chattels denotes the measure of worldly prosperity. Occasionally they find a kindly master, but, more often, are inhumanly treated and regarded as so much property. We are frequently urged to treat the slave for illness and so increase her market value, while the wife, or wives, may suffer unnoticed and unassisted. …
“Some of the women figure in the weird orgies of religious sects of a private and public character. Their wild, dishevelled, and torn hair is prominent in the Satanic dance of the Aisowia Derwishes, and they vie with the men in its frenzied freaks, falling finally exhausted to the ground, unable to rise. But this class fortunately is not numerous.
“I was visiting in one of these houses last year in Fez. The occupants were strangers and had come pleading me to relieve one in very acute pain. The atmosphere of the room hung heavily over me, I knew not why. … Such uncanny sense of the immediate presence of the evil one, I have never experienced, as when under their roof, nor would wish to again. …
“We have found medical work a powerful handmaid to awaken interest in the Gospel story. To our great grief, however, the continued political unrest, due largely to the presence of the Pretender and rising of the tribes from time to time, during the past four years, has almost closed up this highly useful evangelistic and Christ-like work.
“The Northern rebellion would have ceased long ago had the present Sultan honest and energetic soldiers and leaders. Few, however, are impervious to foreign gold; and no one trusts another, unless he pay well for the interest in his affairs. The Sultan is a pleasant and enlightened person, but unable to cope with the surrounding lawlessness single-handed. Many a tale of bribery and wrong reaches us. The wild tribes know no other fear than that of seeing turbulent skulls and rebellious heads hanging upon the city gates.
“We went down to Fez four years ago, a few weeks after the violent and sad death of our dear friend and brother, Mr. Cooper. His only crime in the eyes of the violent tribesman, his murderer, was that of being a foreigner. Two weeks after our arrival in the city, Consuls ordered foreigners to the coast. We had to obey. Six weeks were spent in Tangier and then again we returned to our scene of labor, the large out-patient dispensary which treated over eleven thousand cases last year …”
EvX: Note that most of these missions are connected with medical care of some kind, which would otherwise have been unavailable for many people. It is not unlike Doctors without Borders.
“Two years ago orders again came to pack up and prepare for emergencies. The storm blew over and since then the main roads have been practically safe for ordinary traffic and merchandise. Even the foreigner can securely take his place in any caravan without fear of ill.
“Raisuli’s capture of European and American citizens for hostages alarmed many, but he had sought the Government’s recognition of his lawful Kaidship, and when refused, wrongly determined to claim the same by force. The strong hand with which he now controls those wild tribes under his jurisdiction, proves his ability to govern. His justice, if semi-barbarous, is certainly ahead of that of most of his fellow Kaids. He reversed the decision of a Moorish tribunal which had wrung from a poor widow her lawful property, restoring that which had been unlawfully taken. A few such men in the highest circles would soon bring order out of chaos and strength to the throne.”
EvX: The Raisuli incident is interesting. According to Wikipedia:
Mulai Ahmed er Raisuni was born in the village of Zinat sometime in 1871. … He was the son of a prominent Caid, and began following in his father’s footsteps. However, Raisuni eventually drifted into crime, stealing cattle and sheep and earning the ire of Moroccan authorities. …
By most accounts, the formative event in Raisuni’s life was his arrest and imprisonment by Abd-el-Rahman Abd el-Saduk, the Pasha of Tangier, who was Raisuli’s cousin and foster brother. … He was sent to the dungeon of Mogador and chained to a wall for four years; … Raisuni was released from prison as part of a general clemency early in the reign of Sultan Abdelaziz ..
Raisuni was hardened by his imprisonment, and returned to criminality after his release. … With a small but devoted band of followers, Raisuni embarked on a second career: kidnapping prominent officials and holding them for ransoms.
Raisuni’s first victim was Walter Burton Harris, an Englishman and correspondent for The Times who already knew Raisuni. Raisuni demanded not money, but the release of several of Raisuni’s men held in prison; Harris was released after only three weeks captivity.
Many of Raisuni’s other victims of this time were Moroccan military and political officials; his men only rarely kidnapped Europeans. In between kidnappings, Raisuni extorted ‘tribute’ from villagers in territories controlled by his followers, executing those who refused to pay. He also periodically maintained a small fleet of boats for seagoing piracy; …
Raisuni had a mixed reputation. He became known for his chivalry and respectful attitude towards his hostages; he pledged Ion Perdicaris that he would defend him from any harm …
However, towards those who were not worthy of ransom, emissaries of the Pasha and the Sultan, or those disloyal to him, he was known for cruelty. …
In 1904, Raisuni was propelled onto the international stage when he kidnapped the Greek-American expatriate Ion Perdicaris and his stepson Cromwell Varley and held them for a ransom of $70,000. American President Theodore Roosevelt, then running for re-election, made political capital out of the incident, sending a squadron of warships to Morocco to force Abdelaziz’s compliance with Raisuni’s demands, famously proclaiming “Perdicaris Alive or Raisuli Dead!”
After a near-confrontation between the government of Morocco and troops of the United States of America, Raisuni received his ransom money and concessions; he was appointed Pasha of Tangier and Governor of Jibala province, and all of his imprisoned followers were released. However, Raisuni was ousted from the post in 1906 due to corruption and cruelty to his subjects; a year later he was again declared an outlaw by the Moroccan government. …
For years, Raisuni continued to antagonize the Moroccan government, even after Abdelaziz’s forced abdication. He briefly regained favor with the Moroccan government, by siding with Mulay Hafid‘s overthrow of Abdelaziz, and was restored again as Pasha of Tangier. However, at the instigation of the Spanish government, the Sultan removed Raisuni from his post in 1912.
In 1913, Raisuni led several Rif tribes in a bloody revolt against the Spanish, and continued a sanguine guerilla conflict against them for almost eight years. …
In September 1922, and after an interview with Colonel José Villalba Riquelme he submitted to the Spanish authorities and subsequently joined forces with the Spanish army in the Rif War of the 1920s. …
In January 1925, Krim’s followers attacked Raisuni’s palace, killing most of his guards and capturing Raisuni. He was jailed in Tamasint (near Al Hoceima), where he died by the end of April 1925, … He is still regarded as a folk hero by many in Morocco, although his reputation is mixed at best.
Back to the book:
“The English missionary has had the great advantage of being favorably received by the people on account of his or her nationality. It stood, to them, for integrity, strength, and honor. Whatever changes may have taken place during the last four years to lessen this trust in her, England has still much favor with the majority. Hers were the pioneer-missionaries, for where no man would have been trusted or allowed to reside, her lady workers penetrated.”
EvX: It is a common complaint in Anthropology that older anthropologists had neglected the female side of humanity, due to themselves being primarily male, and thus not really allowed into women’s spaces and confidences even when they remembered to think of them, but the missionary literature contains plenty of accounts from female missionaries, who were quite thoughtful and allowed into female spaces. Today, though, this missionary literature seems to be all but forgotten.