Sociographical Scenes of the Forgotten Persia

  April 28, 2022   Read time 3 min
Sociographical Scenes of the Forgotten Persia
The Russian authors describe the wretchedness, poverty and dirt in most of the places they visit in Iran: colonial discourse attaches “the images of filth . . . to its representation of the Other.”

Sergei Cherniaev makes an interesting comparison of the conversation during an audience with the scenes from an opera: The host sings the solo; those seated next to him play parts in a trio, a quartet and other morceaux d”ensemble together with him, while the poor, who are distanced from [the host] by their low position, only give shading and add to the main melody with their chorus. Nikolai Murav’ev likens Persian etiquette, unfamiliar and unusual to him, to a Persian carpet: Every step is followed by congratulations, a bow, or a visit; every day arrives a messenger to ask about the condition of one’s health, or a letter of greeting. In other words, there is so much etiquette, such a pile of rules, that all together they combine [to form] the most patterned Persian carpet – [a carpet] of ceremonies, upon which the whole life of a Persian is based.

Fedor Bartolomei makes a humorous comment on one of the rules of Persian etiquette: The host of the house where you are staying assures you that all his property belongs to you, even including his children; his wives, however, are never mentioned. I often intended answering to such a greeting to suggest an exchange profitable for him: to give all his children back to him in exchange for only one of his wives.

Traditional Iranian greetings and conventional phrases are similarly lampooned by Il’ia Berezin, who recorded and translated his conversation with the officials in Ardebil: My guests started their speeches: The Vakil as the oldest started: – “Akhvali dzhenabi shuma khubeeest?” Are the circumstances of Your Nobility good? – “Az iltifati shuma.” By your benevolence. – “Demagi shuma changeeest?” Is your brain well? – “Az ni-mati shuma.” By your grace. – “Keifi shuma sazeeest?” Is your bliss well? – “Az markhamati shuma.” By your favor. – “Nakhushi ne dorid?” You don’t have any sickness, do you? In spite of the fact that I had a high fever, I answered again: – How can one be sick in this country? After the Vakil who was sitting in the middle, the Sultan of artillery who was sitting to the right of the Vakil inquired about my circumstances. The same was then repeated by the Mirza of the Prince seated to the left of the Vakil; after him, the same was pronounced very pleasantly by the Mirza of the Vakil who was sitting next to the Sultan; finally after everybody an unknown Mirza, who was sitting next to the Mirza of the Shahzadeh and who said nothing else during the whole visit, entered the conversation. Then the Vakil, putting his arm on his heart, pronounced: “Khush omadid!” Welcome! And the whole company repeated in a chorus: Welcome!

The Russian authors describe the wretchedness, poverty and dirt in most of the places they visit in Iran: colonial discourse attaches “the images of filth . . . to its representation of the Other.” As seen in the travelogues, their authors are anxious to keep the distance, the boundary, to maintain the difference between themselves and the “Orientals” out of “fear of contamination.” They often try to avoid sharing shelter and food with the Persians, with the exception of receptions at the houses of the highest Persian aristocracy, including the Shah. Except the purely official ones, there is hardly a travelogue that does not express its disgust with the filthy streets, houses, water, food and clothing in Iran. However, in small Russian towns and especially villages the situation was not much different from that in Iran – poverty and poor sanitary conditions were well known to those who had ever traveled in the Russian hinterland of the nineteenth century. Those similarities are deliberately ignored by the Russian travelers – they pose as people who have arrived from a pristine place, and that place is of course Europe.