- The Pursuit of Pleasure: Drugs and Stimulants in Iranian History, 1500-1900
Over the past couple of decades, though there have been a number of good historical studies of drugs and stimulants, many of these have focused on Europe and America. Furthermore, in the case of Iranian cultural history, where the consumption of drugs has come under academic scrutiny, this has often been in terms of the role of intoxication as a poetic metaphor. Rudi Mathee, whose previous work includes a study of the silk trade in Safavid Iran, has now contributed a fascinating and detailed study of the actual consumption of psychoactive substances in Iran in the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. In addition to the wealth of factual information [End Page 664] that he has unearthed, he also explores the complex history of tensions between the religious ideals of Iranian society and its not infrequently intoxicated reality.
The book is organized through separate chronological studies of the various substances. Mathee first discusses the period of Safavid rule, from 1500 to 1800, looking in turn at wine, opium, tobacco, and coffee, and he then considers the same subjects during the Qajar period of the nineteenth century while introducing a new substance: tea. Fortunately for the nonspecialist reader, Mathee provides at the outset a clear introduction to the somewhat complicated history of Iran in these centuries.
Mathee's treatment of alcohol illustrates many of the important issues in the book. The drinking of wine has a very ancient history in Iran: the elite would consume it in large quantities at decadent royal banquets from pre-Islamic times through the Safavid period—indeed, drinking alcohol was predominantly an elite activity during the whole period covered by the book. Though alcohol is prohibited by Islam, the secular rulers remained generally free to enjoy this traditional pleasure, interrupted occasionally by a series of prohibitions that had only a limited effect: notably, during such a ban on alcohol, the royal cellars would merely be locked up, not destroyed. The religious clerics were duty-bound to call for public order, and as the power of the clerics grew during the Safavid period, lavish public displays of intoxication became tainted with guilt. Ultimately, in the Qajar period, the royal drinking session was replaced by a royal food festival; nevertheless, the elite continued to enjoy private drinking, and the consumption of alcohol even took on a role as a statement of resistance to intolerant religious authorities.
Mathee shows that opium has quite a different history. Free from negative religious connotations, and quite affordable—it was the "hashish of the poor"—the consumption of opium was widespread in all parts of society by the Safavid period, generally in the form of a daily pill. The later Qajar period saw a huge increase in the more sociable activity of smoking. With the resulting surge in addiction, opium became a significant social problem, and the parallel increase in land devoted to the cultivation of opium contributed to the famine of 1870.
The histories of tobacco, coffee, and tea are equally revealing. It appears, for example, that, after the Iberian peninsula, Iran was one of the first Old World regions in which the consumption of tobacco became commonplace.
Mathee's method is novel: in his confident, copious, yet sensitive use of contemporary Western accounts of Iran, he moves beyond a cautious attitude of scholarship that tends to examine these materials with an exclusive goal of investigating the mind of the Orientalist. Mathee repeatedly illustrates the tension between the ideal and the reality of society, the public and the private face of drugs and stimulants. He argues that this tension reflects the nature of Islam as a communal religion of outward conformity. His book constitutes a seminal mine of information, as well as a subtle and complex analysis of society, religion, economics, and the consumption of psychoactive substances in a non-Western context.