The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austen's London

The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austen's London

by Nile Green


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Tuesday, April 30

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691168326
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 11/24/2015
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Nile Green is professor of history at UCLA. His many books include Sufism: A Global History. He lives in Los Angeles.

Read an Excerpt

The Love of Strangers

What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austen's London

By Nile Green


Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-7413-2


In Search of a Teacher

An Entry to Inglistan

Mirza Salih began the diary of his English journey by recounting the circumstances of his companions' departure from Iran in the company of Mr. D'Arcy. Since the crown prince 'Abbas Mirza wished to send several persons to study the 'ulum-i farangor "European sciences," Mirza Salih wrote, using another term for the "new sciences," he was chosen for the task along with Mirza Riza, two youths named Mirza Ja'far, and a craftsman called Muhammad 'Ali. Once they reached England, they would join their compatriot Hajji Baba, who had been studying in London since 1811. After several months traveling overland through Russia and then across the Baltic Sea from Saint Petersburg, we have seen their ship arriving at Great Yarmouth on England's eastern seaboard. As a seaside resort since the 1760s, the town was lit that late September evening with bright and colorful lights; perhaps the wind even carried the tune of a flute or fiddle to where they stood gazing at the shore from the deck. While Mr. D'Arcy and the ship's captain went ashore to visit relatives who lived in the neighborhood, to their disappointment the students were told to remain aboard ship and delay their first taste of England till their chaperone returned. Fortunately, the captain's deputy took a less schoolmasterly approach, and when D'Arcy and the captain were rowed to land he sneaked the young foreigners ashore on a cutter. Smuggled into England by a cunning old seadog, it must have been an exciting start to their great venture.

Even by the standards of a coastal port, the students must have proved a strange sight as they wandered wide-eyed in their robes and turbans through the streets of Great Yarmouth, a port more used to local fishermen and the occasional Dutchman than visitors from the distant East. To the students, the small town of Great Yarmouth appeared as one of the gathering places of a new world: it provided many a "spectacle," many a tamasha, to use a word of which Mirza Salih would grow fond. The Iranians and the English looked at each other with matched curiosity, for this was still a time when these different peoples had not yet classified one another as friends or foes, moderates or fanatics. Not least among the "spectacles" that struck the students was a hall in which they saw men, women, and girls mixing gaily and freely, enjoying each another's company unashamedly in public. It was something that the students had never seen in Iran, at least among the respectable classes; the different morality of public space would be one of their earliest and least expected lessons. By the time they crept back aboard ship that night, they had already seen much; some of it was comparable to home; much of it was beyond their ken. Mirza Salih recorded the date in his diary as the 23rd of Shawwal; it was the 28th of September, 1815, and three months earlier the duke of Wellington had defeated 'Abbas Mirza's hero Napoleon at Waterloo.

The students passed three dizzying days in Great Yarmouth, days in whose new experiences Mirza Salih was too absorbed to record much of detail in his diary. And then, still aboard ship, they sailed down the coast and, entering the Thames estuary, reached the port of Gravesend in the garden county of Kent. As the first major port in from the coast up the Thames, Gravesend lay about twenty miles east of London's new East India Docks and had for centuries connected the capital with the continent. By the year the students arrived, Gravesend was already seeing steamboats plying the river route up to London. In January that year, the steamship Margery had begun a regular service from Gravesend for the London firm of Cortis & Co. It must have been a startling sight after sailing so far powered only by the wind and such sights as the Margery would have been of special interest to Mirza Ja'far, who planned to study engineering. It was a timely ambition. Steam power was being deployed for many new purposes, and James Watt (1736–1819), the greatest of all steam engine inventors, was then still alive in Birmingham (he would die just a month before they returned home). Many such possibilities lay ahead of them, and many challenges as well. As yet, they did not even speak English and, as Mirza Salih's diary shows, even in their own language they struggled to find words for the new things they saw.

Despite sneaking ashore at Great Yarmouth, it was at Gravesend that the students officially disembarked and passed through customs into the realm of the Inglis. Absorbing everything around him, Mirza Salih described the customs house itself. Though a few Iranian ports had some form of customs houses (or gumruk), as an early sign of the orderly governance with which he would come to associate England's island realm, the Gravesend gumruk were novel enough to to be worth recording. From Gravesend, the party traveled by coach to visit Mr. D'Arcy's family at the great naval port of Chatham, where his father was commandant of the garrison. The father, Major General Robert D'Arcy, cut a striking figure. Since being wounded in the Napoleonic Wars, he had taken to wearing a stark black eye patch that made a bold contrast with his white powdered wig. Here was a gentleman warrior, at once frightening and a little bit effeminate.

After the students ate supper — their first proper English meal — in the company of the D'Arcy family, they listened to the ladies of the household play instruments. Mirza Salih described these as chang u saz, which given the setting seem to have been the harp and guitar. Here perhaps was a sight such as that found in Miss Austen's Mansfield Park, where "a young woman, pretty, lively, with a harp as elegant as herself ... was enough to catch any man's heart." The students were gaining their first taste of the domestic culture of the Regency's happy middle classes. It was one of the first images of a contented society that Mirza Salih would redact into his diary and later carry back to Iran. It was in many ways a false image, for this was also the age of the struggles of the laboring classes that would erupt in the Peterloo Massacre of August 1819 a few months before the Iranians departed. But proud bourgeois patriot as Mr. D'Arcy was, this proletarian world was not one he wished to show his foreign guests. Nonetheless, some of them at least would find themselves forced to enter it. As they would learn, English life was not all harps and guitar lessons.

The next days were filled with the sights and sounds of other new spectacles. Both Mr. D'Arcy and his young charges were keen to start their mission on the right foot, and for D'Arcy at least that meant a military footing: bright and early, he took them to inspect one of Chatham's cannon and gun foundries. Having equipped England's burgeoning navy in its wars against Napoleon, Chatham's naval foundries also supplied the ships that just a few years earlier Jane Austen's two sailor brothers had commanded in the sea war against France. All told, it was the type of visit of which Crown Prince 'Abbas Mirza would have approved; it was also the kind of tourism to which his former military advisor Mr. D'Arcy was best suited. Whether the students were quite so keen we can only guess, though Mirza Salih's diary suggests the sight of people making music and dancing was more immediately appealing.

Even so, the Christian culture that underlay Miss Austen's lighthearted depictions of gentle country parsons meant that the next items on Mr. D'Arcy's itinerary were visits to the churches of nearby Rochester. And so the next day, they made their next steps toward exploring the strange new society around them by entering their first English city. Miss Austen had visited Rochester when she was around the same age as the students. Though small, it also made a good impression on Mirza Salih. As he wrote in his diary,

There is a huge bridge there made of stone; it has twenty-one arches. It was built in the time of Edward III and completed in the Christian year 1256. We crossed over that bridge and entered the city. It has fine buildings and three well-built churches. And there was one other church that they call a "kathral." It belongs to a "beshap," who is one of the great priests.

If, after his years among the mosques of Tabriz, Mr. D'Arcy was seeking to correspondingly impress the Muslims with the architectural splendor of Christendom, then Rochester was not an altogether bad choice. Founded in the year 604, the cathedral was the seat of England's second oldest bishopric, after Canterbury, and though small, the cathedral is an early Norman gem of a building. But young men that they were, the students had other curiosities and thankfully their early days were not all filled with stained glass and cannons. Wandering around town in the evening, Mirza Salih described him and his companions looking into a dance hall, where they gazed at the happy sight of young couples dancing, playing cards, and flirting till the early hours of the morning. They had already stood and stared at such a gathering in Great Yarmouth, and here they were again a few days later, young men who were clearly drawn to such sights. It is tempting to call them "innocent sights," but perhaps at first, and by comparison with their homeland, they seemed far from innocent. They were fascinating nonetheless.

The following day, they rode horses across Kent and finally entered London, crossing the Thames from the south via Westminster Bridge. With the eye he was acquiring for detail, Mirza Salih described it as four hundred paces across. From there, on another September morning thirteen years earlier, the young William Wordsworth had gazed out to see where

Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky, —
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Mirza Salih's first impressions of the view along the Thames were more reserved; "there are some good houses, buildings and other places along the way," he noted simply. They would have to wait for the glitter of the big city.

To recover from their ride and make them feel more at home, the students were taken to one of the Turkish-style hammams, or bathhouses, that were currently fashionable in the capital. London guidebooks from the period list many such bathhouses, many of them attached to hotels and coffeehouses. Others were located all over central London, whether at the "Old Hummums" on Covent Garden; on Great Windmill Street and Long Acre in Soho; on Great Coram Street just off Russell Square; and on Leicester Square, where Mr. D'Arcy lived and the students were heading. These were all in any case addresses with which the students would become closely associated over the following years: far away from Iran as they were, they were never to be far from a hammam. However, Mirza Salih soon learned that the etiquette of these bathhouses was embarrassingly different from that of their Iranian equivalents. When he first went to one (presumably Bartholomew's Leicester Square Turkish Baths), he decided to spruce up his appearance for the new city by dyeing his beard. But as soon as he started applying the bold henna dye, the Englishman sitting beside him in the tepidarium was alarmed and began to speak to him, in English, and then, seeing that Mirza Salih didn't understand, trying again in French. When he realized that the stranger with the dye running down his body didn't understand French either, the Englishman became frantic. But it was to no communicational avail. Mirza Salih carried on with his plan of staining his beard with what he jokingly referred to as haft-rang or "seven colors." Later in the evening when he was back at his lodgings, a message was sent to Mr. D'Arcy explaining what had happened. Apparently, Mirza Salih had broken the rules of the bathhouse on two counts: first, by not going directly to the pool and instead sitting around on the benches; and second, by letting his dye run all over the place, leaving stains on the expensive marble. It was one of Mirza Salih's earliest lessons: even in the hammam, they did things differently in England.

Nevertheless, after the students' long journey it was a relief to have finally reached their destination. Their first weeks in London seem to have been enjoyable ones. If one had money in one's pocket, London was a wonderful place to be in that post-Waterloo autumn of 1815. Even Jane Austen, having her own income for the first time now that her books were selling well, chose to spend the months between October and December 1815 living in London. As for the students, their days were filled with some of the same pleasures of tourists to the city two centuries later; perhaps Miss Austen even encountered them in the street as they went to watch the changing of the guards, for example. Even if this was a touristic "spectacle" (to use Mirza Salih's term), it was also a demonstration of England's fighting power. Against the background of the crown prince 'Abbas Mirza's nizam-i jadid, the Russian wars with Iran and the many military men (sailors especially) who feature in Miss Austen's novels, the changing of the guards served as a vivid reminder of the highly militarized societies of the Russians and English who were encircling Iran.

In fitting with their status as protégés of 'Abbas Mirza, during their first week in London the students were introduced to several important people, particularly those associated with the embassies to Iran of the previous decade or so. They met James Morier, who may have drawn from the students some inspiration for his later best-selling novels depicting the misadventures of the semifictional Iranian Hajji Baba in England. They also met the former ambassador to Iran, Sir Gore Ouseley, in whose company we have seen Mirza Salih traveling across Iran in 1812. By chance (for London society was small enough in those days), they also ran into Sir Gore's predecessor as the East India Company's emissary to Iran, Captain (and by now Sir) John Malcolm. It would have been a comfort to the students that he not only spoke Persian but also understood its idioms and social etiquette. As Mirza Salih recorded the meeting in his diary, Sir John "treated us in a kind, gentle, and loving manner and even presented his wife to us. Afterward, when we left, he escorted us out into the street and said, 'Consider my house to be your house. I am a servant of the great government of Iran, for I have eaten the salt of the shah. If there is any help you require, then I am at your service.'" Since Sir John knew their princely patron 'Abbas Mirza, the students must have been excited to meet him, not least since earlier that year he had published his groundbreaking History of Persia, a work that had already established him as England's leading authority on Iran. He might prove to be both a gracious and useful contact.

As it turned out, the students soon needed all the help they could get. As Mr. D'Arcy began to make inquiries about the cost of their education, it quickly became clear that the funds given to him by 'Abbas Mirza on the eve of their departure from Tabriz would prove manifestly inadequate. In a letter dated after the students' arrival in London, he gave a breakdown of the funds provided to him by the crown prince as follows: for Mirza Salih, "the secretary," £250; for Mirza Ja'far, "the engineer," £250; for Mirza Riza, "the artillerist," £300; for Mirza Ja'far, "the medical student," £300; and to Muhammad 'Ali, "the locksmith," £100. In addition to this total sum of £1,200 (around £100,000, or $160,000, in today's terms), he explained, the crown prince had promised to send the same amount again for the following year, but so far there was no sign that this money would be forthcoming. Financial trouble was already on the horizon, then, not least in view of the expenses that Mr. D'Arcy had already incurred on the long journey from Iran, with the well-born mirzas having required suitable accommodation all the way across Russia.

So it was that, desperate both to honor his promise and defy bankruptcy, shortly after they reached London Mr. D'Arcy began a long and protracted series of negotiations with both the Iranian and the British governments, as well as the directors of the East India Company on Leadenhall Street. In letter after letter, he asked for supplements and increases to the students' allowance, so as to save himself from the ruin he faced were he forced to fund their education on his junior officer's salary. The correspondence generated by his increasingly frantic efforts survives today in the National Archives in London's Kew Gardens as testimony to his dilemmas and frustrations. It was an unfortunate and unenviable position: by March 1816, five months after the students' arrival and after months of their perpetual complaints, D'Arcy would be writing of "the very distressing and remarkably unpleasant situation in which I find myself." But from the moment the students arrived, the situation was one that His Britannic Majesty's Government considered to be of D'Arcy's own making and the government refused to take responsibility for a situation they saw the foolish young officer as having brought upon himself.


Excerpted from The Love of Strangers by Nile Green. Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface xi

Introducing Mr. D’Arcy’s Persians 1


Chapter 1 In Search of a Teacher 23

Chapter 2 The Madrasas of Oxford 83


Chapter 3 Among the Dissenters 133

Chapter 4 Evangelical Engagements 177


Chapter 5 Diplomatic Friendships 227

Chapter 6 The Love of Strangers 266

Afterlives 305

A Note on Sources and Method 319

Acknowledgments 323

Notes 327

Index 377

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews