Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana is fascinating as a travelogue through 1930s Iran and Afghanistan, at a time when vehicular roads were in their infancy, ancient practices were in flux and the traveller could cross the path of Russian emigres fleeing across the border from Stalin’s Turkestan.
It can also be enjoyed for its wit and verve. Byron writes as he speaks, albeit he speaks like an educated Imperial Englishman of the old school. It is in the brevity of his prose that the book comes alive.
“They sell ice instead of snow in the bazaar.”
That of Khanabad in Afghanistan. No explanation, no elaboration. Just the naked fact that speaks of another land and place.
Of a night spent on beds next to their lorry in the Hindu Kush, waiting for a snowmelt river to subside:
“Mosquitoes the size of eagles collected as though to a dinner bell.”
The description took me straight back to a similar description of the insect life in Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation, when he meet Osama bin Laden one evening in the same mountain range. A warm evening in the Hindu Kush is clearly an opportunity to commune with all nature.
It is not the only passage that reminds one of the passing of time. Afghanistan’s woes since Byron’s visit are projected on the contemporary reader everywhere. It makes Byron’s assessment of the two giant Bamiyan Buddhas – destroyed by the Taliban – all the more striking:
“Neither has any artistic value. But one could bear that; it is their negation of sense, the lack of any pride in their monstrous flaccid bulk, that sickens.”
He is equally damning about Persepolis – perhaps the defining ancient monument of all Iran in most tourist itineraries. It is undeniably refreshing. It is refreshing, because it sits alongside an ardent love of sublime architecture – in this case, Islamic.
He swoons over monuments the wider world knows little of. The ruins of Gohar Shad Begum’s Musalla in Herat leaves him spellbound over this powerful Islamic queen. A mysterious tower – the Gumbad-i-Kabus – on the far northern frontier with Russian Turkestan, Byron regards as ranking “with the great buildings of the world”.
And for all his Imperial Britishness, for all that he maintains a belief that certain innovations that had propelled the West to greatness must suffuse the whole globe in time, he has one of the sharpest eyes I have come across for the weakness of another import: nationalism and its attendant fawning mimicry of the West.
He travelled Iran at a time when Reza Shah Pahlavi was attempting the same kind of repressive, top-down reforms that Kemal Ataturk performed in Turkey. Disdainful not only of Islam, but more broadly of Islamic cultures, these ruler sought civilised modernity in aping the trappings of Western cultures – such everyday edicts as the mandatory wearing of brimmed Western European hats.
On arrival in Afghanistan, Byron is effusive in his admiration:
“Hawk-eyed and eagle-beaked, the swarthy loose-knit men swing through the dark bazaar with a devil-may-care self-confidence … They expect the European to conform to their standards, instead of themselves to his, a fact that came home to me this morning when I tried to buy some arak; there is not a drop of alcohol to be had in the whole town [Herat, Afghanistan]. Here at last is Asia without an inferiority complex.”
He was relieved to have left the faux-West of the Shah’s Persia. What might he make of Iran today, or for that matter, many towns in central and eastern Turkey, where alcohol is equally scarce? To dismiss such descriptions as betraying some sentiment of the Orientalist ‘noble savage’ is to be locked in a mindset that views Westernisation as inherently culturally superior. Byron’s perception can tell us much about the assumptions of the Westerner, the strange twisting of Asian societies that has occurred on contact with the West, and the divisions we still see today.
Perhaps most important is the sheer wonder he takes away with him – a young man who would die only seven years after this trip. It is a wonder painted in colour throughout the book – “viridian poplars”, “indigo mountains”, “lemon-coloured cornflowers”, and the turquoise, pink, dark red, and dark blue joy of Gohar Shad’s mosque in Mashhad. In Byron’s own words:
“It was as if someone had switched on another sun.”