SEPTEMBER 15, 2016
“IF STUDENT DIARIES are not often seen as the transformative stuff of history, then they should be,” writes Nile Green proleptically. This is particularly true, it seems, if it is one that creates “an ethnography of amity,” which is the case with the diary he explores in his book. Green’s narrative centers on a six-strong Iranian student mission sent to England in 1815, and the chronicle written by one of its members, the Shiraz-born Mirza Salih.
The succinct description does not, however, do this vast expanse of a book justice, as it is so much more than a mere rehash of a travel journal, however interesting that journal’s contents may be. Rather, the travelogue appears at the nexus of a wonderfully intricate web threaded by interconnecting events, personalities, alliances, and sensibilities. Green painstakingly constructs an opulent narrative canvas, in which “Jane Austen’s England” — Inglistan, as it was known to the Iranian guests — constitutes the throbbing and vibrant backdrop to the peregrinations of the lead characters and their interactions with(in) an environment that, at the time, was still wholly unfamiliar and intractably alien: there was no Iranian community in Britain at the time, and even Muslims were few and far between.
What was so special about this mission? It was not the first, as they were preceded by two compatriots in 1811. Nor was Mirza Salih’s the first Persian travelogue of a journey to England: since the beginning of the century, two had been produced, one by the Indian-Muslim Abu Talib Khan, who visited Ireland, France, and England (1799–1801), and another by Abu ‘l-Hasan Khan, the Shah’s envoy to King George III in 1809. The answer lies in the extraordinary nature of the stay, the depth of the students’ engagement, and the impact they had on their home culture after their return. The picture that emerges is one of an ethnologist traveler avant la lettre, with a keen eye and interest in every aspect of the “contented” English society into which he completely immersed himself.
The 19th century started with the humiliation of the Ottoman Empire as a result of Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt. Iran, for its part, became embroiled in an ill-fated war against Russia (1804–’13), which culminated in the loss of its northwestern provinces. It was the Russian threat that aligned British and Iranian interests. Britain sought a buffer against the threat of both Russian and French designs in Asia, while Iran was interested in the modern sciences and technologies to bolster its military capability. The Crown Prince Abbas Mirza — a visionary modernizer and reformer — had established a military academy for this very reason, and British officers had been dispatched to Tabriz to provide assistance, just as French advisors had previously been sent to Istanbul.
Far more revolutionary for the time was the fact that the Prince also wanted his subjects to acquire the “new sciences” in their place of origin. And so it came to pass that one of the British officers, a certain Captain D’Arcy — one of many “Austenesque” references in the book — was charged with accompanying six selected youths, who were to study a variety of subjects: artillery, chemistry, lock-making, engineering, and translation. No plan was in place as to the length of their stay, educational institutions, or even living arrangements. For what could possibly go wrong?
The students arrived amid a wave of “orientomania,” a passion for all things Eastern, triggered by Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign. Visitors from those parts were lionized by an adoring public, with the press feeding a seemingly unquenchable thirst for the most minute details about these exotic creatures. The last to have received this treatment was the already-mentioned ambassador Abu ‘l-Hasan Khan, who had to draw the line at English ladies stroking his beard.
Green’s book is arranged along three broad topics: “Knowledge,” “Faith,” and “Friendship.” The overarching themes, of course, are encounter and identity, alterity and similarity. Mirza Salih’s world is populated, dissected, analyzed, and brought to life through a plethora of archival sources. In the process, what emerges is “an alternative history of England, a history in which Muslims were present at the birth of modern Europe.” And herein lies the value of the book: piece by piece, the puzzle is completed as the narrative unfolds through the prism of Mirza Salih’s own words and experiences.
The first chapter — “In Search of a Teacher” — deals with the students’ tribulations as seekers of knowledge, also known as taliban, grappling with both their feckless chaperone D’Arcy, a lack of funds, and increasingly desperate attempts at giving themselves an education. As their allowance had been woefully inadequate for London-living and additional funds were not forthcoming, financial worries took up a great deal of the students’ time during the first months. They were at one point reduced to selling some Persian shawls. More worryingly, no provisions were made for them to learn English. The ever-resourceful Salih hit upon the revolutionary plan of offering their linguistic services in exchange for English lessons and, presumably, payment as well. Fortunately, they had a ready-made target audience at an East India Company military training college in south London, where Persian had pride-of-place as it was the organization’s administrative language.
The students’ budgetary problems did not prevent them, however, from enjoying the London life, with visits to the theater, opera, and coffee houses. One of them even purchased an exorbitantly expensive watch — all charged to the long-suffering D’Arcy, of course! Succour finally came through the good offices of the former ambassador to Iran — and famed “Persianist” — Sir Gore Ouseley, who convinced the Foreign Office to provide the students with lodgings and a stipend for instruction. Education in their chosen fields could finally begin, whether it was at the Military Academy or as apprentices.
This also afforded them the first opportunities at seeing the new sciences in action. Green gives the reader a cornucopia of detail and facts as he paints a panorama of education in the period. After a brief journey to rural Devonshire, the Muslim students head toward the dreamy spires of Oxford, where they also come into contact with the firebrand evangelist movement.
As they do the rounds of college high tables, Green takes the reader on a tour of “oriental” studies in England and, more specifically, the attempts at introducing Persian at Oxford. These had come to naught since it was considered the preserve of “tradesmen” by a university aimed primarily at graduating clergymen, while its academics were ordained churchmen. This naturally put paid to any aspirations of Salih to join the university.
The trip to Oxford would prove highly auspicious for Salih, though, for another reason. He had already developed a keen interest in the press and printing, and it was near Oxford that they saw paper mills and learned about the various paper-making methods. It is worth remembering that at the time no printing of any kind was being done anywhere in the Muslim world. And so Salih found his vocation — of which, more later.
The connections between the Persian visitors and leading representatives — though, “militants” might perhaps be a more appropriate term — of various Christian movements really set this group apart from other Muslims traveling to Europe. It is no doubt to the guests’ credit that they appeared to be singularly devoid of any negative preconceptions. While other Muslim visitors — most of whom came from Arab lands — either lacked any interest in Christianity or, more frequently, took a decidedly critical stance, Salih showed considerable knowledge of the state of Christianity, whose landscape was in dramatic flux in England.
Even encounters with proselytizing evangelicals did not push Salih toward “querulous or defensive opinions. His eyes were wide open to the merits of England’s Christians.” To some extent, this may be put down to a natural side effect of interpersonal contact with what were “often very sympathetic people.” More surprisingly, the Muslim students were enlisted into the evangelical endeavor, through assistance no less than in the Persian translation of the Bible, by the Cambridge professor of Arabic, Samuel Lee, who was a leading light in the movement.
One should be wary of viewing this through present-day lenses, and Green underscores the pragmatism of the Iranians, who saw their participation as part of a reciprocal arrangement that helped their own education through the support their new acquaintances were able to provide. And their networking did not stop there as Salih and at least one of his fellow students became Freemasons.
This pragmatism should be considered within a broader context that caused considerable soul-searching in the 19th century among Muslims, some of whom were reluctant to accept “infidel” inventions. In the end, rationalism prevailed, though discussions continued unabated throughout the century. So, in some ways, there is much to be said for Green’s statement that, “Mirza Salih was at the genesis of the rationalizing age of Islamic history that in the nineteenth century tried to re-create Islam into a religion in harmony with the discoveries of science.”
The students’ experience at Cambridge was much determined by Samuel Lee and the warm personal relationship they had with him. Evenings were once again spent at bibulous college dinners, even if the accommodation left somewhat to be desired. But then again, they “would not be the last foreign visitor[s] to be dismayed by the dinginess of Cambridge guest rooms.”
Meanwhile, their education continued as they piled visit upon visit to places of industrial invention in all areas: pottery, cloth, steam, iron, rail, shipping, and so on. His chosen field firmly decided, Mirza Salih found an apprenticeship through his evangelical contacts at the works of Richard Watts, who specialized in printing Bibles. He was the house printer not only of the Bible Society, but also of the Church Missionary Society, as well as the Prayer Book and Homily Society. As Watts’s workshop churned out thousands of Bibles in Arabic-script languages, Salih got a lot of practice printing Arabic fonts.
The final part of Green’s book looks at the emotional ties between the Iranians and some of their English hosts. It is fitting, perhaps, that the book should end with this aspect since it is the natural cognate of encounter or, to use Green’s own phrase, “an ethnography of amity.” This is also where we gain an insight into more personal aspects of the students’ life in England, such as food and the opposite sex. Contrary to other Muslim travelers’ works, here, references to halal food are conspicuous by their absence. What’s more, Green adduces plenty of secondary evidence suggesting that the Iranians were not averse to the occasional — or even frequent — tipple. This is a far cry from other premodern Arab-Muslim visitors, many of whom expressed concern about the lawfulness of living cheek-by-jowl with Christians.
Naturally, not everything could be mentioned in a book that would be read by others back home. Sometimes, Salih did go out on a limb, and his respect for English society was such that he cannot bring himself to condemn English women for drinking alcohol. As for relations with women, well, there was the illicit and the licit. While the illicit remains shrouded in mystery, despite Green’s best attempts, the latter came in the form of one of the students marrying an English woman, who traveled with her husband to his native country and remained there.
And so the adventure was over. Or, was it? Green’s epilogue discusses how the travelers fared in their later lives. Most rose to high offices in the administration, whereas the author of the travelogue founded the very first newspapers in Iran, and also designed its first modern university, the Dar al-Funun.
Green, at all times, takes a refreshingly measured approach, and eschews the kind of faddish postcolonialist spin that often bedevils analysis of literature of the period as it is fluffed and kneaded into an “orientalist” or “occidentalist” dough. One of the problems dealing with 19th-century Muslim travel literature is the temptation to overstate the long-term impact of influences to which the visitors were subject and, more important, the extent to which authors propagated change in their home societies. One might argue, for instance, that it is rather tenuous to state that Mirza Salih’s readings and translations of Hume turned him into a “Muslim champion of liberty, constitutionalism, and scientific free inquiry.” However, this does not detract in any way from the travelers’ very real and unique contribution to their home society’s culture and history.
Green’s book is meticulously edited, except for two minor points. First, there is at times some inconsistency in what is being referenced. Second, I think the volume would have benefited from a bibliography or, at least, a suggested reading list. But with that aside, this is a marvelous book by one of the finest historians of the region. It is a major contribution to our understanding of early relations between the Muslim East and “the West,” as well as an enchanting tale of tolerance, diversity, and freedom of exchange. Green’s prose is engaging and elegant, and he wears his erudition lightly. This is a must-read for anyone interested in the humanity of encounters among cultures.