Saturday, April 28, 2018

The memoir of the Sudanese eunuch 'Omar' in 'Desert Royal' by Jean Sasson

As an American living in Saudi Arabia from 1978 to 1991, Jean Sasson befriended a Saudi princess and wrote three memoirs for her — Princess, Daughters of Arabia, and Desert Royal — in a first-person voice while keeping her anonymous. The princess has unfathomable wealth that her husband gives her to buy luxury clothes (a half-million U.S. dollars is a day's spending cash in New York City), and she has a good relationship with her husband based on mutual respect, although most of her female relatives do not have such luck with their husbands and many women in the country are married off young or treated as sex slaves. She struggles privately with her own alcoholism in a country where drinking is a crime.

The middle of Desert Royal briefly features an 88-year-old eunuch who introduces himself as "Omar, of the Sudan." He is the servant of the princess's "eccentric" cousin; she had not realized that there were any eunuchs still living in Saudi Arabia. The princess says that she and her daughter "screamed" when startled to meet this "very old and bizarre-looking little man," a beardless and "most unusual creature. He was short and skinny and ebony black." The princess's husband initially refers to him as a "dwarf." He has a "high, feminine voice" that is also described as "abnormally high-pitched." His spine is curved, and the skin hangs off his "jowls." His eyes are "sparkling with curiosity"; he "possessed an enormously calming influence" and "loved to tell stories."

An entire chapter is dedicated to Omar telling his story. He was born around the beginning of the 20th century, judged by the timing of this anonymous memoir. As an eight-year-old in the Humr tribe in Sudan (a tribe of the "Baqqārah Arabs, of west-central Sudan," according to Britannica, also spelled "Baggara"), he wandered away one day and was grabbed, kidnapped, and sold to a Turk. He was taken to an Egyptian Christian on the Red Sea who castrated ten boys at the same time. "He presented me with my genitals in a jar, even as I lay writing in pain!" The boys were catheterized, their wounds were cauterized with boiling oil, and they were buried in hot sand for three days without food or water. Seven of them died during that period, and an eighth died subsequently when he was unable to urinate. "Congratulations went all around when the Christian pulled the tube from my small passageway that remained for water, and liquid spurted out..." Omar was immediately put on a slaveship headed for Constantinople where he was sold to a Turk. He eventually wound up in Saudi Arabia. He never saw his family again.

Slavery was abolished in 1962, but Omar, like many other freed slaves, chose to stay with his master. The master does not wish to spend much money on Omar's food or clothing. Consequently, he is thin and wears an outdated costume: a ring on every finger and "a bright yellow blouse and a sequined red vest. A silk turban, turquoise in colour, was wound around his head. His full-cut trousers, fashioned out of a rich brocade run through with golden threads, suggested the costume of another age." He believes that his master is not concerned about his existence, as he once took a four-month leave of absence "unnoticed."

"Omar's story is a legend from our past!" the princess responds. She reflects: "Poor Omar lived a sad and uncertain fate. He was neither a man nor a woman, although his status was slightly lower than a man's but higher than a woman's."

The princess views the eunuch as having a "lifelong mission" as a "protector of women," although Omar jokes that he is too old to enforce anyone's behavior. Her husband counters that they don't need a eunuch. Omar says, "You are right. A eunuch is a pointless creature. At least these days." The husband apologizes and recants: "No man is pointless in the eyes of Allah." The princess and her husband agree to secretly rescue him and, although they enjoy his company, to move him far from Saudi Arabia to a palace in Egypt for his own protection from his former master. Omar is happy with this arrangement, especially as Egypt is closer to his homeland, and he hopes to travel from Egypt to the Sudan to see if he can find anyone from his tribe.

Source

Jean Sasson. Desert Royal. (1999) London: Bantam, 2000.

The eunuch Omar is introduced on page 122. His story continues through page 148.

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