In the early 1873, London was taken by a storm at the news brought home by the press that a British girl, Miss Emily Keene by name, contracted a marriage with a native saint in Morocco.
Emily was the daughter of John Keene, the governor of Surrey County prison, and Emma Wharen, who claimed to be a descendant of the archbishop of Canterbury.
Emily came to Tangier in late 1872, at the age of 21, as a governess of Ion and Ellen Perdicaris,
She married a Moorish notable, Sidi Al-Hadj Abd al-Salam, the Shareef of Wazzan, spending, hence, more than four decades amongst the Moors in pre-protectorate Morocco or the “Land of the Furthest West”. For more than four decades, Keene managed to live on the cusp of two starkly different cultures, civilizations, religions and societies. Keene was fascinated by the atavistic Moroccan customs and the metaphysical world of the Moors. The man she married epitomized these purely aspired elements.
Keene was mesmerized and enchanted by the Moors, their culture and traditions, but at the same time she adhered to her own culture, moving, hence, between two acutely different identities.
The reasons that prodded her to travel to Morocco indicate that she wanted to escape from the stifling Victorian social and cultural values.
Once in Tangier, she drew the attention of a Moroccan notable, the Shareef of Wazzan, who was so infatuated with her manners and beauty that he made every attempt to win her love, leading to a marriage that lasted more than four decades. Emily Keene married the Shareef of Wazzan, the leader of a sanctuary in Wazzan, a sacred city which was regarded as a virtually verboten space for Christians in precolonial Morocco. The word “Shareef” refers to a person whose descent is claimed to be from the Prophet, and it is a denomination which is saturated with esteem and even sanctity. Hence, Emily, a British woman who had herself become part and parcel of a Moorish harem, won the high rank of “Shareefa of Wazzan”.
It was the outset of a new life in the Moorish Empire that continued more than 70 years. A er her husband died in 1892, Emily paid some visits to her homeland, England, where she published
her account, My Life Story (1911), recording what she experienced and saw during her stay among the Moors.
When Emily first landed in Tangier, she did not expect at all that her life would be changed upside down when she fell under the allure of the leader of one of the greatest Moroccan lodges in the Morocco of the second half of the nineteenth century. Emily’s impression of this notable was imbued with haziness and fascination:
Who, then, was this man who has fascinated me? I used to meet him coming from town, or returning to the mountain, where I was staying with friends, and at length I learnt that it was the Grand Shareef of Wazzan, but that did not convey much to me. I made a closer acquaintance at
some musical soirées, which he attended. I certainly thought I liked him, he was so different from the few other Moors I had met.
At the beginning, Emily refused the marriage on religious grounds, stressing that it “was a difficult matter, and family opposition was strong on all sides” , but in the end she accepted because “life would be impossible without him” (Emily, Shareefa of Wazzan 5). With the presence of her parents and under the eyes of John Drummond Hay, Emily’s marriage took place at last under her conditions: the Shareef promised that he would not marry again.
On marrying the Moorish saint, she had the good sense to include in the marriage contract
a clause to the effect that if the Shereef should at any time afterwards take to his ample bosom a new wife, he would have to pay her, and again with each repetition of his infidelity, a forfeit of twenty thousand dollars.
Also, she had the right to abide by her religion, to live in a coastal town, to proffer her children suitable education, to benefit from her country’s protection and to be buried in her homeland, Britain. Besides, she agreed that her children would follow the religion of their father, Islam.
After her marriage, Emily moved to settle in the sanctuary or “Zawiya” wherein she discovered a new life. The Shareef’s abode was a shrine for many pilgrims who flocked to be assisted with various troubles and problems. these people regarded the Shareef with awe and respect to the degree of sanctity. It was in the sanctuary, where Emily “saw the litigant, the deserted wife, the sick, the barren woman, all seeking consolation by blessings”. Besides, the Shareef of Wazzan was an “homme-fétiche”, a fetishman, a healing totem, rather than a political leader.