Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Our Man in Bokhara - Alexander Burnes and Disaster in Afghanistan 1841 - Part Three

"He made me repeat the kualma or creed in Persian and in Arabic to his inexpressible delight. He said that our greatness had risen from a knowledge of mankind and attending to other peoples' customs as well as our own." Alexander Burnes, 'Travels into Bokhara', John Murray, London, 1834

Alexander Burnes, Travel Writer, Diplomat and Spy, was one of those 19th Century Brits who partook of "otherness".First, he was a Scot. Second, he was a gifted linguist, fluent in Persian and Urdu, read enough Arabic to talk about the Koran in Kabul,( impressing the hell out of his host, Dost Mohammed), and spoke enough Punjabi to get by disguised as a merchant, negotiating his way past bandits on the road into the Hindu Kush and in negotiating entrance at all to the city of Bokhara in Central Asia, a sacred city of Islam forbidden to non Muslims, and especially to the "Feringee"...meaning Franks...or Europeans.

(Memories of the atrocities of the 11th century Crusaders die hard out George Bush might be able to tell you.)

By "otherness", I mean transformation. As we know from the story of Lawrence of Arabia, there was, for the likes of TE Lawrence and Richard Burton and Alexander Burnes, all to a degree outsiders in their own cultures, a certain liberation in embracing the East. There are undertones of both the sexual and spiritual to this "Orientalism" as Edward Said famously described it. There are a number of other examples from the John Murray stable.Byron himself found a personal liberation in Ottoman territories. Isabella Bird recovered health and confidence only when hiking up mopuntains in the Americas or China...

One has to read between the lines a little, but both in Burnes' published writings and what I've seen and read of his private correspondence, he was one of those rare birds of the Imperial flock who found the strangeness of foriegn parts stimulating, and that he wanted to remake himself in that other place.

(The illustration above, by the way, is called "Arab companions of Alexander Burnes"...They were not, of course, "Arabs" at all...but that term signifies exactly the "Eastern Other")

Again, it is clear that Burnes delights in associating himself with that earlier "Sekundar"...Alexander the Great...seeking out relics, imagining he has located battlefields. He walks the valleys of the Sind and Sutej with a mental map of conquest, and of another self, already in his mind.

Which makes me think that this man's presence in later fiction extends past his being a character (and model) in the first Flashman book. Daniel Dravitt in Kipling's 'Man who would be King' again comes to imagine himself as 'Alexander Redux' in an unnamed city in Central Asia, till he too is destroyed like Burnes was, by feeling himself more at home than was justified.

But I'm anticipating events I'm going to deal with later. Getting ahead of myself.

One of the disciplines and pleasures of reading archive correspondance is that it takes you to the past in the historic present tense. Someone writing a letter is only thinking of the moment. So let's rejoin Burnes at a moment in Cairo in March1835.

He's on his way back East after scoring spectacular success in a diplomatic mission to the Punjab and Afghanistan, and his onward travels into central Asia and the Persian Empire...had reported his success to his chiefs, and to a public eager for tales of travel and discovery...and is now writing a curiously "constructed" version of himself to the son of his publisher, the future John Murray III...Take a look at them at the top of this entry...and reproduced here.

In the John Murray Archive are two versions of the same letter...facsimilies. It has been copied, presumably by one of Murray's clerks, preserving even the upside down placing of the postscript at the top of the has been treasured then, marked out as special. The physical peculiarity of the letter as object has been highlighted and reproduced as somehow special. This colours the reading and quoting of its text...enriches its voice:

He describes the

"Pyramids of Egypt, which, as my favourite author Gibbon says 'still stand erect and unshaken above the floods of the Nile, after an hundred generations of the leaves of autumn have dropped into the grave'"

He continues: "I cannot believe myself so far distant from the salons of London, but the moment I reach Alexandria the line of demarkation was too apparent, the transition from civilisation to barbarism was instantaneous and we recieved before leaving the steamer the astounding information that 15,000 individuals had died of plague withion the last three months and that 1298 had perished on the previous day..."

He is letting us and the Murrays know that A) It's rough out here, and B) he's right at home.

He knowingly quotes Byron to a Murray...from the poem Childe Harold...exclaiming happily "New shores descried made every bosom gay" He talks, as Byron famously did of the Pillars of Hercules, Lisbon...the Kingdom of the Goths...of the world through the glass of books...

(It is extraordinary how everything I come accross in this archive seems to lead back to Byron by some route or other)

Knowingly, flatteringly, he goes on: "The Quarterly is lying before me and strangely enough I have been perusing the very article which treats of Mohammed Ali in that able essay regarding the encroachments of Russia...Cairo is in sight, the boatmen are singing a song of delight in the music(?) not such however as attended on Cleopatra in her galley nor enough to make charmed into a forgetfulness of all your many attentions to me..."

Both for it's charm and it's intrigue, I have to call this double version of himself en route to his last mission my First Treasure on my voyage of search of Alexander Burnes...

Coming next...another oriental treasure...a letter in Farsi, or Persian - a language of Afghanistan, to Burnes, written by the great Runjeet Singh, to whom Burnes was to deliver some Shire horses (horses of that size being unfamiliar in those parts) while conducting, rather more plausibly, an intelligence mission to secure British alliances with the Sikhs of Lahore, explore possibilities with the new Ruler of Afghanistan.

(or of Kabul one person has EVER succeeded in ruling the whole territory, statehood or not)

the redoubtable Dost Mohammed...before proceeding to explore the Russian presence in their own backyard of Bokhara.

He didn't find any Russians there, not this first time...but that's to get ahead of myself again. I must stop doing that. He'll meet them soon enough.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Peem

    All this Afghan stuff is very fascinating, with Sekundar Burnes etc. Have you seen the Afghan related plays at the Tricycle Theatre? I haven't myself, but would like to. I know that Stephen Jeffreys and Colin Teevan have written two of them. I don't know if any of these plays make mention of Mr. Burnes.......
    A propos - do you think there are any theatrical possibilities in any of that material?