From the Diaries of Haj Sayyah

An Iranian in Nineteenth-Century Europe: Diaries of Haj Sayyah 1859–1877 documents Haj Sayyah’s travels throughout Europe and, eventually, America, where he became a naturalized citizen—possibly making him the first Iranian-American. He is said to have been honored by American president Ulysses Grant, and might well have also met Mark Twain during his sojourn in North America. A wanderer and an activist, he was impressed by the democratic ideals of the West and, hastening his own demise, pushed to no avail for reforms in his homeland after he returned there. He died at the age of 89 after political imprisonment.

But there were happier days during his time abroad, and Paris, in particular, bedazzled him.

All the city looked like jewelry. There were music and singing in coffee shops and theatres. They were all full, with no place to sit…. The trees were festooned with green lights. Musicians played, and young people and children danced…. They enjoyed complete freedom.

He also documented exchanges he had with fellow travelers along the way, some of them Muslim.

My companion said: “A lot has been written about paradise in our books, but I don’t believe paradise can be better than this.” I answered: “Do not talk of religion, please. One can compare two places where he sees two of them. How can we judge now that we have not seen paradise? When we were in Lyon and Marseilles, we could not think of Paris being so much better; now that we see Paris we know it.”

Born poor, Haj Sayyah grew up in a peasant family that expected him to carry on with ordinary village life—marry his cousin and till the land until his death. But Sayyah couldn’t shake his wanderlust. So one night, before his marriage, he secretly left the village and embarked on a lifelong journey of travels. In the ensuing years, he learned Russian, French, English, and German, traversing the world. While in North America, he wanted to continue traveling west over the Pacific to Japan, but discovered that—unlike with his travels in Europe—he needed a travel document called a passport, which he did not possess. Seemingly unaware of naturalization hurdles, he asked for a U.S. passport and was granted one, thus becoming the first known Persian to become an American.

His world travels made a lasting impression on him, especially what he perceived as the cleanliness, order, and humanity of 19th-century Europe.

On the streets the roads for carriages, the paths for animals, and the sidewalks for the pedestrians were separate. Police watched to ensure that all kept to their own places.

My companion said: “Can there be anything better than this?” I said: “Man has the ability to perform whatever he can imagine. He will certainly continue improving things in the future.”

After he returned to Iran, he indeed dared to imagine an improved future for his country, one grounded in personal liberty and democratic ideals. Alas, he was swiftly persecuted and jailed for his modernity by none other than the Shah of Persia, who himself had traveled through Europe and seen firsthand the seeds of revolution there.

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