Saturday, May 9, 2015

Etiquette... A Tale of Two Persias

Nāṣer al-Dīn Shāh, also spelled Nāṣir al-Dīn Shāh (born on July 17, 1831 in Tehrān, Persia—died on May 1, 1896, Tehrān). Qājār shah of Iran (1848–96) began his reign as a reformer, but over time became increasingly conservative, failing to understand the accelerating need for change or for a response to the pressures brought by contact with the Western nations.

Persian Civilization  

I have been much surprised to hear even well-educated Englishmen, in recent discussions on Persia, speak of the Persian Nation as if it were completely wanting in civilization and were ages behind Europe in manners, customs, and ideas. Such a false impression of the characteristics and social condition of our good friends, the neighbors of our Indian Empire, is, I think, due to ignorance, and I fear also to insular prejudice.  
Persia has not progressed as Europe has done, but Persian civilization and Persian art had reached a high degree of development when England was covered with tangled forests and its inhabitants were half-clothed savages, whose highest skill was shown in the slaughter of wild animals with the rudest of weapons. Persian civilization has not retrograded, though Persian art is certainly stifled by the introduction of cheap but inartistic articles from the commercial West.  
In Persia, a polite etiquette is as strictly observed as in any country in the world, and though, in some trifles, the manners of a Persian gentleman may appear strange and even amusing when observed in the West, it is safe to say that nothing which a Persian gentleman would likely to do when mixing in Western society would in any way shock the delicate feelings of that society. In this respect it is fortunate that the recent journeyings of the Shah and his suite were sufficiently extended to give a practical and widespread contradiction to the numerous absurd stories which had been current concerning the disagreeable peculiarities of Persian manners and customs. 
As regards habits of personal cleanliness, on which Englishmen so greatly pride themselves, it may astonish many of my readers to learn that the Persians, with considerable reason, consider themselves far superior to any Westerners in this respect. I will only mention, as an instance, that the Persian considers that to remain sitting in a small bath and to commence and complete ablutions in the same water, is far from a cleanly habit, and it is one which is never practiced in the heated baths which the native frequents with such pleasure in Persia, and which he greatly misses when traveling into the West— News From London, January, 1890 
Late 19th Century Persian Family

Persian Etiquette 

... In spite of his jewels and external splendor, the Shah-in-Shah ("King of Kings") is, according to European notions, a savage in many respects proud, willful, sensual, and arbitrary. If punctuality be "the politeness of princes," as it is said to be, the Shah would, in consequence of his utter indifference to engagements, be one of the most ill-mannered men in the world.  
He kept the parade at Potsdam, ordered by the Kaiser, waiting a couple of hours. He kept the Queen for half an hour at the railway station waiting for him. He would not go to breakfast when it was announced, at the time of invitation, but walked about in the garden, and then, seeing an arbor which pleased him, desired to have his breakfast brought there. When he sat at dinner yesterday he put his fingers in his plate and ate with them, and if he came on a piece of some dish which he did not like, he took it out of his mouth and threw it down—not on the ground, but on the Queen's (Empress') dress.  
If free from the more horrid vices attributed to Persians by travelers, he is quite without shame or scruple in his disregard of what is called mortality by Christians and good Musulmen. I came from Potsdam in the same carriage with some of his suite—very fine gentlemen as far as their lace and clothing went—but with all the frivolity and arrogance of ignorant and uneducated men. Their talk was of their own prowess and of clothes; how they could ride better than any people in the world, because they could back a horse from the desert and ride him, whereas Europeans rode only horses which were already broken in —a Prussian officer dryly remarked, "the difference is that we direct the course of our horses, and that your horses follow their own."  
They all spoke French, and the Shah-in-Shah knows it much better than he would be thought to do from his mode of speaking it, as when he is quite at his ease he can talk it pretty fluently. But he is not much at his ease with European barbarians, and it is ludicrous to see him standing alone in a crowd with a clear space round him and no one to talk to, for he balances first one leg and then on another, "like a hen on a hot griddle," and does not know what to do with them or his hands. 
When he turns his back and the spectator calmly surveys his exterior, freed from the distracting influences of his diamonds, the Shah does not present an imposing appearance. I admit that the backs of most people fail to impress one, but his Majesty's tailor has rendered his "revers" quite abnormally ridiculous by making his frock-coat with a multitude of fine plaits like those of a Highlander's kilt or of a lady of Queen Bess' time over the hips, and so all round. His face is seldom animated, and there is something incongruous in the position of his respectable gold spectacles, á le Thiers, on his aquiline nose, under a Persian cap, and over all these, diamonds.  
Before I close, and an illustration of their character, which in some respects is the same as that of their ancestors, I may mention that they told some Prussians that the campaign in 1856 was in their favor. The reason they gave was curious. "The British retired Persia—that showed they were beaten. Had they been victorious, they would have remained." "But the Shah signed a treaty granting all the British demands and apologizing for the offenses committed by his people." Yes that may be so, but it was not because we were obligated to do it."  
They made some appeals to the enormous old Colonel of Police, who is famous for the rigidity of his manners and the severity with which he guards the morals of the city, to relax his code in their favor. And were not at all successful. The Shah has, however, some reason for thinking that the high tone of the Police Director is not maintained uniformly, for he has, as I think I told you already, added to the number of his wives here, if report be true, and espoused a girl of fifteen whom he saw by accident, and immediately "proposed" to by a representation to her mother, which that good lady accepted, as there was a provision made for her daughter's future in Persia.  
There has been some trouble in teaching the Shah and his followers that women are to be treated with respect, even though they go about with their faces uncovered, and one of the most useful lessons they will carry back from Europe is that which will teach them to consider their wives their equals, and not their slaves —if they learn it. There is a great "if," for they do not at all approve of all they see here. From New York, June, 1873

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