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The Cats That Did Not Meow

An Historian of Iran Discovers Thailand

"Map in the Cat" by Reza Izad, November 1, 2002, featured in the Iranian.com.

H. E. Chehabi


When I said at a conference in early September 2015 that Thailand was just like Iran, most scholars in the audience looked perplexed. We are so used to thinking in regional terms that instinctively we are more at ease with comparisons between adjacent countries. What little I knew of Siamese history came from what I had learned in a year-long survey course on South and Southeast History I took at Sciences Po in 1976-77, and so the two weeks I spent in Thailand in January 2016 were a welcome opportunity to test my hunch. 

The first resemblance that I noticed was that, like Iranians, the Thai eat their rice dishes with a spoon and a fork. The second parallel was that just as in Iran one sees no Persian cats on the streets, felines roaming the public places of Thailand are not of the Siamese variety. As the two demonyms illustrate, both countries changed their names around the same time to what their people had always called them: Persia became Iran in 1935 and Siam became Thailand in 1939. Finally, Western foreigners are called farangi in Iran and farang in Thailand.

So far so good. The plot thickened when I visited the Museum of Siam in Bangkok. I learned that the eunuchs of Siamese kings’ harems had been Persians, and that the shape of the famous Lom Phok hat may have been influenced by the Qezelbash headgear of the Safavids:

The existence of sustained commercial and political contacts between Persia and Siam is well known, and the account of a Safavid diplomatic mission to the court of Ayutthaya in the seventeenth century has even been translated into English as The Ship of Sulaimān. There were quite a number of Persian immigrants in the Siamese capitals (Ayutthaya and later Bangkok), and even today a number of families claim Persian ancestry in Thailand. The Polish scholar Ismail Marcinkowski, who knows both Persian and Thai, has studied the ties between the two countries extensively; he is the author of From Isfahan to Ayutthaya: Contacts between Iran and Siam in the 17th Century (Bangkok: White Lotus, 2002). Anybody who wants to know more can consult the Encyclopaedia Iranica (www.iranicaonline.org) lemma for “Thailand.”

What persuaded me to put pen to paper was this photo of King Chulalongkorn (r. 1868-1910), which I saw in the museum dedicated to him:

King Chulalongkorn
Photograph of King Chulalongkorn © 1896, Robert Lenz in Singapore. Image via Asian Cities Research, University of Hong Kong Faculty of Architecture

I was instantly reminded of this photo of his Iranian near-contemporary, Nāsereddin Shah (r. 1848-96):

Nasereddin Shah
Nasereddin Shah. Image from Iradj Afshar, A Treasury of Early Iranian Photographs (Tehran: Nashr-e Farhang-e Iran, 1992), p. 6.

Two Asian monarchs, with 153 and 84 wives, respectively, posing as European boulevardiers – that called for closer scrutiny. The King of Siam looks much more dapper: compared to his perfectly cut redingote, Nāsereddin Shah’s outfit looks as though it had been put together for an amateur Gilbert and Sullivan production at a provincial high school. The difference is probably due to the fact that the Persian ruler’s photo was a private one – in public Nāsereddin Shah always looked well groomed, with a kolah, an Iranian headgear with no brim, on his head. Donning a top hat in public like Chulalongkorn would have opened him up to accusations of tashabboh beh koffār, ‘similarity with the infidels,’ which the Sharia forbids. I wonder whether Theravada Buddhism has an equivalent for such a taboo; somehow I doubt it. There is a pluralism in Thailand that compares very favorably with Iran. While I saw admonitions against treating statues of the Buddha for decorative purposes at temples, outside these, for all I could tell, the cohabitation between devout monks, prostitutes, and she-men was peaceful, each group minding its own business – a far cry from the hegemonic pretensions of Iran’s Shiite clergy.

As I moved from one museum to the next during the day, and read countless Wikipedia articles in the evening, I came across parallels between the two countries’ histories that antedate the reigns of King Chulalongkorn and Nāsereddin Shah. In the eighteenth century, the forerunners of the two states we know today as Thailand and Iran, i.e., the Ayutthaya Empire and the Safavid Empire, fell to invaders from neighboring lands: Burmese and Afghan forces sacked the capitals, Ayutthaya and Isfahan respectively. The invaders were driven out by forceful generals who ended up assuming the crown, King Taksin in Siam and Nāder Shah in Persia. While they reestablished native rule, they were assassinated before they could found durable dynasties. Nonetheless, today both are honored as forceful patriots and celebrated with equestrian statues:

Statue of King Taksin at Wongwian Yai.
Statue of King Taksin at Wongwian Yai. Image via Wikimedia Commons by 2T – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Nader Shah
Nader Shah Statue in Mashhad. Image via Wikimedia Commons, by Sampad99, CC0.

In both countries new dynasties appeared in the last quarter of the eighteenth century: the Chakris in Siam and the Qajars in Persia. Both moved the capital to a new town: Tehran in 1776, Bangkok only five years later in 1782. The Qajars lost their absolute power in 1906, when Nāsereddin Shah’s son, Mozaffareddin Shah, accepted a constitution, but the chaos that ensued was one of the reasons King Chulalongkorn’s son and successor, King Vajiravudh, resisted calls for a constitution. The Chakris lost their absolute power in a revolution in 1932, but the revolutionaries had the good sense of leaving them on the throne. Since then military dictators and elected civilian governments have come and gone, but the dynasty still reigns: it is as if in Iran Reza Pahlavis, Ahmad Qavams, Mohammad Mosaddeqs, and Fazlollah Zahedis had taken turns ruling the country, while the Qajars had continued to reign instead of being replaced by an imperial dynasty founded by an ambitious military leader. The current Qajar pretender, H.I.M. Mohammad Hasan Shah II, would have occupied the Peacock Throne rather than a chair in geology at El Centro College in Dallas. Perhaps that would not have been such a bad idea, since he seems to be a decent fellow: the Rate My Professor website attests “Mickey H. Kadjar,” as he is locally known, a “good sense of humor.” At the risk of making you roll your eyes, I will point out that he would be the tenth ruler of the Qajar House, just as King Vajiralongkorn of Thailand, than whom he is only three years older, is Rama X, i.e., the tenth Chakri king. Conversely, if Thailand had followed the Iranian scenario, Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram, who was Thailand’s military dictator from 1938 to 1944, would have assumed the crown, founding a new dynasty. And if that had happened, who knows whether Thailand would still be a monarchy in 2020, as monarchies have survived only where the monarchs have no power.

The last Shah of Iran and the current King of Thailand may not have had much in common in terms of their place in the political system, but one thing they did have in common was that they had beautiful wives who were venerated by the yellow press in Germany. And when the two First Ladies met, this was a major event:

But let us return to the infinitely more interesting nineteenth century. Siam and Persia were both buffer states between two mighty empires, which allowed them to maintain their formal independence in the age of imperialism. In both countries, rulers tried to join the emerging community of nations as equals. For instance, Persia joined the Universal Postal Union in 1877, Siam only eight years later in 1885. The stamps they issued look quite similar:

Domestically, the King of Siam and the Emperor of Iran pursued similar strategies in centralizing power at the expense of autonomous peripheral rulers who owed them allegiance. Both Siam and Persia were, in a sense, empires, in that different parts of the territory had different statuses and varying levels of autonomy from the ruler in the capital. In this context I had always asked myself why the Shah of Iran (like the Padişah of the Ottoman Empire and the Tenno of Japan) was styled “emperor” in Europe, while the ruler of Siam was called a “king.” I think I found the answer during my trip: while the kings of Cambodia, Luang Phrabang, Lanna, etc., were indeed vassals of the ruler in Bangkok, making him an “emperor” of sorts, the latter was simultaneously (at least theoretically) in a tributary relationship with China, which had an emperor. And an emperor’s tributary ruler obviously could not be an emperor himself.

Be this as it may, the Qajars and Chakris dealt with their tributary states in a remarkably similar way. One the one hand they let go, or rather, were compelled to do so by imperial powers, of some tributary states, and on the other hand they ousted the hereditary rulers of some other tributary states to subject them to the direct control of the center as mere provinces. Persia had to let go of first the khanates of the Caucasus and then the emirate of Herat, Siam had to acquiesce to the separation of Cambodia and the Laotian kingdoms. Conversely, The Qajars ended the rule of the Ardalans in Kurdistan and that of the Qawasim on the northern shores of the Persian Gulf, while the Chakris ended the autonomy of the kingdoms of Lanna in the north and Pattani in the south. The result in both cases was a shrunken but more centralized state – and a certain nostalgia of nationalists for the larger territories of the past, which are conceptualized, somewhat anachronistically, as “nation-states.”

It is a result of these policies, where diplomacy and state-building are intimately intertwined, that Siam and Persia ended up with their current geographic shapes. These have been likened to crouching cats, although in the Thai case the elephant is more often invoked on account of the iconic value of the pachyderm, whose trunk one can take the southern provinces to resemble. In Iran the cat’s back is Khorasan, in Thailand it is Isan. In Iran the cat’s head is Azerbaijan, in Thailand it is Lanna.

Given the parallels between the trajectories of the two post-semi-colonial states, it is puzzling why there is so much more scholarly literature on Persia/Iran than on Siam/Thailand. The reason is probably the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the diaspora it generated. Countless Iranians, many with bachelor’s degrees in engineering or the natural sciences, have developed an interest in history and the social sciences in order to understand what hit them, producing a secondary literature which has left no historical figure, no policy, no town unstudied. However, it is noteworthy that a book on Siam has achieved an iconic status to which nary a book on Iran can aspire: Thongchai Winichakul’s Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of Siam.

Having never been colonized, Iranians and Thai continue to write in their own languages, as behooves the heirs of old and venerable civilizations – even if it puts them at a disadvantage in a globalized world where one has to know English. And that is why Persian and Siamese cats do not meow: the former say میو , the latter เหมียว.

 

H. E. CHEHABI is Professor of International Relations and History at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University.



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The Cats That Did Not Meow

An Historian of Iran Discovers Thailand


H. E. Chehabi


When I said at a conference in early September 2015 that Thailand was just like Iran, most scholars in the audience looked perplexed. We are so used to thinking in regional terms that instinctively we are more at ease with comparisons between adjacent countries. What little I knew of Siamese history came from what I had learned in a year-long survey course on South and Southeast History I took at Sciences Po in 1976-77, and so the two weeks I spent in Thailand in January 2016 were a welcome opportunity to test my hunch. 

The first resemblance that I noticed was that, like Iranians, the Thai eat their rice dishes with a spoon and a fork. The second parallel was that just as in Iran one sees no Persian cats on the streets, felines roaming the public places of Thailand are not of the Siamese variety. As the two demonyms illustrate, both countries changed their names around the same time to what their people had always called them: Persia became Iran in 1935 and Siam became Thailand in 1939. Finally, Western foreigners are called farangi in Iran and farang in Thailand.

So far so good. The plot thickened when I visited the Museum of Siam in Bangkok. I learned that the eunuchs of Siamese kings’ harems had been Persians, and that the shape of the famous Lom Phok hat may have been influenced by the Qezelbash headgear of the Safavids:

The existence of sustained commercial and political contacts between Persia and Siam is well known, and the account of a Safavid diplomatic mission to the court of Ayutthaya in the seventeenth century has even been translated into English as The Ship of Sulaimān. There were quite a number of Persian immigrants in the Siamese capitals (Ayutthaya and later Bangkok), and even today a number of families claim Persian ancestry in Thailand. The Polish scholar Ismail Marcinkowski, who knows both Persian and Thai, has studied the ties between the two countries extensively; he is the author of From Isfahan to Ayutthaya: Contacts between Iran and Siam in the 17th Century (Bangkok: White Lotus, 2002). Anybody who wants to know more can consult the Encyclopaedia Iranica (www.iranicaonline.org) lemma for “Thailand.”

What persuaded me to put pen to paper was this photo of King Chulalongkorn (r. 1868-1910), which I saw in the museum dedicated to him:

King Chulalongkorn
Photograph of King Chulalongkorn © 1896, Robert Lenz in Singapore. Image via Asian Cities Research, University of Hong Kong Faculty of Architecture

I was instantly reminded of this photo of his Iranian near-contemporary, Nāsereddin Shah (r. 1848-96):

Nasereddin Shah
Nasereddin Shah. Image from Iradj Afshar, A Treasury of Early Iranian Photographs (Tehran: Nashr-e Farhang-e Iran, 1992), p. 6.

Two Asian monarchs, with 153 and 84 wives, respectively, posing as European boulevardiers – that called for closer scrutiny. The King of Siam looks much more dapper: compared to his perfectly cut redingote, Nāsereddin Shah’s outfit looks as though it had been put together for an amateur Gilbert and Sullivan production at a provincial high school. The difference is probably due to the fact that the Persian ruler’s photo was a private one – in public Nāsereddin Shah always looked well groomed, with a kolah, an Iranian headgear with no brim, on his head. Donning a top hat in public like Chulalongkorn would have opened him up to accusations of tashabboh beh koffār, ‘similarity with the infidels,’ which the Sharia forbids. I wonder whether Theravada Buddhism has an equivalent for such a taboo; somehow I doubt it. There is a pluralism in Thailand that compares very favorably with Iran. While I saw admonitions against treating statues of the Buddha for decorative purposes at temples, outside these, for all I could tell, the cohabitation between devout monks, prostitutes, and she-men was peaceful, each group minding its own business – a far cry from the hegemonic pretensions of Iran’s Shiite clergy.

As I moved from one museum to the next during the day, and read countless Wikipedia articles in the evening, I came across parallels between the two countries’ histories that antedate the reigns of King Chulalongkorn and Nāsereddin Shah. In the eighteenth century, the forerunners of the two states we know today as Thailand and Iran, i.e., the Ayutthaya Empire and the Safavid Empire, fell to invaders from neighboring lands: Burmese and Afghan forces sacked the capitals, Ayutthaya and Isfahan respectively. The invaders were driven out by forceful generals who ended up assuming the crown, King Taksin in Siam and Nāder Shah in Persia. While they reestablished native rule, they were assassinated before they could found durable dynasties. Nonetheless, today both are honored as forceful patriots and celebrated with equestrian statues:

Statue of King Taksin at Wongwian Yai.
Statue of King Taksin at Wongwian Yai. Image via Wikimedia Commons by 2T – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Nader Shah
Nader Shah Statue in Mashhad. Image via Wikimedia Commons, by Sampad99, CC0.

In both countries new dynasties appeared in the last quarter of the eighteenth century: the Chakris in Siam and the Qajars in Persia. Both moved the capital to a new town: Tehran in 1776, Bangkok only five years later in 1782. The Qajars lost their absolute power in 1906, when Nāsereddin Shah’s son, Mozaffareddin Shah, accepted a constitution, but the chaos that ensued was one of the reasons King Chulalongkorn’s son and successor, King Vajiravudh, resisted calls for a constitution. The Chakris lost their absolute power in a revolution in 1932, but the revolutionaries had the good sense of leaving them on the throne. Since then military dictators and elected civilian governments have come and gone, but the dynasty still reigns: it is as if in Iran Reza Pahlavis, Ahmad Qavams, Mohammad Mosaddeqs, and Fazlollah Zahedis had taken turns ruling the country, while the Qajars had continued to reign instead of being replaced by an imperial dynasty founded by an ambitious military leader. The current Qajar pretender, H.I.M. Mohammad Hasan Shah II, would have occupied the Peacock Throne rather than a chair in geology at El Centro College in Dallas. Perhaps that would not have been such a bad idea, since he seems to be a decent fellow: the Rate My Professor website attests “Mickey H. Kadjar,” as he is locally known, a “good sense of humor.” At the risk of making you roll your eyes, I will point out that he would be the tenth ruler of the Qajar House, just as King Vajiralongkorn of Thailand, than whom he is only three years older, is Rama X, i.e., the tenth Chakri king. Conversely, if Thailand had followed the Iranian scenario, Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram, who was Thailand’s military dictator from 1938 to 1944, would have assumed the crown, founding a new dynasty. And if that had happened, who knows whether Thailand would still be a monarchy in 2020, as monarchies have survived only where the monarchs have no power.

The last Shah of Iran and the current King of Thailand may not have had much in common in terms of their place in the political system, but one thing they did have in common was that they had beautiful wives who were venerated by the yellow press in Germany. And when the two First Ladies met, this was a major event:

But let us return to the infinitely more interesting nineteenth century. Siam and Persia were both buffer states between two mighty empires, which allowed them to maintain their formal independence in the age of imperialism. In both countries, rulers tried to join the emerging community of nations as equals. For instance, Persia joined the Universal Postal Union in 1877, Siam only eight years later in 1885. The stamps they issued look quite similar:

Domestically, the King of Siam and the Emperor of Iran pursued similar strategies in centralizing power at the expense of autonomous peripheral rulers who owed them allegiance. Both Siam and Persia were, in a sense, empires, in that different parts of the territory had different statuses and varying levels of autonomy from the ruler in the capital. In this context I had always asked myself why the Shah of Iran (like the Padişah of the Ottoman Empire and the Tenno of Japan) was styled “emperor” in Europe, while the ruler of Siam was called a “king.” I think I found the answer during my trip: while the kings of Cambodia, Luang Phrabang, Lanna, etc., were indeed vassals of the ruler in Bangkok, making him an “emperor” of sorts, the latter was simultaneously (at least theoretically) in a tributary relationship with China, which had an emperor. And an emperor’s tributary ruler obviously could not be an emperor himself.

Be this as it may, the Qajars and Chakris dealt with their tributary states in a remarkably similar way. One the one hand they let go, or rather, were compelled to do so by imperial powers, of some tributary states, and on the other hand they ousted the hereditary rulers of some other tributary states to subject them to the direct control of the center as mere provinces. Persia had to let go of first the khanates of the Caucasus and then the emirate of Herat, Siam had to acquiesce to the separation of Cambodia and the Laotian kingdoms. Conversely, The Qajars ended the rule of the Ardalans in Kurdistan and that of the Qawasim on the northern shores of the Persian Gulf, while the Chakris ended the autonomy of the kingdoms of Lanna in the north and Pattani in the south. The result in both cases was a shrunken but more centralized state – and a certain nostalgia of nationalists for the larger territories of the past, which are conceptualized, somewhat anachronistically, as “nation-states.”

It is a result of these policies, where diplomacy and state-building are intimately intertwined, that Siam and Persia ended up with their current geographic shapes. These have been likened to crouching cats, although in the Thai case the elephant is more often invoked on account of the iconic value of the pachyderm, whose trunk one can take the southern provinces to resemble. In Iran the cat’s back is Khorasan, in Thailand it is Isan. In Iran the cat’s head is Azerbaijan, in Thailand it is Lanna.

Given the parallels between the trajectories of the two post-semi-colonial states, it is puzzling why there is so much more scholarly literature on Persia/Iran than on Siam/Thailand. The reason is probably the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the diaspora it generated. Countless Iranians, many with bachelor’s degrees in engineering or the natural sciences, have developed an interest in history and the social sciences in order to understand what hit them, producing a secondary literature which has left no historical figure, no policy, no town unstudied. However, it is noteworthy that a book on Siam has achieved an iconic status to which nary a book on Iran can aspire: Thongchai Winichakul’s Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of Siam.

Having never been colonized, Iranians and Thai continue to write in their own languages, as behooves the heirs of old and venerable civilizations – even if it puts them at a disadvantage in a globalized world where one has to know English. And that is why Persian and Siamese cats do not meow: the former say میو , the latter เหมียว.

 

H. E. CHEHABI is Professor of International Relations and History at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University.

The Cats That Did Not Meow

An Historian of Iran Discovers Thailand

The Cats That Did Not Meow

An Historian of Iran Discovers Thailand