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The portrayal of the East vs. the West in Lady Mary Montagu's Letters and Emily Ruete's Memoirs.


AFTER THE PUBLICATION OF Edward Said's Orientalism (1978), a great deal of controversy emerged that basically dealt with the West's elitist outlook and misrepresentation of the East. Very few studies concentrated on the other trend that embodied positive ideas. Some Western writers actually glorified the East and even considered it superior to the West. Geoffery Nash's study, From Empire to Orient: Travellers to the Middle East 1830-1926 (2005) falls into such a category. The author argues that the picture is more complex than the one previously proposed by Said who has mainly based his arguments on the Western 'hostile corpus.' (1) Nash points to the Spirit of the East (1838), [written by the First Secretary at the British Embassy in Istanbul, David Urquhart (1805-1877)] as a pioneering work in this trend. Thus, for Nash, Urquhart stands as a 'discursive instability within Orientalism." There was also a woman who lived before Urquhart who could be considered, the pioneer in her views toward the East; namely Lady Mary Montagu (1689-1762). Many critics of Montagu focused on Montagu's presumed lesbianism or licentious description of the seraglio. However, Montagu made various insightful and important comparisons between the West and the East, whether in the manners of people and habits, or in issues like slavery and women's rights.

I would also like to point out some commonalities between Montagu's views and Emily Ruete's (1844-1924) Memoirs (1880s), which is the first known autobiography of an Arab woman. Ruete or Sayyda Salme, being an Arab Muslim princess living in Zanzibar, was the daughter of Sultan Said bin Sultan Al-Busaid of Oman (1791-1856). She stated her observations of Zanzibar and Oman between 1850 and 1865. The Arab princess, who later converted to Christianity to marry a German merchant, lived the rest of her life in Germany, criticized both the German and British societies.

Ruete knew English as she was hosted by an English family in Aden upon leaving Zanzibar. She also quoted two English writers in her book in relation to the issue of slavery and she herself visited England in the midnineteenth century to up with meet her brother, Sultan Barghash (1837-1888).


In order to understand the importance of Montagu and Ruete, one has to briefly examine the prevalent Western attitudes toward the East and Islam before the 18th century. After the fall of Constantinople at the hands of the Ottoman leader Mohammed II (1432-1481) in 1453, Islam was seen as a threat and its prophet an impostor. Christian Protestantism, for instance, considered the Pope and the Turk as the two arch-enemies of Christ and his Holy Church, and if the "Turk is the body of Anti Christ, the Pope is the head." (2) As a matter of fact, Islam as a religion was identified with the shortcomings of the Catholic Church (being the opposite image of pure Christianity). Martin Luther (1483-1546) believed that the one "who fights against the Turks ... should consider that he is fighting an enemy of God and a blasphemer of Christ, indeed, the devil himself." (3) But in reality, the Turks were used as touchstones in the conflict between Protestants and Catholics in the sense that each party used the atrocities of its opponent in comparison to the Turks. In some eases, the Turks were favoured to other Christian sects since the former practised more religious tolerance. In other cases, Islam was not seen as a revealed and separate religion but a deviation of Christian belief because both religions carded similar noble values and high ethical standards. For instance, Thomas Carlyle wrote in a letter sent to Ralph Waldo Emerson that Islam was a kind of "bastard Christianity." (4)

Generally speaking, the term 'Turk' was used pejoratively in Europe. It was well known to be attributed to any Muslim but it also took other meanings starting from the sixteenth century, including "a cruel, rigorous, or tyrannical man; any one behaving as a barbarian or savage; one who treats his wife hardly; a bad-tempered or unmanageable man." (5) Thus, Arabs, Muslims, and the 'Unspeakable Turk' all referred to a menace.

In the same respect, the East, specifically Turkey, was thought to be a despotic state that forced its citizens to follow irrational rigid rules in life stemming from the exotic teaching of Islam. As a matter of fact, the term 'despotic' was first linked to the East by a Venetian Ambassador, describing the Ottoman regime as 'the most immoderate ... absolute and despotic." (6)

On the other hand, a new European interest in the East was seen in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in terms of commerce. The discovery of trade routes affected the relationship between the East and the West. Some Western commercial companies began to establish offices in the East, like the Muscovy Company (1555) and its Persian trade, or the Levant Company (1581) with its commerce in the Near East, and the East India Company (1600) and its trades in the Far East. Consequently, more channels of communication were opened "from the reports of commercial factors, travelling merchants, official envoys, and ambassadors." (7) Besides, the general attitude toward the Turks altered with the increasing weakness of the Ottoman Empire specifically after signing the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699, when the Ottomans retained the Hungarian Banat, which they lost only 19 years later. Instead of viewing Turkey as a serious threat, Europe took a more lenient view but without forgetting its religious biasness. As A. Secor claimed, there was a "shifting oriental discourse" at this stage based on the facts on the ground, since most European writers "increasingly focused on the Ottomans as an example of what England should not be or become." (8)

Within these times, very few writers made positive passing references to the Turks, Arabs, and Islam. In relation to Muslim piracy, Daniel Defoe (1660?-1731) is a useful example to cite especially in his elaboration on the subject of slavery. In The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719), Crusoe was taken captive by the Moors but managed to escape with a small boy. Defoe mentioned that the treatment of the slaves by Muslims could be more merciful than that of the Portuguese, "[I] have been as much a Slave at the Brasils as I had been in Barbary, the meer being sold to a Mahometan excepted; and perhaps a Portuguese is not much a better Master than a Turk, if not in some Cases a much worse." (9) Other examples include Henry Fielding (1707-1754) who was Montagu's cousin and she herself was his patron. Fielding mentioned in Joseph Andrews (1742) that; "[A] virtuous and good Turk, or Heathen, are more acceptable in the sight of their Creator, than a vicious and wicked Christian, tho' his Faith was as perfectly Orthodox as St. Paul's himself." (10) Such a tolerable view could be attributed to Montagu's influence as one of the founders of the realistic English novel. In addition, James Boswell (1740-1795) referred in Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) to the need to discover another country unlike England in order to gain more experience. Boswell stated; "[I] should wish to go and see some country totally different from what I have been used to, such as Turkey, where religion and every thing else are different." Johnson's reply denoted a view that was not popular at the time since he equated the Christian and Muslim countries together, considering them worthy to live in unlike the rest of the world, "[Y]es, Sir;" Johnson responds, "there are two objects of curiosity, the Christian world, and the Mahometan world. All the rest may be considered as Barbarous." (11)

Amid these conflicting views, Lady Montagu was probably the best example of a writer who dealt with the East and Islam with more details and understanding. Montagu stayed in Turkey from 1716 to 1718 with her husband, Edward Montagu, being the British Ambassador in Constantinople. Her letters sent home were published without authorization in 1763. When she returned, Montagu introduced the inoculation of smallpox into England after observing it in Turkey. She, herself, was plagued with the disease, which partly marred her face. After being divorced from her husband in 1739, she spent the remaining part of her life touring the Continent. In 1803, her writings about English and Continental life and the 52 Turkish letters were complied in Works.


The letters of Lady Mary Montagu provided the reading public with a new account of the East. The few accounts by Western travelling merchants were generally biased and inaccurate in their descriptions. Montagu wanted to give an "objective" account, and referred in various letters that there were many fallacies in Europe with regard to Muslims. Jean Dumont, who travelled to Turkey in 1694, was mentioned by Montagu as a writer having "equal ignorance and confidence." In a letter addressed to the Lady, she says that:
 Your whole letter is full of mistakes from one end to
 the other. I see you have taken your ideas of Turkey from that
 worthy author Dumont ... 'Tis a particular pleasure to me
 here, to read the voyages to the Levant, which are
 generally so far removed from truth, and so full of
 absurdities, I am very well diverted with them. They never
 fail giving you an account of the women, whom 'tis certain
 they never saw, and talking very wisely of the genius of the
 men, into whose company they are never admitted; and very
 often describe mosques, which they dare not peep into. The
 Turks are very proud, and will not converse with a stranger
 they are not assured is considerable in his own country. (12)
 (Bold added)

Montagu clearly refers to the fact that most travellers could not comprehend the true nature of the people and places they have been to, because writing and living in any country is totally different from visiting it for a short period of time and then attempting to describe it. On the other hand, she pledges to narrate all the facts despite the fact that they could be unorthodox, saying; "I seriously assert for truth; though I give you leave to be surprised at an account so new to you" (157-8).

Similarly, Ruete mentions that most Western writings about the East lack the understanding of the true culture, saying:
 But to become properly acquainted with, and to get
 initiated into all these minor details of household life, it is
 necessary to have been in the East, and to have lived there for
 a considerable time. No reliance is to be placed on the reports
 of travelers, who stop for a short time only, who are unable to
 gain an insight into all these details, and maybe obtain all their
 information from hotel waiters. Foreign ladies even, supposing
 they have actually entered a harem either at Constantinople or
 Cairo, have never seen the inside of a real harem at all, but
 only its outside, represented by the state rooms decorated and
 furnished in European style. (13)

Ruete believes that no matter how hard a traveler tries to show the truth, he or she will ultimately make mistakes by generalizing due to the available restraints. In relation to the fallacies against the East, Ruete has mostly Muslim women in her mind since their identities remain mysterious as they could not be met by male foreigners due to the nature of the Islamic culture. She continues saying that the "ablest and most conscientious writer must always, to some degree, fall short of giving a perfectly precise and faithful picture of a foreign nation; and, in the case of an Eastern nation, he will, of course, find himself heavily handicapped out of all proportion when family and domestic life generally is so jealously guarded from the gaze of the outer world" (297-8).

Concerning the relationship between the East and West, Montagu and Ruete agree that the East has equal, if not more refined, qualifies than the West, and both suggest that the West has misrepresented the East and its people. Montagu, for instance, mentions that "these people are not so unpolished as we represent them.... [for] their magnificence is of a different taste from ours, and perhaps of a better" (175). The two writers compare living in two places and conclude that the Easterners are living a better one, stating that residing in the East is "less laborious and more peaceful," as Ruete claims (50). Both confirm that the people in the West are losing part of their humanity due to the nature of their civilization, whereas in the East, people are still in tune with their true selves. Montague stresses that:
 I am almost of opinion they have a right notion of
 life; while they consume it in music, gardens, wine, and
 delicate eating, while we are tormenting our brains with some
 scheme of politics, or studying some science to which we can
 never attain.... [T]he good of fame, the folly of praise, hardly
 purchased, and, when obtained, a poor recompense for loss of
 time and health. We die or grow old and decrepit before we
 can reap the fruit of our labours (175).

Hence, Montagu criticizes the Western preoccupation with emotionless rationalism, preferring the spontaneity and naturalness seen in the East. Furthermore, she views the religion of Islam with reverence and great respect. Once she attended a dervish religious ceremony and noticed how those pious Muslims show the "most solemn gravity" as "there is something touching in the air of submission and mortification they assume" (167). She also refers to the Quran as a sacred book that needs great understanding and knowledge of the Arabic rhetoric before comprehending its deep meanings.

To sum up, Montagu and Ruete set rules of observation and description that challenged preconceived ideas and old prejudices. Their voices protested injustice and blind stereotypes. Both were well read and aware of prevalent negative attitudes. As Edward Said mentioned, the West imagined the East in a way that would only be suitable to serve its fantasies and own interests.


Being a champion of women's rights, Montagu was surprised to find out that Muslim women were not as confined and repressed as they were pictured in the West. There were many fallacies in the West. Amongst them the belief that Muslim men did not recognize that women would enter Heaven. As an example, the French merchant, Jean de Thevenot who visited Turkey during the seventeenth century, stated the same conviction stressing as well that Muslim men consider women irrational creatures. John Dryden (1631-1700) intimated in his play Don Sebastian (1689) that Turkish women had no souls, an idea repeated in several other works like Mrs. Mantley's Almyna: or, the Arabian Vow (1707), which was partly based on the Arabian Nights. (14)

As a matter of fact, Western women were less liberated than their Eastern ones at a time when Europeans believed that women's regression was caused by the religion of Islam itself. Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), for instance, in her famous A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) defended the rights of Western women and called for equality with men, saying that the women of her time were imprisoned in "cages like the feathered race, they have nothing to do but to plume themselves, and stalk with mock majesty from perch to perch." She accused men of being behind the state of degradation because they "earnestly labored to domesticate women, have endeavored, by arguments dictated by a gross appetite, which satiety had rendered fastidious, to weaken their bodies and cramp their minds." (15) Women did not enjoy significant rights aside from their husbands and that they had no free will to make commercial transactions and were very limited in terms of inheritance. The English Reform Act in 1832 disenfranchised women and did not help them achieve equal rights with men. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the legal status of a married woman that was called coverture prohibited her from holding office, taking part in elections, being a party in a lawsuit, owning property, or even writing a will. When married, a woman's personal fortune would be her husband's and fathers were routinely given custody to their children instead of their mothers upon divorce. (16)

To the contrary of this picture, Montagu describes Sultana Hafiten in Constantinople, who is the favorite of the late Emperor Mustapha, as a very refined lady. After the death of her first husband, she was asked to choose a man of her own choice. So she married the Secretary of State, Bekir Effendi, at the age of 36 and remained with him for over fifteen years. To prove her independence, Montagu mentioned how Hafiten never allowed her husband to pay her visits without her approval. In her castle, she used to pass the "time in uninterrupted mourning, with a constancy very little known in Christendom, especially in a widow of twenty-one ... "As a matter of fact, Sultana Hafiten imposes her rules on her husband who obeys her without ever questioning. "She has no black eunuchs for her guards, her husband being obliged to respect her as a queen, and not inquire at all into what is done in her apartment ... "(154). In this respect, Srinivas Aravamudan in his article "Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in the Hammam: Masquerade, Womanliness, and Levantinization," asserts that Montagu views the Turkish "aristocratic women she meets as already free rather than waiting for emancipation like their European counterparts." (17) Even Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman pointed out that "Turkish bashaws ... have more real power than their masters." (18) Such a kind treatment stems from the teaching of Islam since the Holy Quran always stresses the equality between men and women. (19)

Montagu discussed as well the Western misconception of the Eastern harem. She mentioned, for instance, how Sultana Hafiten was amazed at the ignorance of the West towards the harem, negating the famous fallacy of the Sultan throwing a handkerchief to point out his desired lady. Hafiten emphasizes that sometimes the Sultan "diverts himself in the company of all his ladies, who stand in a circle around him ... [T]hey were ready to die with jealousy and envy of the happy she that he distinguished by any appearance of preference." According to Montagu, such a scene is not only limited to the Eastern harem but also to the Western courts, "where the glance of the monarch is watched and every smile waited for with impatience, and envied by those who cannot obtain it" (156).

Concerning the alleged Muslim women's limitations, Montagu elaborates by referring to the fact that Muslim women are less restricted in the East than the Europeans. The writer mentions several reasons behind her claim:
 'Tis also very pleasant to observe how tenderly he
 [the traveller, Aaron Hill], and all his brethren voyage-writers
 lament the miserable confinement of the Turkish ladies, who
 are perhaps freer than any ladies in the universe, and are the
 only women in the world that lead a life of uninterrupted
 pleasure exempt from cares; their whole time being spent in
 visiting, bathing, or the agreeable amusement of spending
 money, and inventing new fashions. A husband would be
 thought mad that exacted any degree of economy from his
 wife, whose expenses are no way limited but by her own
 fancy. 'Tis his business to get money, and hers to spend it: and
 this noble prerogative extends itself to the very meanest of the
 sex (168).

Thus, Montagu believes that Muslim women are actually "freer than any ladies in the universe" and this kind of freedom is their own right as dictated in Islam. In relation to the intellectual capacities of women, Montagu gave the example of fair Fatima with whom she was acquainted in Adrianople. Fatima was a highly educated and sociable woman whose "wit [was] as engaging as her beauty." As a matter of fact, she had "all the politeness and good breeding of a court; with an air that inspires, at once, respect and tenderness.... " (158). Contrary to the stereotypical image in Europe, Fatima stands, with her fellows, as a witness to the misrepresentation made against Muslim women. Based on Fatima and others like her, Montagu stresses the fact that the "Turkish ladies have at least as much wit and civility, nay, liberty, as ladies among us" (169).

In addition, Montagu affirmed that Turkish men treated their women in a benevolent way. As an example, she mentioned a true story related to a captive Spaniard woman whose ship was attacked by a Turkish Admiral. Her family sent her a ransom, but the Turk took the money and gave it to her, emphasizing that she had the liberty to leave, "[B]ut the lady very discreetly weighed the different treatment she was likely to find in her native country. Her Catholic relations ... would certainly confine her to a nunnery for the rest of her days," (170). As a result, she accepted the Admiral's proposal for marriage, and lived with him to the rest of his life; not mentioning that he did not marry another woman. After the death of the Turkish Admiral, she was left as one of the richest widows of Constantinople.

At the same time, Ruete, who lived in the West and was acquainted with its fallacies, mentioned the fact that:
 It is an absolute myth that the Arab husband treats his
 wife with less regard than is the case here [in Europe]. This is
 already provided by religion, which, though neglecting the
 wife in some points, recommends her, like a helpless child, to
 the protection of the husband. The believing and pious
 Mahometan has as much humane feeling as any highlycivilized
 and moral European; he is perhaps more strict and
 rigorous to himself, believing in the ubiquity of the Lord, who
 made the laws, and carrying the firm conviction to the grave
 that his good acts and his bad will by and by meet with just
 retribution (149).

Ruete states that a Muslim wife is neither powerless in front of her husband nor "obliged to submit unconditionally and for ever to all [his] whims and humors ... " There are social reasons behind this fact. For instance, an Arab lady always "finds shelter with her relations, or, if she stands alone, she has the right to make a complaint to the Kadi [judge] in person. Frequently, too, she has recourse to the law," (150). In another context, Ruete refers to Sultana Azze bint Sef, the wife of Sultan Said bin Sultan of Oman. Azze is pictured as a strong woman whose authority is not limited only to managing the palace but extends to controlling the decisions of the Sultan himself. She "reigned as absolute mistress over the household. In spite of her very small size, and of her plain exterior, she possessed an immense power over my father, who willingly submitted to all her arrangements," (7). According to Ruete, the wife is the "absolute mistress" of the household whose power in the household is unquestioned. Instead of receiving certain sums of money for housekeeping "as is customary in Europe," an Arab woman has "full liberty to disperse of her husband's funds. When the latter has two wives living apart, his income is equally divided between them," (151) as Reute claims.

Furthermore, the Arab princess pointed out the advantages of being an Arab woman as contrasted to being a European. She says, for instance, that when a girl gets married, she will preserve her own name and her family's. The girl "remains always the daughter (bint) of N. or M." (153). Ruete confirms that it is "a fallacy to think that women in the East are placed socially on a lower level than man." The legitimate wife is always respected and she "retains her rank, and all rights and titles emanating from it, to their full extent" (145). In the same respect, G. M. Wickens with "Introduction to the Middle East," stresses that Arab women have had a high status even at the time of early Islam, since they could "carry on various sorts of business by proxy. A few achieved fame as poets or mystics, even as scholars, and many, at all levels of society naturally played important and influential parts behind the scenes." (20)


For many centuries, the West always accused Muslims and Arabs in particular of maltreating the slaves. But in reality, slavery was part of a cultural reality in the West and East alike. Before going through the views of Montagu and Ruete, one needs to briefly examine the history of the slave trade in the West.

In the centuries following the Renaissance, the African slave trade was mainly led by Portugal and Spain. Then in the later part of the 16th century, England entered the slave trade, competing to fill the demands of the Spanish colonies. The British South Sea Company obtained the full rights in 1713 to supply the Spanish Colonies. According to Henry Carey's The Slave Trade (1867), a committee was formed by the House of Assembly in 1791 and made a report on the number of slaves imported within 89 years to the Spanish Colonies. There were 473,000 ones brought and only 224,000 remained "establishing the fact that more than half of the whole import had perished under the treatment to which they had been subjected." (21) It was only in 1807 that Britain abolished the slave trade following the example of some European countries. At the Congress of Vienna in 1814, Britain then pressured some foreign powers to adopt a similar policy, and managed at the end to reach a solution to slave traffic.

In this regard, Montagu clearly reproaches the Europeans for being unreasonably critical of Muslims for employing slaves. The British Lady herself, to whom Montagu used to write, requested buying a Greek slave from Turkey. According to the Lady, the Greek slave should be a "mistress of a thousand good qualifies." Despite the fact that some Europeans criticized buying slaves, they also sought to own them. Montagu corrects the Lady by saying that the Greeks in Turkey are "subjects and not slaves" (145).

Similarly, Ruete observes during her stay in Zanzibar that Europeans were the first ones to buy slaves and resell them after leaving their places, saying:
 Such things are, of course, not reported home, or they
 are excused on the plea that they have been done "in the
 interest of science." Science must serve as a pretext for many
 an evil. The morality however, remains the same, whether the
 Arab puts his slaves to field or domestic work, or whether they
 are employed as carriers and porters by Europeans, the latter
 being much harder and more tiring work. Nor are these
 European slave-keepers always humane enough to set the
 slaves they have bought free when they require them no
 longer, as the Arabs often do; they simply resell them. The
 Mahometan population of Zanzibar were greatly incensed on
 one occasion against an Englishman who, before returning to
 Europe, secretly sold his woman-slave to an Arab official

The same case could be observed when the traveler Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (1784-1817) visited the Arab world in the early nineteenth century to see Mecca and its neighboring areas. He clearly mentioned that he bought and later sold a slave in order to serve him in his journey, saying:
 I was compelled to sell my slave ... During my
 preceding journey he had proved himself a faithful and useful
 companion; and although I have since had several other slaves
 in my possession, I never found one equal to him. The Greek
 captain sold him for me, in the slave-market of Djidda, for
 forty-eight dollars. [This slave cost me sixteen dollars at
 Shendy; thus, the profits of sale on one slave defrayed almost
 the whole expense of the four months' journey through Nubia,
 which I had performed in the spring.] (22)

To his surprise, Burckhardt noticed during his stay in Mecca that a woman slave had to be freed and married to her owner if she became pregnant, otherwise the society would greatly criticize the slave master and may even ostracize him. He also referred to the fact that in Arabia and "among the richer classes, it is considered shameful to sell a concubine slave." (23)

At the same time, Montagu mentions that the Muslim patron of slaves "never sells them, except it is a punishment of some very great fault. If ever they grow weary of them, they either present them to a friend, or give them their freedom," (145). She further pointed out that slaves in the Muslim world were treated in a very merciful manner, unlike the common Western practice. As a matter of fact, slaves are never "ill-used, and their slavery is ... no worse than servitude all over the world ...Tis true they have no wages; but they give them yearly clothes to a higher value than our salaries to any ordinary servant" (166). Montagu compared the treatment of women to that seen during her time in Europe, and clearly referred to the undeclared enslavement of women practiced everyday and everywhere, while many men in the West were also enslaved by the remnants of the old feudal system of serfdom. Other travelers like Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890), who traveled to Arabia in the years 1851-1853, noticed that slaves were treated in a highly respectful manner and sometimes enjoyed more freedom than free people. He mentioned the following:
 The laws of Mahomet enjoin his followers to treat
 slaves with the greatest mildness, and the Moslems are in
 general scrupulous observers of the Apostle's
 recommendation. Slaves are considered members of the
 family, and in houses where free servants are also kept, they
 seldom do any other work than filling the pipes, presenting the
 coffee, accompanying their master when going out, rubbing
 his feet when he takes his nap in the afternoon, and driving
 away the flies from him. When a slave is not satisfied, he can
 legally compel his master to sell him. He has no care for food,
 lodging, clothes and washing, and has no taxes to pay; he is
 exempt from military service and soccage, and in spite of his
 bondage is freer than the freest Fellah in Egypt. (24)

Montagu also contested the popular belief that some women in the East were treated like goods if they became slaves, despite the fact that they would receive the same kind of treatment in the West even if they were not called slaves. "But you'll object men buy women with an eye to evil. In my opinion, they are bought and sold as publicly and more infamously in all our Christian great cities," (166). She further mentioned that those slaves had good lives and could easily gain their freedom from their masters. The writer also sensed a suspicion that some may accuse her of distorting facts because she was not critical of the Turks in this aspect, "[I] know you'll expect I should say something particular of the slaves; and you will imagine me half a Turk when I don't speak of it with the same horror other Christians have done before me. But I cannot forbear applauding the humanity of the Turks to these creatures" (166). In reality, Montagu strived to give as accurate a picture as possible about the manners and conduct of the people. The writer continued her discussion, emphasizing the fact that she could be misjudged back home. "[I] am afraid you will doubt the truth of this account, which I own is very different from our common notions in England; but it is no less truth for all that" (146). The expression Montagu used "our common notions" pointed obviously to the stereotypical attitude inherited for ages in England against Muslims. In the Islamic religion, for instance, one of the greatest virtues done in life is setting a slave free by buying his or her freedom.

In line with the same thoughts, Ruete stressed that the salves in Muslim societies were free to work independently and even to earn their own living, "[O]nce arrived, the slaves are for the most part well cared for. They have of course to work for their masters without wages, but they have no care themselves, and their welfare is always studiously looked after" (217). It should also be pointed out however, that Ruete held other convictions regarding slaves, since she greatly objected to the decision that they should be suddenly emancipated in Zanzibar, considering it a move that was against the normal system followed by many countries. (25)


One of the fascinating descriptions cited in Montagu's Letters was her account of the Turkish baths that she witnessed in Turkey. Montagu tries to break all the misconceptions prevalent at the time of picturing the East as an erotic and sensual place. She gives an oriental picture of a highly secluded place not yet revealed by any writer before, saying that in a Turkish bath there were:
 ... so many fine women naked, in different postures, some in
 conversation, some working, others drinking coffee or sherbet,
 and many negligently lying on their cushions, while their
 slaves (generally pretty girls of seventeen or eighteen) were
 employed in braiding their hair in several pretty fancies. In
 short, it is the women's coffee-house, where all the news of
 the town is told, scandal invented, [& c.-] They generally take
 this diversion once a-week, and stay there at least four or five
 hours.... 'Tis no less than death for a man to be found in one of
 these places (106).

Unlike the older coffeehouses in Istanbul where dynamic literary activity and criticism were seen, Turkish coffeehouses in England only started to appear in the 17th century. Historically speaking, baths in the East originated much earlier than those found in the West. Philip Hitti, for instance, confirmed in The Arabs, when Arab scientists in the city of Cordova, "enjoyed luxurious baths, ... washing the body was considered a dangerous custom at the University of Oxford." (26) In England, the first Turkish bath was established in 1650 by a Turkish Jew called Jacobs. Thomas Macaulay (1800-1859) within the History of England from the Accession of James II, Vol. 1 mentioned that coffeehouses in the seventeenth century had a tremendous influence upon the political life, saying that they were "the chief organs through which the public opinion of the metropolis vented itself." By 1739, there were 551 coffeehouses in England but women were forbidden to enter them. As a matter of fact, Montagu satirized England and its society for limiting the freedom of British women, because they did not take part in these important social gatherings where different intellectual and political topics were discussed. (27) On the other hand, she emphasized the fact that the Turkish baths played an important role in connecting people to share views and exchange ideas. Women were able to cathartically express their worries and concerns in these baths and closely bond. This fact was strongly pointed out by David Urquhart, who stressed that Turkish society was able to rid itself of many social ills via using these baths. Therefore, he strived to establish the London and Turkish Bath Company on 19 November 1860 and later built the first Turkish bath in London. (28)

In describing the manners of women, Montagu said that more than two hundred ladies bathing did not show any sign of contempt or looked at her with surprise or scorn though she used to wear her distinguished Western clothes. Instead, she was welcomed "with all the obliging civility possible" without observing any "disdainful smiles" or listening to "satiric whispers." Montagu concludes by saying: "I know no European court where the ladies would have behaved themselves so polite a manner to a stranger" (105).

But some critics focused their criticism of the Letters on the presumed erotic notions that was previously stirred by the translation of the Arabian Nights (1702-1714). In reality, the fictitious details of the Nights were highly responsible for forming a sensually romantic image of Muslim women in the East, by presenting belly dancers, submissive women, slaves, and an abundance of harem. Such views expressed a Western male admiration and deep yearning to have concubines and to practice polygamy. Norman Daniel elaborates through Islam, Europe and Empire saying that these "highly coloured pictures provide inexpensive satisfaction to the deeper instincts, the murky sensualism, the unconscious masochism and sadism of the peaceful Western bourgeoisie." (29) Thus, the popularity of Montagu's Letters could be due to the description of the Eastern harems and their bath communities, but interpreting her work in terms of eroticism shows a misunderstanding of her work.

As in Montagu's descriptions, Ruete also attempted to describe Turkish and Persian baths available at Zanzibar and specifically in the Bet il Mtoni, or the palace. The writer mentioned that these baths were the "favorite resort with all the people in the house," spending several hours a day "to pray, sleep, work, and read there, even to take their meals; and from four o'clock in the morning till midnight they were never empty" (2). Upon entering the baths, Ruete observes that there are "two raised resting-places.., to the right and left for prayer and repose, which are covered with the finest colored mats" (2). Ruete failed to give a detailed account of the practices followed in the baths, and she could not reach Montagu's refined style and colorful description, which could be partly due to the writers' different literary backgrounds.

In conclusion, Montagu and Ruete are considered landmarks of Western Oriental writings. Montagu, stands in contrast to a great number of other travelers who have attempted to give a picture of the East stemming from their preconceived stereotypes. As Arthur J. Weitzman stated, Montagu "pierced the myths of orient by refusing to demonize the Turks" and when "she looked at the "other" she saw herself." (30)

Ruete, seemed to follow Montagu's steps. Analogies between them are very close. Ruete also wanted her Memoirs to score high sales to save her money for raising her children. Being aware of the reception of Montagu's book, Ruete may have imitated the gist of the Letters, by alluding to the German and British societies in her comparisons to the East. However, she also gave her work a unique touch with the perspectives she presented as an Arab lady. She also prophetically imagines how the West will hastily try to (democratize) the Muslim world in order to create another copy of its culture. She claims that the East is different and any plan to force a change is doomed to fail .... "I am firmly convinced, Arab born and bred as I am, that all efforts on the part of Europeans to do away, at a sweep, with the incarnate ignorance of Mahometans, and to fly the flag of science and learning, with even the smallest amount of precipitation, will meet with barren effect" (78-8). Her insight could be highly valuable in understanding the current cultural and intellectual gap that exists between the East and the West.


(1.)Geoffrey P. Nash, From Empire to Orient: Travelers to the Middle East 1830-1926 (London: I. B. Tauris, 2005).

(2.) Albert Hourani, Western Attitudes Towards Islam (Southampton: The Tenth Montefiore Memorial Lecture, 1974).

(3.) E. Grislis, "Luther and the Turks", The Muslim World, Vol. LXIV, No. 3 (July 1974), pp. 180-193. The word "mammet" stood for an idol worshipper. Amid the conflict between the Protestants and Catholics, mammet was used by the Protestants in a derogatory manner to denote "an image of Christ or of a saint, etc., as used in Roman Catholic practice." See Oxford English Dictionary Online, Draft Revision, March 2001, s.v. "mammet."

(4.) The letter was sent on the 2nd of July 1840. See Thomas Carlyle, The Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson Vol. 1 (1834-1872) (New York: Biblio Bazaar, 2007).

(5.) Oxford English Dictionary Online, Second Edition 1989, s.v. "Turk." Noteworthy, the names "mammet" the distortion of the Prophet Mohammed's name and "Turk" also used to refer in England during the 16th and 17th centuries to a scarecrow or a 'hideous image to frighten children; a bugbear." See Oxford English Dictionary Online, Draft Revision, March 2001, s.v. "mammet."

(6.) Said Amir Arjomand, "Coffeehouses, Guilds and Oriental Despotism Government and Civil Society in Late 17th to Early 18th Century Istanbul and Isfahan, and as Seen from Paris and London," European Journal of Sociology, Vol. XLV, No. 1 (2004), 23-42.

(7.) Byron Porter Smith, Islam in English Literature (New York: Caravan Books, 1977).

(8.) A. Secor, "Orientalism, Gender and Class in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Turkish Embassy Letters: to persons of distinction, men of letters and c," Cultural Geographies, Vol. 6, Issue 4 (1999), 375-398.

(9.) Daniel Defoe, The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Being the Second and Last Part of his Life, And Strange Surprizing Accounts of his Travels Round Three Parts of the Globe. Written by Himself. The Second Edition. To which is added a Map of the World, in which is Delineated the Voyages of Robinson Crusoe (London: W. Taylor, 1719).

(10.) Henry Fielding, The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews And His Friend Mr. Abraham Adams (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987). See also Isobel Grundy, "Montagu, Lady Mary Wortley (bap. 1689, d. 1762)," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 14 June 2007 <>.

(11.) James Boswell, Life of Johnson (London: Oxford University Press, 1998).

(12.) Mary Wortley Montagu, Letters (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984). Henceforth, all quotations from the Letters refer to this edition, therefore only page numbers are cited within the text.

(13.) Emily Ruete, Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar (New York: Markus Wiener Publishing, 1989). Henceforth, all quotations from the Memoirs refer to this edition, therefore only page numbers are cited within the text.

(14.) The Muslim character, Mufti Abdalla, in Dryden's play mentions: Our law says plainly, women have no souls.' See John Dryden, The Works of John Dryden: Illustrated with Notes, Historical, Critical, and Explanatory and a Life of the Author Vol. VII (London: William Miller, 1808). See also Smith, Islam in English Literature.

(15.) Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (London: Penguin Classics, 2004).

(16.) Edward Raymond Turner, "The Women's Suffrage Movement in England," The American Political Science Review, Vol. 7, No. 4 (November 1913), 588-609.

(17.) Srinivas Aravamudan, "Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in the Hammam: Masquerade, Womanliness, and Levantinization," ELH, Vol. 62, No. 1 (1995), 69-104.

(18.) Wollstonecraft, A Vindication.

(19.) The Holy Quran states: "From His revelation is creating wives from yourselves so that you belong to each other, and He planted love and mercy in your hearts. These are signs for thinking men." (30 A1-Rum (The Greeks): 21) Besides, one of the Prophet Mohammed's sayings is that "Women are the divisions of men" to emphasize the bond that exists between the two sexes. For more information, see Mustapha Al-Saba'ai, Al-Mara' aa Bain Al-Fiqah Wa Al-Qanoon (The Woman Between Law and Islamic Legislation) (Beirut: Al-Maktab Al-Islami, n.d.).

(20.) G. M. Wickens, "Introduction to the Middle East" in R. M. Savory, ed., Introduction to Islamic Civilization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976).

(21.) Henry Charles Carey, The Slave Trade: Why it Exists, and How it May Be Extinguished (Philadelphia: H. C. Baird, 1867).

(22.) Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, Travels in Arabia Comprehending an Account of those Territories in Hedjaz which the Mohammedans Regards as Sacred (London: Henry Colburn, 1829). See also Stanley Lane-Poole, "Burckhardt, Johann Ludwig (1784-1817)," rev. Elizabeth Baigent, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 10 June 2007, <http://www.oxforddnb.comlviewlarticle13957>.

(23.) Burckhardt, Travels in Arabia.

(24.) Richard F. Burton, Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah & Meccah, Vol. I, Edited by Isabel Burton, Memorial Edition (London: Tylston and Edwards, 1893). Similarly, Dr. Alexander Russell, who worked as a physician to the British factory at Aleppo, stated in his The Natural History of Aleppo (1756) that the slaves in Syria were never compelled to convert to Islam. See Smith, Islam in English Literature.

(25.) When Ruete's brother, Sultan Barghash, went to England to sign a treaty of the abolition of the slave trade in 1873, she protested the move and clearly mentioned that the decision was taken because of British political pressures. When she returned to Zanzibar, she found that the slaves could not leave their former work and preferred to remain with their masters because a state of chaos overwhelmed the whole country. Following the death of her father, Sultan Said ibn Sultan, a split occurred in the Omani empire. Ruete's other brother, Sultan Majid, later succeeded by Barghash, controlled Zanzibar, while Imam Thuwaini ruled over Muscat and Oman. Despite the aforementioned treaty, Sultan Barghash, did not prohibit, till his death in 1888, the slave trade, but everything changed when Zanzibar became a British Protectorate in 4 November 1890. Richard Burton noticed that even the "Imam of Maskat," at that time, Sayyid Faisal bin Turki (1864-1913) who "voluntarily have made a treaty with...[the British] for the suppression of this vile [slave] trade .... allow[ed] so extensive an importation [of African slaves] to his dominions." It seems that the Muscat-British abolition of slavery treaty signed on 14 April 1873 was made only to satisfy the British government without necessarily changing the Sultan's previous policies and long centuries of slave trading. See Burton, Personal Narrative, and Howard Hazen Wilson, "Some Principal Aspects of British Efforts to Crush the African Slave Trade, 1807-1929," The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 44, No. 3 (July 1950), 505-526. See also Moses D. E. Nwulia, "The Role of Missionaries in the Emancipation of Slaves in Zanzibar." The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 60, No. 2 (April 1975), 268-287.

(26.) Philip Hitti, The Arabs (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1943).

(27.) Arjomand, "Coffeehouses, Guilds and Oriental Despotism." And n.a., "Early Notices of Coffee in England: From Broadsides in the Luttrel Collection," accessed 7 June 2007. <>. See also Thomas Babington Macaulay, The History of England from the Accession of James II, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1848).

(28.) John Potvin, "Vapour and Steam: The Victorian Turkish Bath, Homosocial Health, and Male Bodies on Display," Journal of Design History, Vol. 18, No. 4 (2005), 319-333.

(29.) Norman Daniel, Islam, Europe and Empire (Edinburgh: University Press, 1962).

(30.) Arthur J. Weitzman, "Voyeurism and Aesthetics in the Turkish Bath: Lady Mary's School of Female Beauty", Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 39, No. 4 (2002), 347-359.

Ahmed K. Al-Rawi is an Assistant Professor on the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Sohar University, Oman.
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Author:Rawi, Ahmed K. Al-
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Date:Jan 1, 2008
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