Mirza Abu Taleb Khan (1752–1806) was a Persian travel writer from India. His writings would later inspire the Shah of Persia to embark on a years-long journey through Europe. In Khan’s travelogue, which the Shah read with great interest, the West is described through the gaze of the East, producing a sort of “reverse travelogue” to Orientalism—an Occidentalism.
Khan’s travelogue relies on comparing and contrasting the different cities to which he traveled, thus offering a comparative account of European cultures through the eyes of an outsider, someone who hailed from the East. At times, Khan’s observations inadvertently—and humorously—capture some of today’s clichés about the places he visited.
One example is rudeness. He first came across it while traveling in Ireland. But whatever incident made an impression on him (he does not relay it in detail), he quickly puts it into a broader perspective: “after experiencing the mode of traveling in France, I was convinced my former complaints [in Ireland] were all groundless.”
“The customer is king” is another example, even before the phrase was coined. Khan captures this sentiment when he poopoos the modes of transportation on which he traveled throughout Europe—all except for one place: “there is no country where the same attention is paid to the comfort and ease of the passengers as in England.”
He generally found London to be “superior” to Paris, as he put it, even though the latter offered “more superb buildings.” He adds of Paris, “it is neither so regular, kept so clean, nor so well lighted at night, nor does it possess so many squares or gardens [as London].”
“In short, I thought I had fallen from Paradise into Hell,” he proclaims, humorlessly, referring to his arrival in Paris after having visited Britain’s capital.
But fear not, lest the lovers of Paris be left disappointed in Khan’s conclusion, he gives us this nugget:
“When I arrived in Italy, I was made sensible of the beauty of Paris.”