a guest post by Nedda Mehdizadeh
I’m currently revising an essay for publication that centers on a Persian-language manuscript I found at the Folger Shakespeare Library while on fellowship in 2017. The catalog entry for the manuscript, S.b. 122, includes information about its ownership and acquisition in the metadata, which is also summarized in its assigned title: “Copy in the hand of Sir Thomas Munro of The Mussulman and the Jew, a Persian MS [manuscript], 1786.” Though the catalog offers pertinent information about its afterlife, it cannot account for its unknown historical context, such as who wrote it (it was only “cop[ied]” in Munro’s hand), its precise date of composition (it was only recovered by Munro in 1786), or its specific ethnic or regional origin (it is only in the Persian language, which was broadly spoken and written beyond Iran’s borders following the Arab invasion of the 7th century that geographically dispersed natives due to religious, cultural, and linguistic persecution).1
The manuscript is a peculiar text that seems to replay—or perhaps anticipate—the conditions of Shylock’s bond in The Merchant of Venice; while this detail is also unclear, Munro suspects the narrative may be a source for Shakespeare’s play.2 The story follows a financial dispute between two neighbors—a Muslim man and a Jewish man—that ultimately concludes with a judge ruling in the Muslim man’s favor.3
While the text’s relationship to Shakespeare and the conditions of the story itself raise important research questions, what I find most interesting about this manuscript is Munro’s relationship to the Persian language, to the text, and to Shakespeare. As an agent of the East India Company, Munro had dedicated time to learning eastern languages including Persian, which he describes in a letter (undated) to an unknown recipient in Glasgow: “I have been for some years past amusing, or rather plaguing, myself with the Hindostanee and Persian languages. I began the study of them in the hopes of their becoming one day of use to me” (Gleig 32).4
As he notes, his inclination to learn foreign languages was not to celebrate culture but to enable direct communication more readily with natives, a mode of immersion that made governing (that is, colonizing) foreign lands unfold with more ease. Joint-stock trading companies like the East India Company, chartered in 1601, and the Muscovy Company before it (chartered 1555) had a long history of attempting to secure dominance over eastern lands under orders of English monarchs. The earliest expeditions beginning in 1561 targeted Safavid Persia whose shahs all denied England exclusive access to their lands and goods. These failures launched additional expeditions to neighboring regions, and by the time Munro was in service 1779, the company had been working to maintain territories they had claimed in India some twenty years earlier against French interests.5
Given the circumstances of Munro’s service with the East India Company, I found it curious that he invested his time in studying Persian-language narratives while abroad—what did an agent in the East India Company army hope to find within the pages of Persian-language prose and poetry? The argument that animates my essay considers this question, and suggests that Munro’s acts of transcription and translation facilitate an ideological colonization where East India Company agents like Munro turned to translation as a method of gaining access into an otherwise impenetrable Persia/Iran on behalf of the crown.6 Whereas earlier endeavors to occupy Safavid Persia had failed, gaining facility over its language could conceivably grant access to a broader eastern landscape unified by a common language.
Munro’s transcription and translation of this Persian-language narrative emphasizes the relationship between translation studies and postcolonial studies, to the extent that translations by European imperialists do figurative or literal violence to the cultures and languages they make legible. While Munro’s orientation to the document might seem innocuous at first glance, his treatment of it in translation relies on positioning white Europeanness as superior to Persian or Indian culture. He does this work not only through his denigration of the Persian language, assigning it a “barbarous character,” (Gleig 35) but also through his prioritizing of Shakespeare, seemingly attempting to recover the playwright from the archives of the east.
Shakespeare’s presence is integral in his translation project; it offers his audience a familiar and beloved image in contrast to the primitive one he has ascribed to Persian-language speakers, further elevating the status of English and Englishness. Moreover, Munro is selective in his translation of the text, only making accessible the portion of the story that includes the unmistakable bond of a pound of flesh as collateral for repayment of a loan, and omits the remainder of the story. His selective translation not only grants his audience access to his favorite scene, it also makes his intentions undeniable: by making Persia/n legible for an English-speaking audience, Munro renegotiates Persia/n according to his own desires, informing how the language and story will come to be known by his readers. This process effectively denies natives agency because they are translated into knowable objects that come to be known by a dominant entity positioning itself as a superior race. Though Persia/Iran has never undergone formal colonization by western powers, it is a cultural and literal landscape that has historically been translated by non-natives according to their desires and designs, which aligns its past and present with the effects of imperialization.7
My experience in revising this essay at this particular time is especially poignant. Set to the soundtrack of a revolution currently underway in Iran, my writing reverberates the chants by Iranian women and their allies calling for an end to the brutal reign of a violent regime, the sound of gunshots by regime forces killing civilians, new anthems like Shervin Hajipour’s “Baraye ” echoing around the world, and the deafening silences from protesters gone missing.
This woman-initiated, woman-led movement was instigated by the murder of Mahsa Zhina Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman who had been visiting Tehran on holiday. She was abducted and beaten by the Islamic Republic’s so-called “morality police” on September 13, 2022 because, in their estimation, she was not wearing her compulsory headscarf appropriately, and she died after three days in a coma while in their custody on September 16, 2022. Her tragic death was part of a familiar refrain for Iranians, yet another precious life taken by a government rooted in gender discrimination since the 1979 revolution, which had promised democracy but delivered a dictatorship. Reaching their breaking point after more than 40 years of human rights’ abuses, the Iranian people have taken to the streets in protest and initiated strikes in opposition to the Islamic Republic, calling for regime change, an end to theocracy, the implementation of a democratic system, and a society that honors and advocates for “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi,” or, “Woman, Life, Freedom,” which has become the prominent battle cry for the movement.
Despite the clear and unmitigated list of demands that protestors have chanted since September 16, western diplomats and figureheads have hedged in their support of the Iranian people led by its women risking their lives as they fight for liberation. Indeed, much of the rhetoric that circulates from these representatives reanimate the colonizing tactics that Munro employs through redirection and mistranslation, despite the growing numbers of state-sanctioned murders and violent arrests of peaceful demonstrators. For example, Robert Malley, the United States Special Envoy for Iran, recently faced criticism from Iranian citizens, members of the Iranian diaspora, and their allies when he responded to the ongoing protests in a Tweet by saying “Marchers in Washington and cities around the world are showing their support for the Iranian people, who continue to peacefully demonstrate for their government to respect their dignity and human rights.”
As actress, activist, and Ambassador for Amnesty International UK, Nazanin Boniadi, responded in a Tweet issued approximately one hour later, “To be clear, the protestors in Iran are not just demonstrating for their government to respect their dignity and human rights. They are saying ‘death to the dictator,’ and ‘death to the Islamic Republic.’ They don’t want reforms. They want an end to theocracy. Plain and simple.”
Malley is not alone in his refusal to acknowledge the ongoing movement in Iran as a revolution; he is joined by other diplomats, heads of state, ambassadors, and even some reporters who have downplayed the movement to simple demonstrations for “respect,” acknowledging the bravery of Iranian women even as they remain steadfast in negotiating with their murderers. Specifically, this anemic response by western officials is motivated by their commitment to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA), otherwise known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, initiated by the Obama Administration in 2013-2015 and revived by the Biden Administration beginning in 2021 after its dissolution by the Trump Administration. Iranian citizens and members of the Iranian diaspora have spoken against the progress of this agreement at this time because it would reward the regime with $100 billion in frozen assets according to its guidelines at a time of civil unrest, an act seen by the Iranian community as a direct alignment with the regime and against the protestors calling for a free Iran. It would also lift sanctions against Iranian oil exportation, an attractive consequence for the United States and European nations who have experienced increased oil and gas prices since the onset of the ongoing war in Ukraine beginning in February 2022. While the administration has halted negotiations for the time being, they have clearly stated the reason for this hiatus is due to unreasonable demands by the Islamic Republic and not because of an unwavering support of Iranian citizens, implying that negotiations would continue if a mutually-agreed upon diplomatic deal can be reached.
As an academic who works and lives in the United States and an Iranian-American woman, my positionality allows me to examine the geographical, cultural, and temporal fractures from the perspective of possibility rather than opposition. My research about the past provides a lens through which to interrogate events in the present because a study of the past illuminates harmful repetitions as well as points to hopeful solutions through lessons learned. In my research, particularly my interests in examining rhetorical strategies through translation in premodern contexts, I see parallels with events that emerge today, such as how Munro’s act of selective translation of Persian-language resources parallels western officials’ selective translation of Iranian protestors’ calls for international support.
Indeed, by contending with Munro’s framing of what emerges from the Persian language, I also contend with patterns of rhetorical frameworks that are produced and reproduced about Persia/Iran over time—the fruits of such patterns appear hourly with each refresh of my Twitter feed. Munro’s desire to learn foreign languages relies on the promise of “their becoming one day of use to [him].” His orientation toward the language, land, and culture, therefore, relies on “us[ing]” language to “use” resources that the Company takes possession over but to which it has no inherent claim. This orientation is reanimated today by western leaders who mistranslate calls for a regime change in Iran to requests for respect or reform and who negotiate with regime officials even as protests call for help.8 This rhetorical maneuvering attempts to remove agency from the Iranian people; they become objectified as symbols to be admired rather than supported as humans who are fighting for “Woman, Life, Freedom.”
Nedda Mehdizadeh is Continuing Lecturer at UCLA Writing Programs. Her scholarly and teaching interest center on early modern studies, studies in empire and colonization, critical race studies, and critical diversity studies. Her primary research follows the complex transnational encounters between Persia’s Safavid natives and their English visitors, and she is writing her first monograph about this topic, Translating Persia in Early Modern English Writing. In addition to her work on the Global Renaissance, she also researches Shakespeare and pedagogy through a critical race studies lens. Her co-authored book with Ambereen Dadabhoy , Anti-Racist Shakespeare is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press in the Elements in Shakespeare and Pedagogy series. She has held a variety of research fellowships at archives, including those at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library and the Folger Shakespeare Library.
- For more historical context, see Jamsheed Choksy’s entry in Encyclopedia Iranica.
- Munro’s conjecture is cited in Malone’s edition of Shakespeare’s plays (1790).
- My forthcoming essay includes a full translation, which I wrote in collaboration with my parents, Bahman and Soraya Mehdizadeh.
- For more information on Munro’s life, including reproductions of his letters, see G. R. Gleig. Life of Sir Thomas Munro. London: 1849.
- For more information, see P.J Marshall. The Making and Unmaking of Empires: Britain, India, and America c.1750-1783. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
- For an accessible discussion on the difference between Persia/Persian and Iran/Iran, see the pinned Twitter thread on my Twitter feed.
- For more information about Iran’s place in postcolonial studies, see Farah Ghaderi. “Iran and Postcolonial Studies: Its Development and Current Status.” In Interventions, 20:4, 2018. 455-469.
- Iranian protesters are asking the international community to amplify their voices in the face of government suppression, call on government representatives to express unequivocal support of the Iranian people, and demand the United Nations urgently create an international mechanism to hold Iran to account for human rights abuses.