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Chapter 11

Visits to high Persian officials--Meftah-es-Sultaneh--Persian
education--A college for orphans--Uncomfortable etiquette--The
Foreign Office--H.E. Mushir-ed-Doulet, Minister of Foreign
Affairs--Persian interest in the Chinese War of 1900--Reform

Perhaps the description of one or two visits to high Persian officials may interest the reader.

Through the kindness of the Persian Legation in London I had received letters of introduction which I forwarded to their addresses on my arrival in Teheran. The first to answer, a few hours after I had reached Teheran, was Meftah-es-Sultaneh (Davoud), the highest person in the Foreign Office after the Minister, who in a most polite letter begged me to go to tea with him at once. He had just come to town from Tejerish, but would leave again the same evening.

Escorted by the messenger, I at once drove to Meftah's Palace, outwardly, like other palaces, of extremely modest appearance, and entered by a small doorway leading through very narrow passages. Led by my guide, we suddenly passed through a most quaint court, beautifully clean and with a pretty fountain in the centre,--but no time was given me to rest and admire. Again we entered another dark passage, this time to emerge into a most beautiful garden with rare plants and lovely flowers, with a huge tank, fountains playing and swans floating gracefully on the water. A most beautiful palace in European architecture of good taste faced the garden.

I was admitted into a spacious drawing-room, furnished in good European style, where Meftah-es-Sultaneh--a rotund and jovial gentleman--greeted me with effusion. Although he had never been out of Persia, he spoke French, with a most perfect accent, as fluently as a Frenchman.

What particularly struck me in him, and, later, in many other of the younger generation of the upper classes in Persia, was the happy mixture of the utmost charm of manner with a keen business head, delightful tact and no mean sense of humour. Meftah-es-Sultaneh, for instance, spoke most interestingly for over an hour, and I was agreeably surprised to find what an excellent foreign education students can receive without leaving Persia. It is true that Meftah is an exceptionally clever man, who would make his mark anywhere; still it was nevertheless remarkable how well informed he was on matters not concerning his country.

He comes from a good stock. His father, Meftah-el-Mulk, was Minister member of the Council of State, a very wealthy man, who devoted much of his time and money to doing good to his country. Among the many praiseworthy institutions founded and entirely supported by him was the college for orphans, the Dabetsane Daneshe, and the Eftetahié School. The colleges occupy beautiful premises, and first-rate teachers are provided who instruct their pupils in sensible, useful matters. The boys are well fed and clothed and are made quite happy in every way.

Meftah told me that His Excellency the Minister of Foreign Affairs wished to see me, so it was arranged that I should drive to Tejerish the next morning to the Minister's country residence.

As early as five a.m. the following day I was digging in my trunks in search of my frock-coat, the only masculine attire in Persia that is considered decent, and without which no respectable man likes to be seen. Then for the tall hat; and with the temperature no less than 98° in the shade I started in an open victoria to drive the nine miles or so to the appointment.

Not being a Persian myself, and not quite sharing the same ideas of propriety, I felt rather ridiculous in my get-up, driving across the sunny, dusty and barren country until we reached the hills. I had to keep my feet under the seat of the carriage, for when the sun's rays (thermometer above 125°) struck my best patent-leather shoes, the heat was well-nigh intolerable.

At last, after going slowly up-hill through winding lanes enclosed in mud walls, and along dry ditches with desiccated trees on either side, we arrived at the Campagne de Tejerish, and pulled up in front of a big gate, at the residence of the Minister.

The trials of the long drive had been great. With the black frock-coat white with dust, my feet absolutely broiled in the patent shoes, and the perspiration streaming down my forehead and cheeks, I really could not help laughing at the absurdity of civilised, or semi-civilised fashions, and at the purposeless suffering inflicted by them.

There were a number of soldiers at the gate with clothes undone--they were practical people--and rusty muskets resting idle on a rack.

"Is Meftah-es-Sultaneh here?" I inquired.

"Yes, he is waiting for you," answered a soldier as he sprang to his feet. He hurriedly buttoned up his coat and hitched his belt, and, seizing a rifle, made a military salute in the most approved style.

An attendant led me along a well-shaded avenue to the house, and here I was ushered into a room where, round tables covered with green cloth, sat a great many officials. All these men wore pleated frock-coats of all tints and gradations of the colours of the rainbow. One and all rose and politely saluted me before I sat down.

Through the passage one could see another room in which a number of other officials, similarly clad and with black astrakan caps, were opening and sorting out correspondence.

Suddenly there was a hurried exit of all present--very much like a stampede. Up the avenue a stately, tall figure, garbed in a whitish frock-coat over which a long loose brown coat was donned, walked slowly and ponderously with a crowd of underlings flitting around--like mosquitoes round a brilliant light. It was Mushir-ed-Doulet, the Minister of Foreign Affairs. He turned round, now to one, then to another official, smiling occasionally and bowing gracefully, then glancing fiercely at another and sternly answering a third.

I was rather impressed by the remarkable facility with which he could switch on extreme courteousness and severity, kindliness and contempt. His face was at no time, mind you, subjected to very marked exaggerated changes or grimaces, such as those by which we generally expect emotions to show themselves among ourselves, but the changes in his expression, though slight, were quite distinct and so expressive that there was no mistake as to their meaning. A soft look of compassion; a hard glance of offended dignity; the veiled eyes deeply absorbed in reflection; the sudden sparkle in them at news of success, were plainly visible on his features, as a clerk approached him bringing correspondence, or asking his opinion, or reporting on one matter or another.

A considerable amount of the less important business was disposed of in this fashion, as the Minister strode up the avenue to the Foreign Office building, and more still with two or three of the more important personages who escorted him to his tents some little way from the avenue.

Meftah-es-Sultaneh, who had disappeared with the Minister, hurriedly returned and requested me to follow him. On a sofa under a huge tent, sat Mushir-ed-Doulet, the Minister, who instantly rose and greeted me effusively as I entered. He asked me to sit on his right on the sofa while Meftah interpreted. His Excellency only spoke Persian. Cigarettes, cigars, coffee and tea were immediately brought.

The Minister had a most intelligent head. As can be seen by the photograph here reproduced, he might have passed for a European. He was extremely dignified and business-like in his manner. His words were few and much to the point.

Our interview was a pleasant one and I was able to learn much of interest about the country. The Minister seemed to lay particular stress on the friendly relations of Russia and England, and took particular care to avoid comments on the more direct relations between Persia and Russia.

One point in our conversation which his Excellency seemed very anxious to clear up was, what would be the future of China? He seemed keenly interested in learning whether Russia's or England's influence had the supremacy in the Heavenly Empire, and whether either of these nations was actually feared by the Chinese.

"Will the Chinese ever be able to fight England or Russia with success? Were the Chinese well-armed during the war of 1900? If properly armed and drilled, what chances had the Chinese army of winning against the Allies? Would China be eventually absorbed and divided into two or more shares by European powers, or would she be maintained as an Empire?"

Although the Minister did not say so himself, I could not help suspecting that in his mind the similarity and probably parallel futures of China and Persia afforded ground for reflection.

There is no doubt that in many ways the two countries resemble one another politically, although Persia, owing to her more important geographical position, may have a first place in the race of European greed.

The interest displayed by Persians of all classes in the Chinese war of 1900 was intense, and, curiously enough, the feeling seemed to prevail that China had actually won the war because the Allies had retreated, leaving the capital and the country in the hands of the Chinese.

"More than in our actual strength," said a Persian official once to me, "our safety lies in the rivalry of Great Britain and Russia, between which we are wedged. Let those two nations be friends and we are done for!"

After my visit to the Minister of Foreign Affairs I had the pleasure of meeting the Prime Minister, the Minister of War, and the Minister of Public Works. I found them all extremely interesting and courteous and well up in their work. But although talent is not lacking in Persia among statesmen, the country itself, as it is to-day, does not give these men an opportunity of shining as brightly as they might. The whole country is in such a decayed condition that it needs a thorough overhauling. Then only it might be converted into quite a formidable country. It possesses all the necessary requirements to be a first-class nation. Talent in exuberance, physical strength, a convenient geographical position, a good climate, considerable mineral and some agricultural resources, are all to be found in Persia. All that is wanted at present is the development of the country on a solid, reliable basis, instead of the insecure, unsteady intrigues upon which business, whether political or commercial, is unfortunately carried on in the present state of affairs.

No one realises this better than the well-to-do Persian, and nothing would be more welcome to him than radical reform on the part of the Shah, and the establishment of the land of Iran on unshakable foundations. With a national debt so ridiculously small as Persia has at present, there is no reason why, with less maladministration, with her industries pushed, with her army reorganised and placed on a serviceable footing, she should not rank as one of the first and most powerful among Asiatic independent nations.

We have seen what young Japan, against all odds, has been able to accomplish in a few years. All the more should a talented race like the Persians, situated to begin with in a far less remote position than Japan, and therefore more favourably for the acquisition of foreign ways, be able to emulate, and even in a short time surpass, the marvellous success attained by the little Islanders of the Far East.

It is grit that is at present lacking in Persia. The country has a wavering policy that is extremely injurious to her interests. One cannot fail to compare her to a good old ship in a dangerous sea. The men at her helm are perplexed, and cannot quite see a clear way of steering. The waves run high and there are plenty of reefs and rocks about. A black gloomy sky closes the horizon, forecasting an approaching cyclone. The ship is leaking on all sides, and the masts are unsteady; yet when we look at the number of rocks and reefs and dangers which she has steered clear through already, we cannot fail to have some confidence in her captain and crew. Maybe, if she is able to resist the fast-approaching and unavoidable clash of the wind and sea (figuratively England is the full-blown wind, Russia the sea)--she may yet reach her destination, swamped by the waves, dismantled, but not beyond repair. Her damage, if one looks at her with the eye of an expert, is after all not so great, and with little present trouble and expense she will soon be as good as new. Not, however, if she is left to rot much longer.

Such is Persia at present. The time has come when she must go back into the shelter of a safe harbour, or face the storm.