Jane Digby el Mezrab, Umm el-Laban
article with portrait of Jane Digby: http://muslimmedianetwork.com/mmn/?p=12041
The story of Jane Digby (1807–1881) is presented among other historical biographies of white women who escaped the confines of 19th Century Europe by going to live among the Muslims in “The Wilder Shores of Love” by Lesley Blanch. Digby, born an aristocrat in Norfolk England, was known in Europe as Lady Ellenborough, Baroness Vennigan, and later as Countess Theotoky. She had married and divorced four times and was 48 years old when she met her fifth and last husband, her true love, a dark-skinned Syrian warlord Sheik Abdul Medjuel El Mezrab, who was fifteen years her junior. She died in his arms after nearly thirty years of marriage.
Jane Digby’s life was such a fabulous scandal that I am surprised that I had never heard of her before. During her youth, she was the mistress of many princes and kings, including Napoleon before he was famous. In old age, she slept in a Bedouin tent and rode side by side with her husband on horseback to battle, also granting protection to desert travelers in exchange for a large fee. She received adventurous royalty and traveling dignitaries from all over Europe in her husband’s luxurious Damascus home, including Richard Burton, the famed “Lawrence of Arabia.” His wife, Isabel Burton, knew Jane Digby since youth and regarded her as a peer. Blanch writes: “Everyone who knew her in Syria, from the local missionaries to Dom Pedro, Emperor of Brazil, was enchanted with the timeless charm and simplicity of the real woman.”
While other women of that era were fighting for the right to vote, Digby never doubted her equality with men. Clearly, she loved men. She had no sense of being bound by the social conventions of her time. Her freedom was of course enhanced by the regular income she received by right of her noble status, yet she was not a manipulative person, nor was she seeking political influence. There was just something about her that instantly attracted men of high caliber. She was very well-read, which made her an exceedingly pleasant conversational partner. Traveling scholars would seek her to learn of the latest news in archeology, for she was considered to be very knowledgeable on that topic. Yet she was no academic. She was a Romantic. She was athletic, wild and adventurous, and she possessed some kind of eternal idealism free of cynicism. She was 74 years old when she finally accepted the role of a wife who stays home while her husband goes out, and this pained her as greatly as her death which soon followed.
Her passionate love of horses no doubt contributed to her mystique and led her to her fate. She went to Syria to purchase an Arabian stallion. There she met a desert nomad who told her, “This horse is untameable, but I love it more than I love my three wives.” It is said that this Lady had made slaves of kings just by making eye contact and this horse was no different. The animal submitted to her, seemingly without any effort on her part. The Sheik told her, “I see you have tamed my wild horse, but still I will not sell it to you for any price, except one.” It was in this fashion that he proposed marriage. She considered it on condition that he dismiss his other wives and live with her as man and wife in the European sense. He protested, “But I am not a poor man. It would be embarrassing for someone of my stature to only have one wife.” So, she went on with her travels, marrying another Muslim man, who took her on pilgrimage to Iraq. Upon hearing news of her return and learning that the relationship with this other man did not work out, the Sheik sent someone to meet her en route with a gift of his best horse. This time she agreed to marry him.
Her marriage with the Sheik is an interesting lesson in both interfaith and intercultural relations. First off, they agreed to a marital compromise that for three years, he would be her monogamous husband. After that, he was free to reinstate his harem. He lived with her for life as a devoted husband, though in later years he quietly married his son’s step-daughter. Half the year, they camped in a tent and half the year they lived in the house.
Jane Digby never converted to Islam. Given her British noble ancestry, this made political sense. She served as a cultural bridge between the Christian and Muslim worlds. She didn’t want to live as a secluded Arab wife. She insisted on being her noble husband’s equal. She threw herself into her husband’s culture with pleasure, for she spoke Arabic fluently in many dialects, and she was having a great time, dressing in the Muslim gear, smoking from the nargila and sleeping on the ground. By remaining a Christian, she was able to continue to define herself by her own rules, never to conform, except as she chose.
Digby insisted upon being buried in a Protestant Christian cemetery when she died. However, she gave up her British citizenship and became a Turkish citizen upon marriage. This became a problem in 1871, for the British embassy could be of no assistance when Kurds and Druze reportedly raped, massacred and mutilated all the Christians in Damascus. It is said that corpses were piled high and the stench and noise of the tortured and dying filled the air. Digby’s house on the outskirts of town remained unharmed, for she was protected by her husband. However, upon hearing of the carnage, Jane left her home to go see what was going on in the city. There was not much of anything she could do, and she returned home soon. But her action embarrassed the Sheik, for it seemed that she was taking sides with the Christians, and his interest in her cooled. True to fashion, she used this opportunity to kindle a brief flame with a rival Arabian warlord Sheik Fares. She made her husband jealous and won him back into her spell. Digby’s life was never boring. She was not a saint, but she was a genius.
During her very solemn funeral procession, her husband caused a scene by jumping out of his carriage and running away. His action surely caused a lot of whispers. However, just as she was about to be put in the ground, he returned, galloping on his wife’s favorite black steed. He knew that she would want her horse to be in attendance at her burial. The Sheik truly understood that beloved woman, even if no one else ever will. Like Cleopatra, Umm el-Laban was a remarkable woman who never lost her beauty. Her life makes clear that through Allah, all things are possible.