Hajj Sayyah -- First Persian to Become an American
He later returns to Persia to work against ignorance
By Steve Holgate
Washington -- This Persian wanderer traveled the globe like a romantic character from a 19th century novel, embodying burning idealism, the rejection of deadening orthodoxy, and a deep empathy for the less fortunate. And, like such a character, he carried with him a secret, a secret that lay hidden for more than 100 years.
Many Iranians know that Mirza Mohamed Ali, better known as Hajj Sayyah, was one of the earliest and most important links between their country and the United States. But his secret, which was a part of that link, lay relatively unknown until discovered by another Iranian who had left his country for the United States more than a century later.
First things first. Mirza Mohamed Ali was born in Mahllat in 1836. It was a time of political upheaval in Persia, with most Persians suffering under an oppressive clergy and monarchy, but wishing for greater freedom. Young Mirza's studies exposed him to the modernist and democratic ideals that were then sweeping the world. The great gap he saw between the treatment suffered by the majority of Persians under their autocratic rulers and the democratic ideals about which he read caused such despair in young Mirza that he could no longer bear to stay in his home country. So, at the age of 23 he set out on the remarkable journeys that were to take up the next 17 years of his life, apparently compelled by the suffering of his oppressed countrymen and by the desire to see countries that had been transformed by liberty.
One must say "apparently" because little can be known of what drove this extraordinary man. Though his fascinating travel journals describe in great detail what he did, they give little clue as to why.
Ali Ferdowsi teaches history and political science at Notre Dame de Namur University near San Francisco, California. He came to the United States in the 1970s, another time of political upheaval in Iran, and a few years later faced, like Hajj Sayyah, the difficulties in living in an adopted culture.
This challenge of living in two cultures was "a deep issue which I had to resolve at a deep level," Ferdowsi said in a recent interview. "For many years," Ferdowsi recalls, "I tried to completely Americanize myself. But, in fact, I had retained much of my Iranian-ness."
It was facing this dilemma, Ferdowsi recalls, that led him to contemplate the experience of others who had faced the same problem. A friend, also an Iranian living in the United States, suggested that Ferdowsi read the travel journals of a Persian who had long ago traveled to the United States.
"That's when I stumbled upon the story of Hajj Sayyah. I wanted to know his viewpoint on the United States," Ferdowsi said. "I wanted to know what was going through his head."
The great traveler, Ferdowsi found, wandered throughout Central Asia and Europe for more than six years. Often he traveled alone and in poverty, even at the edge of starvation.
First of all, what kind of a man was he? By the descriptions in his journals, Hajj Sayyah appears to have been driven by a thirst for knowledge and by a great spiritual strength, rather than by mere curiosity. He apparently wished to know as much about the world as possible, the cultures of other lands and the freedoms that they enjoyed, in order that he might bring these ideas back to Persia.
As Ferdowsi says, "He became aware of what was possible in the world. He came to the conclusion that modern human beings are supposed to live in reasonably humane societies based on human rights. He was basically stumbling upon the concept of citizenship, as opposed to simply being the subject of a monarch."
Ferdowsi adds, "In the middle of the nineteenth century Iranians began to realize that the world is larger than Iran or being a Muslim. They began to realize that they had to get out into the world, and, with humility and acceptance open up to the world without preconditions. That is what Hajj Sayyah did. He was always willing to learn."
Hajj Sayyah's interest in the efforts of people to bring the power of their monarchs under constitutional control and to forge a more equitable social system, is the most consistent theme of his journals. Should it be surprising that he would travel to the United States, which had thrown off its colonial king?
"He came into the United States through New York," Ferdowsi says, and apparently visited President Ulysses Grant on more than one occasion. In another parallel with Ferdowsi, he eventually came to the San Francisco Bay area, where he spent several months.
At the end of that time, though, Hajj Sayyah left the United States, never to return. He came back to Persia in July of 1877, more than 17 years after he had left.
On his return, what Ferdowsi called "his genius for networking," his reputation for integrity and his love of the country from which he had so long absented himself put him in the middle of modernist political movements in Persia. Over the following years he became a noted thinker and an adviser to a variety of public figures. As a leading advocate of democracy and one who had seen democratic institutions at first hand, he also played an important role in the Constitutional Revolution of the early 20th century.
He did not, however, escape the turmoil that had continued to affect his country. In 1891 he endured a period of imprisonment, after instigating a letter writing campaign to the monarch, clergy and others regarding the deplorable conditions in Persia. However, after his release in 1893, he continued to suffer hostility from local authorities and in February of that year sought protection at the United States legation in Tehran. Persians were puzzled by the request; what made Hajj Sayyah think the United States Government would feel an obligation to protect him?
The request intrigued Ferdowsi, who sought documentation from the United States Department of State which led him back to San Francisco, where he discovered Hajj Sayyah's secret. Shortly before his departure from the United States Hajj Sayyah had become an American citizen. This not only entitled him to the protection of the United States government but made him the first Persian to become an American citizen. It was a secret he had shared with only a few people. To this day, even most people who know of Hajj Sayyah do not know he was an American citizen.
Thanks in great part to the work of the American Consul General in Tehran, Hajj Sayyah was able to remain free after he had left the legation and eventually regained his place as a valued figure in the democratic reform movement. He held that status until his death in 1925, at the age of 89.
Even if his stay in the United States was not permanent, his significance remains great. In fact its greatness may lie in the fact that he did not stay, but took back to Persia what he had learned in the United States and in his other travels, the knowledge that freedom and democracy can improve the lot of the people.
To Ferdowsi, part of Hajj Sayyah's importance lies in the fact that it shows Iranian-Americans that "this is part of our genealogy, so to speak. It's good for young people to know that they are not simply from the first or second generation to come to the United States. We go way back." More personally, Ferdowsi says, Hajj Sayyah's struggle was in part a "a struggle over identity. I can relate to that. Some people can't understand how you can become a citizen of another country. There are questions of identity and even loyalty to your native land." With the knowledge of Hajj Sayyah's experience, he said, "Eventually I came to the realization that your culture is part of you. You live with it." He says that, "Those of us who come here (from Iran) bring this version of the world. It is the gift we bring (to the United States)."
If to his contemporaries and even to modern scholars, Hajj Sayyah remains something of an enigma, the key to understanding him may lay hidden in plain sight within his journals, where he wrote, "Better to die in search of knowledge than to live in ignorance."
For all those who desire such knowledge and seek the betterment of their people, Hajj Sayyah will remain a revered thinker and an historic figure in Iranian-American relations. And for many Iranians seeking to resolve tradition and modernism, he will remain an inspiration.
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)