Haj Sayyah and the Encumbrance of Attachment

Why for so many Iranians the change in citizenship is tinged with a sense of shame? This essay pursues this question to its very genesis, to the moral and political tribulations that tormented Haj Sayyah, the first Iranian who became a naturalized US citizen on May 26, 1875.

After spending about ten years in the United States, preceded by about as many years traveling throughout the old world, Haj Sayyah left San Francisco, the port of his naturalization, for his country of birth. When he arrived in Iran, he was welcomed by a fierce rivalry among the elite to meet his acquaintance. Even Naser al-Din Shah, the then king of Iran, excitedly asked him to become one of his majesty’s retainers. Haj Sayyah declined, knowing well that exoticism is a highly perishable commodity. He was right.

Advocating modernization, human rights and liberal reforms, he soon became a pariah, first sent into fourteen months of tormenting internal exile, and then imprisoned under harsh conditions for twenty-two months. When finally released, he felt ostracized, entrapped and, “knowing of the victimizing nature of most Iranians,” vulnerable. It was then that he, confounding every one, appeared at the U.S. Legation in Tehran, in early January 1893, with a decree of naturalization in hand, and asked for protection as a U.S. citizen.

Haj Sayyah’s asylum at the legation lasted about six months and traversed the entire tenure of Watson Sperry, the humane and headstrong US ambassador, who unflinchingly supported Haj Sayyah, both against Tehran’s arbitrary persecution and the prevarications of his superiors in Washington. Haj Sayyah later reported the episode in his Memoirs. Thus we are offered two narratives, one penned by Haj Sayyah, and the other implied in the official communication between the U.S. Legation in Tehran and the Department of State. Comparing the situations of correspondence and discrepancy between the two, each narrative betrays its own peculiarities. This, in turn, allows us to reflect on ways through which the imperatives of shame and pride produce and contort Haj Sayyah’s account of his citizenship and asylum.

When a youthful Haj Sayyah embarked on his world travels, he did so, he says, in search of humanity, and to be disencumbered from the fetters of attachment. As to the first, there remains a picture of him, one of those staged 19th century photographs, where Haj Sayyah, gazing into the void, is sitting by a prominently displayed sign that reads: “I found the book of humanity blank.” No more successful, it appears to me, was he in his striving for detachment. At the end, it was, ironically, his friend and protector, the Ambassador Watson Sperry, who, to save his friend’s neck, had to insist to the Iranian authorities that notwithstanding Haj Sayyah’s US citizenship, he is “as much a subject of His Imperial Majesty as …if he had never stepped across Persian frontiers.”

Ali Ferdowsi
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