Travels of a Muslim Woman in 1909

Seated Left: Akhtar al-Nisa Begum Sarbuland Jang - Seated Right: Jeevan Yar Jung (Brother) Standing left to right: Mahmoodullah Jung (Son) Khwaja Abdul Majeed (Son-in-Law), Dr. Osman Nawaz Jung (Brother)

Category: Life & Society Topics: Damascus, India, Muslim Women, Travel Views: 980

Akhtar al-Nisa Begum Sarbuland Jang (1875–1956) belonged to the highest society of her time. Born into an elite family from north India, she subsequently married Hamidullah Khan Sarbuland Jang (1864–1935), the chief justice of Hyderabad, where she spent much of her adult life.

Despite her proximity to the most well-known and powerful men in colonial India and her own involvement in social reform movements, she remains a shadowy figure. What is certain is that she was one of at least ten children born from the union of Nawab Agha Mirza Beg Sarvar Jang (1848–1933) with his wife Nawab Mahal Begum Sikandar Zamani, daughter of the prime minister of Alwar State. Her father became a tutor and later secretary to Nizam Asif Jah VI, the ruler of Hyderabad. As a result, through both her lineage and upbringing, Begum Sarbuland Jang possessed an intimate familiarity with princely India.

She was also closely linked to colonial India and its intellectual life through her husband. Hamidullah Khan was the first student to be enrolled at the influential Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental College in Aligarh, which was founded by the renowned reformist Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan. After graduating from Aligarh and Cambridge University, he served as a barrister in Allahabad before being appointed a High Court judge in Hyderabad in 1894. His own father, Sami‘ullah Khan, was a dedicated benefactor and tireless advocate for Ahmad Khan and his reformist mission. Sami‘ullah Khan himself wrote a travel account of a voyage to London in the late 1800s. This genealogy thus places Begum Sarbuland within a family tradition of travel writing that stemmed almost from the establishment of the genre in Urdu and which was likewise sustained by Hamidullah Khan, who wrote about the same journey as his wife in both Urdu and English.

The only extant writing by Begum Sarbuland Jang is the travel account translated here, which she wrote while traveling from her home in Hyderabad to the Middle East and Europe in 1909–10. The journey seems to have been part pilgrimage, part tourism, part family visit, and partly political. She performed a hajj in Mecca, toured the Parthenon in Athens, visited her sons and brother in London, and met with the Prince and Princess of Wales (who would become King George V and Queen Mary, respectively, only months later, shortly after which they would visit India themselves). The pair traveled over the course of five months, taking in Arabia, the Levant, Greece, France, and England, among other destinations. She kept a private journal as she traveled, which was eventually published in Delhi after the passing of her husband some twenty years later under the title Dunya "aurat ki nazar me.ñ—mashriq o maghrib ka safarnamah" (The World as Seen by a Woman—A Travel Account of East and West). Though Begum Sarbuland records in a preface that she published it at the request of her children, it is possible that she took this decision herself in light of her new familial and social circumstances. For a woman to begin publishing after she has reached, widowhood was not unprecedented in South Asia, particularly with regard to the genre of autobiography, though Begum Sarbuland does not reflect on the decision. She noted only that she felt her volume would be beneficial to readers by offering them the opportunity to observe and reflect on the conditions of women abroad and to meditate on these women’s successes and failures. She was explicit here that her perspective was valuable in that it provided a woman’s take on women’s lives. Through the very title of her book, she gestured to the fact that very few travel accounts available in India at that time could provide such a perspective on these regions, setting up her own travel narrative against the more familiar corpus of travel accounts by men who not infrequently described (and on occasion prescribed) the lives of women abroad.

Begum Sarbuland kept purdah (vail) throughout her life, though she clearly felt that the proper amount of veiling or avoidance of unrelated men was highly dependent on context. She had thought deeply about the institution of purdah and followed her own version of it of her own volition. For her, purdah was both a choice and an ideal, but it should in no way limit women from engaging actively with public life. Neither did purdah prevent her from maintaining her own public career supporting the advancement and education of women. Her views on the place of women in their own society shine through clearly in her travel account.

She portrays a relationship with her husband that cedes him formal authority but is largely equal in practice. She often leaves him behind to explore on her own. Yet the pair also share experiences with one another, as in the extract detailing the couple’s brief visit to the holy sites and commercial areas of Damascus. Near the end of the translation, which includes the headings used in the original text, the husband and wife worship and weep together at the shrine of Imam Husayn (4) in Damascus. Passages like these impress upon the reader that her relationship to her husband is one of independence, mutual admiration, interdependence, and respect—albeit one in which each occupy distinct roles. At the same time, she is careful to demonstrate deference to her husband’s authority, even if it ap- pears largely symbolic.

This article and translation is excerpted from the book "Three Centuries of Travel Writing by Muslim Women," which has been researched, translated, annotated, and noted with historical and cultural context by Siobhan Lambert-Hurley, Daniel Majchrowicz, and Sunil Sharma.

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A Visit to Damascus

December 7, 1909: Today is the fourth day since we left Medina. We both woke up at dawn. Nawab sahib2 told me that we would arrive in Damascus at three in the afternoon.

When I learned this, I told [my servant] Amina Bi to prepare our belongings, for we would be getting off the train today. Those two Turks are still with us; they’ve been looking after our luggage. Our train pulled to a halt at Damascus’s station just after three. We have encountered many large stations throughout our journey. Each of them had good sanitary arrangements and water taps installed at regular intervals. Like these, the station in Damascus was also big and bustling.

As usual, the Cook (2) representative was waiting for us when we disembarked. But we also met someone connected with an Arab hotel. He praised his hotel extensively and suggested that we come and stay in it. “You are Muslims, and so are we. You must certainly come to our hotel.” Responding to his insistence, Nawab sahib asked the man for the name of his hotel. And what a sweet name it was! “The name of my hotel is Madina Munavvara, Radiant Medina.” The moment I heard this, I said to Nawab sahib that we must stay in this hotel; I like a hotel with a name like that. Nawab sahib was pleased to hear the name, too. The owner of the hotel picked up our luggage and placed it in a fine carriage. Arriving at the hotel, we learned that the daily rate was ten annas (3) per person. We were both surprised to learn that the hotel was so cheap. Up until then, we had only stayed in German or English hotels, whose rates were around eight to ten rupees per night. This is the first time we had encountered a Muslim hotel.

We went inside. The stairway was made of marble. We saw that each step was carpeted and were pleased that the hotel appeared to be so nice.

When we arrived upstairs, we were given a room containing six beds, but all of them were soiled, and there were cobwebs in the corners. Though the building itself was exceedingly grand and finely built, the furnishings were anything but. The table was filthy, and the mirror was cracked. I had noticed that in English hotels, they would put a sheet beneath the blanket so it would be kept free of sweat. After a traveler had used the sheet, it would immediately be exchanged for another one, and in this way, the blanket would always remain clean and devoid of odors. Here, in place of blankets, they had quilts—quilts so filthy that they reeked of perspiration. Oh, when will these people learn proper cleanliness? They don’t even put a sheet beneath their quilts!

The room is very beautiful, with wonderful floors made of marble and black stone. It is a pity that the rooms are not kept clean. Typically, in an English hotel, one may obtain both hot and cold water whenever one desires, but here, there is no hot water. There was only one towel, and it, too, was dirty and smelly. I said to Sarkar (1): Well, now that I’m already here, I’ll stay the night, but only because the name of the hotel is blessed and because it is owned by people of the faith. Otherwise, I wouldn’t stay here for even a minute.

We arranged for an additional room and told Amina Bi to sleep there. That’s when I noticed that the bathroom was extremely foul. It had such a stench that it set my brain to rotting. Inside, there was a squat toilet. There was water everywhere. In the bathroom, there was a dirty tin cup and a container filled with water. This container had a spout. Even though the bathroom floor was also made of marble, it was kept in a filthy state. I declared that I could not bring myself to use that toilet. Nawab sahib sent for a “piss-pot” to be purchased for me. The bathroom was so small that it was difficult to close the door. The owner told us that the rate of ten annas per night only included our stay—food, tea, and coffee were not available.

Once I had seen all of this, I said to Sarkar that it was only four in the afternoon, but the bathroom was not clean and that I wanted to take a bath before we went out into the city. I’ve heard, I told him, that the lustrous head of the Lord of Martyrs, the Oppressed of Karbala, the One Slain by Oppression and Cruelty, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad-i Mustafa, Imam Husayn—upon whom be peace—is buried here in Damascus. There are also tombs here belonging to other prophets and saints. When I had first learned of this, I was elated that we would have the honor of visiting the shrines and tombs of so many great figures. Nawab sahib replied, “All right, I will ask the man where the bathing place is.” Sarkar then inquired with the owner of the hotel, who replied: “There is no hammam in the hotel, but there is one in the city.” (5) When I heard this, I said that it was very inconvenient for the hammam not to be in-house, but in the city. “How am I to quickly bathe and be ready to go out now? I’m still dirty from the train; it’s time for the afternoon prayer, and we are only here for one night!”

Sarkar then told me that “the way things work here is that men’s and women’s hammams are located in the city, and everyone, both men and women, go there to bathe. It doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor; everyone goes there. The hammams are relaxing and very nice, and there are always people bathing in them.” I replied that if that was what people did here, then fine, take me to the hammam. “I’ll have a quick bath and then go and visit the shrines.” I put a pair of clothes, some soap and flour, (6) a comb, and so forth into a small bag and left Amina Bi at the hotel to keep an eye on the luggage. Sarkar got out some clothes, too, saying that he would have a bath at the hammam as well.

“Everyone’s Naked in the Bath House”

The two of us set off from the hotel and found two hammams nearby, one for men, the other for women. I knocked on the door, and a woman appeared from inside. When she saw me, she said, “Welcome, come in, come in.” Accordingly, I went inside. Sarkar told me to bathe quickly: “I’ll have a quick bath and then come out and wait for you.” I agreed and went inside, where I saw thirty or forty women gathered. There were many small rooms in which rugs and carpets had been spread. In the very center of the courtyard of the hammam, there was a ceiling of translucent glass such that sunlight could enter, but the wind would stay out. In the middle of the courtyard, there was a pool filled with water. Light-skinned, rosy women who had finished with their baths were busy getting dressed. Others were taking off their clothes and heading into the hammam to bathe.

All the men and women in Damascus are very light-skinned, with the exception of the Africans. I paused, thinking to myself that I was in quite a dilemma. I’ll wait to begin my bath, I thought until everyone else has finished. This being my intention, I was standing there waiting when a woman came up to me, took the bag from my hand, and began to remove my clothes. I said: “Wait, wait!” and she retorted, “No, hurry!” and said God knows what else in Arabic. I fell silent when I saw that she had no intention of listening to me. She took off all of my clothes. I wrapped myself up in a towel, and she took me by the hand and led me away.

When I stepped foot into the next room, oho! my feet were immediately burned. There were vents in the ceiling above that allowed natural light to filter in and the hot steam to escape. I said, “Hey, you tyrant! Hang on, my feet are burning!” but she kept on dragging me, saying, “Come on, come inside.” In this way, we passed through three different levels of the hammam and entered into the fourth, where I saw all of the women seated barefooted before water taps, busy washing themselves. Hot water comes out of one tap and cold water from the other. There are small basins installed near the taps that fill with water when you release them. The woman began to rub my body, washing me. In fact, three or four of the women stopped bathing themselves and, coming over to me, began to scrub me as well. In Arabic, they asked me, “Who are you? Where are you from?” I said to them, “I am Indian. In India, the hammam is at home. In town, there is no hammam, but here, I saw the hammam is in the town; in the home, there is none. I am astonished.”

With great effort, I managed to give answers to a few of their questions. These women washed me more thoroughly than I’d ever been washed in my entire life. Here I am in this huge rush to leave, and they keep on pouring out more and more water! At last, I managed to escape them. I wrapped that same wet towel around myself so I would not be entirely naked when I exited the hammam, but all of them called out to me, saying, “Hey, sister, there are only women here.” I said, “Yes, but I [still] need a towel.”

I began to leave, but they took hold of me, saying, “Don’t go, don’t go, sit, sit down for just a while more.” I replied, “I don’t wait; I am in a hurry, husband at the door.” They reluctantly released me. I exited the bathing area. When I had first entered the hammam, my feet were scorched from the heat; now, on exiting, the very same floor felt cool to the touch. I rushed to the exit and took a seat on the bench outside in the courtyard. A woman came up to me and began to dry my hair. She asked me, “Oh, Indian, are you well?” I replied, “Very well.” To make a long story short, I got dressed and handed the woman a shilling. I said goodbye, picked up my bag, and went out to find Sarkar waiting for me outside. We returned to the hotel to give Amina Bi my bag and then immediately set off.

The Umayyad Mosque

First, we went to the famous Ummayad Mosque. We rushed there so we would arrive in time for the sunset prayer. We passed through the Damascus bazaar on the way there. The bazaars here are roofed so the people inside them can remain protected from the rain and sun. Typically, bazaars are open-air. They often have canals of flowing water. All the people of Damascus are of a white and rosy complexion. The women’s manner of dress is entirely European, and even their hair is kept in the same style as that of European ladies, though they do not wear hats. Whether rich or poor, whenever these ladies go out for a walk or go shopping, they put on a simple skirt. On their heads, they wear a shawl of the same color as that of their skirt. This shawl extends down to their hands. They draw a veil over their faces, wear gloves on their hands, take up their umbrellas, and then leave their houses. Often, the older women will tie a handkerchief around their heads, but their outfit is always the same, either something resembling a dressing gown or else a skirt and blouse akin to those European ladies wear. Children wear a similar frock, and many of them tie a handkerchief over their face as high as their ears.

Here, the custom is for all Muslim women to go out in the city without any big to-do. This is a great convenience for them—may God grant the women of India the same freedom from their unjust imprisonment. There was another thing here that pleased me greatly, namely, that whenever women go out in the city, the men keep their distance and treat the women with respect. This is in contrast with India, where women have no respect before men. Oh, how unfortunate are the people of India!

The Blessed Shrine of the Head of the Martyr of Karbala Imam Husayn, Peace Be upon Him.

After having seen everything here and—al-hamdu lillah!—having been blessed by our visits to these shrines, we departed in order to enter into the service of the Martyr of Tyranny and Injustice, the forbearing youngest grandson of the merciful Prophet, our dear Imam Husayn, upon whom be peace. I had heard that the head of our dear Imam (upon whom be peace) is buried here.

We presented ourselves there, standing before the shrine with the greatest possible reverence. The moment we arrived, my heart was overwhelmed by a strange sensation that I am incapable of describing. Nawab sahib said, “Just look at the effect that this place has on the heart.” “Yes,” I replied, as tears began to fall from our eyes. It was my heartfelt desire never to part from there. A full hour passed, and yet we had not moved. Our hearts were unwilling to leave. It was only when the sound of the evening call to prayer met our ears that our hearts came to their senses. We recited the fatiha and, giving our respects once more, took our leave.

Allah, Allah! Only those who have experienced the kindness and mercy that the family of the Prophet bestows on the members of this sinful community of believers may truly know the joy it brings. I am unable to describe the sense of tranquility and comfort that descended upon my heart and the extent to which I was affected by this experience.

December 8, 1909

We woke up in the morning. Al-hamdu lillah, we performed the dawn prayer and then had some breakfast. I very much wanted to go back to the hammam to bathe once more, in part because it gave relief to my body but also because it was one of the more memorable experiences of our trip. I expressed these thoughts to Sarkar, who in turn asked the hotel owner if there were any hammams open for use in the morning, for if so, we should like to go. He replied, “No, none are open until afternoon.” We were planning to catch a twelve o’clock train, so I said that it didn’t matter leave it be.

But then, a short while later, the hotel manager came to us and said, “There is a hammam that will open in half an hour. My wife is coming now. She will take your wife there and point it out to her.” I got my bag and put my clothes and things in it. Once I was ready to go, I sat down to wait so that the moment the Arab woman arrived, we would be able to set off. As I was waiting there, an Arab woman wearing a beautiful Turkish skirt and a veil over her face appeared before me and said, “Please, let’s go.”

Together, we departed. Sarkar went out to wait for the train. This woman took me to her house. I liked her house very much because both the house itself and the floor were cleaner than the hotel. There was a canal of water that ran through it. The house was two-storied. She showed me the first floor before we proceeded to the second. Here, I found a large room with the floor covered by a beautiful carpet. There were beautiful sofas and chairs. The hotel owner’s mother was seated on a raised platform upon which a soft mattress had been placed. The poor woman was very weak. When she saw me enter the room, she raised herself up with the greatest difficulty, saying, “Please, please, come in.” I took her by the hand and helped her to sit down again, saying that she should not go to such trouble. Then, the hotel owner’s sister and daughter came in.

All of these women were dressed in English clothes. The girl was wearing a frock. They were very beautiful, and their complexion was extremely fair. I don’t like the style of Damascene houses. For one thing, they are all several stories high, and on top of that, the rooms are often very dark. This room, however, was very bright. Soft, cushioned seats lined the walls for people to sit on. I went and sat near the hotel owner’s mother. All of these women spoke Arabic. It was unfortunate that I could only understand them with difficulty. They were very hospitable toward me. They served me coffee. Coffee here is drunk without milk, yet it is still very delicious. It is consumed from tiny little cups that are called finjan here. Twenty minutes later, the hotel owner’s wife got up, put on her veil, and said, “Come, sister, we must go to the hammam.” “Okay,” I replied. I said my goodbyes, kissed the hands of them all and departed. The custom here is to join and kiss each other’s hands at the time of departure.

The lady and I arrived at the hammam some ten minutes later. Just as before, I went inside. I had a relaxed bath, got dressed, and then left again. I gave a shilling to the attendant and eight annas to the hotel owner’s wife. This made her very happy.

I met Sarkar while we were still on the road. We both returned to the hotel to collect Amina Bi and the luggage. We paid the hotel owner what we owed him. The Arab woman came to me once more and said, “Come, I will show you around.” I said to Sarkar that we still had a little time and that if he so willed, that I would go with this woman for a while. Sarkar gave his permission. I went with that woman. She took me to a shop, the owner of which turned out to be English. I asked him, “Yu ispik Inglish?” He said, “Yas.” I bought a warm pair of gloves and three frocks that caught my eye and quickly returned to the hotel.


All subheadings in this chapter come from the original text.

(1) This honorific title, like Sarkar in a later paragraph, refers to the author’s husband. In keeping with the customary practice of her time, Begum Sarbuland does not take her husband’s name in the account, nor does she offer her own.

(2) This refers to the local representative of the well-known travel company Thomas Cook.

(3) There are sixteen annas in a rupee.

(4) Husayn was the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. At the Battle of Karbala in 680, he was defeated by the Umayyad caliph Yazid and beheaded. His body was buried in Karbala, but his head was likely taken to Damascus and later buried there.

(5) Conversations held in Arabic are typically written out in Arabic in the text without translation. Begum Sarbuland’s Arabic is functional but broken, and the glosses provided here are meant to convey that sense.

(6) Flour, often scented, was commonly used while bathing to facilitate scrubbing, prevent dryness, and give the bather a pleasant fragrance.

Further Reading

A Journey to Mecca and London: The Travels of an Indian Muslim Woman, 1909–1910. A Journey to Mecca and London provides the first full English translation of Begum Sarbuland's travel diary from this journey, of which only two extant copies in their original publication remain. Originally intended for circulation among friends and family and later published in Urdu, her informal entries not only reveal the everyday practices of an Indian woman of her time, but also detail her impressions and reactions as she explored the world alongside her husband.

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Begum Nawab Sarbuland Jang. Dunya ‘aurat ki nazar meñ—mashriq o maghrib ka safarnamah. Delhi: Khwaja Buk Dipo, Khwaja Barqi Pres, n.d. Further translated excerpts from this text, as well as the original Urdu, are available online at Accessing Muslim Lives

Nawab Muhammad Hamidullah Khan Sarbuland Jang. Safarnamah-i Qustuntuniya. Hyderabad: Qasim Pres, n.d.

Nawab Sarbuland Jung Bahadur Muhammad Hamidullah Khan. A Pilgrimage to Mecca and the Near East. Secunderabad: Bulletin Press, 1912.

Nawab Server-ul-Mulk Bahadur. My Life: Being the Autobiography of Nawab Server-ul-Mulk Bahadur. Translated by Nawab Jiwan Yar Jung Bahadur. London: Plymouth Press, n.d. David Lelyveld. Aligarh’s First Generation: Muslim Solidarity in British India. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978.

  Category: Life & Society
  Topics: Damascus, India, Muslim Women, Travel
Views: 980

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