- The Pursuit of Pleasure: Drugs and Stimulants in Iranian History, 1500-1900
When browsing bookstore shelves or academic stands that display books on Iran, it is quite improbable not to stop and peruse this work by Rudi Mathee. The title and cover illustration instantly arouse curiosity and interest, inviting the reader to explore notions about which he or she is sure to have previously held opinions, not to mention some level of personal experience. The chapter headings and inside illustrations further encourage a continuation of the exploration.
A complete reading of The Pursuit of Pleasure will reward the reader amply in many arenas. Divided into chapters that deal with Safavid and Qajar histories chronologically, and thematically organized to address wine, opium, tea, coffee, and tobacco, the book offers a fascinating view of the uses of all the above in Safavid and Qajar Iran. Sensitive to economic and cultural factors, Mathee is careful to contextualize his discussion of each drug or stimulant within broader frameworks. Among these frameworks, one of the most significant is the continuous tension between secular and religious leadership. For each era that he addresses, Mathee draws attention to the ways in which the banning, release, control, or legislation of the drug or stimulant in question had to do with tensions and priorities within the structure of sovereignty itself as it interacted with religious ideals and authorities. In this way, the author makes more understandable one of the most complex topics in Safavid and Qajar Iranian history, which is precisely that of the coexistence of religious and secular patterns of behavior and thought. Equally important, he draws attention to patterns of economic development and interaction in the production and consumption of the drugs and stimulants.
Keeping these two broad terms (the interaction of the clergy and the king, as well as the shape of economic activity) active at all times, Mathee manages, often successfully, to offer the reader a number of captivating details on daily life and material culture as well. Anecdotes about specific drug- and wine-related incidents punctuate the book and tend to be quite entertaining even in the more grotesque cases. The material history of wine receptacles and qalyans (water pipes) is also traced to some extent, providing for highly interesting reading, especially for those who today enjoy both. Throughout, Mathee outlines the broad shape of historical forces at work in the background: foreign influences, the temperament and motives of the shah in power, the economic state of the place under discussion, and the particular conflicts that affected the nation. Mathee therefore fulfills the promise of the introduction that the study is in its broader scope "a social history of ways in which Iranians have approached drugs and stimulants since 1500, adapting them to their cultural environment or adapting their cultural environment to them" (6). The glimpses into daily life are absorbing, such as the elaborate rituals of hospitality, socialization, and power relations that have been built almost invisibly around the consumption of drugs and stimulants. One section of chapter 8, for example, describes the serving of refreshments in Qajar Iran and how richly this encoded the power structures inside the room.
One area where the study might have benefited from further clarification is the matter of sources. In his introduction and throughout the text, Mathee shows a fine alertness to the fact that sources, foreign or Iranian, are not always to be taken as hard data and that some anecdotes or claims may well be apocryphal or subject to doubt. At the same time, in the introduction (4) he attributes a "reflective detachment" to many foreign accounts of Iran especially before the nineteenth century, even if in a footnote he acknowledges that "ulterior motives" of eyewitness accounts ought to be considered. One would like to have more justification of this "detachment." Given his heavy reliance on accounts of Persia by residents or travelers such as Pietro Della Valle and Jean Chardin, as well as others, and on numerous Persian accounts and documents, the author might have...