HAJJ SAYYAH: FASHIONING A SELF BY EXPLORING THE WORLD
The Iranian world-traveler Hajj Sayyah was unique in many ways. After trotting the globe for some sixteen years, he arrived in the US, and was the first Iranian to become a US citizen in 1875. He kept travel journals while traveling, two of which, his European and domestic travelogues, and some fragments of his travels in the Middle East, are already published.
The present author has had the privilege of preparing the manuscript of Sayyah’s travel diaries in the US for publication. In the Journal of Sayyah’s travels in the US, one not only finds a rare view of parts of the US as seen through the eyes of the first Iranian to ever write a firsthand account of his travels in the US, but also, no less importantly, one comes face to face with the report of the first Persian to try to come to terms with an altogether novel situation, that is his own “citizenship” in a country in which he had come to experience for the first time what he calls in his conversation with President Ulysses S. Grant at the White House, “Genuine freedom”.
After a brief introduction, my main focus in this study is the change, or rather transformation, that is involved in becoming a modern political subject in other words a citizen, after experiencing a situation in which such kind of subjectivity is not only lacking, but even incomprehensible. More precisely, I would like to explore how Sayyah’s world travels, particularly his encounter with authentic liberty in the US, figure in his acceding to a radically new political subjectivity. As such, I am going to read Hajj Sayyah’s travels not so much as a record of the world he saw, but as a privileged record of his own transformation. I will try to argue that in exploring the world, or more precisely the modern world, and by his attempt to capture and narrate it in Persian, Hajj Sayyah performatively stages the first instance of becoming a modern subject inside of the Persian language sphere which itself moves along the same dimension by this very activity of narration.