(BLSB) - The Male Beloveds of Hadjee Ismael, an Afghan Dervish and Stone Engraver Residing in Early 19th-Century Baghdad

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A young Turkish boy. French School, 19th Century. Oil on canvas, 86.4 × 68.6 cm.


From Travels in Assyria, Media, and Persia, Second Edition, Volume 1, by James Silk Buckingham (London: Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, 1830). First edition published in England in 1829.

We set out therefore together, without any other feeling on my part than a strong desire to know more of my companion, whose conduct appeared so inexplicable,—and every day partially accomplished that wish. At the gate of Bagdad, Ismael was met by an elderly Christian merchant, whose name was Eleeas, and the parting between these was like that of a father and a son separating never again to meet. Tears flowed fast from the eyes of both; and when I learned that this venerable old man was the father of Ismael’s love, there was something associated with the idea of a Moslem Dervish dying with affection for the daughter of a Christian merchant, and these—though one was poor and despised the world, and the other wealthy and attached to it—hanging over each other’s neck in all the sorrow of the most closely united souls,—there was something in all this so strange, yet so affecting, that I felt my own sympathies powerfully touched by the scene.

[...]

His companions and bosom friends in Bagdad were two Moslems: one a Persian of the Sheeah sect, the chief Mollah of the Tomb of Imaum Moosa, the author of many existing books on science and philosophy, and by far the most learned man of that city; the other an Arab Soonnee, a Mollah also, of the Mosque of the Vizier, near the banks of the Tigris at Bagdad. Besides these, were eight or ten wealthy Christian merchants, Armenians and Catholics, who were known to each other as fellow members of a secret society, calling themselves ‘Mutuffuk b’el Filosofeeah,’ or ‘United by Philosophy.’ These men met occasionally at the house of one or other of the Christian members, and there gave loose to every sort of debauchery which could be indulged in as pleasure. Music, wine, lascivious dances, women, and, in short, all that was deemed voluptuous, was yielded to; so that the Bacchanalia of ancient Rome seemed to be revived by these Eastern libertines.

[...]

Amidst all this, I was at a loss to conceive how the Dervish could find much enjoyment, while labouring under the strong passion which I supposed he must then have felt for the object of his affections at Bagdad, whom he had quitted with so much reluctance. What was my surprise, however, on seeking an explanation of this seeming inconsistency, to find it was the son, and not the daughter, of his friend Elias who held so powerful a hold on his heart! I shrunk back from the confession as a man would recoil from a serpent on which he had unexpectedly trodden; and I was struck silent from further enquiry, as one would be averse to moving forward while so venomous and deadly a reptile lay in his path. I was delighted to find, however, at last, that this was a pure and honourable passion. His fondness for the boy was of such a nature as that he could not suffer him ever to leave the house, or be profaned by his exposure to the sight of others, keeping him always as sacred as the most secluded member of the harem; and in answers to enquiries naturally suggested by the subject, he declared he would rather suffer death than do the slightest harm to so pure, so innocent, so heavenly a creature as this. The friendship existing between the father of the child and its avowed lover, seemed to prove at least that the parent was satisfied as to the nature of the feeling; and all that I saw myself, though I then thought it was for a female person, still appeared to me, even after I was undeceived in this particular, to be the result of a genuine effusion of nature, and in no way the symptoms of a depraved feeling.

I remembered all that had been said on the subject of the love of boys among the Greeks, by those who conceived it to be a pure and honourable affection, as well as by those who thought the contrary. M. De Pauw’s remarks on the beauty of the Grecian youth were fresh in my recollection, and Archbishop Potter’s apology for, or defence of the practice, as springing from an honourable source, were still familiar to me. This instance seemed so strong a confirmation of the possibility of such a passion existing, and being yet productive of no corrupt effects, that I had no longer any doubt but that the greater number of instances were of this kind.

[...]

I took the greatest pains to ascertain, by a severe and minute investigation, how far it might be possible to doubt of the purity of the passion by which this Affghan Dervish was possessed, and whether it deserved to be classed with that described as prevailing among the ancient Greeks; and the result fully satisfied me that both were the same. Ismael was, however, surprised beyond measure, when I assured him that such a feeling was not known at all among the people of Europe. ‘But how?’ said he: ‘Has Nature then constituted you of different materials from other men? Can you behold a youth, lovely as the moon, chaste, innocent, playful, generous, kind, amiable,—in short, containing all the perfections of innocent boyhood, which like the most delicate odour of the rose, exists only in the bud, and becomes of a coarser and less lovely kind when blown into maturity—can you look on a being, so fit for Heaven as this is, and not involuntarily love it?’ I agreed with him that a sort of admiration or affection might be the result, but I at the same time strove to mark the distinction between an esteem founded on the admiration of such rare qualities, and any thing like a regard for the person. I did not succeed, however, in convincing him; for, to his mind, no such distinction seemed to exist; and he contended that if it were possible for a man to be enamoured of every thing that is fair, and lovely, and good and beautiful, in a female form, without a reference to the enjoyment of the person, which feeling may most unquestionably exist, so the same sentiment might be excited towards similar charms united in a youth of the other sex, without reference to any impure desires; and that, in short, in such a case, the lover would feel as much repugnance at the intrusion of any unchaste thought, as would the admirer of a virtuous girl at the exhibition of any indelicacy, or the presence of any thing, indeed, which could give offence to the strictest propriety in their mutual intercourse.

The Dervish added a striking instance of the force of these attachments, and the sympathy which was felt in the sorrows to which they led, by the following fact from his own history. The place of his residence, and of his usual labour, was near the bridge of the Tigris, at the gate of the Mosque of the Vizier. While he sat here, about five or six years since, surrounded by several of his friends, who came often to enjoy his conversation and beguile the tedium of his work, he observed, passing among the crowd, a young and beautiful Turkish boy, whose eyes met his, as if by destiny, and they remained fixedly gazing on each other for some time. The boy, after ‘blushing like the first hue of a summer morning,’ passed on, frequently turning back to look on the person who had regarded him so ardently. The Dervish felt his heart ‘revolve within him,’ for such was his expression, and a cold sweat came across his brow. He hung his head upon his graving-tool in dejection, and excused himself to those about him, by saying he felt suddenly ill. Shortly afterwards, the boy returned, and after walking to and fro several times, drawing nearer and nearer, as if under the influence of some attracting charm, he came up to his observer, and said, ‘Is it really true, then, that you love me?’ ‘This,’ said Ismael, ‘was a dagger in my heart; I could make no reply.’ The friends who were near him, and now saw all explained, asked him if there had been any previous acquaintance existing between them. He assured them that they had never seen each other before. ‘Then,’ they replied, ‘such an event must be from God.’

The boy continued to remain for a while with this party, told with great frankness the name and rank of his parents, as well as the place of his residence, and promised to repeat his visit on the following day. He did this regularly for several months in succession, sitting for hours by the Dervish, and either singing to him, or asking him interesting questions, to beguile his labours, until, as Ismael expressed himself, ‘though they were still two bodies, they became one soul.’ The youth at length fell sick, and was confined to his bed, during which time his lover, Ismael, discontinued entirely his usual occupations, and abandoned himself completely to the care of his beloved. He watched the changes of his disease with more than the anxiety of a parent, and never quitted his bed-side, night or day. Death at length separated them; but even when this stroke came, the Dervish could not be prevailed on to quit the corpse. He constantly visited the grave that contained the remains of all he held dear on earth, and, planting myrtles and flowers there, after the manner of the East, bedewed them daily with his tears.

His friends sympathized powerfully in his distress, which, he said, ‘continued to feed his grief,’ until he pined away to absolute illness, and was near following the fate of him whom he deplored. On quitting Bagdad, however, the constant succession of new scenes and new events that befel him, in an excursion through Persia to Khorasan, progressively obliterated the deep impressions which sorrow had made upon his happiness. It was on this occasion, of his leaving the city, that his feelings burst forth in an elegiac ‘Ode to Love,’ which he paraphrased from his native tongue, the Pushtoo, into Arabic; and even in that form it appeared exceedingly eloquent, and reminded me powerfully of the praises which Anacreon bestowed on his lovely, and, perhaps, equally chaste Bathyllus.

From all this, added to many other examples of a similar kind, related as happening between persons who had often been pointed out to me in Arabia and Persia, I could no longer doubt the existence in the East of an affection for male youths, of as pure and honourable a kind as that which is felt in Europe for those of the other sex. The most eminent scholars have contended for the purity of a similar passion, which not only prevailed, but as we have already seen, was publicly countenanced, and praised, in Greece; and if the passion there could be a chaste one, it may be admitted to be equally possible here. De Pauw ascribes it in that country to the superior beauty of the males to the females, which is hardly likely to have been the sole cause; but, even admitting the admiration of personal beauty to have entered largely into the sources of this singular direction of feeling, it would be as unjust to suppose that this necessarily implied impurity of desire, as to contend that no one could admire a lovely countenance and a beautiful form in the other sex, and still be inspired with sentiments of the most pure and honourable nature toward the object of his admiration.

[...]

When we mounted and continued our way, our course lay first south-west, and then south-south-east, but was on the whole nearly south; and after passing some walls of gardens and small villages, now deserted from want of water, we arrived about an hour and a half before sunset to the village of Mayar, which is esteemed nine fursucks from Ispahan, from whence we had been travelling ten good hours, at a quick walking pace.

[...]

OCT. 15th.—While we were preparing to move at an early hour in the morning, the attention of the Dervish was attracted by the sight of a Persian stanza inscribed on the brick-wall of the recess in front of our chamber. Some sorrowing lover had probably written it, under the warm recollections of his mistress; and Ismael, whom it powerfully reminded of his young lover at Bagdad, was moved to a degree of feeling which I was still unable to comprehend. The Persian verse, as far as he was able to interpret it in Arabic, expressed the following lamentation:—‘When the remembrance of thee steals into my heart, like a spy in the night, tears of water first flow from my eyes; but these soon give place to tears of blood.’ After repeating the verse in Persian aloud for several times, and evidently with a high degree of admiration, and looking alternately at the writing and at me, he exclaimed, ‘Ah! how hard it is to have one’s heart divided between Philosophy and Love! The first would make me your disciple and your follower throughout the world; but the last—yes! it cannot be otherwise,—that will make me abandon all my dreams of wisdom and perfection, and hasten my return to the young Elias, the moment that you embark upon the ocean for India.’—‘Al Ullah,’ ‘It is with God,’ I replied; and the Dervish repaired with sorrow to his labours.


Portrait of Nur 'Ali Shah as a young dervish (Late 19th Century) by Isma'il Jalayir. Opaque watercolor on paper, 50 × 60 cm (Tehran, Iran: Golestan Palace Library).

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