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THE PERSIA OF THE SHAH.
The game of chess, we are told, was invented by a wise minister, that he might teach his master that the position of a despotic king was defenceless unless he had his subjects on his side. Few crowned heads answer to the popular ideal of a despot more accurately than the Shah of Persia, 'the king, the great king, the king of kings, the king of the many-peopled countries, the supporter of the great world;' and too often is it taken for granted that his people, and indeed those of all despots, are more or less poor and misgoverned. Now poverty and misgovernment are expressions that, standing alone, cannot convey much meaning. It is necessary that they should be used with reference to some standard of comparison, and many and foolish have been the deductions drawn from illustrating the affairs and circumstances of the East, by a consideration of those of the West.
Now that Nasr-ud-din Shah for the second time in his reign of forty years is about to visit us, chiefly with the object, as we can safely assume, of acquiring such experience as will bear fruit in the improvement of his own subjects, it may be interesting to give a brief account of the condition of parts of Persia which may be deemed fairly characteristic of the rest, to see in their condition a fair reflection of the government of the Shah, of his intentions, and of their results, and to consider how far he has and deserves to have his subjects on his side.
A general impression exists to the effect that the villages are poor, the people poorer, and the country a vast desert. The existence of this impression is accounted for by the fact that the route on which posts on horseback are maintained by the Shah, as they were long ago by Ahasuerus the king, runs from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian through some of the most uninhabited parts of the country. This is the route most travellers take. In addition to its natural disadvantages, its vicinity suffers from a not unnatural dislike on the part of the people to settling alongside a road which brings them little or no trade or prosperity, and exposes them to the exactions and inquisitive inquiries of travellers, courtiers, and officials. A far better idea of the country can be obtained by moving off in any direction away from the postal tracks, or, better still, by going in a bee-line from one known point to another, taking the rough with the smooth, desert and oasis, hill and plaio, as they come, noting down the general characteristics, and striking a working average of the condition of the country and of its inhabitants. I dare assert that the result of such an experience, plus a good colloquial knowledge of the language, will show that the people as a whole are well-fed, big and brawny, and their houses fairly comfortable, and their lot not more unhappy than that of their fellow-men in corresponding conditions in other countries. Lest I seem to underrate the knowledge and experience of the traveller, dependent on the official post-borses and unable to converse with the natives, let me add there are large tracts and districts, the extent, capacities, and even the positions of which are vaguely known to the Persian government itself.
The towns in barren and unproductive localities are mere collections of flat-roofed mud houses, built closely together and surrounded by walls furnished with watch-towers. Where the magic of water turns the thinnest and stoniest soil into gardens, the town or village is surrounded with orcbards, hidden in trees and possessed of what passes for fair turf out of the United Kingdom. The men in either case wear blue cotton frocks tied in at the waist, trousers, and felt skull-caps or lamb's-wool hats, according as they are rich or poor. The difference between rich and poor is not in the country districts strongly accentuated, but doubtless that arises from the fact that the rich do not live to any great extent on their estates, but congregate in the capital and in large towns.
The wages of agricultural labour vary from 5d. a day with food to 9d. without, and reach as much as 13d. a day when the days are long and severe. Now in Essex to-day an agricultural labourer only gets 118. a week, and in Herefordshire 128., while the purchasing power of money in Persia is at least double that of what it is in England, and clothing and lodging are far cheaper. At a village in Grape County (Angurmahal), by Kazveen, where I spent a day, the . people complained that the Government demand had been raised and that they were badly off, but an old greybeard, who by common consent was appointed to speak for the community, said they were all able to support large families of daughters, who slept and ate. The women generally do not labour in Persia proper, though the men of the peasant class work hard. In fact, the orthodox Mussalmani woman cannot work as a labourer. It is contrary to what is proper, and makes her seclusion difficult or impossible. That is right enough. One wishes no women should labour with their hands, but the observance of such social or religious scruples is not compatible with a state of abject and grinding poverty. I suspect that a labourer in Persia gets meat as often as the English farm-labourer gets bacon, which I believe is by no means every day. On quitting the village I ventured to address the House instead of the Speaker, and was promptly rebuked by him, for breach of order and for flippant speech. Said I, “What think you of the first Frank who has visited your village?' Said he, ‘How
should they express opinions on God's works? Did he not make both Frank and Moslem ?' These greybeards are very dignified and do not understand pleasantry. In the company of one I described myself for the moment and from his point of view as one of the Kafirs, that is, one who does not believe in Islam, but he said, “The followers of His Highness Jesus, on whom be peace, are no Kafirs. Call not thyself that which I would not hear thee called.'
Touching the houses of the people and their household properties, I once spent a night in the house of a trooper of the Shah. His pay was 101. a year, with rations when on duty. He gave me an excellent dinner in an upper chamber, which was carpeted, and in the niches of the false windows of which rose-leaves were piled up for fragrance. I do not mean that the carpet was other than the cheapest, or that the atmosphere was all of rose-leaves, but an English groom gets 121. a year, more or less, and I doubt if he indulges in carpets and flowers. A few cooking utensils, a brass tray or two, skins in which curds are made and kept, a loom, a sheet of leather which serves for the floor (table) cloth--these are the articles that furnish the ordinary dwelling. If the householder be a very poor man, he will eat his meat off big flaps of unleavened bread, and will eat too that which serves him for a table-cloth and is also the bread which we find on our table-cloths. You break off a bit of bread and
dip your hand in the dish 'wherein are curds at any rate, and possibly on feast days kid or fowl.
A soldier, who had travelled a little and was a most intelligent man, calculated at my request that for 31. 10s. a year a cultivator could live and bring up a family. It seems extraordinarily little, and I merely quote his estimate. That my readers may judge of his capacity as well as I can, I will repeat parts of my conversation with him. 'Is it true,' said he, 'that all Yangidunya (America) belongs to the Ooroos (Russian)?' Not at all,' said I. 'Much belongs to the Inglees, little to the Russ.' "Who is the Shah of Hindustan ?' Our Queen.' 'Yet the brother of the King of India lives at Bagdad.' He referred to the late Nawab Ikbal-ud-Dowla, who actually sat for a few days on the royal cushion of Oudh. He is not the King of India's brother,' I rejoined ; "there never was a King of all India.' 'You mean it is very big,' said he. 'I do indeed.' How big ?' Twice as long, and twice as broad as Iran (Persia), with twenty-five times its population at the least, with a dozen cities greater than Teheran or Tabriz and half a hundred larger than Ispahan.' Now I had these facts ready, as travellers' stock in trade, and they are pretty correct, but the old soldier, when he heard them, discerned in me what Oscar Wilde calls “the makings of a really magnificent liar' and ceased from all parley on the spot.
These conversations, which lightened my journey, as I hope they may this article, were held between Kazveen by the Elburz, and Hamadan (Ecbatana), but there was a man from Bushire in the south who was present, and he too interviewed me at length, and marvelled greatly at the things I told him of England, how much the cheapest meat cost, how dear was house rent, and the like. He said with reason what must be the wealth of a people whose poor can pay such prices! I did not tell him that too many cannot pay them, and suffer from actual want of food near the dwellings of the rich beyond all count, and in the heart of the richest city in the world. At this time I travelled in formâ pauperis, with all my worldly goods in a saddlebag. I expected to see most of the poor, and they are ever most ready to be friendly and sympathetic with the poor. I had a horse of course, but that means little in Persia, where you can buy one for 51. or 101., and keep him after a fashion for a year for a sum less than is represented by a fortnight's livery in London.
The Persia of the nomad tribes differs entirely from the Persia of the towns. The women of the former wear petticoats and no trousers or veil, and are remarkably strong and active. The men are very bad Mussulmans, and they speak for the most part Turki, and not Persian. They are truthful, brave, hospitable, and irreligious. The Persian of the town is religious, but lacks some of the other virtues named. I offered a nomad one day a small sum in return for his hospitality, but he declined to receive it, saying: "We do not sell the produce of our flocks; you are welcome as our guest.' I could understand Turki a little, but could not speak it, and I asked my companion, a Persian, who knew that language as well as his own, to say that it was just so with us, and that I understood his feeling in the matter. I could follow what he did actually say, and repeat it. He said to my host, “The Farangi (Frank) sahib says it is just like that in the country of London. No one there pays for anything !'
The Persians have advanced in geography since the days described by Morier, in the inimitable pages of Hajji Baba, ard I think it is generally known that London is the capital of Engla' .d and not England of London, but it is still in Persia considered inexplicable that the Queen of England allows a kind of chronic civil war between two parties in the State.
The dignity of the old and the respect they exact and receive from their juniors are very striking features of village life in Persia. Another ever-present feature is the reverential and religious demeanour of the people. I have seen a silent crowd sitting on the ground under a tree, while a village elder read a chapter from the Koran. We shall never, I think, see a scene of this character in England, but it may be permissible to hope that one day its beautiful country churches may at least be open daily from sunrise to sunset for such as wish to pray, or such as the sight of means may induce to prayer.
The Persians are for the most part Shias, Mahomedans, who differ in doctrine from the Sunnis in very unimportant matters, but decline to acknowledge the three Caliphs who immediately followed the Prophet. They are notoriously fanatical, and a traveller who does not conform to the outward observances of Islam would have some difficulty in getting on in unfrequented districts, at any rate during Ramazan. In this month of fasting the old, the young, and the traveller have a dispensation, but, while in Wales we see the bona fide traveller clause abused, if it is an abuse, wholesale, in Persia those privileged to drink and eat in the long hot days will hardly avail themselves of it, and the old die in large numbers, the victims of their own austerity. Nor when dead do they rest, unless haply rich enough to be transported at once to be buried near the blessed Imams at Nejef or Kerbela. Years after death are their bones exhumed, when sufficient funds have been collected for the purpose. I have come upon a caravan of corpses
of all ages, slung on mules and indifferently packed, so that in a narrow mountain pass the odour of the decayed and decaying dead was insufferable. Hence, say the Turks, come the plague and other diseases across their frontier. They are not sorry to find that Shias, even when dead, are noxious and pestilential,
As if the decaying dead
Only twice did I, inadvertently of course, offend in the slightest degree the religious feelings of the people; once by trespassing on the precincts of what I did not recognise as a mosque, and once by remarking, in a crowd of hungry Shias in a caravanserai, that I was glad I had not to fast till sunset, as I was too hungry to wait. On both occasions explanation and an early departure sufficed to restore peace. The Shias, unlike the Sunnis, do not allow Europeans to enter their mosques. Here let me observe that the European who travels in Persia under the impression that he is taken for a native is a very credulous person. There are places, and I will try to describe some of them, too far out of the world for their inhabitants to know who or what the stranger is, but that he is not one of themselves they know immediately. In the large cities Europeans who have deluded themselves into the belief that they have passed for Persians or Armenians, would be surprised to see the secret reports made upon them by the Persian authorities, if, as I have been told, such reports describe them by name and appearance, with the remark that as the gentleman gives himself out to be something else, they think it polite, while watching him and his proceedings, to affect to ignore his real name and character. There may be Englishmen able, like Sir Richard Burton and one or two others, to support undetected the character of a Moslem, but if there are, they have not revealed themselves.
These few words must suffice on the religious aspect of the people—a subject on which volumes have been, and now might be, written.