British PM Anthony Eden and the Persian Poet Hafiz

“I suppose that anyone with sort of broad European culture has a fairly good idea of Persian history– he must have– it’s part of our history, as well. And, having been brought up in France, I was perfectly familiar with Lettres Persanes and all the rest of it. For that matter, Omar Khayyam was a part of the English heritage, almost, now. And, as my minister on various occasions, Anthony Eden, was a Persian scholar, one picked up a little. He always claimed that he read Hafiz before going to sleep, and so, if only to look like one’s minister, one pretended that one also read Hafiz before going to sleep at night.”

- Sir George Humphrey Middleton (21 January 1910 – 12 February 1998), British ambassador to Lebanon (1956–1958), Argentina (1961–1964) and Egypt (1964–1965), and “Chief Political Resident in the Persian Gulf Residency and Chargé d’affaires in Iran during the Abadan Crisis.”

Anthony Eden was British Prime Minister 1955-1957.

From the Harvard Oral History Project

Note: It is incredible the purchase that Persian culture had in the British political and cultural elite as late as the 1950s. But it is also incredible that they could confuse Montesquieu and Edward Fitzgerald’s Khayyam with the real thing.

3 Responses

  1. Anthony Eden had a degree in Oriental Studies (i.e. Persian), the only British Prime Minister (and only Western leader), ever to have had a training in the Islamic World.

    It didn’t stop him ordering Suez though.

  2. I’m having a hard time squaring the British ruling class’s knowledge and appreciation of Persian culture with their politics and business practices in Iran throughout the early 20th century.

    • The British governing class’s interest in Persian culture was rather limited and specific.

      Mainly it was the way the Mughal empire shared Persian culture that stimulated the interest of British colonial authorities in India. Colonial officials could advance their pay grade if they passed examinations in Persian. Richard Burton was an example. St. John Philby another, who finished his life working for Ibn Saud. They were not numerous, and of course, not the people who made decisions.

      However they supplied the personnel who set up British policy in Iran and Iraq after the First World War.

      Later on, Britain had a policy of training specialist diplomats – the famous ‘Arabists’, and probably ‘Persianists’. People who actually knew the countries they worked in. All that has disappeared, now that all foreign policy is directed from the home country.

      However, none, apart from Anthony Eden, ever made it to the top spot. And he was quite ill at the time of the Suez crisis, unable to make proper decisions.

      Even so, reading Hafiz or Omar Khayyam in translation did not make a connection in their minds between the brilliance of medieval Iranian civilisation and the modern day country. I’m reminded of a predecessor here in the Sorbonne, who detests the ‘Arabs’, but was quite ready to spend a good many years teaching Islamic Art.

      The disconnect between their attitude towards medieval Islam and the modern day doesn’t seem to bother the orientalists who were brought up in the colonial period, but it does bother me. My classes are full of references between the medieval past and today.

      Evidently British policy in Iran was decided by imperial requirements. The experts didn’t have much to say, except on rare occasions where they were listened to. Things haven’t changed much today.

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