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COLLECTIONBook excerpts
TITLES.W. Persia: A Political Officer's Diary 1907-1914
AUTHOR 1Arnold Wilson
PUBLISHED ASSir Arnold Wilson
PAGE_RANGE121, 260
PUB_THISOxford University Press
ABSTRACTTwo passing mentions of Bahá'ís and Babis.
TAGSIran (documents); Mentions

1. Text

[page x]

... observe at close quarters, has gone from strength to strength.

Thus it is that, though I write this Preface in dark days and among men almost every one of whom has passed many times through the valley of the shadow of death I can still, like George Meredith, look to the good spirit of man with faith in it, and with some capacity to observe current phases of history at close quarters without being blinded by the unsteady light and bewildered by the thunder of the legions.

Before the Great War my generation served men who believed in the righteousness of the vocation to which they were called, and we shared their belief. They were the priests, and we the acolytes, of a cult—pax Britannica—for which we worked happily and, if need be, died gladly. Curzon, at his best, was our spokesman and Kipling, at his noblest, our inspiration. Many of us, more perhaps than to-day, had been brought up in a tradition in which Ruskin, Wordsworth and Cowper, Seeley and Freeman played their parts. We read the lives of John Nicholson, Lawrence, and Roberts, and the works of Sir William Hunter, whilst we toiled at our own ponderous Gazetteers like willing slaves making bricks for builders yet to come.

In the Persian Gulf we were never long unaware of the debt we owed to the British and Indian Navies and to our Merchant Marine, or to early surveyors like the almost legendary figures of Constable and Stiffe. We read our Bibles, many of us, lived full lives and loved and laughed much, but knew, as we did so, that though for us all, the wise and the foolish, the slave and the free, for empires and anarchies, there is one end, yet would our works live after us, and by their fruits we should be judged in days to come. If we have worked well and faithfully then it is well. It is God who gives and takes away kingdoms.-- Potestas dei est et tibi, Domine, misericordia.
    Saint George’s Day, 1940

[page 120]

... desert, but all-pervading. In a room it is hot and stuffy; on the roof it is hot and so windy that mosquitoes are driven off.

‘I went up to Basrah again for a night with the Consul, whose elder daughter is now well and truly engaged to the British Consul at Muscat, a colleague of mine in the Indian Political Department. They were all very hospitable: we exchanged views as to the Marmaris, he backing the Wali and I the Shaikh. Some of the British and foreign colony came in after dinner for music—some very good coffee, and very good wine.

‘A married man can do this sort of thing much better than a bachelor like me who cannot play the piano, or sing, or play cards, or tennis, but can only walk and ride and shoot and work and talk “shop”. He has as many good books about the house as I have and we have exchanged some to our mutual advantage. He is old enough to be my father, so our conversations on the Marmaris were so far as I am concerned at a disadvantage. He has had a great deal of experience which I lack, and takes a rather cynical, distant view of such matters. His very nice family, however, do not allow him to be a bore at meals, and his younger daughter unerringly changed course whenever the current of conversation seemed likely to carry us on to the rocks of local politics, for which I was grateful to her.’

‘(L., June 21) I am back at Mohamrnerah after a few days at Bushire with Cox: while I was there a telegram from Simla ordered me to remain at Mohammerah for the time being. The Marmaris affair probably made the Foreign Department decide to keep me there a little longer. I had a number of despatches to draft which I asked Cox to criticize before I signed them. He did so in a very kindly spirit and did me the honour of letting me make my own observations on his draft covering letter sending them to India or Tehran. He is a master of official style and has the great advantage of knowing all or nearly all the people who will handle these questions at the other end. Lighthouses in the Gulf; Baghdad Railway; the position of the Shaikh of Koweit vis-à-vis Turkey, and the Shaikh of Mohammerah vis-a-vis Persia; Arms Traffic in the

[page 121]

Persian Gulf: customary tribal and territorial rights in the Persian Gulf Pearl Fisheries, far out at sea and beyond the three-mile limit; the activities of German and Russian traders and Consuls—“Constitutional” anarchy in its many forms— these are just a selection at random of current issues.

‘He does nothing carelessly; he is never in a hurry; if need be he would work 16 hours on end, doing thoroughly what he might have done in an hour superficially. Every local notable is indexed and cross-indexed; every town and village ever mentioned in current despatches and telegrams identified and placed on a map if it is not there already; every old file searched to confirm statements that might well be taken for granted or as “generally agreed”. His staff have an unbounded admiration for him, as also the Navy. In formal matters he is punctilious: so careful of the dignity of others that they instinctively pay regard to his own position. And he has a genius for summing up a position in a few sentences, or in one. His telegrams are long, his despatches even longer, but they carry conviction and leave few loopholes for criticism on points of fact. The Government may differ from his conclusions, and reject his advice as to action, but they scarcely ever dispute his facts or his deductions and have to avoid committing themselves (perhaps quite properly) by concluding that “on grounds of expediency, however, in present circumstances and pending fuller consideration of this question in all its aspects, H.M.G. prefer to take no action”, &c., &c.’

‘(L., June 24) You ask me about the Bahai movement. It bears something of the same relation to the Shiah faith as that of “Christian Science” to the Church of England. It is not negligible, for it has attracted many good men, but is not politically important, for few good men are to be found in political circles in Persia. It is unlikely to penetrate deep, or to become popular. It is in part at least a development of the Babi movement with the addition of ethical ideas which are common both to Islam and to Christianity. It is the outcome of the widespread discontent of educated Persians with the outlook of their rulers and with the general tone of society. But Persians tend to say one thing and do another: they

[page 122]

profess one set of principles but ignore them in practice. This I suppose may be said of all men in all countries at all times, but it obtrudes itself in Persia just now because it is “good form” to proclaim the need for a pure administration, &c., but customary to take and give bribes. Arrant bare-faced rogues will preach an eloquent sermon, over a cup of coffee, on the need for a high standard of honesty while engaged through an agent in a shameless conspiracy to rob their Government. Discussion is often a species of mental and verbal gymnastics.’

‘(Diary, June 1910) Tribal courts, conducted by the elder men, are as old an institution here as in Afghanistan or the NW. Frontier. Sometimes, however, difficult cases are taken before some grey-beard who has earned a reputation for wisdom and perspicacity. I was told of one old Arab to whom Shaikh Khaz’al himself sometimes remitted doubtful issues. Not long ago, for instance, there was an Arab who had two wives; by the younger and junior he had a child; the elder, though he liked her much better, was barren. Yet the younger wife was jealous of the elder. One day the younger woman asked the elder to tend the baby, which lay, its face covered with a sheet to keep off the flies, in its wicker cot. After a while she returned, lifted the child to suckle it, and cried out that it was dead. And so it was—a needle had been driven into its head. She at once accused the elder of the murder— and adduced the jealousy of a barren wife as a reason. The elder denied it: the husband disbelieved her and was about to kill her. She demanded—as of right—that her case should go before a Council of Elders: they in turn sent for Saiyid Muhammad the ‘Alim. The Council sat on either side of a mat hut—50 feet long with an arched roof—open at either end. Saiyid Muhammad questioned each woman separately in the presence of all the elders. Then he announced to each— in the presence of the other—that they must prove their innocence by submitting to an ordeal. Each woman must in turn walk naked down the centre of the tent between the ranks of seated men.

‘The elder did not hesitate and did so. The younger refused. “If you decline to strip, your guilt is evident,’ said the

[page 123]

‘Alim. “So be it,” she replied. “I am innocent, but I will not submit to dishonour.” Again and again he pressed her, displaying before her the knife that would end her life, as that of a bullock or sheep. Still she refused.

‘Then he turned to the Council. “She who was without shame, she is guilty.” They seized the elder woman who was watching the younger, and made her pay the penalty of murder.

‘In exchange I told the story of Solomon and the baby. It seemed to my listeners [and I told it often in Luristan] perfectly natural. Solomon is much revered among Moslems and they have their own stories about him.’

‘(L., July 2) I have spent a week at Ahwaz and have seen something of Charles Ritchie who is laying the pipe-line, a tall red-faced Scottish engineer, heavy-handed, impetuous and energetic, full of fiery determination to see the line through. The great pipes come up by steamer and are landed at intervals on the bank, whence they are transported by mule-drawn gins—two wheels at the end of a long shaft, with a semicircular axis, under which the long pipes hang in a chain: there is one gin at each end of a nest of a dozen or so. The pipe is being laid above ground to avoid corrosion: the hotter it gets the easier it will be to pump the oil. It is laid serpent-wise in great curves, so as to allow for expansion. He has a motor-car — a Darracq — the first I have ever ridden in or seen at close quarters, and is thinking of getting an aeroplane for himself.

‘One of his best men is another Scottish engineer, J. Jameson, a healthy, genial man with an immense fund of energy and good temper. Ritchie is not easy to deal with but I have some hold over him, for I am already one of the oldest inhabitants (European) of Arabistan, so numerous have been the changes of recent months, and he cannot do much without the Consulate.

‘Much labour is being imported from India, and much from other parts of Persia; some from the Gulf ports and some from Turkey. The weight of pipe-line and machinery to be imported is some 20,000 tons this year. They need strong men: and they pay good wages: but disputes and accidents...

[page 260]

... ‘My negotiations with the Bala Gariweh during the day centred on the question of hostages. I wanted them at Ahwaz or at Khurramabad. They suggested Dizful; the usual dead-lock followed, and it was a week before the seemingly innumerable negotiations ended in something that looked like a settlement. It was duly inscribed on the fly-leaf of half a dozen Qur’ans. On October 22nd I noted in my diary that it was rumoured that “the Regent has returned and has combined with the Bakhtiaris to fight the gendarmes and the Russians; the gendarmes were defeated and reinforcements have been sent to Tehran by the gendarmes in Inaq-i-Ajami.

‘Incredible as it may seem, such stories are readily believed here. Bakhtiaris, Russians and gendarmes are all looked upon by the Lurs as so many tribes like themselves, and the words majlis (Parliament) or mashrutah (constitution) signify amongst the average tribesmen some mysterious influence, inimical alike to daulat (government), “Islam”, and qanum (law). It is a commonplace of conversation amongst them that “the Constitution has become weak at . . . and the Government is on its feet again”, and I am often asked if it is true that “the majlis are all Babis and backsliders from Islam”. When people’s minds are in this chaotic condition, it is not easy to predict what effect any particular arguments or action will produce. At a recent gathering of elders at which I was present, one greybeard was heard to remark, with all solemnity, that “it would be an offence against religion to assist Englishmen, because they wore helmets with a brim, which prevented them from touching the ground with their forehead when at prayer”.

‘At last, on October 27th, I left Khurramabad for Dizful. A few miles out of the town we were met by Baruni and Hatim of the Muradaliwand; the latter was wounded in the spring in a tribal fight with the Qalawand, losing his nose and one eye. He was one of the best fighting men of his tribe, and his mutilated condition tends to keep alive the bitterness of the blood-feud between the tribes even more than his death would have done. Our departure from Khurramabad was somewhat delayed by further demands for

[page 261]

money from Baruni and Husain Khan. They were satisfied with 100 krans each, to be deducted from future emoluments.

‘We camped at Shah-in-Shah 9 miles south of Khurramabad, near Kadkhuda Muradi of the Muradaliwand. A few nights later thieves visited the camp; one was surprised by Douglas at the door of our tent, and during the hue and cry that followed another one managed to steal a mule belonging to Mirza Ali Akbar.’

But for this incident and for interminable wranglings, over money and the respective responsibilities of the various tribes in their particular areas, the journey to Dizful, which we reached on November 9th, was uneventful. It was the first occasion on which I had travelled with a fellow European and the experience was sometimes irksome to us both. He knew no Persian and was unacquainted with Persian ways and not ready to adopt them. He could not sit comfortably on the ground. He wanted regular meals and did not relish Persian food. He was a most competent engineer but was exhausted by long hours in the saddle to which I was inured, and did not enjoy scaling the mountains in heavy boots which I had long ago discarded for Persian cloth shoes. He would not grow a beard, as I did, in a country where all grown men were bearded. It is greatly to his credit that we never quarrelled and that he bore me no grudge when we parted.

At Dizful I found the survey party awaiting our arrival and I handed over to my friend and successor, Capt. J. S. Crosthwaite, the original agreements that I had made, with the fullest available details, hoping optimistically and in all good faith that I had done something to smooth his path. Events soon showed that I had done nothing of the sort but had, in fact, committed what I may fairly call my first big mistake. I should not have attempted to conclude agreements at the other end of the line. I should have sent the Burujird Agent perhaps via Baghdad ...

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