According to Nile Green, an Islamic history professor and author at the University of California, Los Angeles, his book probing the lives of a handful of Iranian students in early 19th-century England — when novels by Jane Austen were all the rage — "is a study in the neglected virtue of xenophilia."
Although Green comes off as too effusive in advocating the rose-tinted view of that which is foreign, he creates a mesmerizing and winsome work in "The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austen's London."
In 1815, Iran's crown prince dispatches Muhammad Salih — a mirza, or court official — and four other young men to "Inglistan." They join a compatriot already there and spend four years arming themselves with knowledge of those "new sciences" — from engineering to gunmaking to medicine — that might help stave off Russian politico-military encroachment on their native land.
Green, who proves quite the detective, draws on Salih's diary, the students' letters and contemporaneous newspaper accounts to "drill a spyhole through the centuries into the neglected Muslim wing of Mansfield Park."
The intellectually minded and religiously nondoctrinaire Salih, who studies European languages and English history with private tutors before apprenticing at a printer's, lauds England as a country amenable to scientific inquiry. Yet he registers surprise at the zealous Christianity of its universities, which remind him of the typical Islamic madrassa back home.
For his part, Green memorably describes the Oriental languages departments of Oxford and Cambridge as "the evangelical lions' den."
At the same time, the writings of Scottish Enlightenment thinker David Hume serve to further liberalize the views of Salih, who ultimately comes to consider England a vilayat-i azadi, or "land of freedom." Salih and his closest companion, a mirza named Jaafar, also gain an awareness of Christian diversity through meetings with Dissenters in what Green terms the "cosmopolitan vortex" of Bristol, and later even become Freemasons.
Meanwhile, craftsman Muhammad Ali, "the subaltern of his otherwise smart set" of highborn Iranian mirzas, enters a fascinating milieu of politically radical workers while training in the manufacture of steam engines.
Warm personal relationships, including romance (Ali marries his sweetheart in a church ceremony before they sail for Iran together), emerge as the most substantive feature of this book about the meeting and mingling of different and putatively incompatible people.
Although Green sometimes proves heavy-handed in countering the notion of a clash of civilizations, his mission remains noble in intent. Green's inquisitive Iranian students and their gracious English hosts forge friendships across religious and cultural lines.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Lebanon.