Notes on “wonder”

Excerpts below are from
Sohrabi, Naghmeh. Taken for Wonder: Nineteenth Century Travel Accounts from Iran to Europe. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Bold is mine.

The number of known accounts of travels by Iranians in the Qajar period (1794-1925) is by one account 283, with more than 50 percent of them written in the latter half of the nineteenth century during the reign of Nasir al-Din Shah. [Pp 3-4]

[T]hese texts can expand on our understanding of Qajar Iran if we shift our framework of analysis from the act of travel to that of writing travel. This shift allow for a delineation of the process by which travel writing became institutionalized and developed into a tool of “state propaganda,” aimed at both the local and European audiences.

Travel writings to Europe were used to position Qajar Iran within a global context, that is, narration fo travel to Europe was also narrating the power of the Qajar court even when political events were tipped against it… a new way of interpreting travel accounts, one that moves away from an overemphasis on the destinations of travel (particularly in cases where the destination, like Europe, signifies larger meanings such as modernity) and that historicizes the travelogue itself as a rhetorical text in the service of its origin’s concerns and developments. [Pp 4-5]

Travelogues are undoubtedly texts of place, but that place is not just the destination. The final product that is handed down t us, the readers, is a product of multiple places. Travelers setting out from their point of origin toward their destination – some with the intention of writing form the beginning, others arriving at the idea of writing down their observations later – traverse wide spaces and long periods of time before their thoughts are translated into a concrete object, that is, a travelogue. As such, there is a need to distinguish between traveling itself and the travelogue at hand, keeping in mind that the final product of the journey, is not only a product of the destination (in this case Europe) but also of the author’s origins, that is, Qajar Iran. This distinction also allows us to bring to the fore an obvious though rarely considered fact: Neither the Iran from where a traveler set off nor the Europe that she or he eventually reached remained the same throughout the nineteenth century – both the origins and destinations were moving targets. [P 5]

I’ve certainly come up against the challenge of defining borders for “Iran” in my work, hence the use of the term Persianate, and then breaking the vague boundaries of that too and including Sayyida Salmah.

Susan Noakes suggests that “travel narratives may profitably be examined, not as objective reports of place and peoples, but rather as works of rhetoric about places and peoples. [P 6]

The rule of the Qajars, who were “a Turkish-speaking people originally from Central Asia,” was noteworthy for, among many things establishing a continuous and elaborate courtly presense in Iran after more than a century of instability, and, subsequently, the flourishing of various aspects of Iranian society, culture and politics. It was in this period that Iran experienced the world, particularly Europe, in ways that were new and that paved the way for what scholars see as the beginning of Iranian modernity and modernization by the beginning of the twentieth century. [P 6]

I’m not sure I can agree with this. Safavid era was also experiencing the world (including Europe) and inventing and incorporating forms of modernity. This conception of modernity only in reference to encounters with Europe and only in the Qajar era traps us in colonial mindsets.

[T]ravelogues as texts of Europe more often than not have let contemporary historians down: Whereas certain travelogues are examined and reexamined for the information they provide regarding Iranian perceptions of Europe (and of Western progress), those that do not are ignored – or, even worse, condemned – for not providing the kind of information later historians expect them to provide.[P 8]

Certainly, in looking through many travelogues, I made the choice to focus on those that could illuminate a critical perception of Europe.

[The] notion of travelers as anthropologists is an invaluable interjection into the study of travelogues, particularly in the ways in which it imbues the travel writer with agency and highlights how these travelogues “grew out of the same historical conditions as those that produced its [European] counterparts.” Nonetheless, it operates on two problematic assumptions: First, by picking and choosing information about Europe (Europology), this approach necessitates discarding or ignoring the rest of these travelogues that treated more “familiar territory” – inside Iran, for example – with the same descriptive eye. Second, by designating these travel writers as anthropologists and ethnographers, it elevates experiential knowledge at the cost of other forms of knowledge that were as valid at the time as “seeing with one’s own eyes.” [p 11]

Here she is critiquing Tavakoli-Targhi’s Refashioning Iran. I don’t necessarily see these assumptions at play in the reading of travelers as ethnographers. Yes, in much of what I’ve read, they write about the home territory with as much keenness as they do about the foreign lands, but their doing so doesn’t mean they can’t have curiosity and ethnographic views in both places. Also, seeing ethnographic dimensions in the travelogues does not necessarily mean the ethnography is reliant upon first-hand experience.

“[T]o raise the question of the nature of the narrative is to invite reflection on the very nature of culture and even on the nature of humanity itself.” [quoted from Hayden White, p 13]

[A]ssuming the singular importance of “experience” as the form of knowledge has led to a one-to-one link between seeing Europe and knowing it, which in turn has blinded scholars to other nonexperienctial and equally valid forms of knowledge that informed many of these “texts of Europe.” [p 15]

I don’t make this assumption, of course. I can see in Shigarfnamah that Mirza I’tisam al-Din believes he knows much about Africa and its inhabitants based on what he’s gathered from others or that he writes with confidence about the Portuguese while he’s had no direct contact with them. Or, Joseph Emin thinks he knows his English friends and allies, and much about England,but that seems to be more rooted in his desire to direct them to support his cause.

“It [rihla literature is an art form which encapsulates the believable and the incredible, embraces the niceties of everyday life as well as the ‘aja’ib or marvels, and whose values as a geographical and historical source must, in consequence, be treated with caution.” [quoted from Ian Richard Netton, Seek Knowledge. p 33]

In all these genres – rihla, cosmography, and geography – travel and the knwoledge that came from it have a didactic purpose. Even the Persian word tamasha, which means observation, sightseeing, and/or spectacle, also meant “to glance at something with delight or to learn a lesson from.” [p 33]

There has been a tendency to mine Hayratnamah and other travelogues about Europe for instances of “wonders.” With the benefit of historical hindsight, our starting assumption has often been that travelers to Europe sawa sights previously unseen and responded to them in awe and astonishment. Intertwined with this has been the idea that being in awe of Europe automatically led to a sense of inadequacy in the traveler. This becomes the source of nineteenth-century decline discourse: contact with the spectacles of Europe led to the belief that reform of one’s own society was a necessity… there is little indication that they are as intricately linked as modern scholars have made them out to be. [p 33]

“[W]onder” (in keeping with the logic of the text, I am using words such as ‘ajib, gharib, hayrat, and even the less frequently used badi’ [novel], interchangeably) has three different uses: it is most commonly used to express pleasure or discomfort in an experience; it is used in the medieval sense of the word in reference to the natural world and natural beauty; and it is used in reference to new objects as a means for explication. [p 34]

The use of wonder in Hayratnamah evokes Tzvetan Todorov’s definition of and criteria for the fantastic. At the heart of Todorov’s argument lies the notion of “hesitation.” When confronted with the unexplainable in a story, the character (and the reader) experiences a moment of hesitation. The ways in which the hesitation is resolved is what makes a story either uncanny (when the laws of reality suffice to explain the phenomena) or marvelous (when new laws are needed for a sufficient explanation). [p 37]

Hesitation is both a state and an action. This is crucial in the performative dimension of Passages.

In ‘Aja’ib al-makhluqat, Qazvini defines the feeling of ta’ajjub (the state of feeling wonder) as what one feels “from seeing something but not seeing the reason for it and thus is astonished before one knows the reason.” Similarly, Mottahedeh notes that the defining characteristics of the ‘ajib (the wondrous) in the Islamic wonder literature are that it is out of the ordinary, its cause is unknown to the observer, and it is more than merely a visual experience; the ‘ajib affects the soul. [p 37]

Morier, like many after him, never seemed to understand this crucial characteristic of the Qajar court and judged Ilchi’s actions based on what he (and we) assume a foreigner in Europe must do – a “dictatorship of spectacle” if you will, as if one must, if not from England, gaze at its glories and be in wonder of it. But for Ilchi, an envoy from Fath ‘Ali Shah’s court, the spectacle meant nothing if he himself was not observed. His assessment of his ability to project his own power, and by extension the power of the Qajar throne, came precisely from the ability to create and to be a spectacle among the English. Ilchi sought out and enjoyed the prospect of being the “stocking gaze of multitudes” because it was precisely through his being a spectacle that the power of his mission could be played out and it was by narrating that spectacle back home that it could be justified.
It is crucial to keep in mind the interconnectivity of “ceremony and politics” in the Qajar court… The pomp and circumstance that Ilchi sought out were not merely ceremonial rituals and symbols of monarchy stripped of political meaning. They were, in and of themselves, a form of practicing politics, both domestically and abroad. [p 43]

Ceremony and politics are connected in general. Exertion of power is always performed through certain rituals. Actually it is the ritual that makes power recognizable.

Similar to that of his internal travelogues, the European travel accounts of Nasir al-Din Shah convey geographical information of the places visited, particularly the lay of the land and distances. They are also imperial self-narrations for internal and external audiences, and reveal the ways in which the Nasiri court navigated Iran’s position on the European and global stage. Relatedly, in their reception and consumption both in Europe and domestically, the travelogues were tools of diplomacy and kingly rule. [p 75]

Terms of mobility: safar (travel), urdu (camp), ‘azimat (setting off), harikat (movement toward), wintering (qishlaq) and summering (yaylaq) [p 77]

One of the defining characteristics of a travelogue by the Nasiri period remained the inclusion of geographical information into travel writing. A good traveler, no matter where he or she went, had to include this type of information as a way of establishing his or her credentials. Geography figured into the travel accounts of Nasir al-Din Shah to Europe in two inter-related forms: detailed and often repetitive descriptions of landscape and scenery, and distances from place to place, all within Iran and in Europe. [p 92]

“It’s so strange that despite the fact that the nations of France and England are practically connected to each other, aside from a small sea dividing them in the middle, upon entering the land of France, in one moment the conditions, habits, customs, language, the faces of peasant men and women, and cavalry, mountains, plains, trees, and nature change.” [quoted from Nasir al-Din Shah’s 3rd Safarnamah, p 93]

farsang (or farsakh) = 3-4 miles

“The men and women of Paris are completely similar to Iranians, their behavior, their coloring, their condition, their bodies, everything is like Iran…Before this, I was told Iran is the France of the East, I didn’t investigate this at all but in this trip I saw that this was indeed the case, they’re very similar to Iran.” [quoted from Nasir al-Din Shah’s 3rd Safarnamah, p 94]

A useful way of understanding the repetitive nature of these travelogues is through the concept of hypnotyposis which Umberto Eco calls “one of the least precise and least analyzed of rhetorical figures.” Hypnotyposis, according to Eco is “a way of lingering in the text, and of ‘wasting’ time, so as to render the idea of space. How can a verbal text put something before our eyes as if we could see it?” [pp 95-96]

That is precisely my challenge and task in the embodied writing performances.

While Garmrudi and Ajudanbashi in 1838 carried with them portraits of Muhammad Shah painted in Iran and framed in Vienna, Nasir al-Din Shah, through the distribution of his travelogues to foreign sovereigns and dignitaries, in one stroke presented a portrait of himself and that of Europe as narrated by him. [p 102]

Both safar and siyahat in the nineteenth century meant travel, with connotations of a polgrimage or journey built into the meaning of travel itself. But gardish was a new concept in some ways:its most common use, often as a compound word, was that of turning or revolution such as gardish-i asiman, or revolution fo the heavens, but it also carried the meaning of wandering and vagrancy. [p 109]

Unlike other travelers whose travelogue entries would begin by “today I/we went to” the opera/ballet/exposition, Pirzadah merely begins descriptions of these various sights. His eye, rather than being a subjective instrument for description, is a photographic one, giving a sense that he was floating above the scenes he describes rather than walking among them. This also explains another curious aspect of Pirzadah’s travelogue: the reader never gets a sense that Pirzadah was ever a spectacle in Europe, that he was ever an object of curiosity, or that he was ever gazed upon. This aspect of the travel account is undoubtedly connected to the difference in purpose of his travels versus that of official Qajar travelers: whether Pirzadah was a spectacle or not in Europe carried no rhetorical meaning as it did, for example, for Ilchi, whose narrative of his own spectacle in Europe signified the visibility of the Iranian state. [p 111]

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Knowledge base
0 comments on “Notes on “wonder”
1 Pings/Trackbacks for "Notes on “wonder”"
  1. […] After being somewhat derailed, the remainder of last week was a struggle to get back on track again while keeping in touch with Rehab and contributing to the support campaign. I looked through my notes, sorted papers and books, and logged in Naghmeh Sohrabi’s Taken for Wonder. […]