Project Canterbury

The Open Road in Persia

By the Rev. J. R. Richards
C.M.S. Missionary at Shiraz

London: Church Missionary Society, 1933.

Chapter I. The New Persia

IN 1929 the great Kashgai tribe revolted, and surrounded Shiraz, and for many weeks no communication was possible with the outside world except by air. One night an armoured car left Shiraz and moved down the Bushire road. Naturally it was attacked by the tribesmen--an incident of no great importance in itself, yet of great significance. The armoured car was something new to those tribesmen and they thought it would fall an easy prey to them. They paid heavily for their mistake. That armoured car did more than anything to make them realize that they had underestimated the power of the Government. The confederation of tribes that threatened the Government in that year was no mean opponent, but unsatisfactory as was the position when hostilities ceased, the Government had proved its ability to cope with such risings, and these hardy nomads had come to realize the folly of armed resistance. To continue the struggle was impossible, for these tribes have to migrate from the plains to the mountains when spring comes, else they have no pasture for their flocks. Heavy as were their losses in the fighting, their losses through having to keep their flocks and herds from moving into the hills were still heavier. Victory had to go to the Government, and the power of the tribes was broken.

Two quotations from Sir Percy Sykes's well known History of Persia show how great an undertaking was the subjection of the tribes:--

No picture of Persia would be complete without reference to its tribesmen who may number one-fourth of the entire population. . . . Nominally Moslems, these free sons of the dasht, as the untilled land is termed in Persia, obey nobody but their chief, who in cases of importance summons a council of the elders of the tribe. . . . Our relations with the solat (the Qashqai chief) were generally strained. A reference to the Blue Books of the decade before the war will show that he was a typical nomad--treacherous, vindictive, suspicious, avaricious, and in some Ways childish. He was opposed to our presence in Fars; for he knew that his position as "Uncrowned King" would be destroyed if we succeeded in restoring the authority of the Persian Government, and the source of the greater part of his wealth, which he amassed by sending out bands to rob and by blackmailing landowners, would be cut off. He had an invincible repugnance to paying any revenue, although he collected it in full. Consequently he was immensely rich. [History of Persia, vol. II, pp. 392 and 478.]

Such was the position in 1917. The present Shah came into prominence in 1921, and did excellent work, first as Minister of War and afterwards as Prime Minister. One of the problems he tackled was that of disarming the tribes, and this was nominally completed in 1925 at the close of which year he was elected Shah. That the disarmament of the tribes was only nominal was shown by the insurrections of 1929, but since then the work has gone on apace. There have been minor outbreaks of revolt in other parts of the country since then, but the Government has shown itself sufficiently strong to cope with them. It cannot be said that the tribes problem has ceased to be a source of concern to the Government, but it can be said with truth that tribal independence is a thing of the past.

In August, 1931, I visited the Mejlis, or Parliament, in Tehran, and listened with interest to its discussions. But most interesting of all was the personal element. In the lobby I saw the hereditary chief of the Arab tribes, who helped General Sykes in his campaign against the Kashgais. On the ministerial bench sat a Bakhtiari leader, while among the officials of the President's (i.e. Speaker's) staff was another leader of that tribe. Shortly after the session had opened the Kashgai leader, Solatu'd-Doulah, called by General Sykes "Uncrowned King" of Fars, took his seat. Here were the tribal chiefs, dressed in European clothes and wearing the Pahlevi hat, sitting in the national Parliament. When we remember that in 1929 the confederation of tribes which united against the Government was composed of Kashgais, Arabs, and Bakhtiaris the presence of these leaders (none of whom, however, took an active part in that revolt), at the Parliament House is surely significant of the success of the Shah's policy.

What is to be the future of these tribes? Previous to the revolution the Kalmucks, a Mongolian tribe, were a nomadic people wandering about the steppes of South-Eastern Russia. To-day they are a settled people with their capital at the newly-built city of Elista. New towns are springing up, complete with government offices, post, and telegraph. A network of schools is slowly spreading across the steppes, and education is changing the whole outlook and life of this once backward people. The success of this experiment cannot but have influenced the policy of the Persian Government. That it is the intention of the Government to found new cities and to compel the nomadic tribes to settle in them is a matter of common knowledge, and however much we may sympathize with the tribespeople, we have to admit that it is essential to the welfare of Persia that these children of the desert should become useful citizens, playing their part in the development of the country.

The subjection of the tribes and their disarmament did much to insure the safety of travellers and of commercial traffic. Sporadic outbursts of highway robbery by armed bands still take place, but the stir that is caused on such occasions is in itself a testimony to the general safety of the roads. In December, 1928, I had occasion to go to Bushire on the Persian Gulf. After crossing the last range of mountains we arrived at the village of Dolaki at the edge of the maritime plain. The village presented the appearance of an armed camp. Every man was armed with a rifle, some had revolvers as well, and the display of cartridge belts was most imposing. In January, 1930, I once more visited Bushire. Dolaki was a changed place, not a man was armed. Good roads have made travel easy, and a strong army has made it safe.

The Persian army of to-day is better trained and better equipped than any other force raised by a Persian in Persia in modern times. The building up of this army was in itself no small achievement. Before conscription could be put into force the Government had to undertake the task of organizing a census of the population. No records of births, marriages, or deaths were kept. Registration offices have been established in all the towns, and from these centres officers visit the villages and every man, woman, and child has to be registered. Surnames are compulsory, and very often we find two brothers choosing different family names. No Persian can travel without his or her sejjel (registration certificate), which must be shown to the police when demanded.

Patriotism is something new in Persia, and the Persian word for it, vatanparasti, is beginning to have a real meaning. Two years ago the young Persian would talk eloquently of vatanparasti, and would lie about his age in order to escape from his responsibilities as a patriot. To-day that is changed. Local patriotism, if we may use such an expression for the clannish spirit common among villagers, gives place to a truer patriotism as new friendships are formed with men from distant towns. No longer is a man a Shirazi, an Isfahani, or a Nirizi--he is a Persian. By building up the new army the Shah has been able to extend the authority of the Government to every province and town; by his care of it he has succeeded in breaking down the hostility to compulsory military service, and in attracting many young men to adopt soldiering as a profession. He has given patriotism a meaning.

The Shah himself is first and foremost a Persian, and his policy can be summed up by saying that he has tried to make his subjects feel that they too are Persians before everything else. Few people acquainted with modern movements in Persia have not heard of the Pahlevi hat. The adoption of western dress has brought Persia into line with other countries; the Pahlevi hat is distinctive, and though European in origin, it yet serves to distinguish the Persian from the European. The Pahlevi hat is the mark of a Persian, and helps the wearer to feel that he is a Persian. For a man to be a Persian first and foremost is something new. Only a few years ago a man was known by his religion. The Moslem ruled the roost and Jews and Parsis were treated with contempt. They were compelled by humiliating regulations to wear distinguishing marks. The Parsi with his drab, colourless dress was a familiar sight in Yezd and Kerman, and the Jew with his cap split on both sides was seen in almost all the big towns. The new regulations as to dress abolished all these invidious distinctions. Be he Moslem, Jew, Parsi, or Armenian Christian, a man is first and foremost a Persian. The Armenians objected strongly to the Pahlevi hat, but they, too, have been compelled to wear it. As the Moslem despised the Jew, so too, the Armenian despised the Persian. Indeed, so great was the contempt in which the Armenians held everything Persian that, though living in Persia, many of them even objected to their children learning the Persian language. Now willy nilly they too are Persians. Moslems, Jews, Armenians, and Parsis all wear the same dress, and serve side by side in the national army. Age-long barriers are being broken down and men of different races and creeds are being welded into one nation.

The same spirit is evident in other directions. Mosques that for centuries have been closed to non-Moslems are in some towns open to them. Old buildings which were the pride of a sect are becoming the pride of a nation. The beautiful mosques of Isfahan can now be visited by Europeans. The Moslem, too, is interested in the art of men of other creeds. Some months ago an article appeared in a Tehran newspaper in which a Moslem described with enthusiasm the care with which the Armenians of Julfa have treasured old manuscripts and vestments, and the way in which they have kept their old buildings in a state of good repair. The Persian Art Exhibition held in London not only created an interest abroad in the art of Persia, but also made the Persian himself take a new interest in the national monuments and artistic treasures of his country. The enthusiasm with which the exhibition was hailed in England was reflected in the numerous articles on Persian Art which appeared in the leading Tehran newspapers. The Persian began to feel proud of being a Persian. Until recently Persepolis, with its ruined palaces of Darius and his successors, was a neglected ruin. To-day it is a hive of activity. Dr. Herzfeld, the well-known German archaeologist, with a staff of expert assistants, is busily engaged in excavation. Old buildings long buried are being brought to light, and others in danger of crumbling as a result of the ravages of time are being strengthened and repaired. No one can read the Persian newspapers to-day without realizing that a new interest in the artistic heritage of Persia has been aroused. Foreigners leaving the country are asked at the frontier whether they have in their possession any articles of antiquarian interest. The export of all such articles is forbidden by law.

A short time ago a new school for boys was built in Shiraz, and an attempt was made to erect a truly Persian building. Most new buildings are remarkable for their nondescript appearance rather than for anything else, but this school is different. Architects would probably find much to criticize and little to praise, but those of us who are not architects can rejoice in the bull-headed columns and castellated walls that bear witness to the desire of the Persians to erect a Persian building. Pride in the history and culture of one's nation is an essential element in patriotism. It is good, too, to see that foreign institutions in Persia are encouraging this spirit by erecting office premises in true Persian style. The new buildings of the Imperial Bank of Persia in Tehran are an excellent example of modern buildings which are truly Persian in conception.

It is only to be expected that the growth of a national spirit should be reflected in the attitude of the Government towards foreigners and foreign institutions, because in the past foreign Governments, taking advantage of the weak state of the country, and of the corrupt and selfish character of its rulers, were accustomed to vie with one another in attempting to dominate Persian policy. Particularly was this true of Great Britain and Russia. Persian monarchs, bent on enriching themselves regardless of the welfare of their subjects, sold concession after concession to foreign corporations. As far back as 1911 attempts were made to remedy these evils, but they were doomed to failure because foreign Governments had no desire to see things changed. It was inevitable that under a strong ruler like Riza Shah Pahlevi, imbued with patriotic ideas, Persia should strive to free herself of foreign influence. The very position of Persia geographically would seem to make it inevitable. To the north lies Russia, and in the new Russia the property of all foreigners has been confiscated and nationalized. In the new Turkey, another neighbour, the liberty of all foreigners is being restricted more and more. On the west is Iraq, an Arab country with an Arab monarch, which is well on the road to complete independence, while to the south-east lies Afghanistan, a country closed to all foreigners.

There can be no doubt that the rulers of Persia have been influenced in their policy by events in the new Turkey. Last year the Turkish Foreign Minister visited Tehran and was given a great reception. It may be that in the future the results of that visit will become evident in Persian legislation. The Persian attitude towards foreigners is clearly seen from the newspapers. A short time ago an article appeared in one of the Tehran newspapers entitled "Turkey and Foreigners." It dealt with the position of foreigners in Turkey under the old regime and the reforms effected by Kemal Pasha:--

The Khalif of the Moslems [i.e. the Sultan of Turkey] was but an instrument for carrying out the purposes of foreigners. The Court Officials did nothing without the consent of Foreign Ambassadors. The Bosphorus shores were a tilting ground for foreign influence and foreign colonization designs. . . . Any person wishing to obtain a post or to attain to some position of rank in government service had first of all to visit such and such an Embassy or Consulate and enter into a bond of brotherhood with some foreign official and give him in writing a guarantee that he would be a traitor to his duty. . . . From political affairs to commercial and economic affairs, from criminal courts to educational institutions, foreign influence was supreme in all. The foreigners were like a hungry wolf which after a long wait for its prey has at last succeeded in its quest, so deeply did they drive the claws of covetousness into Turkish life that no Turk entertained the slightest hope of salvation from them, nor could he imagine the possibility of a day coming when he would be freed from the angry claws of the Westerners. . . . The condition of Turkey in those days differed very little from that of Persia in the years previous to 1920. Just as in Persia in those days nothing could be done unless it was in accord with the desires of the foreigners, so too in Turkey nothing could be done without the approval of foreigners. . . . How wisely the present Shah of Persia has dealt with foreigners showing them they cannot overstep the mark!

These quotations should help us to see ourselves as the Persian sees us. The many new regulations and restrictions may be irksome to the foreigner, but we should not forget how irksome foreign control must have been to the Persian with progressive ideas. That Persia has a right to her independence none can deny. The abolition of the hated Capitulations has completely changed the status of the foreigner in Persia. No longer may any foreigner breaking the law be tried in the consular court of his particular country, he must stand his trial in the Persian courts like any Persian subject. No foreigner is entitled to own land or immovable property except what is needed for a dwelling house and business premises. Registration of all land is compulsory, and registration offices have been opened in all towns. It is worthy of notice that according to the law foreigners have the right to erect places of worship.

When the Capitulations were in force the position of the foreigner was a privileged one, and many Armenians as well as some Persians succeeded in attaining foreign nationality. Others became, for instance, "British protected subjects," whatever that may mean, and claimed the same privileges as were given to foreign nationals. Living in Persia, trading in Persia, and claiming the protection of Persia, they sought to avoid their responsibilities as Persians. Many of them were very wealthy and owned extensive property in Persia, and as a result of the new laws they found themselves compelled either to sell their property or to become Persian subjects; the majority have chosen the latter course.

The Trade Monopoly Act has undoubtedly made the lot of the foreign trader in Persia very difficult, but it is equally hard on the Persian merchant. Persia desires economic independence, though it is hard to see how she is going to attain to it. The restrictions imposed by this Act are more irksome than any. Were Persia able to produce all the goods the importation of which is forbidden, there would be some reason in the Act, but that is not the case. As far as mission institutions go the industrial mission suffers most on account of the difficulty of importing articles essential to the work. Hospitals and schools have to obtain permits to import the various things necessary to their work. But however irksome these regulations may be, we have to remember that the foreigner is no more restricted than the Persian. The Act has not been without results. Only a few years ago it seemed as if Russia would capture the Persian market. The bazaars and shops were flooded with Russian goods at prices which made competition impossible. Many of the Persian merchants were threatened with bankruptcy. The Trade Monopoly Act at least saved Persian trade from falling into Russian hands. But more than that, it has encouraged home industry. New factories are springing up in many parts of the country, and everything is done to encourage the importing of machinery necessary for such factories. Nearly every newspaper contains some reference to new factories that are being erected. Persian army uniforms are all made of cloth woven in Persia itself.

The year 1932 saw the issue of new currency notes. These, too, marked a change in the methods of the Government. Previous to this the Imperial Bank of Persia, a foreign institution, had the sole right of printing currency notes. By arrangement between the Government and the Imperial Bank that concession has been withdrawn, and the new notes bear the stamp of the National Bank. The Indo-European Telegraph Department has handed over the inland telegraphs to the Persian Government. According to the terms of the agreement, the Department continues to take charge of the Persian Gulf (submarine) section of the line until such a time as the Persian Government is able to take it over. Slowly but surely foreign influence is being eradicated.

Bolshevik Russia makes no secret of its purpose to spread Bolshevik doctrines and principles throughout the world, and Persia, like most other countries, has been worried by the activities of Bolshevik agents. In 1931 an Act was passed compelling all foreigners residing in Persia to register their names at the police station of the town in which they dwelt. By the provisions of this Act all foreigners are compelled to state their occupation, their income, and the source or sources from which it is drawn. Any person failing to show his means of subsistence will be expelled from the country. No longer is it possible for foreigners without visible means of subsistence and yet apparently well-supplied with money to wander about the country at will. This new law not only restricts the activities of propagandist agents but also provides a new source of revenue in registration fees. The activities of these agents are still further hampered by the decree issued in 1931 prohibiting political and religious propaganda. This decree has also hampered the work of missionaries in many parts of the country, but there is very little room for doubt that the main purpose of the Government was to restrict the activities of political agents. In this chapter no account will be taken of the attitude of the Government towards missionary institutions; the many new laws and regulations that have come into force during the last few years have added considerably to the difficulties of missionary work, in spite of the fact that these same laws have done much to break down religious prejudice and bigotry.

No account of the development of Persia during the last few years would be complete without some mention of the attempt that is being made to remedy social evils. Enough has been written in the past about the prevalence of disease and of immorality, about the insanitary conditions of life and the general indifference to these evils; it is good, therefore, to be able to write of a changed outlook.

During the last few years some towns have so changed as to be almost unrecognizable. The narrow, dirty, foul-smelling streets so general previously, are giving place to broad avenues and well-kept streets. Town planning has been taken up with seriousness and enthusiasm. Government hospitals have been opened in all the large towns, and qualified doctors have been appointed to them. State examinations have been instituted, and only qualified doctors and those possessing state licences are allowed to practise medicine. Free dispensaries have been opened, and licensed practitioners visit the outlying villages. Vaccination of children is compulsory, and every school child must produce not only a sejjel but also certificates to show that he or she has been vaccinated twice. In addition to all this a Persian equivalent of our Red Cross Association has been formed under the name of Shir va Khurshid-i Surkh (Red Sun and Lion), under the patronage of the Shah's daughter.

One of the most welcome signs of the new spirit that is at work was the passing of a new marriage and divorce law. It is not many years since a petition was sent to the Shah signed by all the English doctors working under the C.M.S. in Persia asking His Majesty to use his influence to secure the passing of a law prohibiting the marriage of girls under fifteen. That was in 1927. For a time it seemed as if nothing would be done, but in 1931 the new law mentioned above was brought before the Mejlis, and was eventually passed, though not without some modifications. It is interesting to note that the original draft of the law went further than was suggested in the petition sent to the Shah, for it fixed the minimum marriageable age for girls at sixteen and for boys at eighteen. Unfortunately this clause met with much opposition from the religious leaders, and in the law as it now stands no age limit is fixed, but the following vague and unsatisfactory provision is made with a view to attaining the same end: "Marriage to a girl physically immature is forbidden. Any man marrying a girl who is physically immature will be liable to a term of from one to three years' imprisonment, and in addition to this such a person will be liable to a fine of from two hundred to two thousand Tomans." Vague as is the wording of this clause it will undoubtedly do much to remedy the evil against which it is directed. Much will depend on how the clause is interpreted. All transgressors against this law are tried before a special court, provisions for which are made in the law, and it would seem from the verdicts already given in certain cases that it is the purpose of the authorities to interpret this clause as strictly as possible.

This law has done much to improve the position of women. It will encourage the education of girls. When it was the custom for men to give their daughters in marriage at an early age it was not considered worth while to educate them. Even if girls were sent to school they were liable to be taken away again at the very age when they were most receptive. They became mothers at an age when they were totally unfit to undertake the responsibilities of motherhood. The position of women is further improved by the fact that the law recognizes the right of women to sue for divorce in certain cases. Polygamy is not prohibited, but neither is it encouraged, for the law decrees that no man may take a second wife without informing his first wife of his intention, and his prospective bride of the existence of his first wife. This must be entered in the marriage contract. Should a man deceive a woman and declare that he is unmarried he is liable to a term of from six months' to two years' imprisonment, and the woman is entitled to sue for divorce. Any man marrying a woman is in duty bound to provide her with a comfortable home, clothes, food, and all the necessities of life. Should a woman leave her husband from fear of injury to her person or property, and her conduct be justified by the evidence, the court cannot order her to return to her husband, but as long as she is justified in not returning to him the husband is legally bound to provide her with all the necessities of life. We cannot here discuss this law in full, but the above will suffice to show that the Government is genuinely desirous to improve the lot of women. There is just one clause which is of interest on account of its importance from a missionary standpoint. Moslem women are definitely prohibited from marrying non-Moslem men. In view of the fact that a large number of young men are becoming Christians this clause constitutes a problem that will not easily be solved.

The changed position of women in Persia will perhaps best be realized from a glance at the newspapers. Not long ago an advertisement appeared in one of the leading Tehran newspapers which was nothing short of startling: "Wanted, a lady typist"! Tehran, of course, is far in advance of the rest of the country, but what Tehran does is eventually copied in other places.

The greatest evil in Persia to-day is the prevalence of venereal disease, which constitutes a real menace to the nation. How very grave the situation is will be seen from the following translation of part of a letter written by a Persian to one of the Tehran newspapers:--

That which I write here is written as a result of my own experience in my work. Perhaps my fellow-workers will testify to the truth of what I say. If you examine carefully the prescriptions presented at any pharmacy to-day you will see that from sixty to eighty per cent of them and of the medicines given out are for syphilis and gonorrhoea, and the deadly result of these two powerful agents is the destruction of the nation as a whole. From poor to rich, man and woman, old and young, the majority are infected, with just one difference--whilst the rich hurry for treatment as soon as they are infected, the middle-class through lack of money delay going, whilst the third class do not go at all, but empty-handed try to put up a plucky fight against this formidable opponent only to be beaten and finally wiped out. When Tehran, the capital and centre of the nation, is burning in the fire of this plague, woe to the condition of the provinces and the other parts of the country where the inhabitants have not the medical resources we have here! . . . Those who know something about these dangerous diseases know too how difficult is their treatment, and how impossible with the means at our disposal. In view of this not a day passes but that a number of our helpless youths are infected with syphilis or gonorrhoea, and without asking "Why" or "Wherefore" consign themselves and a number of others to death. Who is responsible for this gradual chain of deaths? Are not these persons who in this way are taken from this multitude natives of this land? Has the population of this country become so excessive that we must allow them to go troop after troop to destruction?

That is how a Persian feels about the matter. Here, surely, is one of the greatest problems that ever faced a nation. What can the Government do? Attempts have been made to control prostitution by instituting a medical examination of all prostitutes and licensing them, but that is to legalize the evil, not to lessen it. The position of the Government is difficult. Social evils are never easy to eradicate, but how much less easy is the task when those evils have the sanction of religion. The Shi'ah religion recognizes the validity of temporary marriages, and what are such marriages but a form of prostitution? The lax divorce laws, the popularity of these temporary marriages, all add to the number of women who traffic in their bodies and spread these life-destroying diseases. Legislation may lessen the evil, but it cannot eradicate it. In spite of all its progress Persia is doomed unless something is done to destroy this evil at its root.

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