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A Country Mortified by Its Own History

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The result of all the attention was developmental stasis. The ‘neighbours to the north and the south’, as Russia and Britain were known, were a force for stability and continuity, preventing the country from breaking into fragments, but the powers regarded initiatives aimed at internal reform as likely to reduce their influence, so tended to block them. In Nasser ud-Din Shah, guarding his archaic prerogatives, they found a natural ally. The powers manipulated, flattered and threatened the Shah. They guided his policies and appointments. Their companies bid for internal monopolies and their banks extended loans which further increased Persia’s foreign dependence. A pseudo-empire falling uneasily into the over-lapping embrace of two real empires, the ‘independent’ Persia of the public declarations was a sham.


The country lagged even by the rock-bottom standards of the immediate neighbourhood. At a time when Ottoman Turkey, the ‘sick man of Europe’, was several decades into major administrative, military and economic reforms, Persia was ruled by an absolute monarch and its structure and methods of administration were mostly medieval. Senior offices were put up for sale, reading and writing were elite entertainments, and religious heterodoxy was punishable by death. More than 80 per cent of the population lived in the countryside and huge tracts were the personal fiefs of absentee landlords. There was virtually no modern transport system. By the eve of the First World War, railways had been built across Egypt, Turkey and Syria, and British India boasted more than 50,000 miles of track. Persia, by contrast, had only enough serviceable line to get the gentlefolk of Tehran to their favourite shrine, Shah Abdolazim, eight miles distant.


Some foreign visitors depicted Persia’s backwardness as one of the unchanging features of the East. Nasser ud-Din’s French doctor wrote of a country so ‘unchangeable in habits’, the Shah’s way of life ‘scarcely differs from those of his ancestors, nor, perhaps, from those his great-grandsons will lead.’ A youthful Gertrude Bell, who would go on to found the modern state of Iraq, described a country that had been mortified by its own history. ‘Mother of human energies, strewn with the ruins of a Titanic past, Persia has slipped out of the vivid world, and the simplicity of her landscape is the fine simplicity of death… the East looks to itself; it knows nothing of the greater world of which you are a citizen, asks nothing of you and of your civilisation.’


Romantic outsiders are apt to see continuity, even immobility. They do not see where the object of their attentions has come from, nor imagine where it will go. They recoil from the idea that their observations will soon be out of date. So it was with many of the foreigners who came to Persia in the latter stages of the nineteenth century, saw the camel caravans and the poverty amid the ruins of expired empires, and went home again.


What would raise the country from its own sickbed and allow it to realise the promise of its glorious past? In fact, the country boasted many of the attributes needed for a new kind of country-building – the kind that had transformed the European map. A ‘Europe of nations’ had come into being, as the old empires and confederations broke up or were reconstituted, and new states were born. Persia, no less than Greece or Serbia or Germany, occupied a coherent geography. The majority of its people were united in their devotion to Shiism, Islam’s second sect, and spoke Persian, an Indo-European tongue quite different from the other main regional languages, Arabic and Turkish. More than the Arabs, spread over a vast and variegated surface, more than the Ottoman Turks, a minority within their own empire, the Persians seemed suited to one of the principal pursuits of the belle époque: the building of a secure, centralised nation state.


Nationalism, the essence of the new nation states, had spilled outside Europe’s borders and entered the world of Islam, diluting that sense, as an Arab historian later put it, of ‘belonging to an enduring and unshaken world created by the final revelation of God through the Prophet Muhammad’. Ottoman officials and intellectuals had decided that their Turkishness was worth as much as their Muslim identity, if not more. Egypt’s Assembly of Delegates, which first met in 1866, fired the opening salvo in a long national struggle for freedom from foreign interests. Further east, Indian Muslims were founder members of the Congress Party, which would eventually propel the country to independence.


Was Persia, then, immobile? Not quite. At the end of the nineteenth century change was happening in Persia, whatever the clichés about the slothful East, and the only question open to the people was whether to accept and ride the wave, or allow it to bludgeon the country and break its back.


Starting in the first quarter of the century, Persia had carried out a few western-style reforms. The earliest were military, but the army remained ill-disciplined and inefficient. The need for deeper change grew more pressing, and its advocates more assertive, as the century wore on. Nasser ud-Din was personally attracted to the West, and made three prohibitively expensive trips there, picking up the latest gadgets and impressing his hosts with his charm and curiosity, as well as the strangeness of his retinue.* [* In Paris, the Shah was solaced by a Georgian slave-girl purchased in Istanbul, who took her seat at the Paris Opera dressed as a man and chaperoned by a eunuch. While travelling through the French countryside on the same trip, the equipage was thrown into confusion after the Shah’s beloved ‘fetish’ (as the foreigners called him), the poisonous adolescent Aziz ul-Sultan, activated the emergency alarm.)] But the Shah’s interest in power turned out to be stronger than his interest in western-style reform. At different times in his reign Nasser ud-Din promoted reforming, independent-minded ministers, only to dispense with them under pressure from vested interests or when they threatened his own position.


Again, the gap showed between the mystique of the monarchy and its practical limitations. Nasser ud-Din was theoretically omnipotent but he could not prevent knowledge that would be prejudicial to him from entering the country. The Shah enjoyed reading about other rulers, particularly French ones with convoluted love-lives. But a growing number of his educated subjects devoured subversive newspapers and satires that had been published abroad. Members of a small, new, educated class travelled outside the country, with a sobering effect on their sense of Iran’s position in the world. Poverty and political repression at home led to the establishment of expatriate communities in Istanbul and elsewhere, whose members were exposed to revolutionary ideologies.


Back home, secret societies mushroomed. A sect of millenarians called the Bahais, loathed as heretics by the orthodox, sputtered on in spite of pogroms. The mystic orders fomented anti-clericalism and a charismatic divine called Jamal ud-Din al-Afghani raised the flag of Islamic resurgence. The Shah went in fear for his own life, deputing spies to report even on his own harem, while commerce with the Russian Caucasus exposed the country’s Azeri minority, in the north-west, to social democracy and atheism. The country- side dozed while the cities and towns leaped with dissatisfaction: with the Shah’s despotism; with the Bahais; with the influence of the powers; with the injustice permitting a tiny, landed elite – the country’s top ‘one thousand families’, as they came to be known – to lord it over some nine million souls.


Patriotic opposition and Russian unease had led to the cancellation of a commercial concession that the Shah had granted to a British citizen, Baron Julius de Reuter, in 1872, which would have ceded control of almost all future economic activity to foreigners. But Nasser ud-Din still needed cash, and in 1890 he granted the British Tobacco Corporation a monopoly over the cultivation and sale of tobacco, thereby sparking Iran’s first major nationalist movement. The nationwide boycott of tobacco even spread to the seraglio, where the Shah’s wives laid down their pipes in defiance. Eventually the Shah cancelled the concession – but at a cost. In an arrangement that exemplified the country’s growing bondage, Nasser ud-Din paid compensation to the British Tobacco Corporation by indebting himself to a second British concern, the Imperial Bank of Persia.


Tehran was the country’s most dynamic city and political bellwether. Never beautiful, always a work in progress, the capital had suffered the lack of a rich, visionary builder-king, though it had progressed from the agglutination of villages, enclosed by Safavid-era walls, that Agha Muhammad Khan had unified in the 1780s. A century on, it was Iran’s biggest city, its population in excess of 150,000. It was adorned with spindly public and royal buildings and home to an extensive Court on the site of the old fort, half a dozen European legations and communities of Jews, Armenians and Zoroastrians. Behind, rose the stately Alborz mountains, watering the city and also the hunting lodges and walled arcadia to which the capital’s elite, imitating the Shah and his retinue, retired for the summer to carouse and hunt.


The nature of social intercourse was somnolent and conspiratorial. Men conducted their affairs on daybeds in the garden or courtyard of their high-walled houses; the business was sealed with lunch and the opium pipe. Here, in the homes of the elite, politics were founded less on ideology than alliances and preferment, for Qajar Iran was far from being a meritocracy. Women spent much time secluded in their apartments. Islamic law conferred on them few rights, and yet they enjoyed, in some cases, considerable power. Over the course of his long reign Nasser ud-Din came variously under the sway of his mother and his favourite wife or concubine. And then, of course, there was the strange power wielded by his ‘fetish’.


For the capital’s 500-odd foreigners, the city was not without charm. A European lady out shopping for chintz might spot the Shah driving sedately through the streets in his glass coach preceded by liveried runners, before she attended a performance of Molière’s Tartuffe by an Armenian troupe. But the capital had another, darker side. Violence was ever-present. At a word from a tub-thumping preacher, aghast at some perceived slight to Islam or a shortage of water or grain, mobs would rampage through the city before dispersing once more, their anger sated and their arms full of loot.


Many rich and well-connected Tehranis lived in the neighbourhood of Sangelaj, to the west of the citadel and the bazaar, in spacious mansions of brick and adobe, with women’s quarters (to which no unrelated male was admitted), stables, private bathhouses and legions of servants. The neighbourhood was grand, but around it lay the Tehran of the very poor, with snake-charmers and blacked- up entertainers and amputees begging on the corners. One of the streets bordering Sangelaj was so full of ruffians, the police refused to enter it.


The capital embodied Persia’s twin impulses. It was home to the country’s most powerful clerics, commanding huge endowments and thousands of followers. Down the year clattered the processions and holidays of Shia Islam, climaxing in the month of Moharram, when the streets teemed with flagellants mourning the Imam Hossein, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, whose martyrdom at the hands of the caliph was deprecated as if it had happened yesterday, rather than in 680, and pious notables filled the bellies of the poor from cauldrons at the side of the road. Open squares and halls were the scene for Shia passion plays, accompanied by extravagant shows of grief and lamentation.


At the same time, there were other, contradictory signals. The number of traditional schools with a core curriculum of Arabic and religious instruction was in decline, as secular colleges, some of them staffed by foreigners, taught maths, science and French to boys and a few upper-class girls. Daring mothers engaged piano tutors for their daughters. Iranians had overcome their old mistrust of western medicine, and there were modern hospitals overseen by Europeans. To the old occupations of corpse-washer, tobacco- salesman, apothecary and minstrel had been added new ones: telegraph operator, postman, portrait photographer.


Increasingly, Persia clothed itself from Europe. The old male costume of flowing robes and bright colours was under threat from frock coats and wing collars. The kolah, a tall black version of the Central Asian astrakhan hat, had been abbreviated and flattened to the point where it resembled a pill-box. Among upper-class women, foreign fashions were causing a succès de scandale, with traditionalists outraged by a new short kind of chador worn with a separate veil of leather and horsehair which left part of the wearer’s face scandalously uncovered. There was an infatuation for western miracles like salad and soup, chairs and tables, and knives and forks. In the Tehran bazaar, wrote Ella Sykes, who had come to Persia to keep house for her brother Percy, a British diplomat and army officer, ‘European goods of the shoddy order vastly preponderate over the Eastern products… while Tehran supplies every kind of inferior crockery and cutlery, with masses of the cut-glass candelabra and lustres so dear to the Persian soul.’ Invited to a hen party in the seraglio, she was dismayed by her stout, jewel-laden fellow-guests and their curious adornments, from kohl moustaches and heavy rouge to short trousers and coarse white stockings – an ensemble inspired, apparently rather dimly, by the ballet in Paris.


Modernity could not be repulsed and on May 1, 1896 it thundered through the Qajar ramparts. On that day Nasser ud-Din Shah was assassinated while leaving a shrine where he had given thanks for the fiftieth year of his reign. The Shah’s assassin was a follower of the pan-Islamist Jamal ud-Din al-Afghani, but his action spoke for a multitude of currents, secular and Islamist, democrat and revolutionary.


‘When a king has ruled for fifty years,’ the assassin told his interrogators, ‘and still receives false reports and does not ascertain the truth, and when after so many years of ruling the fruit of his tree are such good-for-nothing aristocratic bastards and thugs, plaguing the lives of Muslims at large, then such a tree ought to be cut down so it won’t yield such fruits again. When a fish rots, it rots from its head.’


Photo (partial) by Farhad Ahrarnia

Photo (partial) by Farhad Ahrarnia


Christopher de Bellaigue was born in London and now lives in Tehran with his family. He has spent the past decade working as a journalist in the Middle East and South Asia, and his work appears in The Economist, the New York Review of Books, Granta, and The New Yorker.


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