“Tales from the Life of Bruce Wannell: Adventurer, Linguist, Orientalist”, edited by Barnaby Rogerson and Rose Baring

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“How did Ibn Battuta support himself on his travels?”, asked a student once. It’s hard to imagine a world where erudition and charm enable a man to travel the world as the honored guests of kings and scholars as well as humble folk, but that is how things worked in those days. It also helped to be able to sleep as soundly in silk sheets as on a crofter’s mat. A world like that, a man like that, does not belong to a remote past, but it may belong to a past that is fading fast. Tales from the Life is an outpouring of praise and sadness on the occasion of the death earlier this year of Bruce Wannell, the last great English traveler in the Orient. 

Bruce Wannell discovered Persian in the midst of the Iranian Revolution, teaching English in Esfahan. After a close friend was assassinated by revolutionaries, he moved to Peshawar, working in humanitarian relief for the Afghan people during the Soviet intervention. There he drank deeply of the well of Persianate culture. His visits to the Sufi shrines of Ansari in Herat (during an aid mission behind Soviet lines) and of Shah Qabul in Peshawar were motivated by both scholarly curiosity and budding faith. As the proto-Taliban Mujahedin became increasingly hostile towards the idealistic Western aid workers, Wannell moved to Islamabad, and then in ever wider circles to Yemen, Sudan and Cairo. Along the way he formed close friendships with all sorts of people, ranging from Sufi saints to foreign ambassadors. He became an authority on Persian epigraphy and palaeography. As such he was in demand by scholars and writers struggling with Persian manuscripts or monuments. In the end, although he knew perhaps more about Indo-Persian and Islamic civilization than anyone else in his generation, he left behind virtually no published work.

 

Tales from the life of Bruce Wannell: Adventurer, Linguist, Orientalist, Barnaby Rogerson (ed), Rose Baring (ed) (Eland, August 2020(
Tales from the life of Bruce Wannell: Adventurer, Linguist, Orientalist, Barnaby Rogerson (ed), Rose Baring (ed) (Eland, August 2020)

In this book, over 100 friends whose lives were illuminated by this extraordinary person contributed their reminiscences, to preserve the memory of a man whose only oeuvre had been to create brilliant experiences around poetry, music, gastronomy, adventure and discovery. Some contributors are well-known journalists and writers (including William Dalrymple for whom Wannell extensively translated 18th century Persian texts), as well as amateur musicians, spiritual seekers, and neighbors from Yorkshire and from Cairo. A few texts are by Wannell himself, drawn from letters, and reveal a man ever true to himself, with an uncanny ability to read others but, unusually, a great gift to see goodness in others. His views on the Afghan warlords, the Sufi sheikhs, the polo-playing princes of Swat are informed by a deep knowledge of their cultures, and are uncluttered by any posturing or agenda. It is currently out of fashion for Westerners to go native, like Wilfrid Thesiger or Richard Burton. Wearing a Chitrali cap is rewarded with accusations of cultural appropriation. But his meticulous recitations by heart of Hafez or Rahman Baba was enough for the unlettered Afghan and learned shaykh alike to take Wannell to heart.

I met Bruce Wannell once at what must have been a painful venue for him, who so revelled in authenticity—a fast food outlet in Covent Gardens. He shared with me his encyclopaedic knowledge of the world of Iranian music performance, citing a number of experts who lived just down the road from me in Paris and about whom I had never heard. “There will be a concert of Persian classical music in Dushanbe in January,” he said, “you must come”. My all-to-brief introduction to Wannell was true to type.

This book is an attempt to capture the legacy of Bruce Wannell, and also a swan-song to a certain kind of scholar. “As an older generation of scholars dies,” wrote Wannell on a colleague’s death. “I am keenly aware that time will not wait. The social and economic circumstances that allowed serious amateur private scholarship an intimate, grainy and lived knowledge of the land, society and material culture of former colonial territories have all but disappeared.” The italics are mine. These words have been carefully chosen to highlight the distinction between the kind of encounter Wannell had with the Persicate and Islamic world, and those available to the next generation.

Contributor Nova Robinson summarized Wannell’s concerns further:

 

The spiritual world is ending all over the world and ended in the West. Bruce has seen the last of it in the East whose traditions are being corrupted by the cars and concrete of the West.

 

Wannell’s return visit to Kabul in 2006 reminds one of Thesinger’s return to Dubai in 2000. The markets, the Sufi shrines, the gardens are all hidden behind security barriers and gabions.

The world where princes, Sufis, musicians and beggars freely mingle, exchanging poetry and song, and sometimes wine and chars (hemp), belongs increasingly to the past. Travelers of Wannell’s generation are the last to have really known this world, with its direct connections to Ibn Battuta and to Hafez. It is a shame that Wannell never recorded his encyclopedic knowledge of this vanishing world, but this was his character as well as his kismet. These 100-odd contributions suggestively evoke what has been lost, not only the death of this remarkable traveler, but also the world in which he was so at home.


David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019)