January 23, 2016 § Leave a comment
James Justinian Morier was a citizen of the world, an extraordinary thing to be for a man of his generation. Born in Ottoman Izmir to a British national of Swiss origins in 1780, he was educated in England but managed his father’s business interests in Turkey between 1799 and 1806. He was part of a special British mission to the Shah of Iran in 1808, eventually serving as Charge d’Affaires at the British embassy in Teheran between 1814-16. These were the initial years of the Great Game, the cynical jostling for power and privilege in Central Asia between Britain, France and Russia that reduced the people of the region to pawns on a chessboard to be manipulated by Western powers. Morier retired from his diplomatic career in 1826, and devoted the rest of his life to writing novels set in Persia and the near East. The book under review was his first, and best-known novel.
The picaresque tale follows the life and times of one Hajji Baba, a likeable rogue who starts life as a barber, becomes a brigand in a Turkoman gang, a wandering dervish, a purveyor of tobacco adulterated with dung, a doctor’s assistant, a soldier in the Russo-Persian wars, a holy man in Kom, a marriage broker, a pipe seller, a rich merchant, a spy in Istanbul, a confidential agent to the Persian grand vazir, and finally the Mirza or chief secretary to the Persian ambassador at London. In the process, he survives many close encounters with death, makes deadly enemies and close friends, falls in love, gets married and divorced, meets the Shah of Iran a few times, and at all times accepts whatever life throws at him with philosophical equanimity and an appropriate epigram from Saadi or Hafiz.
The adventure wends its giddy way from Ispahan to Teheran to Armenian villages and the border provinces of Georgia, to Kom to Baghdad to Constantinople and back to Teheran, allowing Morier to brilliantly demonstrate his minutely close observation of local custom, history, geography, rituals, metaphors and way of life, among Armenian Christians, Turkoman tribes, Baghdadi merchants, Sunnis, Kurds, Yezidis… and of course, the normal day to day life of the people of Persia itself: the marriages and funerals of common people, state dinners involving the Shah, the corruption of court and army officials, even the footloose merriness of the wandering dervishes. The narrow streets, the low houses, the hamams, the palaces, the desert, or the caravanserais all come alive in Morier’s evocative prose. But it is his delightful use of language that is the novel’s most fascinating feature. Writing in English, but in the character of Hajji Ali, Morier manages somehow to convey the earthy idioms of the Persian tongue, transliterating them into English for great effect. When the soldier Shir Ali is told by villagers that they have no money with which to bribe him, he expresses his displeasure thus:
“We have not travelled all this way to eat your dirt. If you think that we have brought our beards to market to be laughed at, you are mistaken. You don’t yet know Shir Ali : we are men who sleep with one eye open and the other shut; no fox steals from his hole without our knowledge; if you think yourself a cat, we are the fathers of cats. Your beard must be a great deal longer, you must have seen much more country before you can expect to take us in.”
It is easy to imagine that the novel was indeed written by a Persian, in his local tongue, and then translated – badly – into English. For an Englishman to manage this effect is impressive, but then it was a special time, and a special Englishman. We must remember that the novel is set in early 19th century Iran, during the reign of Fateh-Ali Shah Qajar, a tumultuous time of repeated skirmishes with Russia and court intrigues involving the French and the British. This was the generation when Persia and the nations of Europe discovered one another, and stared with fascination and bewilderment at the utter alienness of the other culture. The English ambassador, with his habit of sitting down on chairs, wearing his shoes while walking on Persian carpets, indecorously removing his hat while greeting the Shah, wearing patently indecent clothes, and shaving his chin instead of his head, must have been as much an object of amused curiosity for the Persians as their customs were to the Englishman, and Morier must have been one of the few men of his time who understood both sides. When the British Morier, writing for a British audience, but writing as the Persian Hajji Ali, and writing about British customs, says, “It would be taking up the pen of eternity were I to attempt to describe the boundless difference that we discovered between the manners and sentiments of these people and ourselves,” he clearly means it in both directions, and he writes with far more empathy for the Persians than Kipling was capable of, less than a century later, with his East-is-East-and-West-is-West nonsense.
At a time in history when presidential candidates vie with one another for the honor of being the most xenophobic person on the stage, it is refreshing to read an Englishman who got into the shoes of an Iranian, walked several thousand miles in it, and wrote about it.