A true antidote for the tenor of recent discourse, this is the most welcome of stories about the Middle East and the West: one of friendships. Nile Green, Professor of History at UCLA, chronicles the frustration and fellowship of six young men abroad and the transformative encounter between an Evangelical England and an Islamic Iran at the dawn of the modern age.
Selections from the Persian Diary of Mirza Salih Shirazi
Translated by Nile Green
Muslim Views on the Enlightenment: On Famous Thinkers & Social Niceties
As part of their quest for learning, Mirza Salih and his companions became fascinated by the lives of famous Western thinkers, both male and female. As Muslim conduits of the European Enlightenment, they were especially interested in social reformers and philosophers. In his diary, Mirza Salih included a long summary of the historical writings of David Hume, the paragon of the Scottish Enlightenment. But the Muslims students also understood that ideas have social contexts. Like pioneer anthropologists, they tried to understand British manners and habits with sympathy. Sometimes that meant demanding forms of Austenesque etiquette; sometimes it meant finding new ways to charm Miss Austen’s Regency misses.
On the pioneering woman writer Hannah More: “Because Miss More has written a number of books of her own, and published them as well, everyone – whether foreigners or locals, of high or low standing – comes to call on her. She has a large library of her own and lives in a house twelve miles outside Bristol, set between two mountains and positioned alongside the foot of one of them.”
On Newton’s statue in Cambridge: “Sir Isaac Newton was a philosopher who was both the eyes and the lantern of England.”
On Americans: “Benjamin Franklin was one of the philosophers and learned ones.” Mirza Salih goes on to describe with sympathy Franklin’s unsuccessful mission of conciliation to the English parliament and to respectfully describe “General George Washington” and his war for independence.
On breakfasting with the British: “Before arriving at the breakfast table, it is important to don elegant dress, to wash one’s hands and face, and for men to shave. At table, no-one is allowed to exchange their utensils with those of another person. And one must also display good manners and make polite table-talk throughout the meal.”
On cultural assimilation: “If they strive to make me wear English clothes because they think that way I will learn something and that it is the appropriate thing to do, then that is easy enough for me. And anyway, being in conflict with this or that, whether to prefer a fur hat to a foreign beret, is also quite enjoyable.”
On social calls: “Gentlemen like to call on ladies at around four in the afternoon. The ladies then serve them cheese and wine. They call this ‘tiffin.’”
Muslim Tourists in Miss Austen’s England: On the Virtues of British Cities
Although they were based in London, the six Muslim students made tours to other parts of England, all of them described in Mirza Salih’s Persian diary. Wherever they went, they were greeted like celebrities, with the tabloids of the day describing their fashionable taste in clothes and books. In Bath, they flaunted their fine fur pelisses; in Cambridge, they showed off their knowledge of Milton. At times, they wandered right into Jane Austen’s milieu, even walking past her former home in Bath. At other times, their tours of factories and textile mills remind us of the industrializing England that was hidden behind the hedgerows of Pride & Prejudice’s Pemberley.
On London’s parks: “One is Hyde Park; another is St James’ Park; another is Green Park; and another is Regent’s Park. In each of them, the people of London come there at one o’clock in the afternoon to spend time strolling around and conversing. Men and women, who might be family of friends, lock hands as they stroll. Those who have their own carriages go there in their carriages; other people ride horses. They stay there, ambling around, till it gets dark. But it is the custom there that no-one at all speaks loudly. If a blind person went there, he would imagine that none of the English can speak or that speaking has been banned there!”
On visiting Bath: “They have built six hammams around the hot waters and in those baths the hot water flows directly out of the ground. Men and women go together to the same hammam. But so that it is not unseemly, the women wear dresses that cover their entire bodies.”
On the lackluster view along the Thames: “There are some good houses, buildings and other places along the way.”
On the booming British arm’s industry: “Birmingham is a city that is famous for manufacturing weapons of war, including muskets (tufang), swords (shamshir), pistols (tubancha), daggers (chaqu) and other weapons. There are many factories there with large crowds of people are busy at work.
A Muslim Assessment of Oxford: A Baffling Visit to the Varsity
After working so hard on their English grammar and Latin prose, Mirza Salih and Mirza Ja‘far dreamt of becoming the first Muslims to study at Oxford. At a time when Catholics and even Baptists were banned from studying there, it was a high ambition. And as they learned more about the social hierarchies that surrounded English learning, they realized they needed more than an acquaintance with subjunctives and Cicero to win them entry to the varsity. They would also need patrons. For over a year, they networked hard. Then, at the beginning of Michaelmas term 1818, Salih and Ja‘far boarded the Oxford stagecoach from London. They had been invited to attend Encaenia, the dazzling degree ceremony that attracts thousands of tourists to this day. But the young Muslims were no fans of ritual and pageantry. They had seekers of science.
We ate lunch and then went out to the palace in which the Vice Chancellor, who is the master of Oxford, examines people for the degree of doctor… When the Vice Chancellor came in all the people rose from their seats. Several persons walked in before him bearing long maces of gold and silver, and after them came the Vice Chancellor himself, dressed all in scarlet and wearing a garment like a bashliq thrown over one shoulder. He entered with extreme pomp and then sat down at the head of the assembly. On two chairs to either side of him were sat two other people known as ‘proctors.’ Two other men, previously among the lords of learning, had examined the scholars of the colleges, written something and passed it to their hands; this was composed in the Latin tongue. So the Vice Chancellor stood up from his place and read out this announcement as the whole assembly listened. Then the two proctors rose from their seats… There were three such to-ings and fro-ings in this way before the gaze of the whole assembly. In our eyes especially it seemed nothing but tomfoolery and excess.
At the degree ceremony, two people were given scarlet gowns and awarded the title of Doctor. Several people from among the examiners testified in Latin that they were proficient in such and such a subject, the Vice Chancellor awarded the two candidates their degrees and then the assembly disbanded. Both of their names, degrees and branches of learning were recorded in ledgers. Although the Vice Chancellor is no greater a doctor than anyone else, as the master of Oxford he is one of the notables and great ones of England, such that the aforementioned doctors become his deputies. For this reason, he was arrogant towards us in a way that none of the other khans of Oxford were. Indeed, from when we entered the hall until the time we left, he did not so much as utter a word to us, nor even offer a glance in our direction. And so neither did we utter a word to anyone as we exited and walked towards the festivities in the ‘botanic’ garden….
Nearby is a mansion that is called the ‘Observatory’, which is a place where astronomy is taught. Huge telescopes and astrolabes are kept there, and the people who are studying astronomy go there and with these telescopes trace the orbits and trajectories of the planets. The setting of the mansion is a place like paradise; the building itself large and splendid.
Nile Green is professor of history at UCLA. His many books include The Love of Strangers and Sufism: A Global History. He lives in Los Angeles.