Persia/Chapter 23

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Nature, just in her gifts, has diffused them equally over the face of the globe. She has allotted to each climate its peculiar productions, good and bad, and has rarely refused to any region one species of tree or plant without bestowing some other in its stead. The same observation applies to the character of each nation, which is composed of a sum of good and bad qualities which counterbalance one another, and which are found in such proportions in that nation exclusively. It is a mark set upon it by the deity, and this mark it will retain in spite of human revolutions and the lapse of ages. We find ancient nations now degenerated and debased; yet there is none of them But has retained some of the primitive features of its character.

It would therefore be not less absurd to seek, than impossible to find, a nation without defects or without virtues: of course, we must balance the one against the other, and, according as the mass of good or bad qualities preponderates, we must form our judgment of the character of the nation which we are studying.

In delineating the character of the Persians, we can scarcely have a better guide than Chardin, whose long residence in the country, and whose intercourse with the great, enabled him to make himself intimately acquainted with the character of the nation, rather than with that of the lower classes, the number of whose vices is increased by the want of education.

The Persians are pre-eminent for intellectual qualities; their moral character exhibits a compound of the most odious defects. They have a sound understanding, a quick imagination, a ready memory, and a happy capacity for the sciences and the liberal and the mechanical arts. Under the appearance of a proud indifference, they derive information from the society of foreigners, and profit by their knowledge: they receive them kindly, patronize them, tolerate their religion, and regard them with pity rather than contempt. In illness and affliction, they even solicit the prayers of infidels; but this may proceed from superstition, rather than from toleration.

In conversation, the Persians affect elegant language, and are fond of introducing quotations from the works of their best poets, such as Saadi, Hafiz, and Djami. This love of quotations is common alike to persons of distinction, and to the dregs of the people; because those who have received no education, and cannot even read and write, take advantage of the readiness and retentiveness of their memory, to learn by heart a great number of striking passages, which they omit no opportunity of bringing forward. They are also very clever at irony and punning.

Endowed with a supple and intriguing disposition, they have agreeable manners and extreme politeness: but this politeness is little better than a jargon of high-flown compliments, and hyperbolic expressions, equally destitute of sense and feeling: hence it is, no doubt, that they have been denominated the French of Asia.

Mr. Morier gives several examples of this propensity of the Persians to flattery, hyperbole, and exaggeration. When the British embassy reached Shiraz, the visir of the prince-governor, attended by most of the principal men of the city, came out to meet the ambassador. When the usual routine of first compliments had been gone through, and repeated over and over again, the minister placed himself on one side of the ambassador, while the mehmandar, an officer appointed to attend distinguished strangers, and who acts as commissary, guard, and guide, was on the other. The mehmandar said to the minister: "How well the elshee (ambassador) talks Persian!"—"Well!" cried the minister: "he talks it admirably. He is superior to any mollah. We have never yet seen such an elshee, none so accomplished, none so clever, none so learned." To all this there was a chorus around of belli, belli, belli. The minister then turned to a person on the other side of him, and said, loud enough and expressly for the ambassador to hear: "Did you ever see any one so charming as the elshee, so much better than all other elshees?" The ambassador, in praising the climate of Shiraz, observed: "It is so fine, that I should have thought mankind never died here, had I not seen those tomb-stones,"—pointing to some which he was just passing. "Wonderful! wonderful!" exclaimed the mehmandar. "Did you hear that?" he roared out to the minister. "What a wit is the elshee!" He then repeated the joke to the minister, who likewise cried out: "Wonderful! wonderful!" as did all the others.

However impertinent this sort of barefaced flattery may appear to Europeans, in the eyes of the Persians the omission of it would be a neglect of the common forms of politeness. Mr. Metier was once present when the prime minister gave instructions to a man who was sent to greet a Russian officer on his arrival, and his principal injunction was, "Be sure you give him plenty of flattery." They know, however, the real value of it as well as we; for at the same time he turned round to our countryman and said: "You know it is necessary reesh-khundish bekuneem—to laugh at his beard," or in other words to humbug him. Among themselves, they practise the same sort of deceit; and though they are in general aware of the value of the praise they receive, yet it does not fail to stimulate their vanity, which, as far back as the time of Herodotus, appears to have been a national vice; for he says, "they esteem themselves the most excellent of mankind."

In the embassy of Sir Harford Jones,—we quote the words of the same traveller—I once witnessed the introduction of one Persian to another, the principal mirza of the embassy to the chief jeweller. "What!" said the latter, "is this the renowned Aga Meer, that learned, that ingenious man, that famous penman?" and then went through such a rapid enumeration of virtues, qualities, personal charms, and family distinctions, that the mirza at first appeared quite overwhelmed: but by little and little he recovered, and returned so brisk a fire of compliments, as almost to annihilate the jeweller.

I have repeatedly heard them compliment a person, observes Mr. Scott Waring, either in his hearing, or in the presence of some one who would convey this adulation to his ears; and the instant that he has departed, their praises have turned into abuse, and they have, with malicious pleasure, exposed the character which not a moment before they praised with fervent servility.

I recollect, says the same writer, the Sheik at Bushire remonstrating against the rapacity of Chiragh Ali Khan, the governor of Shiraz, when he was informed of the arrival of his principal secretary. He began by inquiring after the governor's health, and when he was told that he had quitted the city, he readily observed, that, "now Shiraz was worthless, and that it had lost the only ornament it possessed."

This split of exaggeration and insincerity is not confined to their personal intercourse with one another: it insinuates itself into public affairs, as well as into the humbler relations between man and man.

Not long after the arrival of the English embassy, under Sir Gore Ouseley, at Teheran, the confidential secretary of the grand visir, accompanied by Mirza Abul Hassan Khan, who had been ambassador from Persia to the British court, came one morning in great agitation to announce a great victory gained by the prince-royal over the Russians. Their account was, that the Persians had killed 2000, and taken 5000 prisoners and 12 guns. We soon afterwards heard the real truth, says Mr. Morier, which reduced their account to 300 killed, two guns taken, and 500 made prisoners. On questioning them why they exaggerated so much, when they knew how soon the falsehood must be discovered, they very ingenuously replied:—"If we did not know that your stubborn veracity would have come in our way; we should have said ten times as much. This is the first time our troops have made any stand at all against the Russians; and you would not surely restrict so glorious an event in our history to a few dry facts."

The Persian army, adds the traveller, amounted, on this occasion, by their own account, to 9000, or according to the English officers employed in it, to 14,000 men, among whom was a corps of flying artillery with 12 guns, to which chiefly its success was owing. The Russians, 800 in number, not expecting any attack from the latter kind of force, had neglected to send for succours. After losing 300 men, the rest capitulated. One of the articles of capitulation was, that their heads were not to be cut off: a practice which is quite common in Persian and Turkish warfare. During the fight, ten toomauns were given for every head of the enemy brought to the prince; and it has been known to occur, that after the combat was over, prisoners have been put to death in cold blood, in order that the heads, which are immediately despatched to the king, and deposited in heaps at the palace gate, might make a more considerable show. The Persians lost 100 men, a circumstance which rejoiced the king's ministers exceedingly; for on no preceding occasion had their troops been known to approach near enough to the enemy to get killed.

Passionately fond of pleasure and luxury, and voluptuous to excess, the Persians are unboundedly prodigal. Hence they acquire merely to expend: with them the enjoyment of the present day is every thing, and the morrow belongs to God.

A Persian will never blaspheme the name of God, but he will invoke him without occasion. He will one moment pronounce that sacred name with the same lips which the next are pouring forth the grossest obscenities: he will punctually recite his prayers; he will purify himself several times a day; he will avoid all corporeal contamination, the contact of a person of a different religion, or the admission of such a person into his house in rainy weather, since the wet from his clothes would render impure whatever it touched, whether persons or furniture: but he will bear false witness for the sake of filthy lucre; he will borrow without returning, or even deny his debt; he will seize every opportunity of cheating; he will be destitute of sincerity in the service of his friend, of fidelity in his engagements, and of honesty in trade: in short, while he outwardly exhibits the bark of all the virtues, the sap of vice will circulate through all his actions.

A French traveller, M. Olivier, has drawn a very just comparison between the Turks and Persians, from which we shall quote a few passages.

In Turkey, every thing bears he stamp of barbarism and cruelty: in Persia, every thing bespeaks a mild and civilized nation. The Turks are vain, supercilious, inhospitable: the Persians polite, complimentary and obliging.

Though at the present day equally superstitious with the Turks, the Persians are not so fanatical: in some particulars, they carry their scruples to a greater length than the former; in general, they will not eat with a person of a different religion; they will not drink out of a cup or a glass which has been used by a Christian, a Jew, or an Indian, and yet they admit any one into their mosques. They listen with patience to all the objections you have to urge against their religion, and to whatever you may say against their prophet and their Imams; whereas the Turk would murder you, if in his hearing you were to speak irreverently of Mahomet and his laws. The Persian looks at you with pity, and prays to heaven that the truth may be revealed. to you in all its lustre. He avoids the subject of religion, but continues to treat you with the same kindness and friendship as ever.

Equally brave with the Turk, more active but less patient, he is, like the other, cruel in battle and implacable towards his armed foe; but more tractable after the combat, and more sociable after peace.

Insurrections for overthrowing the sovereign or his ministers, for plundering caravans, or for laying a city or a province under contribution, are less frequent in Persia than in Turkey. The Persian, however, ranks beneath the Turk in point of morals and perhaps also of character. If the first is better informed, more polite, more gentle, than the second; if he less frequently disturbs the tranquillity of the-state; if he does not so often threaten the lives and property of his fellow-citizens; if he pays more respect to weakness in either sex; he possesses neither that pride nor that magnanimity, neither that self-esteem, that confidence in friendship, nor that devoted attachment to his benefactor, which occasionally produce great things in the Turk.

The Persians seem to be a degenerate people, whose vices have increased during the troubles of the country; whose virtues are perhaps at present but the shadow of what they once were, when the laws were in full vigour, when talents were encouraged, when integrity was honoured, and when each, secure in the possession of his property, could augment it by honest exertions.

The Turks, on the other hand, are a new nation, having all the coarseness, rudeness, and ignorance, of one which civilization has not polished, and which instruction has not meliorated. Under an able government, the Persians would rebuild their cities, re-establish their commerce, and repair the-injuries which their agriculture has sustained. With a vigorous, active, and intelligent government, the Turk would perhaps once more strike terror into Europe.

From these different traits we are authorized to conclude, that the society of the Persians is agreeable, if the connexion between the parties is disinterested: but we must not expect from them either sincere friendship, strict integrity, or refined delicacy.

To judge from the Guebres, the relics of the ancient Persians, they were originally a coarse-looking race of people; but their blood has since been refined by the intermixture with that of Georgia and Circassia. There are few Persians of quality, who are not sprung from women of those nations: and as this intermixture has been practised for several centuries, both sexes have been greatly improved by it. The men are tall and well-proportioned, vigorous, active, and comely. The women, without being qualified to vie with those of Georgia in beauty, are in general handsome in face and figure.