I’tisam al-Din’s Shigarfnamah, 7: English hospitality

My translation, based on the Farsi version, publication forthcoming: Mirza I’tisam al-Din. Shigarfnamah Vilayet. Toronto: Foundation for Iranian Studies, 2014.

Arriving in England

After a week I arrived at a small coastal town in England. P 86

I mostly went around town seeing the sights and environs, streets and markets. Because the English had never seen an Indian dressed and decorated as I was, they thought me a great curiosity and flocked to see me. And too seeing me as a foreigner they showed me kindness, and after a few days the town’s elite and ordinary folks began treating me warmly like an old acquaintance, honoring rites of hospitality and courtesy. P 87

One day I was taken to a ballroom where men and women gather to dance to music and song. When I entered the music and dancing stopped and all stared at me. Seeing my robe and turban and scarf, they imagined me to be a dancer in costume and demanded that I dance. Much as I refused and protested, they did not believe me. They said there are no people in the world who do not know music and dance. He must be shy to interact with people of the other sex since he is a newcomer to England. In brief, the poor and the rich were staring at my clothes and countenance, and I was in wonder at their beauty. I had gone to see the sights and became a spectacle myself. P 87

[When I arrived in London], I stayed at Captian Swinton’s brother’s house on Kant Street in Haymarket. I could finally relax from the long journey on ship, and seeing the sights in London brought me pleasure. The English people too were pleased to see me for the greenness of leaves enhances the pleasantness of flowers. And although I was but incompetent and artless, I became dear to them. Indeed, this is all testament to the kindness and manners of the English which I cannot describe well enough. They endear a traveler from distant shores and do their best in hospitality and courtesy. [Farsi pp 88-89]

Because prior to my arrival they had only seen lascars from Chittagong, and no other munshi dressed and decorated as I had gone to England, the English did not know much about the ways and manners of people of India and thus imagined me to be a Bengali aristocrat, even a brother of the Nawab. So they came from near and far to visit me. And whenever I went to see the sights of the city, large numbers of people and thick crowds followed me, and the people in shops and work yards craned their necks through windows and gazed at me in wonder. Many children, youth and women, young and old, considered me a freak of nature, and ran from basement to yard and neighbourhood to neighbourhood spreading the news and crying in loud voices: “Look! Look! A black man is coming.” Upon hearing these voice, people would appear at their gates in groups upon groups and stare at me in amazement. Many children and youth imagined me to be a devil, a black monster, and would not come near me out of fear. [Farsi pp 89-90]

As it was the hot season then, I often went out in the Indian custom dressed in loose shirt, trousers, turban, and a dagger held by a cummerbund. Some people liked my attire but most considered my clothes feminine and of the ilk of prostitutes and were displeased. As a couple of months passed in this way the fear disappeared from the public’s mind and people would approach me with friendliness. They became rude and cheeky [facetious and presumptive] such that the shopkeepers jocosely would tell me, “Come my dear, give me a kiss.” And as I was informed this expression is an innuendo that points to having sex without saying it explicitly. [Farsi p 90]

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