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Part Two: YOUNG MANHOOD - V. Monarchs, Diplomats and Politicians

Monarchs, Diplomats and Politicians

MY EXPERIENCES IN LONDON and during my Continental tour widened my horizons and stimulated my growing interest in -and desire to play my part in -- the world of politics and diplomacy. Not long after my arrival in England I was in touch with and was soon fully in the confidence of Sir William Lee Warner, the head of the Political Department of the India Office, the department which handled all the secret and confidential aspects of foreign relations. Through my friendship with a leading race horse owner, Sir J. B. Maple (founder and head of the big furniture store which bears his name), I made the acquaintance of his son-in-law, Baron von Eckardstein, who, since the Ambassador was a sick man, was in virtual charge of the German Embassy.

In the close and frequent company of these friends of mine I was able to observe at first hand the working out of a series of diplomatic moves of considerable importance. There was a growing awareness in certain circles in Britain that that "splendid isolation," which had seemed so natural and desirable only a short time before, had its grave disadvantages. The South African crisis was soon to reveal sharply how truly isolated Britain was; the depth and bitterness of anti-British feeling throughout Europe were far too pronounced to ignore. The leading spirit in Lord Salisbury's Cabinet in these years was Mr. Joseph Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary, a realist, despite the sometimes visionary nature of his imperialist ideals, who was acutely cognizant of the dangers of Britain's situation. Surveying the trends of world power at that time he believed that it might be possible to reach an understanding with Germany, and he saw clearly the perils ahead if that understanding were not reached. His official biography * has lately revealed the extent and the pertinacity of Chamberlain's efforts to secure an Anglo-German entente.

* The Life of Joseph Chamberlain, Vol. III, by J. L. Garvin; Vol. IV, by Julian Amery ( London, Macmillan & Co. Ltd.).

My own recollections confirm this to the hilt. It was a sincere and strenuous effort on Britain's part to achieve an understanding; and it failed solely because of the German attitude, which was the result of the outlook and prejudices of the chief German negotiators, Prince von Bülow and Herr von Holstein. Not only did I watch the British approaches; I was fully cognizant of the German reactions to them, through my friendship with von Eckardstein. I could see how sad Eckardstein became at the constant rejection of Britain's sincere hand of friendship -- a rejection always based on new and artificial pretexts and evasions. It is sad indeed to reflect on the long-term results of the breakdown of these negotiations. Might not the course of history in the twentieth century have been profoundly different had Chamberlain succeeded in averting the steady, implacable growth of Anglo-German antagonism? Would we not quite possibly have avoided two world wars? Had the Germans played the game, this would certainly have happened; but the great question mark for European peace lay always in Germany's attitude.

The temperament of the two Germans involved in these negotiations prevented them from rising to the greatness of the chance they were given. They had grown up in the shadow of the great Bismarck, but they were not of his quality of statesmanship. They were essentially small bureaucrats with all of Bismarck's arrogance, and they were ineradicably suspicious of what they thought of as British cunning and perfidy.

Long, long afterward Lord Rennell -- formerly Sir Rennell Rodd, and for many years British Ambassador in Rome -- told me that after the First World War, when Prince von Bülow was living in retirement in Rome, they discussed this whole episode. Von Bülow admitted with great hesitation and ruefully that he had been wrong to reject the hand of friendship which had been offered by Britain in sincerity and earnestness of purpose.

When my first European tour ended, I set off for East Africa. This, however, was no pleasure jaunt. One or two delicate and important tasks demanding the exertion of a certain amount of diplomatic skill and finesse awaited me there. There were several Ismaili settlements down the coast, which were rapidly increasing in numbers and in wealth; and more than one of these communities was involved in disputes -- by no means of a trifling character -with the local authorities.

East Africa was at the beginning of its rapid, even sensational, opening up and development, but at the turn of the century it presented a very different picture from that which it presents today. Several European powers with colonial aspirations were embroiled, down the thousands of miles from the Red Sea to the Cape, in what proved to be a late but dramatic phase of the scramble for Africa. Abyssinia, the only native African state with expansionist ambitions, had lately collided, bloodily but victoriously, with the Italians. At the Battle of Aduwa in 1896 Ras Makonen, the able lieutenant and ultimate successor of the Emperor Menelik, had heavily defeated an Italian army and put an end, for over thirty years, to Italy's efforts to extend her somewhat precarious coastal foothold. The British, having entered into a treaty with the Sultan of Zanzibar, established what was then known as the East African Protectorate (today the flourishing colony of Kenya with its complex multiracial community), with its base at Mombasa, under the supervision of the Foreign Office; and shortly afterward there were projects of settlement being put forward by Lord Delamere and others, in what came to be called "the white highlands" in the hinterland of the Protectorate.

Southward the Germans had staked their claims inland from Dar es Salaam in the territories now known as Tanganyika. Farther south the Portuguese, who were the first Europeans to venture into these regions in the great age of exploration, had an old-established colony. And inland from this, Jameson and his pioneers were carving out of the empty veld and savannahs the lands which were to become Northern and Southern Rhodesia. And to the south again the British and the Boers were already committed to the long, grim struggle of the South African War.

If the beginnings of future economic prosperity and greatness were already visible in the Africa which I visited for the first time in 1899, no less noticeable were the seeds of future political and social difficulties and problems.

Zanzibar, which I visited first, was an ancient seat of Arab culture. The Sultan no longer exercised absolute powers but was a constitutional sovereign, acting on the advice of his British Resident and officials. Between these officials and my Ismaili followers there had arisen a complicated dispute concerning the ownership and tenure of a tract of land on the seashore, the value of which had rapidly increased but which was an Ismaili burial ground. The dispute had been stubborn and protracted. I was able, however, to arrange a settlement which was admittedly a compromise. I confess that I have worked all my life on the principle that a compromise is better than rigid and unyielding disagreement. The compromise which we reached in Zanzibar was workable to this extent that there has never been any other major dispute in the years since then between the Ismailis and the British authorities.

In Dar es Salaam I was faced with a similar sort of conflict, in this case between the German authorities and my followers over land trading rights. This dispute had smoldered and flickered throughout the nineties; the Germans were suspicious of my Ismaili followers, and there were accusations that they were smuggling in arms and had had a hand in the Arab rebellion of some ten years before. There was a certain stiffness on the part of the German Governor and his officials when I first arrived. However I persevered, and before I left I was able to see the dispute settled and the suspicions (which were probably one cause of the stubbornness of the dispute) thoroughly dissipated. When I left, it was in the knowledge that there was a clean slate, so far as differences between my followers and the German administration were concerned.

From East Africa I went back to Europe for a short time. Then, as winter set in, I turned south and east. On my way home to India I visited Egypt for the first time. Those who have not experienced it, who have not been lucky enough to fall under Egypt's spell, will find it difficult, I suppose, to realize the sheer magic of the first sight of Egypt. Add that my first sight was on a perfect early winter day, and need I say that all my life since then I have had a special corner in my heart for Egypt and that I have returned there as often as I could.

There is a unique quality about Egypt's charm; the wide, tranquil skies, the extraordinary clarity of its light and atmosphere, the glories of its sunsets and its starlit nights, and its tremendous monuments of a majestic past. But I had other objects than mere sightseeing. I wanted to make personal contact with the large Ismaili community of Syria and the remnant of Egyptian Ismailis who had not yet come to see me in India. I also visited the great seat of Muslim learning, the Al Azbar University.

It was a time of momentous and stirring events. Lord Kitchener's great victory at Omdurman in the Sudan was still fresh in everyone's mind. General Wingate had just returned from the south. The Khalifeh had been killed, and the last of his dervish following exterminated.

I called on Lord Cromer, the British Resident in Egypt, whose power and authority in Egypt at that time were paramount. He said that Egypt badly needed a man like Sir Syed Ahmed, to do for its Muslim population the sort of educative and regenerative work which he had done in Aligarh. There was in Egypt at that time a deep rift between, on the one hand, the old-fashioned conservative, pious Muslim, who was contemptuous of modern science and techniques and who spoke and read Arabic and, on the other hand, the Frenchified upper classes, whose reading matter was mainly French yellow-back novels, whose meeting place was the club, whose diversions were cards and nocturnal gambling, who detested the British, yearned to see them out and longed for a return to the regime of the Khedive Ismaili. There was nothing like Aligarh to show the vast Muslim population the way toward a compromise with and understanding of modern, Western science, and to raise an elite capable of co-operating with British administrators and technicians in that process of economic and social uplift of which the country was in such desperate need.

Unfortunately the Khedive Abbas Hilmi was ill at the time -- it was suspected that he had some form of paratyphoid -- and I was therefore unable to see him. In later years we became great and intimate friends and I admired the brilliance of his intellect and his wide and deep knowledge of politics and history. I will have occasion to refer to him later. The Egyptian Ministers whom I met were merely nominees of the British -- of Lord Cromer, in fact.

People who know only the Cairo of today can have no idea of the social conditions of the early 1900's. The hotels were full of rich foreigners, who were "wintering in Egypt," then a highly fashionable pastime. They would make trips up the Nile in hired dahabiyehs or in one of Messrs. Thomas Cook's steamers. They spent money profusely and had a high old time, surrounded by magnificent-looking Egyptian guides and alleged interpreters, who were apt to speak the most grotesque pidgin variety of every European language.

The contents of the Cairo Museum were as fascinating as they have always been, and always will be; although of course Lord Carnarvon's magnificent Tutankhamen discoveries had not yet been made, there was more then enough to see, but the arrangement of it all was less convenient than it is today. A disagreeable and irreverent custom prevailed of exposing in full view, for anyone who wanted to see them, the actual mummies -- not merely the sarcophagi -- of all the great Pharaohs. You could see Rameses II, with his noble hawklike features, lying in his coffin -- looking almost as he had in life all those centuries ago -- and other former mighty kings and conquerors, at the feet of any chance passer-by.

To me, however, more concerned with the present than the past, possibly the most remarkable fact about Cairo in those days was that it was for all practical purposes another Poona or Simla. It was even more of a citadel of British supremacy than India. The British were not merely in political control of the country; they assumed a social superiority which the Egyptians appeared humbly to accept. What little political agitation that existed was attributed to the "machinations of the Palace." The general attitude of all classes toward the British Occupying Power -- its agents and officials, the British Army officers and the growing number of employees of British firms -- was one of outward submissiveness and obedience. Unhappily, just as in India in the late nineties and early nineteen hundreds, there was scarcely a link between the British community, political, military and commercial, and either the Egyptian aristocracy or the well-to-do bourgeoisie of Cairo and Alexandria. When rich Egyptians came to Europe, they went to Paris, to Switzerland, to Austria or Germany or Italy; they carefully kept clear of England. Few of the winter tourists, except for some individuals from the Continent, bothered to get to know Egypt's upper and middle classes. Even the Gezira Sporting Club, in the heart of the metropolitan Cairo, barred Egyptians from its membership other than in very exceptional cases. The only non-British whom the British encountered -- except for their office subordinates and their servants -- were the members of a few wealthy Levantine families who sought to identify themselves completely with the ruling power and were thus accepted. The depth and virulence of this social division can be seen in the fact that I myself, who naturally in my European travels met Egyptians -- largely of the aristocracy and members of the ruling dynasty -- seldom met one of them when I was in Cairo except in their own homes. There was really no common ground of social intercourse. Inevitably, therefore, behind the façade of humility there developed a sullen and brooding, almost personal, resentment which later on needlessly, bitterly poisoned the clash of Egyptian nationalism with Britain's interests as the Occupying Power. After three weeks or so in Cairo I went home to India, where the work I had done had not passed unnoticed by those concerned. The Sultan of Zanzibar bestowed on me the highest order in his gift, the Brilliant Star of Zanzibar, and later the German Emperor awarded me the Royal Prussian Order of the Crown (First Class).

From India I made a brief tour of Burma and met my follow ers there for the first time. I recall one somewhat daunting experience. A Muslim of my acquaintance -- not one of my followers -- had been very kind to me and had helped me in a variety of ways. I called on him to thank him, and as we exchanged courtesies he sent for a glass of sherbet for me. It was brought. The tall tumbler was held out toward me by a servant, and I saw that the hands that held it were the hands of a leper. Time seemed suspended as I stared horror-struck. I found every excuse I could, said that I was not thirsty, tried to get out of accepting the tumbler still held out toward me. But my host earnestly pressed me and went on pressing me. At last I shut my eyes, took the tumbler and gulped the sherbet down; but the horror of those hands remained.

I was back in Europe in 1900, and in Paris in that year -- the year of the Great Exhibition -- met the Shah Musafaradin of Persia. No other Shah, in my view, did more to harm Persia than he did. He was sickly, he was weak and he was grossly ignorant. He was capricious and extravagant, squandering gifts on his favorites, and incapable of any awareness of his duties and obligations as Shah. All the treasure which his father, Nasruddin, had amassed in fifty years of prudent and capable rule, he dissipated in folly and waste. He had a childish, pitiable passion for the silliest, most costly gadgets -- musical boxes, for example, adorned with jewels and gold and silver, and on these and similar trumpery objects he spent a fortune. It was no wonder that making a pun on his name, Musafaradin, the Persian intelligentsia nicknamed him "mauvaise affaire," and their gibe was taken up by foreigners in Tehran.

He was indeed a "mauvaise affaire" for his country. Since I was his relative, connected with him on my father's and my mother's sides of the family, he received me with eager affection, gave me one of his highest decorations and made me presents of diamond ornaments. But he was a sad nincompoop. Talking to him was like talking to a child -- and not a very intelligent child at that. His infantile outlook and behavior were sustained and exploited, for his own purposes, by his Prime Minister, the all-powerful Atabeg, who in his morning audiences with his sovereign did not give him serious reports but told him the sort of fantastic fairy tales a grown-up man will tell a small child to keep him entertained.

When I saw the poor man I happened to mention that I had just been to Burma. "Oh!" said he, "haven't the Burmans heads far bigger than other human beings?"

When he was in Paris he heard about Monsieur and Madame Curie and their discovery of radium. He asked to be shown radium at work. The two distinguished scientists said that they would come to his hotel and give him a demonstration of the properties of radium; but they explained that absolute darkness would be necessary for the demonstration. One of the hotel cellars was turned into a dark room; black curtains were put up and all light was completely shut out. The Shah and some of his courtiers went down to the cellar. Monsieur and Madame Curie arrived and produced a piece of radium whose vivid glow lit up the whole room. Suddenly the Shah took fright. He began to scream and shout and run round the room. He raved and ranted and accused the Curies of trying to murder him.

The Curies were not used to this kind of treatment and, much affronted, they took their leave. The Shah was at last made to understand that he had gravely hurt their feelings. As a recompense he awarded each of them one of his highest decorations, and for good measure he ordered each star to be set in diamonds. Off went the baubles to the Curies, who stiffly returned them with formal thanks, pointing out that they had been exposed to far too gross an insult to be able to accept anything of this kind.

Naturally the Shah had to go up the Eiffel Tower, and, naturally, about halfway up he panicked; the lift had to be stopped and he had to be brought down again.

His behavior in public and in private was deplorable. Since I am myself of Iranian descent and a member of the then ruling dynasty, the Kajar family, I was acutely aware of the shame and humiliation of it. So too were Iranian statesmen and diplomats, who were scandalized at what he was doing to his own and his country's reputation. We all tried to cloak it as much as we could and made excuses about his ill health, which had a certain basis of truth because he was a chronic sufferer from kidney trouble.

His folly, of course, had different, deeper roots. He exhibited, in an especially lurid light, all the dangers of the old-fashioned autocratic Oriental monarchy. However incompetent, silly or criminal such a despot was, not one of the able and intelligent statesmen of the world around him ever stood up to him and told him the truth about himself. The mysterious prestige surrounding kingship and the blood of kings induced a kind of mental paralysis even in good and sincere men, so that they were quite unable -- in the interests of their king and their country, even in their own interests -- to give true advice and guidance. From what I have been told by distinguished Russian friends, this sort of atmosphere prevailed in Czarist Russia. Did it disappear, I wonder, even in Stalinist Russia? You could not call the men who were thus paralyzed cowards; they were not time-servers, they were not utterly lacking in courage or scruples. It was simply that for them such divinity hedged their king that it was not a matter merely of pardoning his follies and weaknesses -- for them those follies and weaknesses simply did not exist. Again and again history teaches this lesson: a tough, self-made man founds a dynasty, his frailer descendants bolster themselves with this atmosphere of semidivinity, and then the dynasty collapses and the process starts anew, unless, as happened in Japan for centuries, the semidivine monarch is shut up in his palace, unapproachable, invisible, and all power is exercised on his behalf by mayors of the palace. Poor Musafaradin was a glaring example of the more pitiable defects of this kind of despotism.

From Paris I went on to Berlin. There I met von Holstein at luncheon -- one of the two men responsible for frustrating the attempts to achieve an Anglo-German understanding. He was a gray, withdrawn, taciturn man who ate heartily and said little. I also had an audience with the Kaiser at Potsdam. William II was then, I suppose, at the summit of his strange and ill-starred career. To me he was gracious and cordial. I had been warned that he was acutely sensitive about his physical deformity and disliked having his withered left arm looked at. But members of his court and others who knew him said that the curiosity of human beings is such that everybody, meeting the Kaiser for the first time, found his gaze drawn automatically and irresistibly to the left side of his uniform. While I awaited my audience I said to myself over and over again, "You won't look at his arm, you won't look at his arm."

He strode into the room; my eyes became a law unto themselves, and there I was staring at his left arm. Fortunately for me, I suppose, he must have been so accustomed to this that he did not let it diminish the warmth and courtesy of his greeting.

He held out his right hand and shook hands with me. This was literally a crushing experience. As a compensation for his deformity the Kaiser had, from childhood, determined that his right hand and arm should be so strong that they would do the work of two. He took constant, vigorous exercise; every day he had at least twenty minutes' fencing; he played lawn tennis often for two hours at a time, and undertook all manner of other remedial exercises. The result was an immense development of strength in his right hand and arm; one of its effects was this appallingly powerful handshake. I am told that mine was no unusual experience. The Duchess of Teck (later the Marchioness of Cambridge) told me that she -- like most other women with whom His Imperial Majesty shook hands -- had the greatest difficulty in not letting out a cry of pain as he took her hand in his.

I am sure that he was quite unconscious of what he was doing. He was far too great a gentleman to do it on purpose; but just as our eyes went to his withered arm, so his subconscious made him exert this violent physical strength.

Looking back, I realize that I was having a good many audiences with monarchs at this time. Later in this same year I went to Constantinople. The Sultan, Abdul Hamid, made me his guest at the Pera Palace Hotel, and I had a long audience with him at the Yildiz Palace. This encounter was the subject of a good deal of rather wild political speculation -- most of it arrant guesswork -- at the time and subsequently. The Sultan was also Caliph and therefore the recognized head of the whole Sunni branch of the Islamic world, and I was the head of the Ismaili section of the Shias. The grounds for speculation were obvious.

Our meeting had for me, I must say, its own rather curious flavor of drama. Abdul Hamid lived then in neurotic fear of assassination. * He was a chain smoker, and I have all my life been, as they say, allergic to cigarettes. When I was ushered into his room, the doors were immediately locked, and the Sultan and I were alone except for an interpreter. I do not speak Turkish and Abdul Hamid, though I believe he could read both Arabic and Persian, refused to speak either of these languages. The room was warm and cigarette smoke hung stale and heavy in the air. The Sultan sat huddled in an enormous greatcoat, with field marshal's epaulettes heavy on its shoulders. Slowly I realized that this bulky and cumbrous garment was armored, and about as bulletproof as was possible in those days. Did he think, I wondered, that I had come there to murder him?

* It is interesting and not without irony to realize that the word "assassin," which has its special contemporary meaning, was first applied many centuries ago to my ancestors and their Ismaili followers. From time immemorial, small and oppressed minorities have had to be given a bad name -- after all, you cannot kill a dog unless you give it a bad name -- and in the Middle Ages the Ismailis were such a minority, fighting for their lives and their rights. Their oppressors had to give them a bad name, they associated the Ismailis with the manufacture and use of the drug hashish, and it was alleged that they were addicts. The bad name, thus invented, stuck.

Over the lapels of the overcoat a strange and somewhat sinister countenance confronted me. For Abdul Hamid wore heavy make-up -- his beard dyed black, his lips carmined, his cheeks rouged and his eyebrows made up to an extent that was comic. He might have been a clown in a circus, but his eyes glowed in this preposterous make-up. Yet this maquillage was no expression of the effeminacy of perversion; he was most virile, the sire of many children and the affectionate husband and protector of a large harem.

Our conversation was amiable and courteous. I recall that he was interested and impressed by the fact that I, by way of Kashgar and Sinkiang, had up-to-date and reliable information about the Muslims of western China.

It was said that as an aspect of his neurosis about assassination, every particle of food sent up to him had to be tasted by several people on the way, including the cook. As I had no meal with him I cannot vouch fully for the truth of this story, but I do know that he had an idea that the food at my hotel was not particularly good, so twice every day a landau drove up from the palace with a cargo of china wash basins filled with excellent dishes, both Turkish and Persian, prepared for me in the palace and sent to me by Abdul Hamid's express command.

From Constantinople I made my way home to India to tackle a task in my household and entourage -- a cleaning-up job of nightmare complexity which was to demand a great deal of energy, patience and endurance for many months to come.

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