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Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2224

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First published: 1824

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Picaresque romance

Time of work: Early nineteenth century

Locale: Persia

Principal Characters:

Hajji Baba, a rogue

Osman Agha, a Turkish merchant

Zeenab, a slave girl

The Story:

Hajji Baba was the son of a successful barber of Ispahan. By the time he was sixteen, he had learned the barber’s trade as well as a store of bazaar tales and quotations from the Persian poets. With these, he entertained the customers who came to his father’s shop, among them a wealthy Turkish merchant named Osman Agha, who was on his way to Meshed to buy goatskins of Bokhara. This merchant was so impressed with Hajji Baba that he begged the young man to accompany him on the journey. With his father’s blessing and a case of razors, Hajji Baba set out with his new patron.

Before the caravan had been many days on its way, it was attacked by a band of Turcoman robbers. Osman Agha had prudently sewed fifty gold ducats in the skullcap under his turban, but when the caravan was captured, he was stripped of his finery, and the skullcap was tossed in a corner of the robber chief’s tent. The robbers spared Hajji Baba’s life when they learned he was a skilled barber, and he became a favorite of the wife of the chief. One day he persuaded the foolish woman to let him borrow Osman Agha’s cap. He ripped the gold pieces from the lining and hid them, awaiting the time when he might escape from his captors. Osman Agha had been sold to some camel herders.

Hajji Baba traveled with the robbers on their raids throughout the region. One of these raids was on Ispahan itself, from which the robbers carried away a rich booty; but at the division of the spoils, Hajji Baba got only promises and praise.

One day the robbers encountered the armed escort of a Persian prince. When the others fled, Hajji Baba gladly allowed himself to be taken prisoner by the prince’s men. They mistook him for a Turcoman, however, and cruelly mistreated him, stripping him of his clothes and his hidden gold. When he complained to the prince, the nobleman sent for the guilty ones, took the money from them, and then kept the gold himself.

Hajji Baba went with the prince and his train to Meshed, where he became a water vendor, carrying a leather bag filled with dirty water which he sold to pilgrims with assurances that it was holy water blessed by the prophet. With money so earned, he bought some tobacco which he blended with dung and then peddled through the streets of the holy city. His best customer, Dervish Sefer, introduced him to other dervishes. They applauded Hajji Baba’s shrewdness and enterprise and invited him to become one of their number. One day, however, a complaint was lodged against him because of the bad tobacco he sold, and the authorities beat his bare feet until he lost consciousness. Having in the meantime saved a small amount of money, he decided to leave Meshed, which seemed to him an ill-omened city.

He set out on his way to Teheran. On the road, a courier overtook him and asked him to read some letters the messenger was carrying. One was a letter from a famous court poet, commending the bearer to officials high at court. Hajji Baba waited until the courier was fast asleep, took the messenger’s horse, and rode away to deliver the courier’s letters. Through these stolen credentials, he was able to obtain a position of confidence with the court physician.

Hajji Baba remained with the physician, even though his post brought him no pay. He soon found favor with Zeenab, the physician’s slave, and sought her company whenever he could do so without danger of being caught. Then the shah himself visited the physician’s establishment and received Zeenab as a gift. Hajji Baba was disconsolate, but he was soon made happy by a new appointment to the post of sublieutenant to the chief executioner of the shah. Again he received no pay, for he was supposed to get his money by extortion, as other members of the shah’s entourage did. It was soon discovered that Zeenab was in a condition which could only be regarded as an insult to the shah’s personal honor, and Hajji Baba was summoned to execute the girl. Soon afterward, suspicion fell on him for his own part in the affair, and he fled to the holy city of Koom.

In Koom, he pretended to be a priest. The shah made a pilgrimage to the city, and during his visit, the chief priest presented Hajji Baba’s petition to the ruler. Hajji Baba explained that he had acted in all innocence, because he had no idea of the high honor to be conferred upon Zeenab. The shah reluctantly pardoned Hajji Baba and allowed him to return to Ispahan.

He arrived to discover that his father had died and that his fortune had disappeared. Hajji Baba sold his father’s shop and used the money to establish himself as a learned scribe. Before long, he found service with Mollah Nadan, a celebrated priest, who planned to organize an illegal but profitable marriage market. Hajji Baba was supposed to find husbands for women the Mollah would provide. When Hajji Baba visited the three women for whom he was supposed to find husbands, he discovered them all to be ugly old hags, one the wife of his former master, the physician, who had recently died. Later, Hajji Baba discovered his first master, Osman Agha, who had finally escaped from the Turcomans and regained some of his fortune. Hajji Baba tricked Agha into marrying one of the three women.

Mollah Nadan undertook to gain favor by punishing some Armenians during a drought, but he incurred the shah’s wrath, and he and Hajji Baba were driven from the city. Mollah Nadan’s property was confiscated. Hajji Baba stole back into the city to see if any of the Mollah’s property could be saved, but the house had been stripped. He went to visit the baths, and there he discovered Mollah Bashi, who had suffered a severe cramp and had drowned. Hajji Baba was afraid that he would be accused of murder, as Mollah Bashi had helped to bring about Mollah Nadan’s ruin. The slave attendant, however, failed to recognize Hajji Baba in the darkness, and Hajji Baba escaped, dressed in the Mollah’s robes. On the horse of the chief executioner, he set out to collect money owed to Mollah Bashi. In the Mollah’s clothes and riding a fine horse, he presented a dashing figure until he met Mollah Nadan and was persuaded to change robes with him. Mollah Nadan was arrested and charged with the death of Mollah Bashi. Hajji Baba, who had kept the money he had collected, decided to become a merchant.

He encountered the caravan of the widow of Mollah Bashi. She was taking her husband’s body to Kerbelai for holy burial. When the leader of the caravan revealed that Hajji Baba was suspected of the murder, he began to fear for his life; but about that time, a band of marauders attacked the caravan, and in the confusion, Hajji Baba escaped. In Bagdad, he reencountered his old master, Osman Agha, and with him proceeded to invest the money he had available. He bought pipe sticks and planned to sell them at a profit in Constantinople.

There a wealthy widow sought him out, and he decided to marry her, first, however, intimating that he was as wealthy as she. He married her and began to live on her income. His old bazaar friends, however, jealous of his good luck, betrayed him to his wife’s relatives. Thrown out as an imposter, he was obliged to seek the help of the Persian ambassador. The ambassador advised him not to seek revenge upon his former wife’s relatives, as they would surely murder him in his bed. Instead, he found use for Hajji Baba in an intrigue developing among representatives of England and France. Hajji Baba was employed as a spy to find out what the foreign emissaries sought in the shah’s court.

Here, at last, Hajji Baba found favor. He discovered that his life among cutthroats and rogues had admirably fitted him for dealing diplomatically with the representatives of foreign countries, and he was finally made the shah’s representative in his own city of Ispahan. He returned there with considerable wealth and vast dignity to lord it over those who had once thought his station in life far below their own.

Critical Evaluation:

James Morier’s romance is both an Oriental tale and a picaresque narrative. With its treatment of exotic customs and manners, the novel resembles such eighteenth century romances as Samuel Johnson’s THE HISTORY OF RASSELAS, PRINCE OF ABYSSINIA (1759) and William Beckford’s less philosophical VATHEK, AN ARABIAN TALE (1786). As a picaresque narrative, THE ADVENTURES OF HAJJI BABA OF ISPAHAN resembles the episodic novels of Defoe and Smollett. Like most novels concerning a rogue-hero, Morier’s book satirizes the foibles not only of the characters in the story but also those of humankind. Hajji Baba is an amiable opportunist and schemer, experienced in the worldly arts of guile and deception, but not the sole rascal in the book. On the contrary, Hajji learns his impudent tricks from others, and although he is an apt pupil, he is simply more successful—not more wicked—than most people. As one of his teachers, the Dervish Sefer explains: “We look upon mankind as fair game—we live upon their weakness and credulity”; from such counsel, Hajji discovers how to expropriate riches from the weak and stupid for the sake of his own ease. In a world of scoundrels and fools, he is seen as amoral rather than immoral; the reader sympathizes with his desire, in the contest of life, to be the world’s knave instead of its victim.

During the course of his roguish adventures, Hajji ranges through almost all the social levels and professions of Persian (and, indeed, Middle-Eastern) life. At various times he is a barber, a merchant, a robber, a slave, a “seller of smoke,” a saka (water carrier), a luti (privileged buffoon), a dervish, a physician’s apprentice, a sublieutenant for the chief executioner, a scribe to a man of law, an ambassador to foreign powers, and finally, the shah’s deputy. He travels throughout the Middle East, from Cairo to Aleppo and Damascus; from Mecca and Medina to Lahore and Cashmere. Mostly, however, he travels through the cities and villages of early nineteenth century Persia, learning to understand the passions and weaknesses of his fellowmen. In none of the ranks of society does he encounter true comradeship, civility, or altruism. At one point, after he escapes from the Turcoman robbers and throws himself at the mercy of his countryman, a Persian prince, he is robbed and threatened with further punishment by his protector. A simple muleteer chides Hajji for lamenting his losses. After all, what could he expect from a prince? “When once he or any man in power gets possession of a thing,” the muleteer reasons, “do you think that he will ever restore it?”

In spite of Morier’s broad-ranging satire, which sometimes approaches cynicism, his prevailing tone is comic rather than censorious. Hajji is, above all, an affable rogue, high-spirited and inventive, most resilient when he appears to be defeated. Through his resourceful imagination, he overcomes most of the obstacles in his way; yet he is never wholly successful and triumphant as are some other picaresque heroes in fiction. Morier is too much the Realist to allow his adventurer the fullest enjoyment of his romantic dreams. Hajji’s true love, Zeenab, is kept from him, first by the crafty physician Mizra Ahmak, and later by the shah himself. Worse, as one of the royal executioners, poor Hajji is forced to witness her terrible death.

He suffers other misfortunes. When he is under the tutelage of the Turcoman bandits, he is forced to rob his own father; and years later, he arrives at his ancestral home just in time to watch the old man die. After his father’s death, Hajji and his mother quarrel and part on unfriendly terms. His marriage to the rich widow Shekerleb is dissolved by her kinsmen when they discover that Hajji is not so rich as he had pretended to be. He is not only humiliated but beaten on several occasions, once by order of the Mohtesib (inspector), who has him thrashed on the soles of his feet until he loses consciousness from the pain. Morier, therefore, avoids the romantic stereotype of the swaggering outlaw—the corsair, the highwayman, the outcast—popularized by such authors as Scott, Byron, and Shelley. Instead, his rogue-hero is a fellow mortal, perhaps less scrupulous than most of us, but unquestionably human in his weaknesses. In THE ADVENTURES OF HAJJI BABA OF ISPAHAN IN ENGLAND (1828), Morier continues the tale of Hajji’s adventures, this time as an envoy from Persia to the barbarians of the West.