Chronicles of the conquered

Published March 27, 2016
View of the Henley Regatta on the Thames near Henley (Oxfordshire, England). Wood engraving by Fritz Bergen, circa 1890.   — AKG Images
View of the Henley Regatta on the Thames near Henley (Oxfordshire, England). Wood engraving by Fritz Bergen, circa 1890. — AKG Images

In the year 1873, Naseer-ed Din Shah Qajar, then King of Persia, published a Safarnama, or travelogue, of his travels in Europe. Of the London portion of his trip, the Persian king wrote thus: “Today before seeing the ministers and others, the English fire brigade came and in the garden at the back of our palace went through their exercise. They planted ladders with the supposition that the upper floor of the palace was on fire, they mounted these ladders with perfect celerity and agility and brought down people who were burnt, half-burnt or unharmed some taken up on their shoulders and others let down by ropes made fast round their waists. They have invented a beautiful means of saving men. But the wonder is in this: that on one hand they take such trouble and originate such appliances for the salvation of man from death, where on the other hand, in the armouries arsenals and workshops of Woolwich and of Krupp in Germany they contrive fresh engines such as cannons, muskets, projectiles and similar things for the quicker and more multitudinous slaughter of the human race.”

The excerpt from the Shah’s writings is reproduced at the outset of Claire Chambers’s book Britain Through Muslim Eyes: Literary Representations 1780-1988, which sets out to chronicle how Muslim writers, most of them the subjects of incipient or actual colonisation, turned their gaze back on Britain. Chambers’s is an arresting inquiry, particularly for those who believe that the decolonisation of global narrative is not possible without resurrecting the narratives of the conquered. Indeed, this is precisely what Chambers attempts to do: while the Safarnama of Qajar Shah is not a part of the book beyond the single initial exposition, many other writings long overlooked or untranslated are. Divided into non-fiction (mostly travelogues) and fictional literary representations, the book begins with a discussion of Mirza Sheikh I’tesamuddin’s 1780 account Shigarf Nama-i Vilayat, translated to The Wonders of Vilayet: Being the Memoir Originally in Persian of a Visit to France and Britain in 1765. As Chambers tells us, I’tesamuddin was a Sayyid whose family fled the Mongol invasion of Central Asia and came to India some time in the 16th century. Once there, the family used its cultural pedigree to forge careers in law and administration, which is where things were until the mid-18th century when the expansion of the East India Company under Robert Clive provided I’tesamuddin with the opportunity to travel abroad. The Shigarf Nama is the consequence of this journey, including accounts of Pegu, Malacca, Maldives, Madagascar, Cape Town and France before its itinerant narrator finally arrives on English shores.

Claire Chambers’s research on Muslim writers’ accounts of visits to Britain from 1780-1988 is a unique inquiry

In getting his readers there, however, the author reveals his greater commitment to keeping them entertained, rather than ensuring any accuracy of information. En route to London, Chambers tells us, they encounter “factual and fictitious beings, including cannibals, Muslim converts, slaves, mermaids and flying fish.” This variation in emphasis derives from the tone and tenor of the existing genre of the travelogue as it existed then. The travellers were usually white colonists, their excursions into the exotic the very locales that I’tesamuddin called home. In maintaining their emphasis on awe and wonder, he maintained the tradition of the picturesque travelogue, his readers adventuring vicariously through his experiences. One fact of his arrival in London actually betrays the unjust dimensions of colonialism itself: when his ship gets to shore, a number of his fellow travellers are immediately arrested for having brought with them bolts of contraband fabric. As duly noted by Chambers, the British were fuelling their own textile industry via colonialism and its extractive bounty; the textiles of other lands would not be permitted into the English marketplace.

“Muslims now number almost 2.7 million in Britain or approximately five per cent of the population (Office for National Statistics, 2011). The rise to the current figure became markedly steep after the late 1940s, mostly due to the aftermath of empire and a post-war demand for manual labour. However, it is important to recognise that Muslims have visited, lived, and worked in Britain for hundreds of years. As Sukhdev Sandhu observes: ‘Blacks and Asians tend to be used in contemporary discourse as metaphors for newness. Op-ed columnists and state-of-the-nation chroniclers invoke them to show how, along with deindustrialisation, devolution and globalisation, Englishness has changed since the end of the war. That they had already been serving in the armed forces, stirring up controversy in Parliament, or [...] helping to change the way that national identity is conceptualised, often goes unacknowledged.’ (Sandhu, 2003) Members of the New Right, politicians from a broad range of the political spectrum, and many mainstream newspapers consistently erase the contributions of Muslims, Asians, blacks, and other ‘others’ from British history, portraying migrants in Britain as constituting an unwelcome post-war invasion. They nostalgically recall a mythical ‘Englishness’ which was apparently lost with the arrival of these strangers. In this chapter I delineate the early migration history and travel writing of Britain’s largest religious minority, the Muslim community. The first exchanges between Europe and the ‘Islamic world’ in fact took place in the medieval period, which was also the era of the Crusades and cultural and scientific dialogue between Europeans and Arab Muslims. Nabil Matar’s Islam in Britain, 1558-1685 educated readers that an especially significant presence of Islam in Britain is traceable back to the 16th and 17th centuries.” — Excerpt from the book

Consequent chapters in the non-fiction portions of the book move chronologically through the space of the late 18th century into more proximate accounts closer to 1988. The jewel among these are the writings of two women, one a princess and another a teacher. Atiya Faizee was one of the first Indian women to venture to Britain in pursuit of an education, and her impressions, serialised first as Zamana-i-Tehsil in 1921 and Atiya’s Journeys (2010), present the same dilemmas of maintaining one’s identity even while the dominance of the metropole is large and looming. An illustrative example is Faizee’s discussion of the clothing an Indian Muslim woman must wear while in “vilayet.” Discussing her own response to this dilemma, one that is true to her heritage and also to the practical requirements of mobility on London streets, she says: “I have continued wearing my Indian clothes and do not intend to give them up. When I go out I cover my head etc with a gauze cloth. Everything is covered except the face. And our Fyzee charshaf on our body, with gloved hands, umbrella, good walking shoes on our feet altogether it seems to be a complete outfit. And everyone appreciates the fact greatly that I have kept my ways in the English world.” The Fyzee charshaf was a modification of the Turkish full-length cloak, with a sewn head covering and gloves. Faizee’s adoption of it is telling: not only is she refusing assimilation, she finds the comfort of her devised garment as far more liberating than the restrictive corsets she sees Western women wearing. Faizee’s semi-sarcastic recollection of their artificially corseted waists makes for interesting feminist commentary on the constraints that Western women have adopted for themselves. In highlighting this aspect of Faizee’s recollections, hence, Chambers comes closest to reversing the gaze, equalising in some limited way the one-sided dominance of the West appraising the East.

The second part of the book, titled ‘Travelling Fictions,’ features an early chapter dealing with literary representations of the West from 1855-1944, penned by authors like Muhmmad Marmaduke Pickthall, a convert to Islam, Sajjad Zaheer and Yahya Hakki. This is followed by ‘England Returned,’ featuring sharp analysis of the works of Atiya Hossain, Qurratulain Hyder and Tayyeb Saleh. The final chapter, ‘Myth of Return Fiction,’ focuses on the works of Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif and also Abdulrazak Gurnah, Tariq Mehmood and Abdullah Hussain. Recurrent themes illustrate both the eternal concerns of the traveller, a fixation with food, the maintenance of religious customs, the solidity of the self in the encounter with what is the other. They also illustrate how patterns of travel change, wrought first by a desire for knowledge and adventure, to the economically created displacements of more contemporary migrants.

One of the central theses that Chambers proffers in her insightful inquiry is that the cumulative work of these Muslim authors represents a form of “reverse Orientalism,” where the miscast projections of the West on the East are finally being turned around. It is a tempting casting of the writings contained in the volume, but not one that can be carried by their collective heft. The reason of course is simple, and not quite different from what limited the East writing about the West in the time of the Qajar King’s journey to London: the narrative of the world is written by those who have conquered and dominated the collections of knowledge instruments in that complex machine. This resurrection of responses to that endeavour is illuminating in its ability to reveal the perpetual existence of cultural intermingling, the long-standing human suspicion of difference, but it cannot change the balance of power that leaves Muslim responses and experiences still at the periphery, while still lauding the impressions and judgements of Western authors, as central and of course true.

Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon 2015).

Britain Through Muslim Eyes: Literary Representations 1780-1988
By Claire Chambers
Palgrave Macmillan, UK
ISBN 978-0230252592



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