Deeba Hasan sits down with Jane Jaffer, an author who has lived in Oman for the past 34 years and has just launched her second novel
It’s always a delight having a story narrated to you by the book’s author and that’s exactly what happened when I met Jane Jaffer. I could see the happiness in her eyes as she moved from one topic to another.
Jane is nearly halfway through her fourth decade of living in the Sultanate and has three children with her Omani husband.
Jane’s own tale of love and moving to an unfamiliar environment is one reflected in her latest book, Love in the Time of Zanzibar, which tells the story of two real life women – the Omani princess Sayyida Salme, daughter of Sayyid Said bin Sultan Al Busaid, the Sultan of Oman and Zanzibar from 1807 to 1856, and her mother, Djilfidan, who lived as a concubine. Sayyida Salme moved to Germany out of love, while her mother was abducted as a child.
“The two women are linked by their ability to overcome adversity because they both had to adapt to living in a completely different environment from the one that they grew up in,” says Jane. “They were both suddenly thrown into a society with different values, a different language, different climate and religion. They had to be resilient in order to survive.”
Much of Jane’s research was based around reading Sayyida Salme’s memoirs, which she wrote in Germany in 1888. “She probably was the first Arab and certainly the first Omani woman to write her memoirs and she gave us a fly on the wall account of palace life in the 19th century.”
Jane, who also has a day job as a teacher and is the founder of the Let’s Read campaign for children, says that the book took three years to write. “The book was a weekend project,” she says, “but I made myself write something every day.”
The idea for the book actually came to her when she was assisting Saud bin Ahmed al Busaidi, an Omani man from Zanzibar, write his own memoirs. She sat with Saud every week for a whole year to help him write the book and he told Jane of all his experiences from Zanzibar. “It was Saud who mentioned Zohra, an old woman who lived with them while he was growing up. Zohra was a confidante of Sayyida Salme in her younger days, so that’s the kind of link between the one book and the other and it really whet my appetite.”
There was also a book on Sayyida Salme that Jane read, which was written in German and translated to English. “Sayyida Salme was not submissive, which is why she got into problems,” Jane tells me.
“The other person, Djilfidan, was Sayyida Salme’s mother, but in her memoirs there is only one paragraph about her. Djilfidan was actually stolen from her village at the age of eight and brought to Zanzibar and she became a concubine.” With so little written about her mother in the memoirs, it took all of Jane’s artistic licence and creative imagination to fill in the gaps. “When a character was ill, I tried to look up how they would have treated that kind of patient in 19th century Zanzibar, for example.”
Writing the book took Jane to Zanzibar, where two people from Oman played host to her and showed her around. “The time when all this was happening was very interesting because ivory was very much in demand for piano keys and other things. I only stayed in Zanzibar for a week and I am dying to go back there.”
Interestingly, Jane was lucky enough to meet three descendants of Sayyida Salme who recently came from Washington in the US to visit Oman. “I met Sayyida Salme’s granddaughter, great granddaughter and great-great granddaughter. I was at the end of writing the book and remember thinking, ‘if only if I had met them earlier’,” she laughs.
Love in the Time of Zanzibar is out now and available from the Let’s Read book shop in Qurum, while a percentage of the proceeds will go to the charity. You can also find it at WHSmith.