The “travelees”: manners and morals

  April 28, 2022   Read time 3 min
The “travelees”: manners and morals
The Russian travelers’ representation of Iran and its people is usually marked by a contemptuous attitude and an air of superiority of the strong and powerful toward the weak loser.

The authors are disappointed by the state of every facet of social, political, economic and spiritual life in contemporary Iran. Ivan Blaramberg is even able to criticize the landscape in Iran: its mountains, its plains, its trees. He finds them ugly, they make a sad impression on him: “In order to give [you] an idea of landscape in Persia, we have to exclude everything that creates beauty in Europe.”31 Almost all the travelers call Iranians tuzemtsy (“the aborigines” or “the natives”), which in Russian in general and in the context of the Russian travelogues in particular has the pejorative meaning “uncivilized” or “barbarous.”

The grotesque disparaging of the Iranians is most egregious when the authors talk about their manners and morals. Many Iranian customs are presented as ridiculous because they differ from what the authors consider the “civilized” and therefore correct way of doing things: The Persian taste leans toward everything unnatural: for example, Persians dye their hair and the tails and legs of their horses; women put beauty-spots on their faces and get rid of the hair on certain parts of their bodies; while the highest artificiality is found in their speeches and books: here metaphors are piled one on top of another.

Sarcastic comments and notes ridiculing people, their habits and etiquette are spread through the pages of the travelogues. Persian etiquette is one of the favorite objects of derision for the travelers: According to the rules of Persian etiquette, to not recommend a remedy to a sick person for relief of his sufferings means to display an unforgivable coldness and to present oneself as a heartless person . . . There are benevolent people who, unwilling to tire their imagination, recommend the same medicine for all illnesses. For example, if a Persian decides to recommend the use of melons for all diseases, he would never alter his method of treatment. If he meets a person who has a fever, he would recommend eating several melons; if somebody suffers from colic, he would declare that as soon as the sufferer uses melons his pain would stop; even if someone breaks an arm or a leg, he is still capable of stating that the owner of the broken arm or leg has to eat a lot of melons, and the broken limb will knit.

General Aleksei Ermolov makes sarcastic remarks concerning Persian “silly and funny” etiquette, especially the notorious custom of taking off one’s shoes upon entering a house; and Iranian greetings. For example, he comments on his meeting with an important Iranian official: “The meeting was accompanied by the usual Persian greetings, which had already given me a headache. I said many polite things in the same ridiculous manner.” Interestingly, while disdaining the red socks and other elements of Persian etiquette, Ermolov did not hesitate to use some of its modes and exploit the perceived credulity of the Iranians during his meeting with Fath ‘Ali Shah’s prime minister: In order to win his favor, I started to express a great admiration for his high qualities and virtues. The old man took my flattery for the truth, and that is how I won his complete trust. I was asking for his advice as from a figure experienced and wise in the affairs of state. I assured him that if guided by him, I could perform a good service. As a sign of my great attachment to him, I gave him the title of [my] father, and as an obedient son promised to tell him everything honestly.