When and where did the Persianate end?

Nandini Chatterjee

With Fahad Bishara, Ghulam Nadri, Huntington Lyman StebbinsElizabeth Thelen and Dominic Vendell

The worldwide pandemic has affected all of us in the Lawforms project in different ways. But it has not stopped us from keeping those really interesting conversations going. In the Lawforms team, with members physically situated across multiple continents, planning, discussing and collaborative reading over video link has been established practice for at least two years. But as video-conferencing has become so much more run-of-the-mill, we are now able to get together with other collaborators for ‘mini-workshops’ with much less fuss than we had ever imagined. I will not go into details about the obvious invasiveness of this phenomenon, and the mental and physical exhaustion this has entailed for many of us (that one is for another post). This blog is a report on two exhilarating conversations we recently had with team members and external collaborators about the geographical and temporal limits of the ‘Persianate’ world. When and where did the Persianate end?

First of all, the context for this rather ambitious discussion! We are really happy to report that we are in the last phases of preparation for our first collective publication, which is going to be a specially themed issue of the Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient. We have titled it ‘Transactions and Documentation in the Persianate World’; it is a truly wide-ranging set of essays dealing with business writing, commercial record keeping, contracting, surveying and certification. Inspired by Geertz’s concept of the bazaar, and led by our team member and the brilliant economic-legal historian Fahad Bishara, we look at domains of transactions that extend from mariners’ debts to blood-money payments to political deals.

There will be more posts about the special issue, but about our two meetings this August: these were inspired by a growing awareness, led by the Iran-specialist Huntington ‘Lyman’ Stebbins, one of our generous external collaborators, that in our collection we have a clutch of essays that could/should be grouped under the descriptive rubric of ‘late Persianate’, which would also allow us the possibility of analytically exploring how one identifies the stages of a trans-regional, complex historical formation such as the Persianate. And the bigger question of periodization – how exactly do we know when one broad type of human social formation has ended, and another has begun?

This question – about temporality – was supplemented by another one that has been quietly bubbling away within the Lawforms team from the start. But it took a reviewer’s comment, of all people, to Lyman, the Iran-specialist, for us to consider – what is the value of the descriptor ‘Persianate’, as opposed to ‘Indian Ocean Worlds’? The answer is obvious for some of the more land-locked contexts dealt with in some of the papers, but if Lyman was writing about a series of port cities (including Bushire and Bombay), consulates and merchants, then was the cultural-bureaucratic fact of Persian-language documentation of his episodes more important, or the sociological-geographical facts of ultra-marine connections? As Nile Green has beautifully put it, these spatial terms are not there to represent a given reality, they are there to serve analytical purposes. So which served us better?

On day 1, Dominic Vendell, Elizabeth Thelen, Lyman and I tackled the temporal question of late Persianate, and its ultimate demise. We began by noting that it used to be believed, at least among South Asianists, that the end came with the English East India Company government’s removal of Persian as the language of its courts in India in 1837. Mana Kia in her recent book has told the story from both ends (the Iranian and Indian) and has offered a more longue-durée sociological-political explanation: that the political disruptions of the late eighteenth century in this part of Eurasia snapped the possibilities of mobility for people who tended to be the bearers of the Persianate, leading to a gradual implausibility of the kind of ‘Persianate selves’ that she saw in (mainly) the poets who moved between what is now Iran and India. But Kia, together with Nile Green, Farzin Vejdani and others have also pushed the ‘end’ of the Persianate well into the twentieth century, demonstrating that technological developments such as steam travel and print created new networks of Indo-Iranian connections – a robust late Persianate. And Lyman – referring to Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi’s work – reminded us of the irony that it was these very networks that provided intellectual grist to the mill of nativist Iranian nationalism: ancient Zoroastrian texts discovered in Gujarat feeding the story of a glorious, uninterrupted and uncontaminated Iranian nationhood continuing from antiquity.

But in our collection, the ‘late Persianate’ has many other valences beyond the creation or sustenance of Persian-speaking/reading social networks or continued trans-regional written communication in Persian. Working robustly against the grain of their area specialisms, Dominic Vendell and Elizabeth Thelen are looking at the Maratha Empire and the Rajput states as Persianate terrain. These regimes sometimes adopted self-reflexive indigenist (anti-Persianate) cultural policies (as with the Maratha Empire in the late seventeenth century); they legitimized themselves and adjudicated disputes with a variable combination of local custom and Hindu royalty (as with most Rajput states); they were Hindu kingships using a great deal of Persian language documentation and/or Persian-derived vocabulary, forms and styles in Marathi- or Rajasthani-language diplomatic, judicial and revenue writing. Was this a case of the end of the Persianate or the reinvention of the Persianate?

Then again, Lyman’s work pushed us to think about the notoriously capacious nationality laws of Iran, created during the modernizing regime of the Pahlavis in the mid-twentieth century. As many Iranian emigrés keep discovering to their distress, there is no escape from being an Iranian citizen; an aggressively inclusive jus sanguinis principle, designed to include the dispersed potential citizenery from around the Persianate world, today serves to capture those that wish to escape the jurisdiction of the Islamic Republic of Iran. What was striking about this is the way in which nationality and the nation-state, which is generally seen as the prime cause of shattering cosmopolitan worlds, and certainly the Persian cosmopolis, is here serving to create an extra-territorial Persianate – just not a very nice one for those who would rather escape it. And in this connection we wondered whether the concepts of the familial connection and identification – nisbat – were lending themselves to the kind of genealogy-to-race transmogrification that happened in Malaysia with the concept of ‘bangsa’.

Chastened by these thoughts, we then moved on, in day two, to discussing the possibilities of the Indian Ocean Worlds, together with Fahad Bishara and Ghulam Nadri. With such an outstanding group we were able to actually discuss the Indian Ocean as it should be – with due focus on its Indian, Iranian and Gulf-to-East Africa sections. Indeed, as we noted, there were three papers in our collection that could be seen as forming an Indian Ocean cluster – Ghulam, Lyman and Fahad together creating for us a littoral circuit from Surat to Bushire to Bahrain to Muscat.

Here we agreed that while the ‘new’ Indian Ocean historiography has moved purposefully away from Braudelian geo-sociologcal analysis (the classic being K.N. Chaudhri), and emphasized the trans-regional, nation-state disrupting possibilities of that aquatic field, empirically and historiographically they have ignored the Persianate world. It is as if the two fields are talking past each other – although both the Persianate and the Indian Ocean World are supposed to be about trans-regionalism and cosmopolitan formations. The Persianate remains an old-world place of princes, horsemen and poets wheras the Indian Ocean World seems peopled and propelled by trade.

But in our collection, we demonstrate that people did not just write poetry, chronicles, hagiographies and manners literature in Persian; they used it to document deals and to dispute them. So, as Lyman suggested, one of the things we were trying to do was to expand the sociological content of the Persianate – we are dealing with kings and saints and some bad poets, but we are actually venturing into the marketplace, on land and on sea. And, as Fahad enthused, if the Persianate folk would just look at more of such material, the history and historiography of the Indian Ocean World itself could be transformed!

But was that really so? Clearly, as Fahad’s own work showed in his book as well as his article in our upcoming collection, merchants and mariners in Bahrain, Muscat and Zanzibar wrote their deeds in Arabic, not Persian. It was really striking how Persiante Bushire seemed in Lyman’s story, and how Arabic Bahrain appeared, right across the Gulf. So something was happening in the Gulf – although there were clearly multi-lingual merchant families spread out on both sides and jurisdictions stretching across.

Ghulam here told us about a brilliant tri-lingual petition he had found in the archives in Bombay (in Gujarati, Persian and Arabic). It was addressed by merchants to the Governor of Bombay (in the 1820s) complaining about an Arab merchant engaged to do trade on their behalf at Jeddah, who had failed to keep his part of the deal. If Gujarati represented the merchants’ own language; Persian, the official language of the East India Company’s courts in India; then the local administration at the Mokah EIC Factory and later at Jeddah clearly needed the Arabic. Again, as we moved westwards and southwards from the Gulf – Arabic seemed to take over.

From: Lawrence Porter, Society in the Persian Gulf: Before and After Oil (2017)

Since this was simply one instance of interacting with a specific bureaucratic regime (and we are not even sure which one), we remain unsatisfied. Fahad alerted us that in fact he was aware of Persian documents and deeds in the collections of merchant families not just in Bahrain, but also in Kuwait, Basra, Mohammerah, etc.  So, the current plan is for us to learn much more about the Gulf – led by Ghulam, Lyman and Fahad.

Analytically, however, we felt that the productive answer, as with the temporal question, may lie in not insisting on laying down lines in water, but in identifying the precise circuits and contexts in which Persian, Arabic (and Gujarati) made best sense. We are going to try to do more of this, and we want to keep this thought foremost in our minds while doing this: the Persianate (and the Indian Ocean World) is ultimately about the people who made/make it up.


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