TRAVEL THE ROAD TO OXIANA By ROBERT BYRON [Pimlico, 292pp., 2004]
IF I HADN’T EXPERIENCED it at another complex in Kurdistan, I might have attached little credence to Byron’s account of sunset at the tomb of Niamatullah, despite the formal beauty of the passage:
While the cadent sun throws lurid copper streaks across the sand-blown sky, all the birds of Persia have gathered for a last chorus. Slowly, the darkness brings silence, and they settle themselves to sleep with diminishing flutterings, as of a child arranging its bedclothes . . .
There, winding down the day in forty-four cadent strokes. And then:
Suddenly the sky clears, and the moon is reflected three times, once on the dome and twice on the minaret.
And I see green and white neon fittings on the minarets, fairy lights strung between them, and the sound of a diesel generator. It was some time ago, yet how you wish it were today. Happily, Byron recorded some of these scenes of “the peace of Islam” for posterity.
Imagine having to be reminded that this work of art he’s describing is part of the night also. Imagine actually being able to see stars reflected in that pool or any other. Imagine that sitting by the water in the garden of a saint’s tomb at nightfall or all through it might be part of contemplation. Someone thought of that, the builder(s). Times were different. There was time. Now such places when not blasted flat by modern lighting practices are locked outside of “visiting hours” lest someone should spend an “unproductive” moment.
So I read books such as this one.
Robert Byron, born in 1905, educated at Eton and Merton College, Oxford, traveled extensively through Iran and Afghanistan in 1933-34. The events of the time: the crumbling Raj and empire, Zionist designs on Palestine, the Great Game, even Hitler, serve as djinn in the woodwork.
But his main interest, the origins of Islamic architecture, is never lost sight of. Couple that with his eye, this weird ability to put into words the works he describes, the colors and patterns evoked, not in a void but in their landscape and among their people and you have here a work of art. The Road to Oxiana is one of the best pieces of English travel writing in the twentieth century. Bruce Chatwin considered it “a masterpiece.”
It is pretty good. One thing that sets it apart from most early accounts by Brits in Afghanistan is the respect Byron accords the local populace. He is never a generalist. These are individuals, as seen in his account of the Afghan ambassador to Iran, Shir Ahmad. (Byron is to my knowledge the only writer to ever mark the cadence of a speaker with musical directions, quite effectively too, and by no means meant as a lampoon. If you ask me, it is probably a precise rendition of his mode of speech.)
Byron’s Companion, Christopher Sykes, accused of spying, seeks Shir Ahmad’s permission to leave Iran by way of Afghanistan. Though Christopher protests the unfairness of this, Shir Ahmad explains why the Persians are right in doing so. And recounts the tale of an ass tricked by a jackal into wearing a lion’s coat, and to stand on a hillock as Shah-in-Shah of the jungle. (I couldn’t help wondering whether this was the source for the similar tale in CS. Lewis’s The Last Battle. J The donkey, finally exposed by a pig, ends up dead. And Shir Ahmad concludes:
“(mf)You hear, Mr Sykes? I tell you, it is same in Orient. Afghanistan and Persia, two old donkeys. But Persia donkey in loin’s [sic] coat, ass-loin. It is good. Persia very proud, very high. But if you (¿t) talk to him like pig did, if you (#)TALK to him, (mf) he very angree [sic], because all animals, all peoples, see he is donkey. So you must go away.”
There’s a pretty picture of Marjoribanks (Shah Reza Pahlevi). At the same time, being compared to an in-quisitive pig can’t be very flattering either. But Byron sets it all down honestly.
As he set down his first meeting with the Afghans in these fighting words, pleasantly surprised I gather:
They expect the European to conform to their standards, instead of themselves to his, a fact which came home to me this morning when I tried to by somearak; there is not a drop of alcohol to be had in the whole town. Here at last is Asia without and inferiority complex. Amanullah, the story goes, boasted to Mar joribanks that he would westernize Afghanistan faster than Marjoribanks could westernize Persia. This was the end of Amanullah, and may like pronouncements long be the end of his successors [my italics].
Byron’s prayer was answered. For the prose itself and for what it conveys of Islam, art and humanity, read this book.