The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Adventures of Hajji Baba, of Ispahan (1824)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Adventures of Hajji Baba, of Ispahan and its sequel The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan in England (1827) were written by James Morier. Morier (1780-1849) was a British diplomat, adventurer, and author. He first went to Persia in 1807 and visited it and surrounding countries several times over the next decade. His desire to write something in the Persian style of Arabian Nights produced Hajji Baba of Ispahan.
Hajji Baba is a charming rogue, someone who began life as a barber/surgeon but whose wanderlust and desire for money led him to leave home on a caravan when he was only sixteen. But the course of roguery doth ne'er run smooth, and he is almost immediately captured by a band of Turcoman bandits. Hajji Baba lets himself be captured a second time by a shahzadeh (prince) and is taken to Meshed, where he becomes a water carrier. Hajji Baba sprains his back carrying water–his boastfulness leads him to take on far too much weight, including that of his main rival–and so he becomes an itinerant vender of smoke. But he cuts his tobacco with dung once too often and is caught by the Mohtesib (“the Mohtesib is an officer who perambulates the city, and examines weights and measures, and qualities of provisions”1) and bastinadoed for his fraud. So Hajji Baba becomes a dervish, telling colorful stories and shaking down listeners for money; he stops in mid story, just when things are getting good, and asks for donations in exchange for his continuing. He then becomes a doctor to the Shah of Persia, a position he loses due to an imprudent love affair.
And so on and so forth, for hundreds of pages, through colorful stories and attractive boasts and genial swindles and painless mendacity and jovial hypocrisy and maidens fair and wry observations at the foibles of the mighty and the poor. Hajji Baba is a light-hearted thief and scoundrel, never doing anyone any real harm (except for the loss of a few ducats or tomauns), falling in and out of love, and generally having a fine old time of it. Hajji Baba is great fun and a more-than-adequate substitute for The Arabian Nights.
Morier began writing Hajji Baba in 1817, six years before the publication of the first English translation of the Grimm Brothers’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen. Morier did not have the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales to use as a literary model. Instead, he used what many authors of the time used when writing a fairy tale-like story: The Arabian Nights, which had been available in English for almost a century. Morier was not the first to write a new version of The Arabian Nights, and by 1817 writers influenced by The Arabian Nights were producing Gothic novels (see: Vathek) and poems, but Morier’s superior talent and Hajji Baba’s economy of phrase and light, humorous touch gave Hajji Baba a lasting power which other similar works lacked. Hajji Baba is also a novel of the picaresque. Morier was specifically influenced by Alain-Rene LeSage’s Gil Blas (1730), arguably the best-known picaresque novel.
Hajji Baba of Ispahan is set in Persia and environs (“in the land of the lion and the sun”) in the first decades of the nineteenth century. The novel is written with a certain archness and no small amount of humor, and combined with the richness of Morier's imagination and the charcoal sketches he added to Hajji Baba–Morier was an artist of some ability–made for an attractive and popular work. Hajji Baba was an almost immediate sensation. It went through two editions in one year and was highly praised by a number of critics, including Walter Scott. Hajji Baba clubs formed across England, with several of the clubs lasting for decades. The novel was reprinted in a number of languages, and over a century later it was still being reprinted and receiving praise from the likes of Christopher Morley. Interestingly, the English viewed Hajji Baba as a satire of the Persian character, while the Persians, some of whom believed it to be a centuries-old work only recently translated into English, saw it as a straight psychological analysis of their character—a view point that some English came to adopt in the twentieth century as well.
It has been argued that Hajji Baba was in large part responsible for the creation of modern Persian prose fiction.
It would be inaccurate to single out this one translation as the sole impetus to development in the history of modern Persian prose, for there were numerous other historical and literary factors responsible for change. However, the period best represented by this translation, which also saw the publication of other important prose forms such as travelogues and newspapers, was crucial in the emergence of modern Persian prose. The translation of Morier's novel became so well integrated into the Persian literary system that, it is claimed, even today the "average" Iranian reader does not realize Hajji Baba is the creation of a foreigner - this in spite of the novel's stereotypical representation of Persians.2
Hajji Baba was even more popular in Iran following its translation into Persian than it had been in Great Britain, thanks mostly to its innovative use of the Persian street vernacular rather than the traditional, “highly ornate and formulaic domain of the written language.”3
Hajji Baba’s portrayal of Persia and Persians is stereotyped, no doubt, and in that respect the novel has not aged well. Certainly modern readers are not encouraged to accept the stereotypes within as a serious portrayal of the Persian character. But if—and this understandably can be a big “if” for some or many modern readers—the modern reader can overlook the stereotyping, they will have a grand time reading The Adventures of Hajji Baba, of Ispahan.
Print: James Morier, Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan. London: Forgotten Books, 2017.
1 James Morier, The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan (New York: Random House, 1937), 60.
2 Nasrin Rahimieh, “A Systemic Approach to Modern Persian Prose Fiction,” World Literature Today 63, no. 1 (Winter, 1989): 15.
3 Rahimieh, “A Systemic Approach,” 15.