Houman Barekat

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Mus­lim Ar­rivals, Old and New

The Love of Strangers: What Six Mus­lim Stu­dents Learned in Jane Austen’s Lon­don, Nile Green, Prince­ton Univer­sity Press, 2015, 416pp, £24.95 (hard­back)

It is the peren­nial dilemma for any scholar wish­ing to write books that sell: how to do jus­tice to aca­demic rigour whilst keep­ing the work ac­ces­si­ble to the gen­eral reader. A new book by Nile Green il­lus­trates the pit­falls of try­ing to strad­dle both mar­kets. Green, a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at UCLA in Cal­i­for­nia, has pre­vi­ously writ­ten sev­eral de­cid­edly aca­demic books on Is­lam and its re­la­tions with the West in the 19th cen­tury, in­clud­ing Bom­bay Is­lam: The Re­li­gious Econ­omy of the West In­dian Ocean, 1840 - 1915 (2013) and Ter­rains of Ex­change: Re­li­gious Economies of Global Is­lam (2015). Though his lat­est book, The Love of Strangers: What Six Mus­lims Learned in Jane Austen’s Lon­don, con­tin­ues in that the­matic vein, it is pitched em­phat­i­cally to­wards the gen­eral reader by means of two some­what over-played hooks: con­tem­po­rane­ity with Jane Austen — fram­ing its nar­ra­tive against the life and work of the 19th cen­tury’s best-known nov­el­ist — and a hu­man­is­tic med­i­ta­tion, border­ing on the sen­ti­men­tal, on the na­ture of friend­ship. The re­sult is an un­evenly tex­tured book whose reg­is­ter flits be­tween his­tory buff-margina­lia and the sac­cha­rine con­de­scen­sion of pop­u­lar doc­u­men­taries.

The Love of Strangers tells the story of a small group of Ira­nian stu­dents sent to Lon­don by the Per­sian crown prince, Ab­bas Mirza, in 1815. The stu­dents, whose range of in­ter­ests spanned sev­eral métiers, were Mirza Riza (ar­tillery), Mirza Ja’far (chem­istry), Muham­mad ‘Ali (lock­smith), Mirza Ja’far Husayni (engi­neer­ing) and Mirza Salih (lan­guages). Their mis­sion: to ac­quire the lat­est learn­ing in the fields of cul­ture, science, tech­nol­ogy and ar­ma­ments, to en­able Iran to em­brace moder­nity and bet­ter de­fend her­self

against the threat from Im­pe­rial Rus­sia. ‘The six young Mus­lims,’ writes Green, ‘rep­re­sented noth­ing less than a na­tional de­vel­op­ment pol­icy.’

The group passed an eleven-month stint in Croy­don, hop­ing to find em­ploy­ment as lan­guage teach­ers with the East In­dia Com­pany’s ex­ten­sive mil­i­tary col­leges. (The Per­sian lan­guage was the East In­dia Com­pany’s lan­guage of ad­min­is­tra­tion un­til 1837.) There­after, we fol­low them on a whis­tle-stop tour of the coun­try. Mirza Salih ac­quaints him­self with a pa­per mill in Hampton Gay, near Ox­ford; Mirza Salih and Mirza Ja’far visit Chel­tenham and the West Coun­try, tak­ing in Bath, Glouces­ter Cathe­dral and the Bris­tol dock­yards, where they see a steam-pow­ered iron ship. They wit­ness a coun­try in the midst of a rev­o­lu­tion in re­li­gious free­dom, a pe­riod which saw the emer­gence of the Methodists, the Bap­tists and the rise of the Uni­tar­i­ans, and ul­ti­mately cul­mi­nated in the eman­ci­pa­tion of the Catholics in 1829: ‘In ar­riv­ing at this turn­ing point in the plu­ral­iza­tion of Eng­land’s re­li­gious land­scape [they were] among the ear­li­est Mus­lim ex­plor­ers of Christian dis­sent.’ The most in­ter­est­ing part of their itin­er­ary is their stay at Ox­ford. Green notes the irony that, de­spite the vis­i­tors’ earnest in­ter­est in sec­u­lar knowl­edge, the Ox­ford of 1815 was still very much mired in the­is­tic pre­oc­cu­pa­tions of an ear­lier era. At this point, two-thirds of Ox­ford grad­u­ates went on to ca­reers in the church. No won­der Mirza Salih de­scribed them in his di­ary as madrasas — the­o­log­i­cal and le­gal col­leges.

Af­ter a good deal of hob­nob­bing and net­work­ing, the stu­dents man­aged to se­cure some im­pres­sive place­ments. As work ex­pe­ri­ence gigs go, these were pretty high-end: Muham­mad ‘Ali ap­pren­ticed him­self to a prom­i­nent Royal gun-maker; Mirza Ja’far and Mirza Reza at­tended the Royal Mil­i­tary Academy at Wool­wich, un­der the wing of the leg­endary Colonel Wil­liam Mudge; Ja’far and Ha­jji Baba were taught medicine by Dr John Shaw, whose rev­o­lu­tion­ary sur­gi­cal tech­niques saved the lives of many am­putees af­ter the Bat­tle of Water­loo. Mirza Salih, who un­der­took an ap­pren­tice­ship in print­ing, dined with the evan­gel­i­cals of the Bi­ble So­ci­ety, by some dis­tance the coun­try’s big­gest pub­lisher at the time. The so­ci­ety’s first pres­i­dent, Lord Teign­mouth, was a former gover­nor-gen­eral of In­dia; it was at this time tak­ing an in­ter­est in print­ing in Per­sian and Ara­bic, with

a view to dis­sem­i­nat­ing trans­la­tions of the Bi­ble and con­vert­ing Asia to Chris­tian­ity.

The pri­mary source ma­te­rial for the book is the trav­el­ogue of one of the stu­dents, Mirza Salih, along with other cor­re­spon­dence. The di­ary en­tries are in­vari­ably la­conic (‘Mirza Salih recorded that he found Pro­fes­sor Lee a hos­pitable and af­fa­ble host, as he had Doc­tor Macbride at Ox­ford. And why not?’) and a gen­eral dearth of sup­port­ing in­for­ma­tion means the nar­ra­tive is not only teased out but fre­quently con­jec­tural — there are a great many per­hapses, surelys and must-have-seemeds — and the story is em­bel­lished with nov­el­is­tic spec­u­la­tions. Of the group’s stay in Lon­don in the win­ter of 1815, con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous with a so­journ in the cap­i­tal by Jane Austen, the au­thor won­ders if ‘per­haps Miss Austen even en­coun­tered them in the street as they went to watch the chang­ing of the guards.’ In­deed the Austen con­nec­tion is rather ex­ces­sively milked — writ­ing pri­mar­ily for a US au­di­ence, Green pre­sum­ably felt this would lend the book a cer­tain ac­ces­si­bil­ity. Pub­lish­ers are very keen these days to in­clude pop­u­lar key­words in their book titles in or­der to max­imise their vis­i­bil­ity on Ama­zon searches; Green takes things a step fur­ther, re­mind­ing us with weary­ing rep­e­ti­tious­ness that these events were hap­pen­ing in the time of Jane Austen: leav­ing aside the play­ful pré­cis, in his open­ing chap­ter, of his book as a study of ‘the ne­glected Mus­lim wing of Mans­field Park,’ the book is lit­tered with ref­er­ences to ‘Austen’s Eng­land’, ‘Austen’s Lon­don’ and even — bizarrely — ‘the Austen­ite na­tives’. By the time we read, on the book’s clos­ing page, that ‘dur­ing their years in Lon­don, our six Mus­lims learned a good deal about sense and sen­si­bil­ity’, the bar­rel has been well and truly scraped.

The ge­nial TV-his­to­rian tone strikes a dis­arm­ing note in a book punc­tu­ated by recher­ché di­gres­sions: here a seg­ment on the his­tory of the Bi­ble so­ci­ety, there a vi­gnette on the va­garies of Ori­en­tal freema­sonry. In truth, the tit­u­lar ‘six Mus­lims’ are some­thing of a stage prop, a point of de­par­ture; a good deal of this book might have been writ­ten with­out them. The Love of Strangers is a snap­shot of early-19th-cen­tury Eng­land, a na­tion on the thresh­old of the changes that would come to de­fine the cen­tury:

full-scale in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion, re­li­gious plu­ral­ism and im­pe­rial ex­pan­sion. At times, the reg­is­ter is al­most im­plau­si­bly nicey-nice, such as when Green ob­serves, of a mill owner, that de­spite be­ing for­ward-think­ing on is­sues of mech­a­ni­sa­tion, he ‘wrote to op­pose the abo­li­tion of child labour!’ - the ital­i­cised in­credulity is a lit­tle sur­pris­ing for a his­to­rian of the pe­riod. For the most part though, the tone lends the work a san­guine op­ti­mism that fits with its core mes­sage: dis­cern­ing, in the mu­tual un­der­stand­ing and curiosity of this un­usual cul­tural ex­change, the hall­marks of an out­ward-look­ing in­ter­na­tion­al­ism largely un­sul­lied by na­tional or racial chau­vin­ism. The heavy em­pha­sis on the Ira­nian stu­dents’ faith - in the ti­tle, and through­out the book - sug­gests Green has one eye on the con­tem­po­rary con­text: at a time of mount­ing sus­pi­cion to­wards Mus­lims in the Western world, he is keen to re­mind us that there was a time when re­la­tions with the Mus­lim world were char­ac­terised by mu­tual re­spect and curiosity, and the no­tion of a ‘clash of civil­i­sa­tions’ is a his­tor­i­cally re­cent construct. In the age of Don­ald Trump — not to men­tion Brexit, Pegida, Golden Dawn et al — this is ad­mirable and well-in­ten­tioned, but the point feels a tad strained.

For one thing, it is per­haps some­what of a tru­ism to com­mend the Eng­land of 1815 for its re­cep­tive­ness to cul­tural ex­change. The mean-spir­ited wari­ness of ‘The Other’ was not yet a fact of main­stream cul­tural life: the ide­ol­ogy of racism would take more def­i­nite shape as the cen­tury wore on, in tan­dem with the im­pe­ri­al­ism it le­git­i­mated; na­tion­al­ism, too, was still a long way from reach­ing its poi­sonous apogee; and be­sides, a good many of the ac­tors in this scene — from the evan­gel­i­cals to the mil­i­tary es­tab­lish­ment and the mill-own­ers — were scarcely act­ing out of dis­in­ter­ested mo­tives, as Green’s ti­tle would seem to im­ply.

Green’s con­tention that the cul­tural ex­change re­lated in The Love of Strangers ‘forms a gen­e­sis for to­day’s Lon­don of ke­bab shops and mosques’ is, sim­i­larly, a stretch: there is a world of dif­fer­ence be­tween the mass mi­gra­tion that has en­riched ur­ban life in Lon­don and other ma­jor cities over the past hun­dred-plus years and the much smaller cur­rents of a priv­i­leged mi­nor­ity who mi­grated for ed­u­ca­tional pur­poses. The Ira­nian up­per classes sent their chil­dren to Paris, Lon­don and Switzer­land

through­out the 19th cen­tury; rel­a­tively few of them opened ke­bab shops. Whether in 1815 or in 2016, a cer­tain de­gree of tol­er­ance has al­ways been ex­tended to the di­as­pora of the global rul­ing class, re­gard­less of faith or na­tion­al­ity, a largesse that ap­par­ently tran­scends the cur­rent anx­i­ety over Is­lamist rad­i­cal­ism: pop into a fash­ion­able West Lon­don bou­tique to­day and there is a fair chance you will run into the wives of the Saudi elite, out shop­ping in Sloane Square while their hus­bands fun­nel money into sup­port­ing Wa­habi ex­trem­ism in the Mid­dle East. It is not the love of strangers that per­mits this, but po­lit­i­cal con­tin­gency and rea­sons of state. In a word, re­alpoli­tik.

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