Between Polite Economy and the Gift: Nineteenth-Century British Travelers and Persian Excess

In: Philological Encounters
Niloofar Sarlati University of Michigan, Department of Comparative Literature

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Nineteenth-century travelogues by British travelers to Persia commonly include warnings against “excessive” Persian politeness, casting it as flattery or deceit. While this pejorative representation of Persian cordiality is a token of British Orientalism, it also highlights the incompatible measures for pleasantries in Persia and Britain. This essay traces the competing economies of social courtesy in these two contexts: a desire for utmost calculability in the British market entailed a new conception of politeness, one more moderate and commercial; by contrast, Persian politeness operated through gift-giving and “extravagant” greetings and complimenting. While the former hinges on a “modern” conception of commerce, the latter pivots around the bargain entailed in gift-giving. (Mis)recognition and (mis)translation of Persian “excess” as the hypocrisy of the ancien régime in the travelogues, however, signpost a teleological fabrication of the past which urges a global circulation of the British notion of polite character.

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