If you are looking for an emotional narrative of a woman’s journey to Makkah and their Hajj, this is not it. If you are looking for an interesting and rare historical travel memoir this, A Princess’s Pilgrimage, may delight you.
Sikandar Begum and her party of about a thousand pilgrims from Bhopal, India (yes, this Nawab’s (Muslim ruler) entourage was a thousand people) travelled to Makkah by ship in 1863 for a four-month-long pilgrimage. The narrative includes many passages attesting to how dangerous and complicated it was to travel at that time. On the loss of some of her party, Sikandar Begum says, “On the pilgrimage, I lost eight altogether, four of whom died on board ship and four at Mecca and Jeddah… Two persons also disappeared out of my suite and never found again: one woman whom we lost on the pilgrimage, and the other a water-carrier who went to Medina. I do not know what became of them.” A portion of Sikandar Begum’s suite separated from her to go to Medina, amongst them “a great many people died.” An entire chapter of the book details the extent she went to procure a safe passage to Medina and explains why she eventually passed the opportunity up.
The Nawab appears to have been a pragmatic ruler, which is reflected in her detailing the practical aspects of the pilgrimage throughout the book. There is nearly an entire chapter devoted to her struggles with paying taxes on the goods she carried to Jeddah, including items for her personal use, gifts for the Sherif and Pasha’s families and sadaqah to be distributed to the poor. It takes little reading between the lines to pick up on the frustration Sikandar Begum had with the way her mother, Nawab Dowager Begum, distributed the ample sadaqah she had brought. Nawab Dowager Begum openly and seemingly without much plan distributed her wealth to the poor in Makkah, immediately creating an enormous reputation for herself which made moving about more complicated as she and her generosity were then continuously sought out. Sikandar Begum notes that even prior to being aware of the elder Nawab’s generosity, the Bedouins along the route from Jeddah to Medina had tried to kidnap the elder Nawab. Not knowing Arabic or being able to distinguish potential robbers from locally hired help, Her Highness only thought they were feeble-mindedly separating her from her travel companions, remaining oblivious to the danger she was in until much later.
Communication breakdowns and culture clashes are recurring themes in this short book. Sikandar Begum’s exchanges, both verbal and in gift-giving, with her Arab hosts and their Turkish employees result in several faux pas, sometimes with violent repercussions! Staying in a hired (or was it gifted? There were also many confusions with regard to which services were freely hosted and which were hired) home of the Sherif (noble leader), Sikandar Begum eventually had to place a firm commandment that people who could not communicate directly with her and her guests without interpreters be barred from all personal living quarters and sitting areas. The male employees of the Sherif frequently barged in on the mostly female entourage of the Nawab, and further created a great deal of confusion and fitnah by relaying erroneous, misinterpreted information back to the Sherif. The book could easily be made into a slapstick production with all the misunderstandings Sikandar Begum experienced and spent much time trying to fix.
I know that it should go without saying, and I feel nearly naïve to have felt so, but some of Sikandar Begum’s accounts are saddening, considering the setting of Hajj – the racism, the poverty, the brutishness and so on. It was only Sikandar Begum’s constant level-headedness and wit that remind readers of the importance to remain firm to the business at hand as she did – Hajj! The book’s introduction is very helpful, placing the greater setting of when and why A Princess’s Pilgrimage was written and published, but the afterword is also a treasure. Siobhan Lambert-Hurley offers a collection of further reads with her ‘Muslim Women Write Their Journeys Abroad.’
An excerpt of A Princess’s Pilgrimage can be found HERE. A Princess’s Pilgrimage is available through Kubepublishing.com, Amazon and other retailers.
Brooke Benoit enjoys reading a wide selection of non-fiction material, especially travel memoirs and especially, especially Muslim women’s travel memories.