I had not initially thought of including Edward Fitzgerald in this series, since he is renowned for only a single work, and that too a translation. But it was a translation that was enormously influential, not only in making the British reader aware of the poetry of another country, but also in propagating a vision of the world that was quite different from the staid conformity we associate with Victorian Britain.
I have stressed the other country, because I believe the way in which Britain configured the world in the 19th century is of political as well as sociological interest. That was the time in which the process of othering, of setting up dichotomies, was given free rein. In South Asia it led to the assertion of a distinction between Aryans and Dravidians, setting up distinctions of race with regard to what might at best have been linguistic divisions. And with regard to the Muslims, it claimed that there were Aryans, as represented by the good old Persians, in contrast with Semites – Arabs lumped together with the Jews in a somewhat inferior category that the West now forgets it propagated – and also what were termed Hamites.
This is not the place to go into detail about the extraordinary distinctions Europe perpetrated in its disjunctive view of the world, but I should note in passing how this preposterous analysis is said to have contributed too to the supposedly scientific differentiation between Tutsi and Hutu that contributed to the Rwandan genocide. Here I should note only the privileging of Persian culture that Britons like Fitzgerald engaged in during the 19th century which also contributed to the characterization of the Turks as an upstart race. Turkey was still then the Sick Man of Europe, and from a British perspective it made sense to create a very different type of Muslim who was a sort of younger brother, Aryan and really almost Christian – as in a very different way, when the United States was deeply anti Iranian and thought Saddam Hussein a good thing, I heard supposedly erudite academics (when I was lecturing on the Semester at Sea programme of the University of Pittsburgh) distinguishing between fanatic Shiites and more balanced Sunnis.