Michael Noel-Clarke, who studied as an undergraduate in Esfahan and later served in the British Embassy in Tehran (1970-74), has recently translated the memoires of Prince Arfa, a prominent member of the Persian establishment at the end of the 19th century. The book has been published by Gingko Library as Memories of a Bygone Age: Qajar Persia and Imperial Russia 1853-1902. In this speech given by Noel-Clarke at the book’s launch, he describes the significance of Prince Arfa and the role he played on the national and international stage.
Prince Arfa wrote his memoirs just before he died in 1937, but probably for political reasons they were not published in Persian until 1965. His son and my wife’s grandfather, General Hassan Arfa, gave us a copy in the early 1970s, and my wife suggested that when I retired I should translate them. I hope that the Prince’s memoirs will become a useful secondary source on Iran’s relations with Tsarist Russia, on which I understand that there is not much material in English, and even more so on the social history of later Qajar Iran. Furthermore, there are certain abiding themes in Iranian history which form a backdrop to these memoirs and, at a moment when people are again beginning to travel to Iran and take an interest in its politics, they will, I hope, help to partially explain the emergence of the Islamic Republic and its subsequent development. I also hope that non-academic non-specialist readers will find the book as amusing and interesting as I did. It is packed with various wild and wonderful adventures and witty anecdotes, not all of which end to the author’s advantage.
Who then was the man who later became Prince Arfa? His family was originally from Erivan, now the capital of independent Armenia, in the Caucasus, but following the Russian conquest of what were then the Muslim khanates there, part of the Persian empire, the author’s father like many pious Muslims emigrated to Tabriz, the chief city of Turkic-speaking Iranian Azerbaijan. There Arfa was born, probably in 1853, though he was notably coy about his age, and there he grew up. His father had become a cloth merchant in the Tabriz bazaar, whose stock was swept away in the great flood of 1872. To escape his father’s creditors (no insurance in those days!), he was sent off to Istanbul, where he learnt French and English at the Greek school and subsequently to Tiflis (now Tbilisi) the capital of the Russian-occupied Caucasus, where he learnt Russian. His first great opportunity arose when in 1878 in the context of the Naser-od-Din Shah’s second visit to Europe. The two official interpreters appointed to welcome the Shah onto Russian soil succeeded in poisoning themselves with mercury, which they had mistaken for quinine, and Reza, (as Arfa then was called), an adult student in Tiflis, was appointed in their place. Instead of becoming a Muslim cleric, as his father had intended for his clever son, he then entered government service as a junior functionary in the consulate-general in Tiflis. From then on he never looked back: after his success on the Persia-Russia Boundary Commission (1883-6) he became a favourite of Naser-od-Din Shah and rose to become the Shah’s interpreter on his third visit to Europe in 1889, Iran’s consul-general in the Caucasus (1890-95) and minister-plenipotentiary in St Petersburg (1895-1902). Later, he was to become ambassador in Istanbul, briefly minister of justice and after the First World War Iran’s representative at the League of Nations.
The backdrop to the Prince’s diplomatic career was the so-called Great Game, in the context of the book, the rivalry of Britain and Russia for influence over a weakened Iran. Following the victory of General Skobelev over the Turkomans in 1881, Iran and the Russian Empire shared a 1000 km frontier and Naser-od-Din Shah’s greatest fear was that Russia would invade Khorasan and occupy further Iranian territory, a move that Iran would be too weak to resist. In Tiflis and more particularly St Petersburg, the Prince’s job was to prevent this by diplomacy and negotiation. He describes his main achievements: Russian concessions on the Akhal-Khorasan frontier with Russia (1886); the resolution of a damaging trade dispute with Italy and other western powers (1896), an achievement which led to his being made a prince; defusing the Sistan crisis, in which non-Muslim Russian troops were due to march through and thus defile the holy city of Mashhad; and the easing of the terms of a large Russian loan to a bankrupt Iran in 1900.
The Prince’s memoirs are not, however, primarily an account of his diplomatic career. Indeed, he sometimes calls them a “travel diary”, intended as a picture of a bygone age, written for the education of the younger generation of Iranians, for whom life in Qajar Iran and Tsarist Russia had faded into myth. As such they include vivid descriptions of political, economic and social life encountered on his travels. On his early journeys from Tabriz to Istanbul and Tiflis, he describes the close-knit Muslim communities to which he had access, the influence of Russian culture on the intellectuals in the Caucasus and his own sudden humiliating realisation that all he had learnt in Tabriz was worthless in the new world of the Russian Empire and that he must learn western sciences, particularly geography. There is a marvellous chapter on the Shah’s Third Visit to Europe. In Britain where he spent a month, he was the guest of Lord Salisbury, the prime minister, at Hatfield where he flew into a rage when he saw caricatures of himself in the British press and was skilfully calmed down by his host; of the Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild at Waddesdon; and of the Duke of Montrose at Buchanan Castle in Stirlingshire, where the party appear to have fallen in love with the Duke’s daughter-in-law, and the Shah was markedly reluctant to sit next to the Duchess, whom he found ugly. In Scotland the Shah showed a considerable aversion to the kilt and commented adversely on the hairy legs of the Scots. In Paris, the Shah imported a Circassian girl from Istanbul to minister to the royal needs on tour and the trusted Arfa was given the task of escorting her, dressed as a man, together with the eunuchs from the railway station to the Shah’s residence. A dangerous task indeed! As he explains, one glance at the lady, if reported to the Shah by the eunuchs, would have brought his downfall. In Russia, he describes the eccentricities of the doomed Tsar Nicholas II’s court, the Tsar’s disastrous coronation and his own favour with the Tsarina and other court ladies which he was able to use to secure concessions vital for his country.
The memoirs chronicle his own meteoric rise, packed with adventures, from modest beginnings to the highest pinnacles of the Qajar state. Arfa describes the deadly intrigues of the Qajar court, the cabals and the power of the eunuchs; and he gives a sympathetic picture of the weary, profligate Naser-od-Din Shah, from whom all favour flows but who can cast him into outer darkness or worse on a whim. (He had had one prime minister murdered in 1852.). Nobody’s position was secure, least of all a favourite of the Shah’s. There are moments in the memoirs when everything is going well and quite suddenly the earth opens up in front of his feet: ruin and disgrace seem imminent. Happily, with his customary quick thinking and good luck, he survives and prospers. On his travels he sadly but implacably chronicles the rapacity of local tax-collectors, the inadequacy of the roads, the deficiencies of the ill-equipped and under-paid army, the haphazard nature of state finances, the decay of Iran’s archaeological heritage and latent social unrest, ever ready to break out into open revolt and as always, channelled and exploited by the clergy. At a deeper level, he draws attention to the tensions and frequent clashes, endemic to this day, between the forces of modernity, represented by western ideas, and those of conservatism, embodied in the clergy, who resisted foreign influence, and to a lesser degree, in those days at least, the court.
Threatened as it was by foreign interests, Iran badly needed men who knew foreign languages and foreign ways. There is little doubt that Arfa’s knowledge of French, Russian and to a lesser degree English gave him his first opportunity and was the key to his success. He was also, however, quick-witted, energetic, tactful and loyal, the last quality being in short supply at court. He remained on good terms with the three highly-placed Iranian political figures who protected him in Tehran throughout their lives. Throughout his career he was a skilful networker, surprisingly often, for a traditionally-raised Muslim, with high-born western ladies. In St Petersburg in particular, as an oriental who had absorbed western ways, he seems to have been an exotic figure, almost a dinner-party trophy, an image which he himself sedulously cultivated. He was a superb diplomatic showman. He was also extraordinarily resilient: few men would have bounced back, as he did, from the humiliation of falling off his horse in front of the imperial carriages at a pre-Coronation parade in Moscow, to build a kind of personal relationship with the imperial family and in particular with the Tsarina, wife of Tsar Nicholas II.
Like all good chroniclers, Arfa was insatiably curious and he had a keen eye for the rogue and the charlatan, particularly among the self-consciously pious. His humanity, abhorrence of violence and understanding of human foibles shine through. His dual identity as both Iranian and westerner, which amused the Shah but once brought down on him a senior cleric’s sentence of death as an infidel, is reflected in his judgments. His western education may have informed his criticisms of contemporary governance in Iran, but when, in a fit of pique, the new governor of Khorasan stopped paying the salaries of the Iranian delegation to the Boundary Commission, the young interpreter wrote a poem to the governor, lamenting the need to sell his boots in order to eat, and the latter was so moved by the poem that he ordered the immediate timely resumption of salary payments. A wonderfully Iranian touch! Arfa was above all a born story-teller.