I have been enthusiastically reading about European travelers and scholars who visited and wrote about the Orient in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Most sources were introduced to me by one of my colleagues, Dan, a senior librarian. He showed me some rare works which are no longer studied by historians.
Collecting and examining eastern and western manuscripts and early printed volumes is not only his job, but also his hobby. For decades, he has been organizing exhibitions related to various historical topics. For Dan, knowing more about the past means knowing more about himself. He views Darwin, Kant, Avicenna, Aristotle, and Jesus as narrators and creators of the past. For him, the past is the present and the future.
Due to personal circumstances, he has to travel to North America every year. However, he never uses Middle Eastern airports as a point of transit. During a coffee break, I asked him why. He said,
- If they take me hostage, what shall I do then?
- Your government will stand behind you like a mountain. Eventually, your embassy will negotiate with the kidnappers and find a way to release you. Also, your university will pressurize the government and local media to get you back.
He loudly laughed and said,
- Nobody will spend time and money on a middle aged librarian. Nobody needs me, in fact.
He laughed, but was totally serious. After that, I thought that I may have made him upset by asking this question, particularly since he was worried about his son who serves in the army and has to be posted to the Middle East. In order to make him happy, I decided to give him some sweets from my homeland, Iran. I chose rock candy, which is extremely sweet and should be dissolved into tea or boiled water, so it can be the remedy of many digestive, gastric and intestinal problems. I told him about its status in Iranian culture and how it is usually consumed after eating beans! I explained the way it was admired by traditional medics. He became very excited and looked closely at the crystalline structure of the rock candy, waiting to learn how to use it.
In the meantime, he asked about a number of western travelers and scholars who wrote about Persia and how they were judged by local people. The first name that came to my mind was the British scholar, Edward G. Browne. It seems that he received the Iranian communities’ patronage widely, and he had expressed very positive thoughts about Iran and Iranians, for which his name is still borne by an avenue in the capital, close to the University of Tehran.
Dan took a deep breath and asked with relish:
- if I talk or write about them, will they then choose my name for a street or alley, too?
While he was asking this question, I reviewed the map of central Tehran in my mind. And to tease him, I said,
- there are other foreigners whose names have been chosen for streets and alleys that knew neither Iran nor Iranians; neither their culture nor their language. But there are a group of people who still love them greatly, even more than Edward Browne.
Dan said while smiling “So nice to see that your name can be chosen for a street without any trouble.” And asked the name of one of them.
- “Khalid al-Islambouli,” I said.
- “Who is he?”
- “He was a young Egyptian who assassinated the President of the Egypt, Anwar Sadat, in 1981.”
Dan shocked and looked pale. So I did not tell him about all the other squares, streets, hospitals and schools whose title carry names of the people who knew anything about Iran and Iranians. He said:
- It is better to learn more about my country.
While laughing, I said:
- I do agree, Dan.
His eyes stared at the rock candy. It seems that would not be sweet for him. He reviewed the sweetness of Edward’s fame and the bitterness of Khalid’s.