“The Persianate World”, edited by Nile Green and “Persianate Selves” by Mana Kia

The Persianate World: The Frontiers of a Eurasian Lingua Franca, Nile Green (ed.) (University of California Press, April 2019); 
Persianate Selves: Memories of Place and Origin Before Nationalism, Mana Kia (Stanford University Press, May 2020) The Persianate World: The Frontiers of a Eurasian Lingua Franca, Nile Green (ed.) (University of California Press, April 2019); Persianate Selves: Memories of Place and Origin Before Nationalism, Mana Kia (Stanford University Press, May 2020)

Many years ago, before international direct dial, two young telephone operators, a man in Zurich and a woman in Cairo, began to pass the milkman shift chatting together. They became friends, decided to meet, and married. The language of their courtship was French. This was the day when many international organisations, including the Global Postal Union that coordinated the national PTTs (Post, Telegram and Telegraph), considered French an official language.

This is worth keeping in mind when trying to get a grip around the word “Persianate”. Coined by University of Chicago’s Marshall Hodgson in 1969, this expression has ever since failed to slip off the tongue. Hodgson used “Persianate” to refer to the flourishing of Persian language and culture outside its geographic core. We never felt the need to say “Frenchiate”, despite the fact that French, too, flourished in international science, letters, warfare and seduction for several centuries. The reason is that France is a well-defined nation state that actively participated in the expansion of its culture, or as the French say “le rayonnement de la France á l’étranger”. As Mana Kia and the essays collected by Niles Green show, Persian flourished as a culture independent of any direct connection with the lands of Iran. The Persianate world has a separate existence from those lands, even if it provided a decent living to Persians exiled into it.

 

The classical Persian language and its associated culture developed a powerful hold on a series of dynasties and their elites in Eastern Iran and Central Asia in the centuries leading up to the Mongol era. There was then no unitary Iranian state or nation. The lands of Iran contained a melting pot of ethnicities, as Iran still does. The Mongol invasions of Iran and Central Asia scattered these elites into Anatolia and India. The Mongols then recruited the same elites to serve them as tax collectors as far away as China and Russia. Marco Polo used Persian to navigate around the Mongol Empire.

The 12 essays collected by Niles Green in The Persianate World, The Frontiers of a Eurasian Lingua Franca address Classical Persian as a social artefact, and show how it was used in far-flung lands. As his own essays in the volume show, the fine art of writing Persian became essential to statecraft in the post-Mongol world, which included Ming China as well as the Ottoman Empire. Michael H Fischer’s essay on the misadventures of Persian-speaking Indian David Sombre, grandson of former courtesan Samru Begum, society lion and then a fugitive from Regency London, is a gem. Green’s introductory essay is a tour de force of erudition, and summarizes many of the book’s lessons.

In Persianate Selves, Memories of Place and Origin Before Nationalism, Mana Kia emphasizes the universality, in the Persianate world, of the concept of adab. It means how to behave and think like a gentleman. This frame of reference enabled uprooted and stateless intellectuals to inhabit a stable world of values and symbols. In contrast, she says, Iran itself represented either a legendary past or a contingent birthplace, the vatan. Unlike Green’s wide-ranging coverage of Eurasia, and even England, Kia focuses mainly on authors from Iran and India. Her protagonists are fugitives from the incessant 18th-century wars of Nader Shah, the Marathas and the Afghans that uprooted and dispersed scholarly elites across the Persianate world and forced them to reflect on their identities and their place in the world.

Readers unused to American academic writing may find Kia hard going, but nuggets emerge. That Kia herself is descended from a “Mughal” family, that is, Persian-speakers from Burma, adds a welcome personal touch.

 

Both books explain how incompatible the concept of Persianate was with the modern notions of nation-state, and how this led to the disappearance of that Persianate world. Thomas Macaulay recommended the native clerks of the East India Company learn English, instead of young Etonians studying Hafez. In the Caucasus, Tatar intellectuals began reading Turgenev and then Marx. Iran self-consciously rejected the Persian language heritage beyond its modern borders. If you ask an Afghan or an Indian who is the greatest poet in Persian, they may answer Bedil of Patna. If you ask Iranians who Bidel might be (they pronounce it differently, too), they will either say they do not know or will say he is a terrible poetaster, completely unreadable.

Citizens of nowhere are often nostalgic for these earlier, pre-nationalist moments of cultural effervescence, whether it be French of the Enlightenment, or Russian of the Soviet Union. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson’s bon mot “tout homme civilisé a deux patries, la sienne et la France”, we may conclude that every civilized man has two vatans, his own and adab.


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