The Administrative and Social History of the Qajar Period: The Story of My Life. Vol. 1: From Agha Mohammad Khan to Naser ed-Din Shah. Vol. 2: From Mozaffar ed-Din Shah to Vosuq od-Dowleh's Anglo-Persian Agreement. Vol. 3: From the "Agreement Cabinet" of Vosuq odDowleh to the End of the Constituent Assembly, by Abdollah Mostofi. Tr. by Nayer Mostofi Glenn. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 1997. xlviii + 1177 pages. Index to p. 1185. $89. Reviewed by Hafez Farmayan
This delightfully readable book has been one of the most popular items on the reading list of well-educated Iranians for over half a century. Now, thanks to the labors of the author's daughter and the efforts of an enterprising publisher, an English translation of this work has become available for readers who are not proficient in the Persian language. Abdollah Mostofi, the youngest of eight children, was born in 1876 to a distinguished Persian family of bureaucrats. In 1942 he set out to tell the story of his life and that of the lives of his ancestors. In the preface to his book he states: "The story of my life does not contain anything extraordinary. The purpose of this narrative is to give a picture of the social life of the period and especially to clarify the administrative procedures of the government during the past sixty or seventy years of my life" (Vol. I, p. xix). This enormous three-volume work, which is 1,824 pages in the original Persian, is basically a patchwork of memories that constitute a chronological narrative. It begins with the first Qajar ruler, who hired the author's grandfather as a clerk in 1779. It ends with an account of the last king of the Qajar Dynasty, who was deposed in 1925. The first Persian-language volume was published in 1942, and the third appeared in 1946.
Throughout the text, the author ably ties the story of his own family with those of the ruling monarchs of the Qajar Dynasty. This approach allows him to deal with the political, as well as the administrative and social, aspects of Persian life. A great storyteller, the author vivaciously weaves into his narrative many pleasing tales from Persian lore with recent events of history. In simple direct prose, he gives fascinating descriptions of everyday life in l9th- and early 20th-century Iran. Also included are highly informative, often greatly interacting, references to such diverse things as: the coronation of Qajar monarchs, weddings amongst the peasants, Persian food, ethnic jokes, relations between families, women's activities, religious ceremonies, education of the elite, public finance, medical practices, and agrarian and rural life. Through these and many other subjects the author treats the central concept of his book-the ways in which politics and administration were conducted in the Persian Empire. The scope of this review does not permit a detailed description of the contents of this lengthy enterprise. In general, the thing to remember is that the author is not a historian and that, despite its title, the book is not a history in the conventional form. "I have repeatedly mentioned in my writings that I do not claim to be a historian. I have deliberately refused to write history in the absolute sense of the word" (Vol. III, p. xv). What the author offers in each of these volumes is a mass of information, unstructured and undocumented, but welcomed and accepted as accurate by readers who themselves had lived through the times about which Mostofi wrote so well.
The major part of volume one describes the political and social lives of Iranians during the rule of Naser al-Din Shah (1848-96). Among the many issues presented, the following stand out: the Shah's journeys to Europe; the traditional system of Qajar bureaucracy; Naser al-Din's administrative reforms; the Shah's relationships to his ministers; and, finally, Naser al-Din Shah's private life. The latter subject is most entertaining and extremely original.
The second volume of Mostofi's memoirs covers the years 1896 to 1919. …