Letter 147: Usbek to [his friend] Nessir, in Ispahan
Happy is the man who, recognizing the true worth of a quiet and tranquil existence, lets his heart remain at rest in the bosom of his family, and knows no land other than the one which gave him birth! I breathe the air of an alien country; wholly aware of all that torments me, and wholly deaf to all that interests me; prey to an oppressive melancholy, I am sinking into hideous depression; I feel I am destroying myself, and that I only find myself again whenever a dark jealousy flares up within me, begetting fear, suspicions, loathing, and regrets.
You know me, Nessir; you have always seen into my heart as if it were your own; you would pity me, were you to see my deplorable state; sometimes I have to wait for six whole months to receive news of the seraglio; I count each moment as it passes, and my impatience always makes them longer; when finally the awaited moment approaches, a sudden change takes place in my heart; my hand trembles at the thought of opening a fatal letter; that anxiety which filled me with despair seems to me the happiest state I could experience, and I am fearful of being forced out of it by news that would be crueler to me than a thousand deaths.
But whatever the reason that made me leave my homeland, and although I owe my life to my departure, I cannot, Nessir, remain in this dreadful exile any longer. For would I not die anyway, of sorrow? I have urged [my fellow-traveler] Rica countless times to leave this foreign land, but he objects to all my decisions; he keeps me here on a thousand pretexts; it seems he has forgotten his homeland, or rather, it seems he has forgotten me, so indifferent is he to my unhappiness.
Wretched that I am! I long to see my homeland again, perhaps to become more wretched yet! And what shall I do there? I shall be returning to hand over my head to my enemies. That is not all: I shall enter the seraglio, where I must demand an account of the calamitous years of my absence; if I discover culprits there, what will become of me? If the very thought of it overwhelms me at this distance, what will happen when my presence makes it reality? What will happen when I must see and must hear what I dare not imagine without shuddering? What will happen if it is necessary that the retribution I myself choose shall be an everlasting symbol of my shame, and my despair?
I shall shut myself away behind walls that will be more terrible for me than for the women who are guarded within them; I shall bring with me all my suspicion; their ardor will not erase any of it from my mind; in my bed, in their arms, I shall dwell only on my misgivings; at a time so little suited to reflection, my jealousy will find food for thought. Worthless rejects of the human race, base slaves whose hearts have been forever closed to feelings of love, you would no longer lament your condition if you knew the misery of mine.
Paris, the 4th of the Moon of Chahban [= October] 1719
Letter 148: Roxane to [her husband] Usbek, in Paris
Horror, darkness, and terror hold sway in the seraglio, which is shrouded in ghastly mourning; at every moment a tiger gives vent in it to all his rage; he has tortured two white eunuchs, who confessed nothing but their innocence; he sold some of our slaves, and forced us to exchange among ourselves those that remained. At dark of night, in their chambers, [your wives] Zachi and Zelis were subjected to shameful treatment; the sacrilegious creature did not shrink from laying his foul hands upon them. He keeps us locked up separately in our rooms; although we are alone, he makes us wear the veil; we are no longer permitted to speak to one another; it would be a crime to write to one another; our sole remaining freedom is in tears.
A troop of new eunuchs has been brought into the seraglio, where they harass us night and day; our sleep is constantly interrupted by their feigned or genuine suspicions. My consolation is that all this will not last long, and that these torments will end with my life; it will not be a long one, cruel Usbek, and I shall not allow you the time to put a stop to these outrageous affronts.
The seraglio in Ispahan, the 2nd of the Moon of Maharram [= March] 1720
Letter 149: Solim to Usbek, in Paris
I weep for myself, Magnificent Lord, and I weep for you; never before has a faithful servant felt despair as terrible as what I am now experiencing; I shall lay before you both my own misfortunes and yours, and can only write of them with a trembling hand.
I swear, by all the heavenly prophets, that since you entrusted your wives to me I have watched over them night and day, and that never for one moment have I allowed my anxious vigilance to lapse; I began my stewardship with punishments; but when I stopped the punishments, I never relaxed my natural severity.
But what am I saying? Why boast of a loyalty that has been of no use to you: forget all my past services; look upon me as a traitor; punish me for every crime that I have been powerless to prevent. Roxane, the proud Roxane—heavens! Who, henceforth, is to be trusted? You suspected Zachi, and had complete confidence in Roxane; but her fierce virtue was a cruel deception, the veil that concealed her perfidy; I surprised her in the arms of a young man who, the instant he saw he was discovered, attacked me; he stabbed me twice with his dagger; alerted by the noise, the eunuchs quickly surrounded him. He defended himself for a long time, wounding several of them; he tried to get back inside Roxane’s room, to die, he said, in her presence; but finally, outnumbered, he was subdued, and expired at our feet.
I know not, Sublime Lord, whether I shall await your implacable commands; you have entrusted your vengeance to my hands, I ought not to let it languish in idleness.
The seraglio in Ispahan, the 8th of the Moon of Rebiab 1 [= May] 1720
Letter 150: Roxane to Usbek, in Paris
Yes, I have deceived you; I have bribed your eunuchs, I have played upon your jealousy, and I have managed to make of your dreadful seraglio an abode of delights and pleasures.
I am about to die: soon the poison will be coursing through my veins, for why would I remain here, when the only man who gave me a reason for living is dead? I am dying, but my shade will be well escorted on its flight; I have dispatched ahead of me those sacrilegious guards who spilt the most precious blood in the world.
How could you suppose me so credulous as to believe that the sole purpose for my existence was to adore your caprices? That while you refused yourself nothing, you had the right to frustrate every desire of mine? No: I may have lived in servitude, but I have always been free: I have rewritten your laws to conform to those of nature, and my spirit has always remained independent.
You should still be thanking me for the sacrifice I made you, in my degrading pretense of being your faithful wife, and in cravenly keeping secret in my heart what I should have proclaimed before the whole world; in short, that I profaned virtue, in allowing my submission to your caprices to be described by that word.
You were amazed at not seeing in me the ecstasies of love: if you had truly known me, you would have seen in me all the violence of loathing.
But you have long enjoyed the conviction that a heart like mine had surrendered to you; we were both happy: you believed me deceived, and I was deceiving you.
My language will no doubt seem new to you: after dealing you such an agonizing blow, might I also perhaps force you to admire my courage? But it is over; the poison consumes me, my strength abandons me, the pen falls from my hand; I feel that even my hatred is fading away… I am dying.
The seraglio in Ispahan, the 8th of the Moon of Rebiab 1 1720
Charles-Louis de Secondat Montesquieu, Persian Letters,Translated by Margaret Mauldon, Oxford World's Classics, pp. 209-213, 2008.
Louis XIV – 'the Sun King' - of France died on September 1, 1715, after a 72-year reign. He was succeeded by his five-year-old great-grandson; thence, the Regency. Persian Letters was first published in 1721, a year before Shah Sultan Hussein, the last Safavid king of Iran, was overthrown. Montesquieu's may sound prophetic to the benighted. However, this could not have been but coincidental; Historical parallels are non-existent.
The French reader knows that his nobleman here – so ironically called, 'Usbek' – is a “fanciful decor” and a million times more Parisian than Persian. He is not a migrant – let alone an exile – from the East, but a permanent resident of the West who in Montesquieu's imagined – and enlightened - world carries an expired visa: certitude of the ancien rėgime. Yet, his social commentary about France under Louis XIV – dubbed by Voltaire as “an eternally memorable age” - and its aftermath, presented allegorically as an eighteenth-century Middle-Eastern harem, hits so close to home for a twenty-first-century Iranian emigrant that a bookworm like me could not have overlooked.