Oriental Gifts and the Commensurability Question: Starting with the Terminology

“Fetch me the handkerchief: my mind misgives!” (William Shakespeare, Othello, act 4, sc. 3). This exclamation by the Moorish hero of Shakespeare’s tragedy of cultural meltdown has always struck me as the epitome of the misunderstanding around his ill-fated love gift to Desdemona. As she sticks to her talk of Cassio in the desperate hope of changing the subject of the lost handkerchief, she does not realise how the two are one and the same in her husband’s “misgiving” mind.

The example of Othello’s “mis-given” Egyptian gift going the wrong way down the interpretation lane draws our attention to how much gifts are by essence not just material objects and commodities. Rather, they are symbolic objects in performance, whose safe journeys and successful receptions depend, in the words of Felicity Heal, on a “proper understanding between the transacting parties”, or at least “a measure of ‘cultural agreement’” between them if they hark from different cultural spheres, like the emblematic Moorish-Venetian couple of Shakespeare’s play.[1]

In effect, gifts exchanged in a transcultural context open up material “contact zones” – to use Marie-Louise Pratt’s linguistic analogy[2] – where opportunities for understanding or misunderstanding the Other can arise. Behaving like full-fledged actors of social relations, metonymic gifts like Othello’s handkerchief perform and negotiate the terms of inclusion or exclusion of the parties they represent.

Taking the measure of the interpretive protocol which characterises a transcultural gift beyond its sheer material form takes us to the heart of the “commensurability” debate with which Sanjay Subrahmanyam opens his Courtly Encounters, devoted to forms of interstate and interimperial relations in early modern Eurasia.[3] The larger problem of the compatibility of standards between politico-cultural entities coming into diplomatic contact in the period – if such is the way we understand “commensurability” in that context – is too vast to deal with in the short span of this blog entry. But for the purposes of launching the reflection on Oriental gifts, one preliminary we need to examine is the compatibility of standards in terminology, so as to be aware of matches and mismatches.

A one-size-fits-all term, “gift” does not necessarily cover the wide array of social and hierarchical performances inscribed in its counterparts in Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal realms in the early modern period. For the sake of brevity, I will restrict my examination to the examples of two widely used terms in that context, “Peshkash” and “Khilat”, but conclusions reached about those two can be extended to other similarly specialised terms.

“Peshkash” is defined by the OED as “a fine or present made to the ruling authority on receiving an appointment or an assignment of revenue”, with a first attested usage in 1619 in documents related to the East India Company. It thereby suggests the practice of gifting as a circuit of bribery that the Company needs to enter in order to secure trading privileges in the East in the tough economic context of global competition. But looking at the term’s Persian etymology opens up a different avenue, involving not just value for money, but a hierarchical performance, since the term literally means “drawing, carrying forward” a gift, hence implying a protocol of humility for that special “gift presented by an inferior to a superior”. “Peshkash” is therefore more aptly to be understood, not as a neutral “gift” of value in a monetary transaction, but as a symbolic tribute or mark of fealty towards a ruler and a system. “Peshkash” thus creates a form of bonding and becomes a rite of integration for the newcomers in the system, who place themselves under the protection of the sovereign and get tolerated in the land by his special favour. Failure of the protocol and the performance of ritual going with the gift would mar its symbolic value and social function.

At the opposite end of the social spectrum of performance, “Khilat” is defined by the OED as “a dress of honour presented by a king or other dignitary as a mark of distinction to the person receiving it; hence, any handsome present made by an acknowledged superior”, with a first attested usage in 1684, taken from the English translation of Jean-Baptiste Tavernier’s account of his travels to Mughal India. Here again, we need the Persian and Arabic etymology to see the performance beyond the gifted robe, since the Arabic radical Khal’ involves emptying out and disrobing. The ritual suggested here is that of the ruler bestowing a garment just taken off his own body. This metonymic gift is therefore to be understood as part of his public persona of power and authority that he accepts to share with an acknowledged vassal. The gift of the khilat thus opens up the “imagined community” – to use Benedict Anderson’s phrase –[4] around the sovereign to make room for the foreign element getting formally naturalized and integrated.

Gifts, like languages, are about sharing, understanding, and bonding. Rhetoric of service and symbolic performance are part and parcel of the function of a gift in situ, and we need to take them into account systematically when addressing the specificity of Oriental gifts in our larger project for this blog and any future research derived from it. Failure to fully do so would lead us to the same communicational dead-end as Shakespeare’s “misgiving” Moor of Venice.

Ladan Niayesh

[1] Felicity Heal, The Power of Gifts: Gift-Exchange in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 23.

[2] Mary Louise Pratt, “Arts of the Contact Zone”, Profession (1991), pp. 33-40.

[3] Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Courtly Encounters: Translating Courtliness and Violence in Early Modern Eurasia (Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 2012), pp. 4-6.

[4] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983).