QUAINT #6 Hajji Baba from “Hajji Baba of Ispahan” & “Hajji Baba in England” by James Morier

Hajji Baba enjoys the company of Zeenab. After Ḥabl al-matin Persian tr., Calcutta, 1905, opp. p. 142. Caption & Image courtesy of Encyclopaedia Iranica. Click for source.

Hajji Baba was created by James Morier and appeared in Hajji Baba of Ispahan (1824) and Hajji Baba in England (1827). Morier (1780-1849) was a British diplomat, adventurer, and author. He first went to Persia in 1807 and visited it and surrounding countries several times over the next decade. His desire to write something in the Persian style of Arabian Nights produced Hajji Baba of Ispahan.

Hajji Baba is a charming rogue, someone who began life as a barber/surgeon but whose wanderlust and desire for money led him to leave home on a caravan when he was only sixteen. But the course of roguery doth ne’er run smooth, and he is almost immediately captured by a band of Turcoman bandits. Hajji Baba lets himself be captured a second time by a shahzadeh (prince) and is taken to Meshed, where he becomes a water carrier. Hajji Baba sprains his back carrying water–his boastfulness leads him to take on far too much weight, including that of his main rival–and so he becomes an itinerant vender of smoke. But he cuts his tobacco with dung once too often and is caught by the Mohtesib (“the Mohtesib is an officer who perambulates the city, and examines weights and measures, and qualities of provisions”) and bastinadoed for his fraud. So Hajji Baba becomes a dervish, telling colorful stories and shaking down listeners for money; he stops in mid-story, just when things are getting good, and asks for donations in exchange for his continuing. He then becomes a doctor to the Shah of Persia, a position he loses due to an imprudent love affair.
And so on and so forth, for hundreds of pages, through colorful stories and attractive boasts and genial swindles and painless mendacity and jovial hypocrisy and maidens fair and wry observations at the foibles of the mighty and the poor.

Hajji Baba is a light-hearted thief and scoundrel, never doing anyone any real harm (except for the loss of a few ducats or tomauns), falling in and out of love, and generally having a fine old time of it. The novel is great fun and a more than adequate substitute for The Arabian Nights.

Morier began writing Hajji Baba in 1817, six years before the publication of the first English translation of the Grimm Brothers’ Kinder-und Hausmärchen. Morier did not have the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales to use as a literary model. Instead, he used what many authors of the time used when writing a fairy tale-like story, The Arabian Nights, which had been available in English for almost a century. Morier was not the first to write a new version of The Arabian Nights, and by 1817 writers influenced by The Arabian Nights were producing Gothic novels and poems, but Morier’s superior talent and Hajji Baba’s economy of phrase and light, humorous touch gave Hajji Baba a lasting power which other similar works lacked.

Hajji Baba is also a novel of the picaresque. Morier was specifically influenced by Alain-Rene LeSage’s Gil Blas (1730), arguably the best-known picaresque novel. Hajji Baba of Ispahan is set in Persia and environs (“in the land of the lion and the sun”) in the first decades of the 19th century. The novel is written with a certain archness and no small amount of humor, and combined with the richness of Morier’s imagination and the charcoal sketches he added to Hajji Baba–Morier was an artist of some ability–made for an attractive and popular work.

Hajji Baba was an almost immediate sensation. It went through two editions in one year and was highly praised by a number of critics, including Sir Walter Scott. Hajji Baba clubs formed across England, with several of the clubs lasting for decades. The novel was reprinted in a number of languages, and over a century later it was still being reprinted and receiving praise from the likes of Christopher Morley. Interestingly, the English viewed Hajji Baba as a satire of the Persian character, while the Persians, some of whom believed it to be a centuries-old work only recently translated into English, saw it as a straight psychological analysis of their character.

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