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The First Persian at Oxford University

Fereydoun Ala*

Abolghassem Khan Gharagozlou was born in 1856 in Sheverin, a small village near Hamadan in north-west Iran, into a land-owning family originally settled in the region by Amir Teymour (Tamerlane). As a child, he showed a precocious thirst for knowledge and in his early youth, he studied all that was taught in those days: philosophy, Arabic, mathematics, grammar and Islamic jurisprudence, with the foremost professors of the day.

Abolghassem Khan’s father died relatively young, leaving him to be brought up by his grandfather Mahmoud Khan Nasser ol-Molk Farmanfarma. He noticed his grandson’s scholastic aptitude, and in 1878, requested Nasser ud-Din Shah to permit him to accompany the royal suite on his first journey to Europe, in order to learn English, so that he might translate the foreign newspapers for him in the future.

Mahmoud Khan, as one of the Shah’s most trusted ministers, was granted his request, and Abolghassem Khan travelled to England, although at 22 he was much too old to go to a boarding school. Instead, he was entrusted to a tutor who gave him board, lodging and tuition for £1 a day.

In an austere 9 months of concentrated study, he mastered English, Latin, Greek and all the branches of mathematics, in preparation for his entrance examination to Oxford. Indeed, even forty years after leaving Oxford, he was still able to translate Plato or Thucydides as easily as he could read Shakespeare, Virgil or Tacitus.

His admission to Balliol College in 1879 was a landmark for several reasons. Until 1871, university entrance had been restricted to members of the Church of England. If this limitation had not been lifted, Abolghassem Khan would not have been accepted by any university, anymore than a Catholic or a Jew would have been. In addition, he was the first Persian and among the very earliest Moslems to have entered Oxford as an undergraduate.

Balliol College was then at the height of its fame and influence under Benjamin Jowett, who had taken a particular liking to Abolghassem Khan, for he often invited him to his Sunday suppers at the Master’s Lodge. There he met writers such as Swinburne, Tennyson and Oscar Wilde, as well as many statesmen of the day, some of whom became life-long friends, particularly George Curzon, Edward Grey and Cecil Spring-Rice.

The nickname of Abolghassem Khan was Abol Curs’im Can – a wry tribute to his intellectual qualities. His class-mates said of him: “There’s nothing Abol, curse ’im can’t”.

Soon after his return to Iran in 1883, his grandfather died and the Shah bestowed his title of Nasser ol-Molk upon Abolghassem, also nominating him chief of the Gharagozlou tribe.

He accompanied Nasser ud-Din Shah on his last journey to Europe in 1889, as his interpreter, and after Nasser ud-Din Shah’s assassination in 1897, he was sent abroad to announce Mozzafar ud-din Shah’s accession to the throne to all the Courts of Europe. Soon after, he accompanied the Shah on his first journey through Europe. Later, as Minister of Finance, he reformed the Customs administration, and established Persia’s first budget designed on modern lines.

In 1906, public unrest forced the Shah to grant the country a Constitution, and following his death, his successor Mohammad Ali Shah, who opposed constitutional government, reluctantly appointed Nasser ol-Molk as prime minister, knowing that he favoured the Constitution and had the support of the Majles (parliament). However, when Nasser ol-Molk refused to heed the Shah’s order to bombard the Majles, he was arrested, and might well have been executed, had it not been for the timely intervention of the British Minister. Instead, he was given leave to travel to Europe.

Following the forced abdication of Mohammad Ali Shah in favour of his son Ahmad, who was still a boy, Nasser ol-Molk was put forward as Regent in 1910, but he gave up the Regency after organising the coronation of Ahmad Shah in 1914, and gratefully left Iran and politics to return to Europe once more.

It was here that he undertook to translate two of Shakespeare’s plays. In the course of conversation with close friends in London one evening, one of those present held that to translate Shakespeare into Persian was an impossible task, so disparate were the two cultures and the genius of the two languages. Nasser ol-Molk disagreed, and taking up the challenge, he began translating a few lines from Othello, which he chose at random.

One evening’s light-hearted entertainment led him to translate the entire play, followed  a few years later by his translation of The Merchant of Venice in his own hand, which was expertly bound and illustrated with little water-colour vignettes by his daughter Fatemeh Ala. It is this play which has recently been published for the first time in Tehran, some 90 years after it was originally translated.

While the language employed over a thousand years ago by the Persian poets Roudaki and Ferdowsi has remained entirely current and accessible to present-day readers in Iran, English has evolved and changed radically in the last 450 years, and the classical or biblical allusions used by Shakespeare compound the difficulties of the translator.

Only an exceptionally profound mastery of Persian, as well as of the complex nuances of Shakespearean language, could have produced the clarity and beauty of Nasser ol-Molk’s limpid prose. The sheer elegance, freshness and simplicity of his translations into Persian mark them as ageless belles letters in their own right.


*Dr. Fereydoun Ala is the grandson of Nasser ol-Molk and the narrator of the multimedia report on his life.

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